Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Overlooked Moments of Terror in Classic Disney Animation

It’s often remarked that Disney has a penchant for scarring the psyches of infants. Whether they’re orphaning little baby Bambi, taking us on demented pink elephant acid trips, or having evil queens perform grotesque body-horror transformations, they don’t seem to have any qualms about inflicting sleepless nights upon younger viewers. 

Whilst these childhood traumas have each left an indelible mark on pop-culture, there are a handful of scares in the Disney vault that have managed to fly under the radar. This is usually because they’re nestled within more obscure outings, or because they derive from the studio’s 1980s era rough patch (aka ‘’The Dark Age’’). Either way, these black sheep just never quite get the credit that they deserve. 

With that in mind, it’s about time that somebody paid homage to the studio’s overlooked frights. Don’t expect any of the usual suspects – i.e., Pinocchio, Fantasia or Snow White – here, because this list is reserved purely for the deep cuts. On a related note, we’re only looking at moments from animated releases here, so if you do want a broader overview of Disney’s spooky content, then this piece should have you covered. Anyway, let’s dive in. 

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad: The Horseman Rides 

The outbreak of WW2 disrupted the entire movie industry but had a particularly crippling effect on the House of Mouse when most of its top talent was drafted into military service. Not only was the company deprived of its key workforce, but they also took a serious economic hit, given that their overseas market basically disappeared overnight. To cope with these financial blows, Walt was forced to scale back production to short cartoons only, which he cleverly bundled together into full-length releases, so that he could still turn a marginal profit. 

Generally speaking, these relics of the so-called ‘’package era’’ haven’t left much of an impact on the Disney canon, and even hardcore fans would struggle to name half of them. Yet there is one notable exception! The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is an utterly delightful double feature, adapting the works of two literary heavyweights (Kenneth Grahame and Washington Irving) with a surprising reverence for the original texts. The Sleepy Hollow segment is especially faithful, carrying over much of the book’s antiquated narration and resisting the urge to embellish things for the sake of kids in the audience. 

As such, the climactic appearance of the headless horseman plays out almost identically to how it was written on the page. Directors Jack Kinney and Clyde Geronimiget get everything absolutely spot-on, from the moody build up (in which our lead mistakes various woodland noises for ghosts ‘n goblins) to the dramatic reveal of the hessian spectre himself, astride his furious stead. The ensuing chase through the glen is properly intense as well, with the demonic rider cackling and violently slashing at Ichabod’s neckline in a way that makes you wince. They don’t hold back either, going so far as to retain the haunting ending that leaves the pedagogue’s ultimate fate up to interpretation. 

The Rescuers: The Descent into Devil’s Bayou 

When you think of scary moments in Disney, your mind automatically jumps to larger-than-life bad guys and supernatural threats. The Rescuers is an anomaly in this respect, as it thrusts viewers into a comparatively grounded scenario, wherein helpless orphan Penny is lowered down into a cramped pothole, in order to retrieve a coveted diamond. You see, the cave system is far too narrow for adults to squeeze through, hence why the nefarious Madame Medusa has abducted a young girl to do it on her behalf. 

Hauled down in a flimsy bucket, Penny is tasked with rummaging around for the precious jewel in pitch-black darkness, all whilst sidestepping treacherous chasms and the skeletal remains of other, ill-fated treasure hunters. The unbearable claustrophobia is heightened further by an urgent ticking clock element, that necessitates our heroine must escape before the next high tide – lest she risk drowning when the tunnels are flooded with seawater. Although the ordeal doesn’t contain any wicked hags or monstrous demons, it’s still legitimately distressing. No matter what age bracket you fall into. 

Tarzan: It’s Using the Trees 

This entry is just a brief still, as opposed to a full moment, but it nevertheless sends shivers down my spine. Near the end of Tarzan’s opening act, the eponymous wildman catches a glimpse of something in the corner of his periphery, hidden in the dense jungle foliage. We then cut to a shot from his POV and, if you look intently enough, you can just make out a hungry leopard waiting patiently in the leaves. Almost perfectly blending into its surroundings. 

