From Rugrats to The Simpsons, at some point in our lives we’ve devoted time to watching cartoons. Whether you have been depriving your inner child of animation for who-knows-how long or are an active Disney/Nickelodeon/Comic Strip-phile like I am, this is an inside look into something you may not know about animation. Enjoy this free issue of the Toon Times.
“When planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown-ups and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget and that maybe our pictures could help recall.” – Walt Disney
When I was little, I begged my mom every night to read me a story before I fell asleep. Though many a night she refused on account of her own exhaustion, some evenings she obliged. With all but one light turned out, she would open up a book of fairy tales and dip into a recitation with all the spirit she could muster. And thus began my love for folklore.
But the Brothers Grimm have had a place beyond the bedtime story setting for many decades. From the “Hansel and Gretel” opera composed by Engelbert Humperdinck to numerous retellings of many of the stories which they retold themselves, the mark of the Grimms transcends time, nationality and most importantly age.
And for the past few generations, the Brothers Grimm have had their stories reinvented and retold to people of all ages in some of the classic, as well as soon-to-be-classic, Disney animated films.
“The pigeons pecked out one eye from each of them”
For Walt Disney, making animated films was not about sticking to originals. His originality led him to alter the resolutions of many of the Grimm fairy tales which originally unfolded quite grimly (pun intended).
In both Grimm tellings of Cinderella and of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, after the protagonists marry their respective princes, those who wronged them are punished. In Cinderella’s case, these are her stepsisters who have their eyes poked out by pigeons. In Snow White’s case, this is her stepmother, the Evil Queen, who is forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance around until she falls down dead.
But these punishments were left out by Walt Disney. Though in the latter case the queen does reap what she sows (when she dies trying to commit murder), there is no emphasis on hurting antagonists for harming a protagonist. The queen causes her own demise; there is no exchange of cruel treatment.
Disney set out to focus on the good, not the terrible. His creations emphasize that good people be rewarded, not that the terrible be vanquished.
Even after his death, this legacy of positivity continued on with Tangled, the 2010 Disney Animation adaptation of Rapunzel. Mother Gothel, fashioned after the Grimm’s Dame Gothel, is a sorceress who raises Rapunzel hidden away in a high tower and, according to the Disney movie, is unable to commit any terrible harm to her.
But the Grimm story speaks otherwise. Rapunzel is banished by Dame Gothel to the desert while her prince is thrown from a tower and blinded by the thicket of thorny bushes that breaks his fall. Though the story ends happily with the prince’s eyes being healed by Rapunzel’s tears, there is a lightened form of the story created through the Tangled adaptation, a method carried on from Walt’s day.
“But when he fell down he was no frog, but a king’s son”
Walt Disney strove to make his stories all the more romantic, a practice that continues even today.
The Princess and the Frog, adapted in 2009, is a revamped version of the age-old folktale “The Frog Prince,” changing the setting, characters and virtually the entire plot. But one thing that would be expected to have come directly from the Grimm fairy tale is the kiss that holds the fate of the frog prince and his princess.
In actuality, the frog prince, posing a nuisance to the young princess, is thrown against a wall in her fit of outrage at his asking to sleep in her bed. At this point he magically transforms into the prince.
And The Princess and the Frog was not the first time a kiss was inserted into a Disney film to add romanticism lost in the Grimm fairy tales.
In Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is awoken by a kiss from Prince Phillip. But in the original interpretation, her 100-year sleep comes to its end as soon as the prince enters her sleeping chamber, so that his kiss merely coincides with her waking. In a similar way, Snow White’s prince’s kiss does not awaken her in the Grimm interpretation, rather, she spits out the portion of the poison apple that had killed her and is no longer dead.
“They lived for a long time afterwards, happy and contented”
Disney’s goal, as spoken by Walt, was not to preserve the stories from which the movies took their origin. Instead, he and his successors have managed to reinterpret and remind the watcher of what they may have forgotten in their daily lives, the value of love and beauty and how it can transcend even the worst situations.
While realism may be lost to some extent, story is not sacrificed. It is only made more beautiful.
What Walt Disney did for his films and what lives as his animation legacy is very much in the spirit of the history of the fairy tales he used: reinterpretation for betterment.
Historically, most of the Grimm fairy tales were not written by the Grimm brothers themselves. They were taken from age old folklore and retold by the brothers in what they believed was the best form.
In a similar fashion, Walt Disney created an industry of feature film animation that focused on reinterpretation to create stories that not only had good folkloric messages, but also characterized what he wanted to create most through his artistic efforts: a connection between childhood and adulthood.
That “unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us” which Walt hoped to relight in us was the key to this connection. Speaking through the love and compassion of his characters, Disney paved the way for generations of children who would enter their adulthood with an already established idea of how fairy tales can be windows to the goodness that resides in everything.
Walt Disney emphasized beauty in humanity and brought to the screen what people had imagined in their minds and made their imaginations even more spectacular and beautiful. And for Disney, these stories really were all about the happily ever after.