The Immortal Bard Gets His Due in Disney
It is easy, but wrong, to dismiss animated feature films, especially Disney films, as intellectually lightweight. While they often appear designed for younger audiences, the Disney people aren't stupid, and they don't think you, the viewer, are stupid, either. While children might not be up to speed on the Bard of Avon and his 38 plays, they can enjoy scenes for simpler reasons in which the people behind the greatest animation films of all time throw in an occasional treat aimed at adults. A key to increasing the popularity of animated films has been to broaden their appeal beyond children and create films that are more than mere cartoons. Adding Shakespearean references has been one sly way to do that.
Nothing in a Disney animated film appears there by accident. Every scene, every character, every bystander is planned and discussed and reviewed and approved. Believe it or not, there are people at Disney who delight in figuring out appropriate references for Shakespeare in their films, and they usually find a way not only to fit one or two in, but also to use them to add depth to the film's larger plot.
Without further ado, here are the best Shakespearean moments in classic Disney movies.
Beauty and the Beast
"Beauty and the Beast" is one of Disney's most beloved animated feature films. It came right at the height of the famous "Disney Renaissance" in 1991 and subsequently was turned into a smash-hit Broadway play.
When re-releasing "Beauty and the Beast" following its smashing success on Broadway, Disney looked at their material anew. It added the song ‘Human Again,’ which is so good it should have been in the original release. In addition to the song, they added a short scene at the end where Belle says “There never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo” as she finished reading Romeo and Juliet aloud to the Beast. He smiles and asks her to read it to him again. Here we learn that the Beast has never learned how to read, and Belle begins to teach him.
It is a pivotal scene where Belle coyly expresses her feelings for the Beast and their relationship develops.
"Aladdin" also came at the height of the Disney Renaissance and was marked by Robin Williams' brilliant turn as the Genie. This film is usually considered one of the top-ten best animated films ever made.
There actually are several references to the Bard of Avon in "Aladdin." First and foremost, a key character is named Iago, which many will recognize as the name of a character in Othello. You don't get much more obvious than that. In Shakespeare’s play, the character of Iago is an extremely manipulative villain, although no one except the audience has reason to distrust him. Similarly, Iago to the sultan is simply a mimicking bird that eats crackers, and not someone plotting his downfall. But appearances are deceiving to the characters, to their detriment.
Another reference comes when Aladdin makes his first wish to the Genie – to become a prince. Genie quickly runs through a magical spell book. Muttering to himself, he says "Caesar salad" and an arm draped in a toga holding a dagger reaches out to stab him. The Genie responds “Et tu Brute” and pushes the arm back down into the book and turns the page. Many will recognize that this line comes from Julius Caesar Act III Scene I, Caesar’s dying words to Brutus.
Oliver and Company
"Oliver & Company" immediately preceded the Disney Renaissance - some would say that the film set the stage for it, along with The Great Mouse Detective" - and isn't exactly a high-brow affair. However, Disney did manage to shoehorn in an odd reference to William anyway in a clever manner and begin the modern trend of Shakespearean homages.
In "Oliver and Company," the dogs all have drastically different personalities and Francis, the bulldog, is portrayed as somewhat snobbish. He has an appreciation for art and theatre and an abhorrence of anyone using a short form of his name. At one point during the film, Francis is seen watching television where a production of Macbeth is playing. Not only does Francis yell at Tito to keep it down while he is watching, but he also begins to mouth the words along side the television.
The scene played on the television shows Macbeth during his monologue in Act V Scene V. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.” The hopelessness that Macbeth feels in this speech is echoed amongst the vagabond canines who know their master Sykes might arrive momentarily.
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
The appearance of William Shakespeare himself in "Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World" is the most organic of all Shakespearean references in any Disney film. Pocahontas and Shakespeare were both real people and contemporaries. Showing them in scenes together thus is completely believable, save for one small detail: Shakespeare died in England in April 1616, while Pocahontas only arrived in England in June 1616. Thus, they never crossed paths or for that matter were ever in the same time zone (if they had time zones back then) at the same moment while alive. But, they could have been.
Anyway, anyone who has studied "Pocahontas II" knows that it does not follow real events particularly closely. However, in this one instance it borrows from real history in an interesting fashion. Opposed to a line of dialogue, Shakespeare himself is seen singing with the townspeople in the song ‘What A Day In London’. As a gravedigger pushes his cart by, a skull rolls off the top into Shakespeare’s hand and he sings, “What is to be or not to be,” echoing a line from Hamlet. Then, as if inspired by the incident, Shakespeare throws the skull away and begins writing on his parchment. It is a very strange intermixing of fact and fiction which (who knows?) may be surprisingly close to the truth.
Toy Story 3
Admittedly, we are cheating just a bit when we assign "Toy Story 3" to the list of Disney films. It actually was a Pixar product, and a sequel to purely Pixar products. However, in our defense, Disney had bought Pixar by the time of this film's release, so, no matter your definition, it technically is a Disney film.
