It’s pretty hard to imagine a world in which Disney films didn’t exist, but it might be harder to imagine a world in which these movies didn’t exist with the stories we know. As with all movies, regardless of quality, every Disney film begins with a pitch or a series of storyboards. The development process requires an intricate balance of back and forth between writers, animators, supervisors, and executives. This process is far from a quick and easy one. For example, the development process of a single movie made by Pixar, a Disney subsidiary, can take anywhere between 4-7 years of hard work and costly investment.
Since the development process takes so long, it’s only natural that there are story elements that are left on the cutting room floor. Some original scripts are even required to be entirely rewritten. As intimidating as all of these intensive edits might sound, the results of this process are more than worth the creative struggle.
After all, if some of the following changes hadn’t been made, these movies might not have gone on to become the classics we all know and love.
15. Frozen – Elsa was the villain
It’s no small secret that Frozen is Disney’s greatest success story. The 2013 film is the highest grossing animated film of all time, bringing in well over $1 billion at the worldwide box office. What might come as a surprise to some viewers, however, is that the hit story about sisters Elsa and Anna originally had a far more wicked twist.
Elsa, the ice queen of Arendelle who learns how to “Let It Go,” was originally the story’s villain who preyed upon a heartbroken Anna. In fact, it was “Let It Go” that convinced Jennifer Lee, the director and screenwriter, to change Elsa from Anna’s nemesis to her beloved but troubled older sister. Thanks to this change, Frozen offered its audience a dynamic absent from most Disney princess stories that had come before: the film’s central love story was that of the love shared between sisters.
14. Zootopia – Judy Hopps wasn’t always the main character
Zootopia, winner of the 2017 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, tells the story of a city populated by talking animals. The film’s main character, Judy Hopps, is a rabbit whose dreams of becoming a police officer are consistently dashed because rabbits have never been police officers before. Her character presents the perfect Disney narrative of a young character overcoming obstacles in order to make their dreams a reality.
Yet even though this seems to be an obvious narrative choice, Judy wasn’t originally the film’s protagonist. Nick Wilde, the crafty conman fox who teams up with Judy in the film, was meant to be the story’s focal point. In this original concept, Judy was Nick’s sidekick, until an impulse decision to reverse these characters’ roles came with only a year left before the film’s release. The change allowed for the film to tell a more organically hopeful and emotional story; and as a result, Disney had yet another smash hit on their hands.
13. The Lion King – Scar snaps Mufasa’s neck
The wildebeest stampede scene in The Lion King has become infamous over the years for providing an early source of emotional trauma for young viewers. Simba, still a cub only just beginning his royal training, witnesses his father, Mufasa, trampled to death by a stampede he believes he has caused. In reality, the stampede is orchestrated by Mufasa’s nefarious brother, Scar, in an attempt to seize the power he feels is rightfully his own.
In earlier drafts of the script, Mufasa’s murder was far more graphic and unsettling. Although early drafts lacked the Hamlet parallels of brother killing brother, Scar was initially a much larger, more bloodthirsty, and entirely unrelated lion who brutally murdered Mufasa by snapping his neck with the strength of his own jaw. This, however, would have made Simba’s feelings of guilt and his self-imposed exile impossible to execute. And without his exile, there would be no “Hakuna Matata.” So really, this was all for the best.
12. Mulan – Mulan and Shang were an arranged marriage
One of the many things the 1998 film Mulan began to signal for Disney was a turn toward the understanding that Disney heroines could have stories driven by the love of family, and not necessarily the love of a man. Although there are multiple references within the film to Mulan’s affection for her superior, Li Shang, there is only the slightest hint of romance in the film’s conclusion. Instead of a marriage plot, Mulan’s journey is devoted to bringing honor to the Fa family name as she fights valiantly in her father’s place against the Huns.
According to an early storyboard of the film, Mulan and Shang are revealed to be betrothed as part of an arranged marriage. In this scenario, it is Mulan’s stubborn refusal to take part in this arrangement, and not the love of her father, that spurs her on to join the army. This plot would have depicted Mulan as a far less than heroic character, something her journey simply could not afford, and so, the storyline was cut from the film.
11. Monsters, Inc. – The main character was an adult human
As viewers know it, the 2001 film Monsters, Inc. has two central relationships: the friendship between the monsters James P. Sullivan, also known as Sulley, and Mike Wazowski; and the loving relationship that forms between Sulley and and the three year old little girl who wanders into Monstropolis, Boo. Originally, however, none of these relationships or characters were part of the story.
