Disney has a reputation for being family friendly, if not totally geared towards kids.
Despite this, Disney has also been known to delve into territory that doesn’t just test or push boundaries, but actively breaks and tears through them, creating surprising content that goes well beyond what one might expect from a company with their reputation.
In fact, there have been more than a few times where Disney has gone “too far” when it comes to their animated films, and that’s what we're talking about today, in our list of 20 Moments In Disney Animation That Went Too Far.
Plucking our entries from both the classic era and the “Renaissance,” we’ll be covering imagery, moments and sequences that could easily be described as dark, disturbing, terrifying and more.
20 The Skulls In Gaston’s Eyes
Beauty and the Beast contains an excellent example of juxtaposition, in which the monstrous Beast is actually gentle and kind-hearted while Gaston, the human being, is the one that’s truly despicable and beast-like.
Of course, that’s all the more reason to enjoy it when Gaston plummets to his doom… but did Disney really have to insert a few frames of skulls into his pupils on the way down?
19 Hunchback’s Prologue
Do you know the best way for a child-friendly Disney movie to start? As you might expect, it’s by having a cold-hearted villain kick a defenseless mother in the face, smashing her skull on the steps of a church, and then contemplating drowning her baby.
…wait, that’s not the best way to open a child-friendly Disney movie? Why didn’t anyone tell that to Disney!?
Hunchback is one of Disney’s darkest endeavors, and it’s not a stretch to think that it was originally intended for an older audience before some bigwigs decided to throw in some goofy gargoyles.
18 Scar’s Ironic Cannibalization
We often relish the moments when villains get their comeuppance, and we could not have been more thrilled to see Scar yield to Simba during the climactic final battle for the Pridelands.
What happened next, though, took things to a whole new level.
In short, Scar gets eaten alive by his hyena “allies.” He promised them that they’d “never go hungry again,” but we don’t think he had this particular solution in mind.
17 Quasimodo’s Gut-Wrenching Shaming
As we said earlier, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is almost unapologetically dark and, as such, it often crosses the line and goes too far. One such scene is the absolutely gut-wrenching sequence of Quasimodo being mercilessly subjected to cruel humiliation and torment.
After a day of celebration, where Quasi is crowned the “King of Fools” and is so happy that he actually cries, the crowd’s cheers become jeers, and the innocent bell ringer is tied down, spun, and pummeled with fruit and vegetables. It’s ruthlessly heartbreaking.
16 The Headless Horseman’s Blood-Curdling Cackle
Disney’s take on Washington Irving’s famous “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is an oft-forgotten treasure, featuring a delightful performance by Bing Crosby and a surprisingly chilling conclusion.
As Ichabod Crane is making his way home after a night of carousing, a palpably sinister atmosphere begins to take over the land, with an ominous cloud in the shape of a hand slowly covering the moon… and then it happens: a menacing, blood-curdling cackle delivered by the one and only headless horseman, who immediately gives chase in a sequence that’s far more terrifying and intense than it has any right to be.
15 The Sheer Delight And Evil In Scar’s Eyes
The (original) Lion King is a genuine masterpiece that has had a powerful impact on multiple generations. Whether it’s the timeless music, story, or emotional resonance, there’s a lot to love. Of course, the movie is also really, really sad— specifically Mufasa’s untimely demise.
That said, we don’t think that particular sequence went “too far;” instead, we think it’s Scar’s chilling behavior during that sequence that’s too far. He visibly delights in betraying his brother, smirking and delivering cruel, sarcastic quips, making sure that Mufasa fully understands how horrible Scar truly is before being thrown from the cliff.
14 Involuntarily Morphing Into A Donkey
Pinocchio is a cute movie, but, perhaps out of ALL the early Disney films, it’s the one that has the most upsetting content.
Pinocchio’s constant victimization, Stromboli’s destructive outbursts, and everything about Monstro are all upsetting and scary, but they fail to measure up to the most haunting sequence of all: Lampwick’s uncontrollable transformation into a donkey, and the animalistic rampage he goes on afterwards.
Pinocchio’s shocked face says it all.
13 The Spinning Wheel
Sleeping Beauty’s unique aesthetic is wonderful, as is the film’s propensity to use it for elaborately artistic sequences. Alas, most of these artsy moments are of the highest degrees of terror, such as when Aurora is unwillingly compelled to prick her finger on the cursed spinning wheel.
While nothing traditionally “scary” happens, the whole sequence feels like a nightmare, with the imagery having an almost supernatural quality and the music only making matters worse. The intensity keeps ratcheting upwards until the fateful moment, and we’re getting nervous just thinking about it.
12 Tarzan’s Deceased Parents
It’s no secret that Tarzan’s parents were slain by the predator, Sabor. This is made apparent multiple times visually and through dialogue. Therefore, it’s fairly mind-boggling Disney felt obligated to include an incredibly grim, somewhat hidden detail regarding their fate when Tarzan visits his old, makeshift home.
If you look hard enough towards the edge of the frame during the first-person POV shot, you’ll see the obscured remains of Tarzan’s mother and father.
11 The Bone-Chilling Intensity Of The Huntsman
When it comes to the earliest Disney classics, most contain an underlying sense of menace, and when that menace bubbles to the surface and erupts at full power, it’s frightening. The Hunstman’s scene in Snow White is one such instance.