Again, the image cannot be on screen for more than a handful of frames, but the realistic animation and chilling silence with which the maneater is depicted triggers some kind of primal fear deep within my subconscious. Like I’ve regressed back to our neanderthal days and have grown acutely aware that danger could be lurking right under my nose. It’s unusually subtle for Disney and stands out as one of their more intimidating depictions of nature, eclipsing the likes of The Jungle Book or even The Lion King.

The Great Mouse Detective: Child’s Play 

Enormously underrated, The Great Mouse Detective ought to be ranked alongside the most feted classics of Disney’s late ‘80s/ early ‘90s renaissance. In fact, were it not for how the movie was sandwiched between two of the company’s biggest ever duds (namely The Black Cauldron and Oliver and Company), this rodent reimagining of Sherlock Holmes would likely be attributed with kicking off the comeback era. As it stands though, it is too often dismissed as being merely ‘’the best of a bad bunch’ from the forsaken dark age. 

Which is a shame, because fans who skip out on TGMD are missing out on a thoroughly charming adventure that boasts an enthralling mystery, a terrific line-up of dastardly villains and, yes, some extremely troubling moments. One such highlight occurs when a kidnapping investigation leads our murine sleuth to a creepy toy store that recalls the artefact room from The Conjuring. Like that occult museum, the shelves of this emporium are adorned with terrifying playthings. There are giggling jack in the boxes; marionettes dressed as unnerving clowns; maniacal rocking horses that sport rictus grins; and wind-up beefeaters that have been stripped of their clockwork. Not to mention a pot doll that manages to keep on moving, despite being fractured into a dozen pieces. 

As if these character designs weren’t disturbing enough, the construction of the sequence itself is textbook horror. First, it ratchets up the tension with eerie music, atmospheric lighting, and disquieting noises. Then, it turns the screws on you further, by introducing a line-up of ominous toys, some of which could leap into motion at any second, and others that are simply red herrings. Finally, it all culminates in a meticulously orchestrated jump scare that will catch even the parents off guard. James Wan himself couldn’t have done it better! 

Mickey’s Christmas Carol: Richest Man in the Cemetery

Most adaptations of Dickens’ festive morality tale flirt with ghoulish visuals and morbid undertones. Yet at a lean 26 minutes, Disney’s take on the material is forced to condense things a great deal by whittling down some of those aspects. That being said, it’s not completely sanitized. 

For evidence of this, look no further than the set-piece in which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Mickey’s perennial nemesis, Pete the Cat) confronts Scrooge with his future tombstone. No matter how you slice it, this part of the story is always upsetting, but there’s something especially bleak about watching an anthropomorphic duck come to terms with his mortality in such a frank way. To further traumatize youngsters, Pete then shoves Ebenezer into his own grave, whereupon a swirling inferno leaps out of the coffin and pulls the elderly curmudgeon downwards to hell … Ding Dong Merrily on High! 

Dinosaur: Dinner Time

The world of Dinosaur is extraordinarily harsh. Within the first 30 minutes alone we get an oviraptor pilfering eggs to crack them against rocks and a meteor shower wiping out an entire island of adorable lemurs. From there things get crueler still, as the film presents us with a straggling herd collapsing from dehydration, junior dinos being picked off by scavengers, and the protagonist regularly bleeding from gaping wounds.

The callousness is reminiscent of a wildlife documentary, in which the crew doesn’t interfere and just let nature take its brutal course. In fact, there are so many on-screen deaths here that you actually feel a rare sense of jeopardy. With Disney, you can typically be assured that the heroes will get a rosy outcome, yet in Dinosaur that’s less of a guarantee. 

This is especially true whenever the Carnotaurus show up, as the film has already demonstrated that it isn’t messing around and is willing to kill off major players to increase the dramatic stakes. Indeed, the predators are given ample opportunity to chow down on named characters and it’s unexpectedly visceral when they do. Meat is torn from carcasses, teeth rip through flesh, and blood is shed with a level of grisliness that wouldn’t feel out of place in Jurassic Park.

