Enjoy These Magical Details About Your Favorite Disney Movies

We've rounded up some of the most spellbinding details behind Disney's most treasured hits. Care to join us on a virtual visit to the happiest place in film? Be our guest.

By Sarah Grossbart Nov 17, 2021 8:00 AMTags
Watch: "The Little Mermaid Live!" Stars Put Personal Touches on Songs

There's just something about a Disney song. 

Since the late 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney Productions has been inviting us to be their guest, showing us the world and teaching us about the circle of life.  

Few among us can't hear those words without conjuring up images of dancing teapots, a magic carpet ride, the blessing of a newborn lion cub, feeling that heady mix of nostalgia and comfort for all the music and animation that brought us so much joy, so much entertainment, so much unadulterated magic as children. 

There's a reason filmmakers have been successfully turning each cartoon classic into a live-action remake complete with impressive visuals and star-studded casts that bring adults flocking to theaters, eager to relive their youth and pass a little of that enchantment onto their own kids.

Come 2023, for instance, the Mouse House will invite us to be part of Ariel, Flounder and Sebastian's world when Rob Marshall's take on The Little Mermaid hits theaters. 

Ranking Disney Live-Action Remakes

And the highly anticipated adaption—starring the likes of Halle Bailey as Ariel, Javier Bardem as King Triton and Melissa McCarthy as Ursula—is sure to remind fans that darling, it's better, down where it's wetter under the sea. 

Released on Nov. 17, 1989, The Little Mermaid—based on the 1837 Danish fairy tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen—is largely credited with what is thought of as the Disney Renaissance. Following the success of Ariel and co. (the film raked in $233 million in total lifetime gross worldwide, plus two Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song), Disney put out a string of beloved fare, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and Pocahontas

And since we could all use a little nostalgia-laden pick-me-up, we've rounded up some of the most spellbinding details behind each of those treasured hits. Care to take a virtual visit to the happiest place in film? Be our guest. 

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

1. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, just how far did Walt Disney go to make this 1937 film the fairest of them all? Miles. Having initially seen a silent film version of the fairytale as a teen, he made it his mission to put out the first feature-length animated film in U.S. history. When the budget for the three-year process ballooned to $1.5 million, he mortgaged his home to finance the production. 

2. Sneezy was actually a last-minute substitution for another dwarf. Others that were conceptualized and drawn, but ultimately cut include Snoopy, Blabby, Dizzy, Graceful, Hotsy, Jumpy and Biggy-Wiggy. 

3. When Walt received an honorary Oscar for the film in 1939, it was designed as one standard statuette surrounded by seven miniature ones. 


4. Respect the glow up: the 1941 tale of an elephant who grew to appreciate the uniqueness of his oversized ears (based on the 36-page book, Dumbo the Flying Elephant) almost landed the cover of TIME with Dumbo slated to be honored as Mammal of the Year. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, editors decided to shift course. 

5. Long before Taylor Swift, Walt was king of the Easter eggs. WDP Circus, where Dumbo lands, is a (rather obvious) acronym for Walt Disney Productions. 

6. At just 64 minutes it's one of Disney's shortest feature films and, thanks to ongoing war efforts, the budget was compressed as well, totaling just $812,000.


7. Those horrified by the (78-year-old spoiler alert!) early death of Bambi's mother aren't alone. Diane Disney complained to her dad about the inclusion only to be told he was following the narration of the book, Bambi: A Life in the Woods. In response, she pointed out the liberties he'd taken in the past. 

8. To get the life story of a fawn just right, animators watched nature films, took field trips to the Los Angeles Zoo, studied the movements of two deer donated to the studio and, in the biggest show of commitment, observed the decomposition of a dead deer. 

