The Fairy Tale Origins
of Disney Classics

The folklore stories behind our four favourite Disney classics

A family sitting on a sofa in their living room, while enjoying an animated classic Disney movie.

The bewitching world of Disney has cast a spell over us all. But classic Disney movies are more than mere child’s play. Folklore has long provided storytelling inspiration, with many movie masterpieces rooted in tales as old as time. Now that you can officially stream Disney+ on your Samsung Smart TV, indulge your inner Belle with an exploration of classic folklore.

Where do fairy tales come from?

Original fairy tales formed part of a rich oral tradition. Many unfurl in make-believe worlds, and include archetypal characters such as princess as prize, polite hero and rampaging villain. Motifs such as folklore creatures and magic helpers pop up, and the quest for love often drives the plot.

The Brothers Grimm were the first to preserve treasured German fairy tales in written form in their 1812 anthology. Designed with a moral message in mind, these short stories were often dark, to encourage youngsters to behave themselves. Disney reworked these references to ensure family friendly viewing.

The evil Queen from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ – a classic animated movie from Disney’s formative era.

The cruel queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Part of Disney’s formative era, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) stands out for being a sweet flick with contrasting moments of darkness. Disney softened the frightening details of the Brothers Grimm original, where the Queen is far more twisted.

Snow White’s mother dies during childbirth, leaving the Queen as her stepmother. The magic mirror names Snow White as the ‘fairest one of all’, driving the Queen mad with envy. In the original, she tries to slay her stepdaughter three different times: with a killer corset, then a toxic comb, finally succeeding with a poisoned apple.

In the Grimm version, the Prince insists on taking Snow White’s dead body away. As the Dwarfs carry her coffin, one of them trips and Snow White tumbles from her resting place. She spits out the apple and awakens without the influence of a kiss.

At the end of the Disney film, the Queen cascades off a cliff. In the original tale, she attends the wedding of Snow White and the Prince, where her punishment is dancing to death in red-hot slippers.

The main characters – Belle and the Beast from the animated Disney classic ‘Beauty and the Beast’ - holding their hands while looking at each other.

Marital themes in Beauty and the Beast

French fairy tale La Belle et la Bête was penned in the 18th Century as an exploration of women’s marital rights. It was popularised by Madame Leprince de Beaumont in 1756, before Disney transformed it into one of the best animated movies of all time.

In the original, the rose is what gets Belle into trouble. She asks her father to bring her one back from a business trip, but he gets lost and stumbles upon the Beast’s enchanted castle. On his way out, he tries to steal a rose from the garden, sending the Beast into a furious rage.

The Beast agrees to spare his life if he swaps places with one of his daughters. Filled with guilt for asking for the rose, Belle volunteers. Instead of Gaston and LeFou, Belle’s sisters are the villains of the tale. They are jealous of Belle and couldn’t be happier to see her imprisoned.

Lumiere, Cogsworth and Mrs. Potts are some of the most memorable characters in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991). However, in the original fairy tale, there’s no enchanted furniture. Belle experiences total isolation, to symbolise the prison of 18th century marriage.

Snapshot of a scene from ‘Cindarella’ – a classic animated movie from Disney’s Silver Age.

Dark scenes cut from Cinderella

Cinderella (1950) is one of the standout films of Disney’s Silver Age. There are many variants of this classic fairy tale, but Disney chose to base the movie on Charles Perrault’s enchanting 1697 interpretation, where the pumpkin, fairy godmother and glass slippers serve as magic motifs.

In the gristly Brothers Grimm version, Cinderella’s father does not die. He remarries a wicked woman, and does nothing to stop his new wife’s tyrannical treatment of his daughter. Instead of a fairy godmother, help comes from a wishing tree that Cinderella planted on her mother’s grave.

In earlier interpretations, the brutality of the evil stepsisters knows no bounds. They mutilate their own feet in attempt to fit into Cinderella’s slipper and marry the prince. When their deceit is uncovered, doves swoop down and peck out their eyes.

Ariel from Disney’s classic animated movie ‘The Little Mermaid’.

The Little Mermaid’s miserable ending

Disney kick-started its superb Renaissance era of filmmaking with The Little Mermaid (1989). Delving under the sea of this Disney classic, you’ll find that Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairy tale is pretty depressing.

According to the Disney version, the mermaid, Ariel, wins her voice and marries Prince Eric. However, the Andersen story is truly tragic. In order to gain a soul, she must marry the Prince – but he chooses someone else.

The sea witch tells the mermaid that if she kills the Prince, she may return to mermaid form and live. Instead, she chooses to sacrifice herself. She throws herself into the ocean, and turns into sea foam.

We’re glad Disney decided to bring Ariel a happy ending!

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