In its earliest form, Monsters, Inc. worked in large part like the much later 2015 Pixar film Inside Out. According to this plot, an unhappy adult human man would find himself visited by a series of monsters he had drawn in his childhood. In a similar vein to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, each of these monsters would represent something from the man’s childhood he needed to overcome. As soon as he overcame these fears, the monsters would begin to disappear. It’s hard to even begin to imagine how any of Monsters, Inc.‘s vibrant characters would have fit into this story.
10. Beauty and the Beast – The film had a much lighter tone
The opening scene of a film can really do wonders in terms of setting the overall tone. In the case of Beauty and the Beast‘s first sequence, a haunting, melancholy theme plays over David Ogden Stiers’ narration of the tragic fate that has befallen the selfish prince at the heart of the story. Beautiful, yet intimidating stained glass windows depict scenes of an enchantress turning the prince into a cruel beast as her revenge for his refusal to help her. Further cementing the sadness and terror contained within the tale, the film’s prologue ends with a seemingly hopeless question: “For who could ever learn to love a beast?”
By contrast, early storyboards for the beginning of the film depict the conventional Disney storybook opening, the comforting melody of a more traditional classical arrangement, and vibrantly colored scenes of a wealthy family. There is no immediate indication of a darker, almost Gothic tone in any of the introduction we have access to, and as a result, this proposed prologue makes the film feel far more simplistic and dated than the finished product.
9. Finding Dory – Some characters were left behind
At the end of the 2016 film Finding Dory, Dory, Marlin, Nemo, and Dory’s parents are happily reunited as a family and free in the ocean. They are also joined by some newcomers from the Marine Life Institute in California: Destiny, a visually impaired whale shark; Bailey, a beluga whale with weakened echolocation; and Hank, a curmudgeonly “septapus.” Yet according to a report from the Los Angeles Times during production, these newcomer characters may not have originally been guaranteed these happy endings.
Viewing the documentary “Blackfish,” which depicts the condition of whales in captivity, caused Disney/Pixar to feel the need to make a change regarding the ending of the film. Previous versions of the script involved characters being left behind at the Marine Life Institute, but once executives had seen the documentary, they knew all of the characters needed a freer, happier ending.
8. The Emperor’s New Groove – It was almost The Prince and the Pauper
Even though The Emperor’s New Groove is the lowest performing film on this list, it went through some of the most intense revisions. The 2000 film was originally developed as Kingdom of the Sun, Disney’s attempt at adapting Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Kuzco, still the emperor, would trade places with a commoner who looked just like him. He would still be turned into a llama, but the circumstances would be very different, and a whole lot darker. Instead of seeking revenge against Kuzco for firing her, Yzma, the film’s villain, would instead have tried to destroy the sun. Getting Kuzco out of the way by turning him into a llama would make her quest that much easier. Somehow along the way, Kuzco would also fall in love with a llama herding girl.
This combination of mistaken identities, evil plans, and romantic comedy would have been really hard to pull off. So as interesting as it would’ve been to see Disney’s take on this literary classic, it’s probably for the best that The Emperor’s New Groove became the buddy comedy it is.
7. Moana – Gramma Tala didn’t exist
While Gramma Tala really isn’t in much of Moana, she plays one of the most pivotal roles in the film. It is through her grandmother’s encouragement of her curiosity that Moana learns of their ancestors’ wayfinding, even though her father strictly forbids her from taking part in it. Even more important, Gramma Tala gives Moana the necklace she has carried with her which contains the heart of Te Fiti, the key to saving their people from famine. Furthermore, Moana’s connection with Gramma Tala is so strong that it transcends even death: she is visited by her grandmother’s spirit in her weakest moment, and at the film’s end, Tala accompanies Moana on her journeys in the form of a manta ray.
Despite Tala ultimately becoming a central figure, in earlier versions, Moana had no grandmother, but instead had a group of brothers who were meant to serve as her companions and mentors. In the end, it was decided that a generational conflict between her grandmother and her father would be a more compelling story that allowed Moana to stand on her own without being surrounded by so many brothers.
6. Monsters University – It was almost a sequel, not a prequel
Monsters University provides crucial backstory on the characters of Monsters, Inc., letting viewers see events such as Mike Wazowski’s childhood, Sulley and Mike’s first meeting, and the origins of nefarious villain Randall. All the while, the film brilliantly satirizes the stereotypical college experience through the child friendly lens of an animated film. Although the backstory is so intricately crafted and covers so much important character development for our core monsters, a prequel wasn’t the original idea for the long awaited follow-up to Monsters, Inc.