9. After accepting what would be the role of his lifetime at age 6, Donnie Dunagan, the voice of Bambi, went on to join the Marines and serve in the Vietnam War. Taking pains to never talk about his brush with fame ("Most of the image in people's minds of Bambi was a little frail deer, not doing very well, sliding around on the ice on his belly," he noted to NPR's StoryCorps) it came up when he was just weeks away from retirement as he respectfully told a general he didn't have time to complete an assigned task. "He looked at me, pulled his glasses down like some kind of college professor," he recalled. "There's a big, red, top-secret folder that he got out of some safe somewhere that had my name on it. He pats this folder, looks me in the eye and says, 'You will audit the auditors. Won't you, Maj. Bambi?'"


10. Thanks to a mix of box office misses and overspending, by the tail end of World War II, the studio was millions in debt when it decided to roll the dice by spending $3 million to make a dressed up version of the folk tale. The reward: Adjusting for inflation, the 1950 flick has had a lifetime gross of more than $532 million and has continued to pay dividends with merchandise sales. Happily ever after, indeed. 

11. Cinderelly is one of the oldest of the Disney princesses at the geriatric age of 19. (By contrast, Snow White is just 14.) Her shoe size, meanwhile, is a quite diminutive four-and-a-half. 

12. What's in a name, really? Disney didn't bother with one for its lead's captivating mate. Prince Charming is simply Prince Charming. 

Peter Pan

13. Remaking J.M. Barrie's creation in 1953 was very personal for Walt who'd busted into his piggy bank to see a touring performance as a young boy and then went on to play Peter in a school production. 

14. The appearance of the actors cast to play eldest Darling child Wendy (Kathryn Beaumont, who also voiced the titular character in Alice in Wonderland) and Peter himself (Bobby Driscoll) heavily influenced the animators' designs. Sadly, Driscoll suffered with addiction issues and died of heart failure at 31.  

15. Despite what her name might suggest, Tinker Bell's signature sound was actually created by stringing together pieces of aluminum. 

Lady and the Tramp

16. Doggone if this wasn't the sweetest love story on four paws inspired by writer Joe Grant's real-life Springer Spaniel, Lady. But it was Walt who came up with the moniker of the posh pup's unlikely paramour, crossing out the name "Mutt" in a script and scribbling down, "Tramp". 

17. During the making of the 1955 feature, Disney offices went to the dogs, with live canines on hand to inspire animators.  

18. The flick's most iconic scene was almost left on the cutting room floor with Walt feeling the shared spaghetti moment might be pushing the animals-with-human-emotions boundaries. Thankfully directing animator Frank Thomas came up with the right recipe to save it.  

Sleeping Beauty

19. The film was a bit of a sleeper hit: After an initial disappointing box office, that led to an avoidance of animated fairytales until The Little Mermaid 30 years later, re-releases in 1970, 1979, 1986 and 1995 made it the second-most profitable movie of 1959. 

20. To keep the slumber metaphor going...it had quite the hibernation period. Initially conceived back in 1951, the painstakingly stylized drawings (thought to differentiate it from that other Disney princess film, Cinderella) and Walt's insistence that each frame be a work of art meant it took years to bring the 17th century Charles Perrault fairy tale to theaters. Plus Walt was distracted by another small side project: Disneyland. 

21. Trained opera singer Mary Costa provided the voice of Sleeping Beauty, but that was far from her only high profile gig. After Jackie Kennedy Onassis heard her sing the national anthem at the Academy Awards, she was later asked to perform at John F. Kennedy's funeral. 

The Jungle Book

22. Just the bare necessities (the simple bare necessities): Bumbling Rocky the Rhino was cut from this 1967 adapted look at animal life because his scene came after orangutang King Louis and Walt didn't want back-to-back comedy scenes. 

23. Composers Richard and Robert Sherman had their sights set on booking The Beatles for the vultures' "That's What Friends Are For," but the Fab Four weren't interested in working it out.

The Little Mermaid

24. This 1989 classic set off what is widely known as the Disney Renaissance. On the heels of Oliver & CompanyThe Black Cauldron and several live-action films in the Herbie franchise, the success of Ariel and co. was followed by extremely well-received '90s fare: Beauty and the BeastAladdinThe Lion KingToy Story...

