20 Amazing Facts About Disney’s Most Iconic Characters
"Mortimer Mouse" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.
Everyone has one has a favorite Disney character—at least if they were a kid at some point in their life. Even Walt Disney himself had a favorite. (Rumor has it: Goofy.) With well more than 700 movies in the Disney canon, there’s literally something for everyone, from princesses to pirates, lovable goofballs to misunderstood monsters.
But while it’s natural to think of these characters as family—and assume you know everything there is to know about them—it’s possible there’s more than meets the eye. Some Disney characters, especially the most iconic ones, have backstories and behind-the-scene tales unlike anything you could imagine.
So, without further ado, here are 20 beloved Disney creations, spanning from the early days of Walt Disney to recent classics like Frozen and Moana, who have secrets yet to be discovered by most fans. Dig into these insider factoids, and you’ll feel like a kid discovering the magic of Disney for the first time.
Mickey was almost named Mortimer.
Before his film debut in the short “Steamboat Wille” in 1928, the mouse that would go on to start an empire was still in need of a name. Walt Disney wanted to call him Mortimer, but his wife, Lillian, hated the name and convinced him to call the mouse Mickey, which she said would make him more relatable. The actor Mickey Rooney claimed in his 1991 autobiography, Life is Too Short, that Disney came up with the name after meeting him in a studio cafeteria, reportedly asking the young actor, “How would you like me to name this mouse after you?” But this story has been hotly disputed.
Elsa from Frozen was written as a villain.
Elsa—who, it should be noted, is 21 years old and thus the only official Disney princess that isn’t a teenager—wasn’t originally meant to have a happy ending in Frozen. In the first draft, she was an over-the-top villain in the vein of Cruella de Vil, and she was definitely not related to Anna.
But when the writers heard an early version of “Let It Go,” they had a change of heart and completely revamped Elsa’s storyline, making the Snow Queen a character that audiences would want to root for rather than boo.
Pocahontas is the first (and so far only) Disney princess to have a tattoo.
The 1995 movie Pocahontas has so many firsts, from the first Disney movie to be inspired by a true story (the second would be Mulan) to the first Disney movie with an interracial relationship. But the record it still holds is that the Pocahontas character remains, as of this writing, the first and only Disney princess with a (visible) tattoo, a red armband around her right bicep. Yes, there are plenty of tattooed characters in Moana, but not a tattooed princess.
Aladdin has actual MC Hammer pants.
If Aladdin’s big, flowy white pants look eerily familiar and make you want to jump out of your seat and start singing “Can’t Touch This,” it’s not just your imagination. When famed Disney animator Glen Keane was struggling to figure out how to animate Aladdin’s “harem” style pants, he apparently watched videos of MC Hammer dancing to get a better feel for how the pants should move, and soon his drawings began to emulate Hammer’s distinctive style.
Dopey was supposed to be talkative.
He’s the only mute dwarf in the 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. So why can’t he speak? Dopey had plenty of lines in the script, and the studio hired Mel Blanc, the iconic voice actor who became known for characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, to play the lovable dwarf. After recording a few tracks, Walt Disney himself wasn’t satisfied and decided to cut all Dopey’s lines. But you can still hear Blanc’s voice in the movie, however, when Dopey hiccups.
Dumbo was almost on the cover of Time magazine.
Plans were underway in late 1941 for the floppy-eared elephant to grace the cover of Time as their “Mammal of the Year” (a light-hearted take on their usual “Man of the Year”). But then the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japanese air forces shook the nation, and Dumbo was bumped from the cover in favor of General Douglas MacArthur.
Sulley from Monsters, Inc. is the hairiest Disney character.
The big blue monster and his company’s “top scarer” (voiced by John Goodman) has more than 2.3 million individual hairs. (The exact count, if you’re one for specifics, is 2,320,413.) Animating all of those hairs was no easy task. It took approximately 12 hours for animators to create just a single frame of Sulley in action. This was back in 2001, before advances in digital animation took most of the hard labor out of bringing characters to life.
The original Tinker Bell was played by a 71-year-old Hungarian.
In Disney’s 1953 film version of Peter Pan, the pixie had no dialogue and thus wasn’t played by an actress. The first living person to portray Disney’s take on the character was Tiny Kline, a former circus performer from Hungaria who was just four feet ten inches tall and 98 pounds. She was the first Tinker Bell to fly over the Magic Castle at Disneyland during the evening fireworks. When she was hired in 1961, she was 71 years old, an age when most of us hope to be retired, or at least not hurtling through the air, over a castle, dangerously close to fireworks.
Ursula in The Little Mermaid is based on a famous drag queen.
Ursula the Sea Witch had many curious early prototypes. The animators briefly drew her as a manta ray inspired by Joan Collins, and a “beautiful but deadly” scorpion fish, according to director John Musker. Eventually an animator drew a “vampy overweight matron” that the entire team agreed looked very much like the Baltimore drag queen star of such John Waters cult classics as Pink Flamingos and Hairspray. “Even though it’s sort of disguised, it’s based on the character [of Divine],” Musker has said.
Bambi was voiced by a war hero.
