The Walt Disney empire is an American institution. Whether you grew up with Pinocchio in the ‘40s, or have kids of your own who will not shut the hell up about Frozen, Disney movies are unavoidable. But did you know that, in addition to retelling fairytales, a lot of their other works also aren’t original stories?
Let’s take a look at five Disney classics and the non-Disney films that preceded them, from which they borrowed... or maybe just plain ripped off.
The Disney Film: Aladdin (1992)
The Original Film: The Thief of Bagdad [sic] (1940)
The Original: Well, technically, there are several original films, including one with Douglas Fairbanks (1924), and some later garbage European versions, but we’re going to focus on the best of them here: The 1940’s sumptuous Technicolor masterpiece starring Sabu. Sabu was a mononymous Indian actor who was often the only person of color in his movies, which tended to be British colonial fantasies (or American takes on British colonial fantasies).
The Thief of Bagdad, which follows Sabu through a series of whimsical Arabian Nights adventures, had a number of problems during production: shooting shifted from Britain to America with the outbreak of WWII, and something like six different directors worked on it at various points (which is usually a bad sign). In fact, the production was so drawn out that near the end they had to reshoot some of Sabu’s earlier scenes, because the adolescent star had grown three inches. Despite these difficulties, the final product is sparkling and joyous to behold.
The Disney Film: Aladdin isn’t an original story, and neither were any of the Thie[ves] of Bagdad; they all originate in tales associated with the Arabian Nights (although, fun fact: the Aladdin story was not originally in Scheherazade’s repertoire, and was added later). What’s especially striking when you compare the two films is that The Thief of Bagdad, made some 50 years before Aladdin in a world without political correctness, is in many respects far less racist than the later Disney film.
Yes, The Thief of Bagdad features mostly European actors in Arab roles (although generally not in “Arab-face”), but it never explicitly dismisses Golden Age Islamic society as “barbaric,” as Aladdin does in its opening song, and it doesn’t feature random squiggly lines that are supposed to look like Arabic. But let’s not fool ourselves. Both of these flicks are "exotic," Orientalist fantasies that could have more than sustained Edward Said’s academic career had he never written about anything else.
Where they’re streaming: Aladdin you can buy it on Amazon; The Thief of Bagdad is streaming on Amazon and Filmstruck.
The Disney Film: The Jungle Book (1967)
The Original Film: The Jungle Book (1942)
The Original: I really hope you like Sabu, because he’s the star of this one too. Directed by Zoltan Korda (one of the six directors of The Thief of Bagdad), 1942’s The Jungle Book is also a rich Technicolor extravaganza, and it also features Sabu as its only person of color. Virtually all the characters are “Indian,” played by white people in brownface. Assuming we can look beyond that (and you’re under no obligation to do so), this adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic story collection follows Mowgli (Sabu), a boy raised by wolves, as he attempts to resist the encroachment of humans in the forest while preparing for a final battle with his enemy, the tiger Shere Khan.
While Korda’s film tones down Kipling’s more preachy aspects (there’s not much to be said here about “the Law of the Jungle”), the film still engages with “big issues,” like what it means to be human and how humans should relate to nature and with each other. Which is in marked contrast to…
The Disney Film: The animated Jungle Book of 1967 was the last film to be produced by Walt Disney himself, and it was Disney who rejected the darker tone of the first screenplay he was presented with and shifted the focus to more traditional Disney song-and-dance fare. However, there’s still enough subtext to keep a Phd student busy for years. Whereas the Mowgli of 1942 was courageous and always looking for ways to kill Shere Khan, the Mowgli of 1967 ends up more passive, eventually allowing his animal friends to shepherd him back to the human village where they believe he’ll be safe from the tiger. Whereas Mowgli '42 spent much of the film interacting with humans, Mowgli '67 only encounters them near the end, spending most of the film with animal companions like Baloo the bear, who gets about five seconds of screen time in ’42.
And while neither film is likely to win any awards for respectful and progressive depictions of India (this is a Kipling story, after all), it must be said that the Disney version is playing for far lower stakes than its live action predecessor.
Where they’re streaming: The Disney original doesn’t appear to be streaming, but you can rent five later Disney remakes/sequels/cash-ins on Amazon; the 1942 version is streaming on Amazon and Filmstruck.
The Disney Film: Moana (2016)
The Original Film: Moana (1926)
The Original: The 1926 Moana is a key entry in the filmography of American filmmaker Robert Flaherty, the follow-up to 1922’s Nanook of the North, often recognized as the first documentary feature (although Moana was the first film to which the word “documentary” was applied in a contemporary New York Sun review). While Nanook saw Flaherty shooting in the Canadian Arctic, Moana took him to Samoa, where he perfected the blend of documentary techniques and shameless fabrication that he had pioneered on Nanook. You see, not only was Flaherty the first documentary filmmaker, he was also the first documentary filmmaker to stage whole scenes, edit deceptively, and generally distort reality to make his films more dramatic. So, when watching Moana today, it’s kind of hit-or-miss with what’s real and what’s staged.