25. Give the opening scene with King Triton a rewatch: Eagle-eyed viewers (or, you know, those of us with the ability to press pause) can spot Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck in the underwater crowd, continuing the studio's popular tradition of giving nods to other members of its vast oeuvre.

26. Color was key for the ocean-set picture. According to the official Walt Disney Company blog, Ariel's red locks were chosen to help differentiate her from Daryl Hannah's blonde mermaid in 1994's Splash and to complement the blue-green of her fin, a hue specially mixed by the Disney paint lab and named Ariel. 

27. As for her facial features, those were inspired by then-Who's the Boss? star Alyssa Milano. "I didn't know that when it was going on," the actress told Wendy Williams in 2013. "But they asked me to host The Making of The Little Mermaid and it came there that the drawing and likeness of The Little Mermaid was based on pictures of me from when I was younger, which is so cool!"

Beauty and the Beast

28. To create Belle, a woman formidable enough to tame the Beast, screenwriter Linda Woolverton borrowed inspiration from Katharine Hepburn's Little Women role. "Though the character of Jo is more tomboyish, both were strong, active women who loved to read—and wanted more than life was offering them," she told the Los Angeles Times. Her blue dress in the opening scene served as a nod to that. The only character in the cool hue it was meant to show how she wanted more than this provincial life. 

29. Beast, meanwhile, was designed using an amalgamation of animals. Wanting him "to be based on something that was real," animator Glen Keane said, he has the brow of a gorilla, the head of a buffalo, the mane of a lion, the tusks of a boar, the legs of a wolf and the eyes of a once-entitled, now very trapped prince. 

30. Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Potts was initially named Mrs. Chamomile because "we originally tried to find the most soothing possible association," producer Don Hahn told Vanity Fair. "But nobody could pronounce it." 


31. No cash, no royal lineage, no problem. With his wit, boldness and a sexy confidence, the titular character broke Disney's charming mold: "I could never understand why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fell for those princes," said lead animator Keane of wanting a worthy mate for Princess Jasmine. "Those guys were cardboard symbols, and the love relationship was assumed. We wanted there to be a how to the princess falling in love."

32. The role of brash parrot Iago was turned down by Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci before Gilbert Gottfried said yes. Genie, however, was completely designed for Robin Williams, producers giving the legendary comic the hard sell ahead of the 1992 film. Despite having only a handful of days open for recording, he provided producers with a lot to work with. "Robin had so much freedom, and [ad-libbing] was always encouraged," supervising animator Eric Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. "He always gave us such a huge amount to choose from. He would do a line as written, but he would do it as 20 different characters."

33. Less confident were the actors behind Aladdin (Scott Weinger, perhaps better known as D.J.'s Full House boyfriend) and Jasmine (Linda Larkin), both convinced they'd be recast when admitting they weren't exactly professional singers. Instead filmmakers simply found musicians for the big numbers.

The Lion King

34. The first Disney animated feature not to be based on a book or fairytale, it went into production at the same time as Pocahontas, the 1995 film very loosely borrowing from the biography of the real-life Native American woman. Many of the studio's top animators chose to work on the latter, feeling it'd be more successful, only to see Simba and his pride blow it out of the water with a nearly $1 billion gross. 

35. Perhaps give some credit to Pumba? The warthog was the first Disney character to fart onscreen. 

36. As to be expected, there were many edits to the original script. But perhaps one of the most notable is their decision to make the villainous Scar Mufasa's brother rather than just a random rebel. The switch, occurring after the animated character had been developed, accounts for the notable differences in their appearance.  

37. That popular urban legend about a puff of dust spelling out the very un-Disney "sex"? Not quite. Producers later admitted they'd spelled out SFX, a tribute to the special effects team. Whoops. 


38. Though Pocahontas' story was most definitely Disney-fied, the 1995 film was a bit groundbreaking for the Mouse House as the first to feature an interracial couple. And at least Percy the pug was historically accurate with research director Mike Gabriel noting British royalty used to tote small pups with them at the time.  