At the end of "Toy Story 3," all the toys get together and not only reference but put on a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet. We see an adorable snippet of the infamous ‘balcony scene’ with a hedgehog as Romeo and a Little Green Man as Juliet. He quotes ‘But soft what light through yonder window breaks’ and the LGM quotes “Romeo oh Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo.” Both lines come from Act 2 Scene 2, one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes.
Afterwards, the piggy bank and the horse are chuckling to themselves in the audience saying next season they want to do Cats or Hamlet.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is an oft overlooked Disney classic that came out just past the peak of the Disney Renaissance. The reference to Shakespeare is one of the odder in the pantheon because the story is set in the 15th Century, long before Shakespeare even existed. That, however, does not stop our intrepid Disney crew from working him in anyway.
The film is dark and littered with references for adults. Included is a surprisingly subtle nod to William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, one of the Bard's darker plays.
When we first meet the gargoyles, who provide much-needed comic relief, they are trying to convince Quasimodo to attend the festival of fools instead of watching it from the bell tower. In an effort to explain their differences they mention how Quasimodo is flesh while they are mere stone. Then Victor, the more literate of the three speaks, “Yet, if you kick us, do we not flake? If you moisten us, do we not grow moss?” This comes from Merchant of Venice’s Act III Scene I from Shylocks speech “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
You may recognize the relationship to Shakespeare upon first viewing, but you have to really know his canon to know which play is being referenced - and why that reference is particularly apt.
The Merchant of Venice deals strongly with issues of racism between the Christians and the Jews, while "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" explores similar issues with a racist tinge between bad-guy Frollo’s idea of the Christian Church and the Gypsies in France.
The Little Mermaid
"The Little Mermaid" began the Disney Renaissance in 1989, and continued the modern trend of Shakespearean references begun in "Oliver & Company."
While under the sea there seems to be little knowledge of Shakespeare, on land things are rather different. Even Scuttles managed to pick up a few references. Once Ariel has been given legs and is sent to woo Prince Eric, they row out into the lagoon and Sebastian and all the fish sing ‘Kiss The Girl’. Well, before this, Scuttle tries to provide some “vocal romantic stimulation."
What you may not have realized is that this ‘stimulation’ is actually a gull version of Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet". An interesting parallel considering that this is an orchestral work of Romeo and Juliet without words, speechless, just like Ariel while in the lagoon, until Sebastian comes to help the two along.
It is an extremely subtle reference to Shakespeare, but certainly no accident.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Once again, it may appear as though we are cheating when we introduce Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as a Disney film. While not marketed as "a Disney film," it is from Touchstone. That is one of Disney's several film distribution labels of The Walt Disney Studios, owned by The Walt Disney Company. Established in 1984 by then-Disney CEO Ron W. Miller, Touchstone typically releases films that feature more mature themes and darker tones than those released under the flagship Walt Disney Pictures label.
So, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is as much a Disney film as any other on this list.
For those unfamiliar with it, in "The Nightmare Before Christmas" the lead character is a skeleton named Jack Skellington. This movie, like "Pocahontas II," makes use of a skull as a reference to Shakespeare. During Jack’s Lament he takes off his head and sings, “And since I am dead, I can take off my head To recite Shakespearean quotations”, a direct reference to Hamlet.
The reason that both of these films and countless other Shakespeare references in pop culture use a man holding a skull comes from Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1 also famously known as “The Gravedigger’s Scene”. In this scene Hamlet is holding his friend’s skull in his hand and proclaims “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.” (I.V.160) This is probably one of the most common references to Shakespeare seen in pop culture and an easy one to make requiring only a skull at arms length and a dramatic expression.
The Lion King
Widely considered the absolute peak of the Disney Renaissance, "The Lion King" had somewhat murky roots. Some claim the story was stolen from an old African legend, others from a Japanese anime classic. The official story is that it is based on Hamlet, and that is as reasonable as any other explanation.
If indeed loosely based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, "The Lion King" accomplishes this feat with a few less deaths, as you might expect from a Disney (not Touchstone) release. For those unfamiliar with the parallels, Claudius (Scar) kills his brother the King (Mufasa). Hamlet (Simba) is visited by the ghost of his King father. He is led astray by Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (Timon and Pumba). He eventually returns to avenge for his father’s death and take back his throne.
The parallels between the storylines are fairly obvious if you are an expert on Hamlet, not so much if you just sat through it once in high school or something. The links have been the subject of scholarly articles, and there is little question that "The Lion King" contains the deepest references of all to William Shakespeare.
Special Bonus Shakespeare Influence
|Dopey dancing with Snow White|
The fairytales upon which "Snow White" was based did not have named dwarfs; that detail was completely the invention (one of the most brilliant in Hollywood history) of Walt Disney. However, appropriate names were hard to come up with, as the name had to be both descriptive and also classical, fit for a medieval fairy tale. Eventually, someone proposed the name "Dopey," which was a very common pejorative slang word of the 1930s. Walt's people objected, thinking that it sounded too modern. Disney himself, though, liked it. He responded to the critics that "Dopey" was perfectly fine, and in fact had impeccable classical roots: William Shakespeare himself had used the word. Dopey went on to become one of the most beloved characters in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
Meanwhile, bemused scholars are still searching for any use of the word "dope" or "dopey" by Shakespeare.