Surprising Origins of Disney Movies: Image of Disney Castle with Fireworks

Disney is famous for their interpretation of fairy tales, but that doesn’t mean all their works are based on fantasy and make-believe.

We’re of course referring exclusively to their animated movies, unless it turns out Cory In The House is actually a piece of ancient folklore we know nothing about. Fans who are well versed in Disney trivia know that the company often makes key changes in their stories to keep them saccharine and family friendly, but some of Disney’s most beloved movies are derived from stories you might not expect at a glance. Below are 4 classic Disney films that weren’t afraid to draw inspiration from some unorthodox source material.

4. Mulan


“I’ll Make A Man Out Of You” is the most well-known musical number from Disney’s Mulan, and it might be the most historically accurate part of the movie.

Mulan was based on a 6th century Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan, which in turn was based on the Chinese heroine Hua Mulan. That’s right, Mulan is believed to be a real person who once walked upon this earth, and she did in fact pretend to be a man to join the army. However, most everything else about the Disney movie takes some striking departures from the original tale. For starters, Mulan is said to have been a practitioner of martial arts since childhood. She never shared a romance with a general, nor did she fight alongside a small dragon. We know, we know, Mulan didn’t actually have a tiny guardian voiced by Eddie Murphy in The Ballad of Mulan, we were surprised too.

Though Mulan recieved a lukewarm reception in Chinese markets due to the embellishments of many details from the poem, it’s nice to know the titular warrior was both real and kicked more butt than Disney led us to believe!

3. Pocahontas


It’s common knowledge that Pocahontas was inspired by an actual Native American who is said to have saved Englishman John Smith from execution, so we have no interest in claiming this origin as “surprising.” However, as nitpickers are prone to say, the devil is in the details.

As it turns out, Pocahontas was based mostly on the rampant romanticization of Pocahontas’ story throughout the 1900s. For instance, Pocahontas wasn’t a princess by any stretch, and she definitely didn’t carry a torch for John Smith as portrayed in the movie. In fact, considering she would have been around 11 years old at the time she met Smith, any depiction of the two as young adults together would be wildly off base. She would eventually marry an Englishman by the name of John Ralfe, but that’s a factual account for another time.

Heck, if you wanted to get really nitpicky, some historians question whether John Smith’s story of being saved from execution by Pocahontas ever happened! Then again, we don’t mean to single out Disney, as most of these exaggerations were already a part of other works of historical fiction that existed before the popular animation (including the romance between Pocahontas and Smith). In other words, it’s safer to say Pocahontas was based on the legend handed down rather than what actually happened.

2. The Lion King

Touted as Disney’s first “original” animated movie during its release, you won’t see us dissecting history to explain where The Lion King came from. However, according to the film’s creators, the movie was based on a preexisting story that you might not expect from Disney: Hamlet.

Yes, William Shakespeare’s literary classic was the inspiration behind The Lion King. If you only look at the two works on a superficial level, the parallels become easier to see. Each has a prince sent away to a distant land, and their evil uncles kill their fathers to reign as king. Both see their deceased father appear as a ghost, and each culminates with a duel between the prince and the uncle which results in said uncle’s death. Now, Hamlet didn’t have a catchy tune about a magical phrase that means no worries for the rest of your days, but these lighthearted differences in tone and plot are par for the course for Disney. Though we like to imagine how 90s Disney might have dealt with the tragic end of Romeo and Juliet, we’ll settle with this for our animated Shakespeare fix.

But wait, there’s more… depending on whether or not you have a knack for conspiracies. The Lion King has drawn heavy criticism over the years for allegedly ripping off a classic anime series called Jungle Emperor, known as Kimba The White Lion in English. Though all the animators who worked on The Lion King have consistently claimed Kimba was never brought up during the early stages of development, there are enough identical facets between the two to excite ire from fans of both works. Some would argue the similarities simply stem from each being based upon Swahili lore and popular tropes, but others remain unconvinced. We’ll leave judgment up to you for this one!

1. The Little Mermaid


Hans Christian Anderson is no stranger to Disney. The works of the Danish fairy tale writer have been the basis of a number of the company’s animations, including The Ugly Duckling and, most recently, Frozen (originally called The Snow Queen). So what makes Anderson’s The Little Mermaid such a surprising case in light of all of this?

Simple: if you want differences between the stories, we’ve got 20.

Much like The Lion King and Hamlet, the outlines of the two Mermaid tales parallel each other. Both follow the story of a young mermaid (unnamed in the Anderson version) who is the daughter of a sea king. Each mermaid falls in love with a prince whom they save on a beach, and they subsequently make a pact with a sea witch to give up their voices in order to become human. Yet with these details set aside, the two tales diverge from each other significantly. See, Anderson’s Mermaid is a tragic figure. Her father does not forbid her from visiting the surface, and the witch even warns the young mermaid that her decision to give up her voice will only end in heartbreak. The witch’s words sadly ring true by the end, as the prince winds up marrying a maiden whom he believes had saved him on the beach as mentioned earlier – despite his heroine being the Mermaid all along. When the Mermaid is offered the chance to undo her curse by killing the prince, she cannot find the will to end an innocent life due to her mistake and dissolves into sea foam shortly thereafter.

Talk about a bad deal.

The moral of Anderson’s story centers around the dangers of love that cannot be reciprocated, and it sought to teach kids that life isn’t always fair. Conversely, the Disney version concludes with a happy ending that contains none of these sorrowful details. Having said that, is The Little Mermaid a bad rendition because it forgoes much of the original story? Of course not! Disney’s animators simply used Anderson’s work as a springboard to tell their own story, but that doesn’t mean the original fairy tale was replaced by it. Whether you prefer one or the other is entirely up to you, but understand that it’s no accident both, though worlds apart, are still fondly remembered today.


As is often the case in life, change is inevitable. Yet with that in mind, as long as we remember the best of what was old and see the good in what’s new, everyone wins. And that’s our very own Gemr exclusive fairy tale!

Written by TimM
Tim is a video game aficionado who is fascinated by pop culture. He built his first collection in 1999 by catching all 151 monsters in Pokemon Red, and he hasn't stopped collecting since. His work has been featured multiple times on