39. It was a true labor of love with some 55 animators tapped to create the lead character and each scene written and rewritten at least 35 times. 

40. Unclear on exactly what a blue corn moon is? Judy Kuhn, the musical voice of Pocahontas was in the same boat. As she admitted to Entertainment Weekly in 2015, "I have always hoped someone could explain it to me."

Toy Story

41. Forever changing the way we look at our toys, the 1995 hit was the first feature-length computer animated film ever, catapulting Pixar into the spotlight. And it could have been very different. In early drafts, Woody was a ventriloquist dummy instead of a cowboy and kind of a d-bag, intentionally abusing toys. 

42. A pre-Buffy the Vampire Slayer Joss Whedon was brought into the writers' room and came up with one of the best lines: "You're a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity." He was also behind lovably neurotic dinosaur Rex. 

43. Tom Hanks has a friend in brother Jim, who provides the voice for all Woody merchandise when the Oscar winner is otherwise entangled. "There are so many computer games and video things," he explained on The Graham Norton Show, "and Jim just works on those all year long."

The Incredibles

44. The idea of a family of superheroes forced into retirement kicked around writer-director Brad Bird's head for some seven years before he brought it to Pixar. Initially told "it would take 10 years and cost a gazillion dollars," as he put it, the 2004 flick far outpaced the $92 million budget and even nabbed two Oscars. 

45. Historian and author Sarah Vowell scored the part of Violet, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl's daughter, after Bird heard her on This American Life

46. Technology had advanced so much by the time Incredibles 2 came to the screen exactly two years ago today, that they had developed a new hair program for more realistic-moving tresses (plus a whole team tasked with making sure they're flowing properly in each shot), more advanced-looking super suits and costumes detailed to the zipper and buttons. Pretty, uh, incredible, huh?  

The Princess and the Frog

47. Disney's first Black princess (in 2009!) could have been played by a true queen. But, according to Confessions of a Casting Director author Jen RudinBeyoncé refused to audition for the part. After tryouts from Alicia KeysJennifer Hudson and Tyra Banks, it went to Bey's Dreamgirls costar Anika Noni Rose. The actress suggested the New Orleans-based Tiana share some of her attributes, so animators made her left-handed and gave her dimples. 

48. Directors Ron Clements and John Musker pitched the concept (inspired by novel The Frog Princess and a Brothers Grimm fairy tale) to Oprah Winfrey during a Disneyland trip for fun (as you do) and the media icon was so into it, she ended up voicing Tiana's mother, Eudora.


49. A dream project some 70 years in the making, Walt first thought of adapting Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen in 1937 and just couldn't, uh, let the idea go. 

50. Animators did a lot of cool activities to ensure they got the characters juuuust right: a sister summit to better understand the relationship between Elsa and Anna, a crash course in meteorology, a jaunt to Norway to gather inspiration for Arendelle and a two-day field trip to Jackson Hole to study snow. 

51. Once slated to be an evil queen with a blue face, spiky hair and a coat of weasels (which, sure), Elsa was shifted away from villain status after songwriters Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez penned the oh-so-catchy "Let It Go". 


52. As they developed the 2016 film about the headstrong daughter of a Polynesian village's chief, filmmakers put together the Oceanic Story Trust. Made up of anthropologists, educators, linguists, master tattooists, choreographers, haka practitioners, master navigators, and other experts they'd met during research trips to the Pacific Islands, their role was to advise on all aspect of the region's culture.

53. Pua and HeiHei, included because of the number of pigs and roosters spotted on South Pacific research trips, were voiced by actual animals

54. Yes, actress Auli'i Cravalho bears a striking resemblance to her onscreen alter ego, but it's pure coincidence. The character of Moana was drawn before she was cast. Some things are just meant to be.  

(Originally published June 15, 2020, at 12 a.m. PT)