But every once in a while, the Magic Kingdom produces something downright dark and frightening — sometimes so dark and frightening that the studio winds up having to lighten it up again.
For this week's Debate Club, we tip our cap to Disney's five scariest movies. You won't see the company promote these films as much as they do, say, Toy Story, but they've got plenty of kick on their own.
Technically not a horror film or a thriller, Bambi remains one of Disney's most traumatizing works. Sure, it's largely the sweet story of a young deer and his bunny buddy, but anyone who watched Bambi at a young age knows how fraught this family film is.
Indeed, the death of Bambi's mom is an emotional rite of passage for plenty of kids, who learn just how cruel the world can be. Her sudden murder at the hand of a hunter shocks this animated film out of its warm cocoon — instantly, the audience and Bambi are thrust into a new understanding of life's darker truths.
Bambi made Paul McCartney an animal activist, and for a lot of us, hunting never had any allure thanks to this film.
Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)
This is an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury novel, but it's worth noting that Bradbury had originally conceived it as a movie, which was to be directed by his friend Gene Kelly. That never came to pass, but 20 years later, Something Wicked This Way Comes starred Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce.
Despite a troubled production, the film initially combines the wonder and fear of Bradbury's novel. The movie loses the thread during a muddled, effects-laden climax, but all told, it's a mix of scares and awe that actually holds up better than they might have expected back then.
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Another of Disney's young adult live-action experiments in the '80s, The Watcher in the Woods upset so many people that it was actually pulled from New York's Ziegfeld Theater after ten days.
That was an overreaction, obviously, but there is something maybe too spooky for kids about this ghost story in which children are possessed by evil spirits. It features a strong performance from Bette Davis, so they reshot the ending and re-released it a few months later.
It's still beloved by some: Lifetime remade The Watcher in the Woods a couple years ago with Angelica Huston.
The Black Cauldron (1985)
It's easy to forget now how much of a creative rut Disney's animation team was in the '80s (The Fox and the Hound and The Great Mouse Detective are hardly Pinocchio or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). But this fantasy film was an especially curious choice, becoming Disney's first PG-rated animated movie. It follows Taran, a commoner who seeks a magical cauldron in order to become a knight.
The Black Cauldron feels like a film that's anxiously trying to compete in a world where Star Wars has raised the game on big-screen spectacle, which prompted the producers to up the scares and intensity. Disney's Jeffrey Katzenberg famously hated The Black Cauldron — his notes to the animators were simply, "It's bad. Fix it." — but the film has garnered a reputation over time as the studio's weird, unsettling attempt at being edgy.
Perhaps wisely, this was not a path they continued to follow in subsequent years.
Return to Oz (1985)
Walter Murch was a beloved, Oscar-winning film editor who worked with Francis Ford Coppola on The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. He needed the support of Coppola after he was fired in the middle of filming Return to Oz, a dark, legitimately scary unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz that, predictably, Disney attempted to recut into something more family-friendly once they realized where he was going with it.
Murch regained control of the film, and his vision is fascinating and undeniably daring; at one point, a room full of severed heads screams at Dorothy! Return to Oz was a massive financial failure, but it's actually sort of terrific. Murch never directed another film, by the way.