Fun and Fancy Free: The Live-Action Framing Device 

Difficult as it may be to believe nowadays, ventriloquism has not always been marred with sinister connotations. On the contrary, the act was a favourite of music halls around the turn of the 20th century and truly blossomed in popularity with the advent of vaudeville shows. Which is to say that, when the package release Fun and Fancy Free hit cinemas in 1947 (long before things like Dead Silence, Magic and Goosebumps recast dummies as archetypes of terror), the performance style was still in vogue.

So, the live-action framing device that bridges the short cartoons (in which celebrity ventriloquist Edgar Bergen entertains random children in his home, using sentient puppets that can operate without being anywhere near his reach) presumably didn’t faze moviegoers at the time. And to be fair, it is totally innocent when removed from a modern context. That being said, as a contemporary viewer, my immediate reaction to any scene in which ’Charlie’’ and ‘’Mortimer’’ reared their ghastly faces and started to move around of their own volition was, of course, a bloodcurdling shriek. Followed by an obligatory exclamation of: ‘’Jesus Fucking Christ!’’ 

The Black Cauldron: An Audience with the Horned King 

Over the years, The Black Cauldron has garnered itself a cult following and a dubious reputation for being Disney’s edgiest flick. Which just goes to show that we must all have very selective memories, because the sword and sorcery tale is, on balance, rather family-friendly. A significant position of its running time is devoted to the misadventures of a happy pig, there’s ample comedy relief supplied by a legion of sidekicks, and it’s got a farcical subplot about a bard resisting the advances of a horny witch coven. 

In short, people have built up a far cooler version of this movie in their heads (one that is practically a gateway horror), when in reality the highlights are few-and-far-between. Indeed, the only scary bits are those featuring the Horned King: who does admittedly exude a powerful aura of dread whenever he takes centre stage. A good case in point is when he crashes a party hosted by his own minions. One minute there’s boisterous yelling and dancing, and the next a deathly hush befalls the whole castle. Howling winds spread throughout the room; fluttering the banners,  extinguishing candlelight and heralding the overlord’s imminent return. It’s enough to make even the gruff mercenaries quake in their boots. 

And then he materialises. Encircled by a bank of crimson fog and veiled in impenetrable shadow, the Horned King certainly knows how to make an entrance. From there, he perches atop an imposing throne and addresses his subjects, with John Hurt’s raspy delivery leaving you hanging on his every last word. The visual design is phenomenal too, with the creature’s hollowed-out eyes, gaunt features, rotting flesh, and pointed fangs lending him the air of a formidable Dark Souls boss. 

Whenever this undead tyrant is on screen, The Black Cauldron (ironically) jolts to life and in those fleeting moments, you can see why it has attracted such a loyal fanbase.  

The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Frollo’s Damnation 

If I can achieve anything with this list, I hope to convince a few of you that The Great Mouse Detective and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are both long overdue for reappraisal. They’re remarkable efforts, with the latter distinguishing itself through a commitment to mature themes – like religious hypocrisy; psychological manipulation; and social upheaval – as well as its grandiose musical score. Oh, and I guess there’s a cute goat sidekick or whatever. 

Seriously though, if you haven’t watched Hunchback since childhood, you owe it to yourself to give it another whirl, because it’s honestly better suited for grownups anyway. Even the songs aren’t the catchy earworms that you would normally expect from Disney, instead taking the form of sorrowful ballads and reverent hymns. 

Of all the tracks, ‘’Hellfire’’ is surely the loftiest, depicting Judge Claude Frollo’s agonizing crisis of faith, as he tries to reconcile his old testament beliefs with his lustful yearning for the gypsy Esmerelda. Where villain melodies tend to be light and peppy (e.g., ‘’Friends on the Other Side’’, ‘’Poor Unfortunate Souls’’ or ‘’Gaston’’), no one really hums along to ‘’Hellfire’’. So much as they gaze in slack-jawed amazement at its sheer cojones. 

Tony Jay’s baritone vocals inflect lyrics like ‘’Don’t let this siren cast her spell. Don’t let her fire sear my flesh and bone’’ with profound gravitas, and the operatic music is similarly forceful. Meanwhile, the biblical imagery gets really bold by the crescendo, with a roaring blaze engulfing Frollo and hooded persecutors springing from the ground to accuse him of wrongdoing. It’s all very overwhelming, especially for a film that had a Happy Meal promotional tie-in. 


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