The Immortal Bard and 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.
I am not going to run through all possible Shakespearean connections - I've seen a far-out theory that "Frozen" is a reworking of "The Winter's Tale" which is intriguing but pretty darn subtle if it is even true at all - but only the most obvious. And there are plenty enough of those to complete this article!
Let's first list the works we are going to look at. There are obvious Shakespeare references or allusions in:
- Oliver and Company
- The Jungle Book
- Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
- Toy Story 3
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- The Little Mermaid
- The Nightmare Before Christmas
Without further ado, here are the best Shakespearean moments in classic Disney movies.
Beauty and the Beast
The original "Beauty and the Beast" was a huge success. It became one of Disney's most beloved animated feature films and sparked numerous spinoffs such as a Broadway play. "Beauty and the Beast" came right at the height of the famous "Disney Renaissance" in 1991 and in 2017 was remade as a live-action film starring Emma Watson. Here, we are only concerned with the original animated feature film version of "Beauty and the Beast."
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. This is but one reference to Shakespeare.
|Belle teaches the Beast a thing or two.|
|Gaston gets in his own reference to Shakespeare.|
|"Aladdin" has several sneaky references you may not notice. You probably realized that is Sebastian from "The Little Mermaid" - right? Well, guess what, it also references the Bard of Avon.|
|The Genie, voiced by Robin Williams, got off all the good lines in "Aladdin."|
|The Genie gets a surprise or two himself in "Aladdin."|
Oliver and Company
|"Oliver & Company" was one of the most popular animated films of the 1980s.|
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 the 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 alongside 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.
|Francis watches Macbeth in "Oliver & Company."|
The Junge Book
|"The Jungle Book" (1967).|
|Like King Henry, Bagheera watches the boy's idleness with concern.|
Make no mistake: Baloo, like Falstaff, is basically the star of "The Jungle Book," the secret ingredient that turns a dusty tale into something vivid. One understands and likes Baloo and Falstaff even as it is obvious their leadership actually leads nowhere. Both figures lead our hero astray. Neither Baloo nor Falstaff succeeds, but not for lack of trying and not without our sympathies.
|Baloo and Mowgli enjoying a carefree existence in the jungle.|
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World
|"Pocahontas II" picks up where the original left off.|
|Pocahontas never looked better.|
|Shakespeare holding the skull is an apparent reference to the "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well" speech from "Hamlet.|
Toy Story 3
|Toy Story 3 is one of the best-liked Disney animated feature films.|
At the end of "Toy Story 3," all the toys get together and not only reference but actually 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. Hedgehog reads a Shakespearean line, "But soft what light through yonder window breaks" and the Little Green Man quotes the most famous line in the play and perhaps the entire Shakespearean oeuvre, “Romeo oh Romeo wherefore art thou Romeo.” Both lines come from Act 2 Scene 2, perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare’s scenes.
|The toys put on a Shakespearean play, "Romeo and Juliet," in "Toy Story 3."|
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
|"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was one of Disney's films during the famous "Renaissance" of the 1990s.|
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 Immortal Bard's darker plays and not one that gets referenced much these days.
|The Gargoyles such as Victor serve as a sort of Greek chorus - which is not itself a Shakespearean reference, but one that he would have understood.|
|"Do I not flake?"|
|Frollo and the Gypsies come from different backgrounds, just as did the characters in "The Merchant of Venice," and the same sorts of cultural conflicts arise.|
The Little Mermaid
|"The Little Mermaid" began the Disney "Renaissance."|
|Prince Eric and Ariel row out into the lagoon, where we get another "Romeo and Juliet" reference that is very subtle.|
What you may not have realized is that this "stimulation" (or song) is actually an instrumental version of composer Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet." An interesting metaphor is that Scuttle draws upon a purely orchestral work related to "Romeo and Juliet," meaning, it has no words. The song is "speechless" or "wordless," just like Ariel is while in the lagoon - until Sebastian comes to help the two along. Words are not necessary either within the song or in Ariel's heart.
It is an extremely subtle reference to Shakespeare, but certainly no accident. Remember this one rule and you'll never go wrong - there is nothing accidental about a Shakespearean reference in a Disney animated feature film. They put a lot of thought into them.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
|"The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a holiday favorite.|
|Look very closely at the back of the DVD jacket. I guarantee you that "Disney" appears there.|
|Famed Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh with an old friend.|
|Jack Skellington makes a Hamlet reference in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas." It is to the famous "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him" scene from "Hamlet."|
Let's pin this down with absolute certitude once and for all. The reason that "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and countless other films reference a man holding a skull comes directly from Hamlet Act 5 Scene 1. This is known by experts as “The Gravedigger’s Scene,” but is better known just by the famous line from that scene. Hamlet holds his deceased 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) It is a commentary on the impermanence of life. This is probably one of the most common references to Shakespeare seen in pop culture because it is a quick and easy one to make, requiring only a skull held at arm's length and a woeful expression. Once you understand the reference, you'll spot it instantly every time.
The Lion King and Lion King 2
Widely considered the absolute peak of the Disney Renaissance (no, that was not an intentional pun), "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. "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" continues the Shakespearean parallels by resembling the story of Romeo and Juliet. When something is out of copyright like Shakespeare's plays, we speak of such parallels being an "homage" and not outright theft.
|Several aspects of "The Lion King" borrow heavily from "Hamlet."|
|"The Lion King II: Simba's Pride" (2010).|
Special Bonus Shakespeare Influence
|Dopey dancing with Snow White.|
The fairytales upon which "Snow White" was based did not have any named dwarfs; that detail was entirely the invention (one of the most brilliant in Hollywood history) of Walt Disney himself. Appropriate names for the dwarfs were hard to come up with, as they had to be both classical, appropriate for a medieval fairy tale (you couldn't just call them "Steve" and "Harry"). They also had to mean something to the film itself. Eventually, someone proposed the name "Dopey," perhaps facetiously, for one of the dwarfs, thinking it fit the character as drawn.
|Walt Disney was stuck - he had to name this character. It is an original sketch of "Dopey" from 30 September 1936, signed "MN" - possibly Maurice Noble or Mique Nelson (Walt Disney Productions).|
Walt Disney himself, though, liked "Dopey." In fact, he thought it was perfect. Disney responded to the critics that "Dopey" was perfectly fine, and in fact had impeccable classical roots. Why, he said, even the great William Shakespeare himself had used the word "dopey." If it was good enough for Shakespeare, it was good enough for his animated feature film.
That shut up the doubters. After all, if the Immortal Bard of Avon had used the word "dopey" over three hundred years earlier, who were they to object to it being too modern for a medieval character? Dopey went on to become one of the most beloved characters in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." Once Disney and his people had the name of one dwarf that related to his personal attributes, the names of the other dwarfs were easy to come up with. They all referenced qualities of the characters themselves such as "Sleepy" and "Grumpy" just like "Dopey."
Meanwhile, bemused scholars are still searching for any use of the word "dope" or "dopey" by Shakespeare. There is none - that they can find, at least. But they keep trying!
|"Dopey" became one of the beloved dwarfs.|