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Crown Jewels: Times Disney Went Dark

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For the studio that created the “Happiest Place on Earth,” Disney sure knows how to bring on the dark, dreadful, and depressing.  Some people applaud the risks they take and their dedication to respecting kids’ ability to deal with the scares, while others wonder if the people in charge have lost their minds marketing these horrors to impressionable children.  But no matter which side you’re on, I’m willing to bet at least one of these moments made an impact on your life.

That’s why today’s list of Crown Jewels feature the top ten times Disney went dark.  Keep in mind it’s all based on my opinion; if you know of some scarier or sadder moments, let me know in the comments below!

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10. Bambi’s Mother – Bambi

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Let’s start with a classic: Bambi’s mother flees from hunters and is shot off screen.  Millions of children saw their worst fear, losing their mother, come true in that scene.  And thus was born a moment that would be referenced and parodied hundreds of times in everything from Animaniacs to The Early Edition, and a moment in Disney history that will live in infamy.

9. The Wolf’s Entrance – Peter and the Wolf

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In my childhood, there are only three moments I remember watching TV from the next room in order to hide from the monster onscreen, and one of them was the first time the wolf appeared in this classic short.  The slow buildup of the horn section set my nerves on edge long before the beast ever crept from behind a tree, fangs dripping and eyes burning.  For me, this was the most terrifying Disney ever got.

8. The Headless Horseman – The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad

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When Disney tackled this classic ghost story, they brought their family-friendly charm to the tale.  Of course, there’s only so much you can do with a headhunting ghost on a nightmare steed.  Between the chilling laugh and the dark color scheme, Ichabod’s climactic chase offers plenty of Gothic horror.  And an implied decapitation.  By pumpkin.

7. Pooh Gives Up Hope – Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin

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We all remember Pooh as a fun, carefree friend, the symbol of innocence and childhood.  So when Christopher Robin goes missing and attempts to find him seem doomed, the moment when Pooh gives voice to his loss and despair is hard to take.  “I used to believe in forever,” he sings, “but forever’s too good to be true.  I’ve hung a wish on every star; it hasn’t done much good so far.”  Hearing the antithesis of the Disney motto from the mouth of one of its most beloved characters hits far too close to the real world for comfort.  It may not be scary, but it sure is dark.

6. The Forest/The Witch – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

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In the studio’s first feature-length outing, Disney didn’t shy away from the frightening tone of the original fairy tales.  For every silly song and high-pitched princess, there’s a creepy forest full of evil faces or an ugly hag with long bony hands, a poisoned apple, and a pair of vultures.  This stuff’s so scary they made a ride at Walt Disney World advertising the fact.

5. Dr. Facilier- The Princess and the Frog

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We’ve had witches and wizards as villains before, but somehow a voodoo priest feels more grounded in the occult and therefore a more serious threat.  He gets his power from his demonic “Friends on the Other Side,” so he’s basically made a literal deal with the devil.  And when he can’t deliver on that deal, his “friends” drag him screaming to Hell.  So yeah, that’s in your family-friendly kids’ movie.

4. The Horned King/The Army of the Dead – The Black Cauldron

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On the whole, this film is probably the darkest fare Disney has ever put out.  The demonic Horned King is out to raise himself an army of undead warriors so he can take over the world; from that sentence alone, you know this film is going to include some scary imagery.  Compounded with probably the darkest tone of any Disney movie, the skeletal faces and sinister plots make this a film that’s nightmare fuel for your youngsters.

3. Night on Bald Mountain – Fantasia

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Okay, who thought a depiction of Hell would be a good thing to put into a kids’ movie?  I remember seeing this scene as a child and being incredibly disturbed as the Devil and his minions swirled around a dark mountain.  It didn’t scare me, but the evil was almost palpable.  It even cast a creepy shadow over the following quiet candlelight parade to the tune of “Ave Maria.”  Definitely a moment that messes with your mind and spirit.

2. The Clock Fight – The Great Mouse Detective

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Up until this point, the villainous Rattigan has been sophisticated and pretty fun.  But when the final chase ends at Big Ben, that proper if sinister British gentleman slowly transforms into a monster as what little restraint he had falls away.  It’s almost like watching him transform into a werewolf as his clothes shred, his fur rises, and his teeth and claws flash.  As if the stakes weren’t high enough already, seeing poor Basil run from this crazed wild animal guarantees nightmares for young viewers.

1. Pleasure Island – Pinocchio

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We get it; bad behavior must be punished.  Does it have to be this severe?  Pleasure Island has every vice a prepubescent boy in the 1940s could want, from pool to cigars.  But stay there long enough, and you slowly, torturously turn into a donkey.  You can hear the terror in the boy’s voice as the transformation takes place, and it hits you right in the gut.  To top it all off, the victims are then basically sold into slavery in the mines.  Long before Neverland, Pleasure Island was setting the price for never growing up.

So remember, kids, when you wish upon a star, so did Winnie the Pooh and look how that turned out for him.

All the movies above are owned by Walt Disney Studios.

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