Instead, a sequel entitled Monsters, Inc. 2: Lost in Scaradise was planned. This film would have followed Sulley and Mike as they travel to the human world in order to find Boo. A fish out of water adventure would have followed, and viewers would have possibly been treated to seeing the two friends reunite with the adorable little girl they cared for in the first film. Although Monsters University does a great job of providing background, this discarded plot idea could have moved the franchise forward in a really interesting way by introducing monsters to the human side of the closet door.
5. Toy Story 3 – Buzz Lightyear is recalled to Taiwan
When Toy Story 3 came out in 2010, 11 years after the previous installment in the Toy Story series, viewers were treated to an extremely emotional tale about growing up and moving on from your childhood. Woody and the gang are mistakenly sent to a daycare center as Andy prepares to leave for college. After reuniting with the toys at the end of the film, however, Andy realizes it would be better to share the happiness they have brought him over the years with another child, a little girl named Bonnie. But even this intensely emotional plot was far from the original plan for this second sequel.
According to early concept art, the film would have been an adventure that found Woody and company desperately trying to save Buzz Lightyear, who has been recalled by the company that made him in Taiwan. For all its heart and warmth, the Toy Story series does rely heavily upon the adventure genre, so this alternate plot might have fit right in without deviating much from the franchise norm.
4. Aladdin – Abu was an old man
Aladdin introduced viewers to a few distinct and unlikely friendships in addition to the conventional romance plot between Aladdin and Princess Jasmine. Aladdin’s unconventional friends include the iconic Genie, voiced by the late Robin Williams; a magic carpet who frequently acts like his pet dog; and Abu, his monkey sidekick who offers his opinion even when it isn’t wanted and no one can really understand him anyway.
Yet in early drafts of the film, Abu had a completely different role. According to director John Musker, Abu was originally conceived of as an old man and fellow thief who would still serve as Aladdin’s sidekick, but in a much different form. However, upon realizing there too many human characters for an animated film, the decision was ultimately made to include more animals. Jasmine’s handmaiden became Rajah, the tiger; Jafar would have a conniving parrot sidekick in Iago; and Abu would no longer be the old man at Aladdin’s side, but the mischievous little monkey on Aladdin’s shoulder.
3. The Little Mermaid – Ursula wasn’t an octopus
The Little Mermaid includes an entire sea of different underwater species, but besides the royal mermaid family, the most prominent figure is that of Ursula the sea witch. A big part of what makes Ursula one of the most intimidating villains in Disney history, besides her witchcraft and her coldblooded contracts, is her design. Being an octopus allows Ursula to appear physically intimidating; she even frequently uses her many tentacles to do many different things at once, which makes her actions hard to predict. But tentacles weren’t always in the plan for the Divine-inspired villain.
Director John Musker reveals that earlier versions of Ursula had been a manta ray, which is certainly a shocking threat in its own right, and the venomous lion fish. In the end, they rightly preferred the many creepy options afforded to them by her tentacles.
2. Inside Out – Depression plot removed
As soon as it was released in 2015, Inside Out was hailed as yet another critically acclaimed Disney film. It has a 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, it won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film, and an article in Psychology Today credits its portrayal of psychology and emotions as “true to cognitive, developmental, and clinical psychology.” In the film, tween Riley Anderson struggles with moving to a new town, isolation from her friends, a new crush, and all things puberty. Her story is guided by five prominent emotions, represented by tiny human-like beings known as Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. The emotions struggle to take over one at a time within the control center in her brain. Naturally, chaos ensues.
Although the film tugs on the heartstrings due to its realistic portrayal of adolescent emotions, things could have been even more emotional if earlier emotions considered had remained in the film, including Depression, Despair, and Gloom. In order to keep things manageable and not too overwhelming, five key emotions were chosen, and these darker shades of feelings were left on the cutting room floor.
1. Toy Story – Woody was the villain
Randy Newman’s song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” perfectly describes what the 1995 film Toy Story is about: the strength of friendship during the hardest of times. Woody and Buzz Lightyear begin the film as bitter enemies, but over the course of a wild adventure and identity crises, they become the best of friends with a bond nothing can ever shake. However, the message of friendship wasn’t always what was planned for these two characters.
Ed Catmull, the president of Pixar, revealed that Woody was originally a scathingly cruel ventriloquist’s dummy. A shocking early design for the character depicts how much meaner the slightest of facial adjustments can make a character look. Thankfully, the executives realized that this story didn’t work in the long run. Instead, they opted for the now beloved version of Woody who, although paranoid and insecure at first, is ultimately the franchise’s hero.
What other Disney movies were almost radically different from the final product? Let us know in the comments!
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