Donnie Dunagan had a secret. Before he became a decorated Vietnam War veteran in the Marines, receiving a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service, he was a child actor. The most famous role in his short career was the 1942 Disney classic Bambi, where he played the voice of the young deer. He never told his fellow Marines, Dunagan said in an interview, because most people thought of Bambi as “a little frail deer, not doing very well, sliding around on the ice on his belly.” But he’s no longer interested in hiding his past. “I love it now,” he said, “when people realize, ‘This old jerk, he’s still alive and was Bambi.'”
The Beast from Beauty and the Beast is a combination of seven different animals.
Designer Glen Keane created the Beast’s distinctive look from seven different animals. He’s got the mane of a lion, the beard and head of a buffalo, the brow of a gorilla, the tusks of a boar, the body of a bear, and the legs and tail of a wolf. What’s the seventh animal? Well, a human, of course! Those baby blue eyes were intended to look as human as possible. “All the other cool stuff, the animal things, and all the horns and everything, are set dressing for the eyes,” Keane has said in interviews.
Maui in Moana was almost bald.
The long curly locks of demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) in 2016’s Moana are practically synonymous with his character. But long before the movie hit theaters, the original design for the character featured Maui with a bald head. They changed direction when Tahiti consultants told the filmmakers that Maui, a figure Hawaiian mythology, was usually depicted with hair. “Maui was bald for so long that when we first saw him with hair, it was a little hard to wrap our brains around it,” said director Ron Clements in an interview. “But now, I couldn’t imagine him bald. Hair was definitely the way to go.”
Rex the dinosaur from Toy Story was created by the same guy who gave the world Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
When we think of writer/director Joss Whedon, we think of his films like The Avengers, or his seminal TV series, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Firefly. Who knew he was also a co-writer for the original Toy Story?
As he said in an interview, when he was brought in to rewrite the script, “the characters were pretty much in place except for the dinosaur, which was mine.” Meet Rex the dinosaur, brought to you by the same creative mind that gave us a gateway to demon realms.
The Genie from Aladdin had a lot of lines you never heard.
Robin Williams recorded over sixteen hours of improvised lines for his role as the manic Genie in Aladdin. The director used only a fraction of them in the finished film, obviously. And we’ll probably never hear the lines that hit the cutting room floor, as Williams has a clause in his will specifically prohibiting the tapes being used posthumously. All of that improvisation is also the reason Aladdin wasn’t eligible for a screenplay Oscar—the Academy couldn’t be sure what was written and what had just popped out of Williams’ head in the studio.
The voices behind Mickey and Minnie were married in real life.
If Mickey and Minnie Mouse sound like an old married couple, that’s because the voice actors who play them actually are married. And that’s not the reason they were cast either. As Russi Taylor, who played Minnie, recalled in an interview, she met Wayne Allwine, the voice of Mickey Mouse for more than 30 years (the longest anyone has voiced the character), on her first day on the job, “We just started hanging out as pals. And the next thing you know, we were an item.”
EVE, Wall-E’s female robot friend, was created by the same guy who designed the iPod.
When Wall-E‘s director Andrew Stanton came up with the idea for EVE—an acronym for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator—he realized “I was pretty much describing the Apple playbook for design.” So with the help of Steve Jobs, he convinced Apple designer Jonathan Ive, the man who came up with the distinctive appearance of the iMac, the iPod, and the iPhone, to create the look of EVE.
The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel is related to Hercules.
The Disney creators behind Little Mermaid didn’t want audiences to think Ariel was just a knockoff of Daryl Hannah’s mermaid character in the 1984 smash comedy Splash, so they gave their character some distinctively bright red hair. What’s more, Ariel, if you follow the family history in Greek mythology, is the daughter of the merman Triton, demigod of the sea, who is the son of Poseidon, who just so happens to be the brother of Zeus, otherwise known as the dad of Hercules. So, technically, Ariel and Hercules, the star of another animated Disney film, are first cousins.
Marlon Brando and the Beatles were almost Disney characters.
Filmmakers tried to get the Fab Four to voice the four vultures in their 1967 animated film The Jungle Book, but because of the band’s busy schedules and John Lennon’s complete disgust with the idea, it never happened. (The vultures do have some mop tops that look very Beatles-esque, though.) And none other than Marlon Brando was asked to play gangster Bill Sykes in Disney’s 1988 movie Oliver & Company. Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner even approached The Godfather actor personally to see if he’d consider doing it. But Brando passed, thinking the movie would never find a wide audience, and the role went to Robert Loggia, a regular from Blake Edwards movies.
Mary Poppins’ most popular song wouldn’t exist with the polio vaccine.
Julie Andrews had no interest in taking the eponymous role in the musical, so Walt Disney asked the Sherman Brothers to write a song that would convince her to change her mind. They struggled to find something catchy enough, but then one day Robert Sherman’s kids told him that they’d all taken their polio vaccine and it hadn’t been as horrible as they feared because the medicine was hidden into a sugar cube. With that image in his head, a song was born, and Andrews liked it enough that she signed on. Think about that the next time you watch Mary Poppins. The fact that the movie exists at all is all thanks to polio.
Woody from Toy Story was almost a ventriloquist dummy and a bad guy!
Believe it or not, the cowboy doll that was Andy’s favorite toy was first designed as a ventriloquist dummy with a mean streak. An early sculpture shared by Pixar shows a very different Woody from the one we all know today. He’s got heavy eyelids, a long nose, and a “hinged” chin. He looks like he’s about to say something really sarcastic and cruel. Director John Lasseter nixed the original character idea, calling him too “creepy.”
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