The intensity in this man’s eyes as he attempts to off Snow White is bone-chilling to the core, but things only get worse as he maniacally pleads with her to run away. This tortured soul’s frenzied warning has haunted us since we first witnessed it, and it will continue to do so.
10 Maleficent’s Sincere Wickedness
Maleficent is one of Disney’s greatest and most iconic malefactors. Her cruelty, sarcasm, and power are a potent combination that has helped this fallen fairy stick with audiences since her debut. It also helps that she’s super scary.
Still, there’s something about her that might have gone a little too far, and that’s her genuine wickedness.
This is an irredeemably evil individual, and watching her cackle in delight as she causes immense emotional and/or physical pain is nothing short of hair-raising.
9 Just About Everything in “Pink Elephants”
When you were young, did you ever see something that was so terrifying you were chilled to the core, yet you couldn’t seem to pull yourself away from it? For us, it was the “Pink Elephants” sequence in Dumbo.
This fever dream is nothing short of a direct threat from a malevolent force of evil. The surreal visuals mixed with the inexplicably goofy-yet-sinister music create the embodiment of a genuine nightmare, and, even now, it’s a hair-raising and unsettling sequence.
8 Hunchback’s Apocalyptic Finale
Hunchback’s almost-biblical finale stands out as an intense conclusion filled to the brim with apocalyptic imagery, especially by Disney standards.
So much of this finale is “too far” for your standard Disney movie: the burning of Paris, public execution, political revolution, Frollo beating up the aged Archdeacon, and more all set to the tune of a menacing choir.
That said, nothing compares to the practically Satanic level of malice on Frollo’s face as he threatens Quasimodo and Esmeralda with being plunged “into the fiery pit” before he, himself, righteously succumbs to that every same fate.
7 The Evil Queen’s Shocking Transformation
Earlier, we spoke about Snow White’s underlying sense of menace, and how upsetting it was when it bubbled to the surface.
While the scene with the Huntsman was one thing, it seems almost infantile when compared to the Evil Queen’s transformation into the horrific hag.
With mounting tension, an immensely evil-sounding spell, macabre imagery, and grotesque close-ups of the pained transformation, it’s no wonder that so many find this scene so disturbing.
It didn’t have to be like this, Disney!
6 Snow White’s Nightmarish Adventure
Disneyland has a ride based on Snow White called “Snow White’s Scary Adventures.”
At first glance, that oddly specific adjective, “scary,” seems like a strange addition, but trust us, it’s there for a good reason, and it’s all because of the scene where Snow White runs into the woods to escape the huntsman.
In the film (and the ride based on it), Snow White’s frenzied dash through the woods is filled with truly scary imagery, such as malicious, seemingly-possessed trees and threatening, disembodied eyes. Unsurprisingly, this sequence is the cause of countless night terrors worldwide.
5 Frollo’s Obsession
We’ve talked about Disney’s take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame a few times on this list, but we suppose that when you base your movie on an unbelievably heartbreaking and dark book, it’s to be expected.
Regardless, the all-too-real villain, Frollo, is obsessed with Esmeralda, and we mean obsessed. Like, “burn down all of Paris” and “execute a woman because she rejected you” kind of obsessed.
While that’s already “too far,” the animators actually went even further, creating a ghostly image of Esmeralda that was so sultry, it needed to be entirely re-animated.
4 The Horned King’s Speech
The Black Cauldron was an enormous flop that almost ended Disney animation entirely. That’s a fairly dark legacy in its own, but it managed to leave behind something even worse.
The film already pushed quite a few buttons with its macabre imagery (most of which would end up being cut), but nothing was as macabre as the nightmare-fuel incarnate villain, the Horned King.
Infamously, the Horned King has a terrifying monologue, delivered in a bone-chilling fashion by John Hurt, that is so threatening it seems like the Horned King is capable of real harm in the real world.
3 All Of “A Night On Bald Mountain”
So let’s get this straight: a gigantic, devil-like being emerges from a deep slumber and decides now’s a good as time as any for wicked acts, so he terrorizes a nearby town, conjures up nude (!!!) demons and harpies, then destroys some of them because he simply feels like it, and, in general, causes countless nightmares for any kid who’s ever watched Fantasia?
Yep, that sounds like it’s the definition of “Disney animation that went too far,” and we mean WAY too far.
2 Shan Yu’s Sick Sense Of Humor
While we’re not totally sold on the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, there’s no denying how enjoyable the original continues to be, even if the film’s villain, Shan Yu, isn’t exactly one of Disney’s most memorable… except for one moment we’ll never forget.
Upon the capture of two scouts, Shan Yu asks the prisoners to deliver a message for him. As they scurry off, Shan Yu devilishly asks his archer how many men it takes to deliver a message, to which the archer responds “one,” as he readies an arrow.
1 Maleficent’s Unnecessarily Demonic Entrance
Sleeping Beauty is, hands down, the most gorgeous Disney film ever made, especially when it dips into the avant-garde— such as the perfect symmetry of the guards and their lances as they attempt to seize Maleficent during Aurora’s presentation.
However, it’s ANOTHER avant-garde sequence involving Maleficent that we would consider going “too far,” and it’s her nightmarish appearance in the fire place as she compels Aurora to go to the spinning wheel.
The music, the sinister glowing eyes, and the foreboding hopelessness create an unforgettable scene of sheer terror.
We’re thankful we didn’t understand the implication as children.