For instance, while the scene of the protagonist undergoing traditional tattooing was real, it was a practice that had largely died out and the star had to be paid extra to undergo the painful ordeal. But real or fake, ethical or not, it’s a fascinating film, both for its subject matter and for its place in the history of documentary and ethnographic film.
The Disney Film: The Disney film has so little to do with the Flaherty film that I’m not quite sure why they bothered ripping off the title, as it’s not likely to mean anything to their target demographic. Last year’s Moana is a CGI musical set in a kind of generic Polynesia featuring a comparatively less offensive appropriation of a non-European culture than was the case in a lot of Disney’s other “ethnic” movies. For instance, many of the voice actors have Polynesian ancestry (whereas I can guarantee you there weren’t many Arabs in the cast of Aladdin).
Now, this hasn’t prevented people from making allegations of cultural appropriation, violation of intellectual copyright, and general distortion of Polynesian culture (and people had to complain before Disney withdrew from the market a skin suit allowing kids to dress up as a tattooed Polynesian). But at the very least, the film seems to have avoided Disney’s most common racist trope: making the bad guys darker skinned than the heroes, even if they’re ostensibly of the same race.
Where they’re streaming: The Disney film is on Amazon and the Flaherty film is on Fandor.
The Disney Film: The Lion King (1994)
The Original Film: Kimba the White Lion, a.k.a. Jungle Emperor, a.k.a. Jungle Emperor Leo (1966, with various other franchise installments in manga and television over the years)
The Original Film: Kimba the White Lion started as a manga by legendary Japanese comic artist and animator Osamu Tezuka, whose vast and influential output (Astroboy, Ode to Kirihito, a multivolume narrative of the life of the Gautama Buddha) has earned him titles like “the godfather of manga” and “the Japanese Walt Disney.” In fact, Disney was an admirer, and at a meeting with Tezuka at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Disney expressed a desire to do something like Astroboy (he doesn’t seem to have said anything about Kimba the White Lion, but we’ll get to that in a moment).
Now, as for Kimba, it is the story of a young lion whose father is killed, as a result of which he is taken away from his home, and after learning and growing as a person, is guided back home by the stars, where he uses his newly acquired wisdom to govern the animal kingdom. There are also a bunch of interactions with humans, and Kimba has to learn their ways in order to prevent them from conquering the wilderness, but that won’t be as interesting to us as we consider…
The Disney Film: Along with Bambi, The Lion King taught a whole generation of American kids that their parents would someday die. The story of a young lion whose father is killed, who’s driven into exile, and who must mature before he can return home and… wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? Why, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say this lion’s story sounds like Kimba.
But this isn’t Kimba, this is Simba…! Yes, there are a lot of people who think that The Lion King sounds remarkably similar to Kimba the White Lion, right down to the character’s names. In fact, Matthew Broderick, voice of Simba, later said that when he signed onto The Lion King, he assumed they were doing a remake of Kimba. But the good people at Disney have fiercely denied any connection, with Lion King director Roger Allers claiming he’d never even heard of Kimba prior to the controversy (Broderick should have told him). In contrast, a number of Japanese cartoonists certaintly saw it as plagiarism, and signed on to a petition demanding Disney acknowledge their borrowings from Kimba.
Now, in Disney’s defense, the story of The Lion King draws on a number of pre-existing stories, like Hamlet and the West African Sundiata story (both of which, conveniently, are in the public domain). As for the name “Simba,” that’s Swahili for “lion.”
Where they’re streaming: They’re not, but you can get a Kimba anime series on Hulu.
The Disney Film: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The Original Film: Beauty and the Beast (1946)
The Original: French artist Jean Cocteau did a bit of everything: poetry, novels, plays, and films. And while his most esteemed film work is likely his Orpheus trilogy, his black-and-white 1946 adaptation of the Beauty and the Beast fairytale is probably his most widely seen film. Starring Jean Marais as the Beast (like many a beloved French actor, Marais had an enormous head, which suited the role), Cocteau’s film draws heavily on the surrealist tradition, which is especially useful in providing low-fi special effects for a cash-strapped postwar France: the magical candle holders are literally actors sticking their hands through the wall, the Beast’s transformation is effected by trick photography. But it never looks hokey; in fact, it strikes the viewer as far more sincere and “magical” than something carried off with CGI.
The film was well received at the time, and has since been recognized as a classic. It was to have a distinct visual influence on the Disney film.
The Disney Film: You know, we’ve spent much of this article making fun of Disney for ripping off and infantilizing classic films, and for numerous instances of appalling racism. But 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is by and large a film they got right, and that does justice to its predecessors. From the magic that animates the beast’s castle to the depiction of the curse he lives under, the Disney people pay respectful homage to Cocteau’s film, seamlessly integrating the Frenchman’s whimsical visual motifs into their ravishing full color fairytale.
It is known that Walt Disney himself had considered making an adaptation of the story for years, but may have been discouraged from doing so because of his respect for Cocteau’s film. One can’t help but wish that the studio had felt inclined to honor Disney’s respect for Osamu Tezuka in a similar manner, but what are you gonna do?
Where they’re streaming: You can buy the 1991 and rent the 2017 live action version on Amazon; the Cocteau version can be streamed on Amazon and Filmstruck.