Danielle Moyer
June 2014

Everyone knows Disney, everyone knows Walt Disney World, but does everyone know Walt Disney himself? The founder of the Walt Disney Company first began with a tiny animation studio in Los Angeles with his brother Roy more than 90 years ago and it has expanded into a world wide enterprise from Florida, California, Europe, and to even Japan (Tokyo Disneyland). The studios over the decades have modernized themselves in response to the new generations, but one thing has remained constant: the main goal of Walt Disney himself. Disney first began with being a producer of eight-minute cartoon comedies with the character who began it all, Mickey Mouse. Since they were only eight minutes, he couldn't afford to waste a single frame. He would try to squeeze the most he could into every scene, make every moment have a purpose, and not let any detail fall through the cracks. [5] Then came the first real film of Disney ever created, Snow White. During the creation of the movie the Great Depression happened, so brilliant artists were left with no jobs. Disney took advantage of this by giving them the job of creating his first real film. This set the standard of having extremely talented artists behind the making of everything Disney created from that point on. [19] With the combination of having incredible artists and Disney’s keen eye for making the most out of every moment, magic happened. However, this did not stop after Walt Disney’s death in 1966 because just two years before in 1964 Walt Disney created a new school called the California Institute of the Arts, or “CalArts”, where he envisioned artists to learn creative disciplines and learn to inspire and evaluate each other. A good percentage of artists from this school would continue their talents into the Walt Disney Studios with all having a strong art background, and this included art history. [10] Throughout the films, the backgrounds of the films were still a main focus for the animators; they followed through with Walt Disney's goal in animation and made sure no moment was wasted and tried to include the most amount of emotional impact in every story. So why add those art history references when the common person doesn't even recognize what they’re looking at, such as the painting the Magdalene with the Smoking Flame by Georges de La Tour in The Little Mermaid? Simple. It makes it more special. The Disney animators knew from Walt Disney that those additions helped shaped the story. They add depth to the scenery, the characters, the songs, and the whole storyline. The art history references included are just one quintessential element in showing how Walt Disney considered every frame important, so even if there is a tiny hidden Eiffel Tower in background of a scene, it makes the moment that much more magical and that is what Disney is all about. [5] Here are some examples of where Disney made the most of every moment.


In the movie Lilo and Stitch, they have two humorous references to art history that most people would not recognize. The first one being when Stitch enters Lilo’s room and he can’t control his inner instinct to ruin everything he touches. Stitch goes up to Lilo’s easel with a drawing on it and instinctively rips up the paper. Lilo as a response yells, “No, that’s from my blue period!”. This is a reference to Pablo Picasso’s blue period where he would only draw in monochromatic warm shades of blue to express his depression and instability. [17] Lilo can connect to this on a lower level because she is sad, she has no friends, and her family is very unstable at that time. The next one is during the credits when they are showing Lilo’s polaroids of her new family with Stitch, Nani, Jumba, Pleakley, Gantu, David and Mr. Bubbles. One of these photos references the painting Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell. It depicts a happy, wholesome, good-natured family at a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. [17] At this point in the movie, Lilo’s family is now considered to be “ideal” to her, so it is no wonder they are portrayed in this ideal-like family setting. [11]



If one has seen the movie Tangled, they know that her staring up at the “stars” is a major focus of the movie. Rapunzel sees what she thinks are “stars” in the sky and wants so desperately to figure out why they’re there, what they are, and to see them with her own eyes. This work is influenced by Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night where he also wants to be “one with the stars”. He painted that work one year because he committed suicide and it was based off of his view from a window in an asylum. During Van Gogh’s time they believed that after someone’s death they take a journey to the stars where they continue their lives. [17] Van Gogh and Rapunzel both feel alone and isolated and they look to the stars as a destination of a new life. [18]



Mulan is the only movie from Disney that is set in China, so it is no surprise that almost all of the references are from Chinese art history. They have obvious ones, like the Great Wall of China where in the movie the Huns first come to attack China despite it being built to act as a self defense from enemies and nomadic tribes, and the Forbidden City, which acts as the home to the Emperor of China in both the movie and in real life. [17] Then they also have minor ones like the detail of Mulan walking through a circle-shaped doorway which are located frequently throughout China as it is valued so much as a symbol of perfection, unity, and oneness. [8] One of them, however, has no reference to Chinese art history at all, but to a modern movement in America. In one of the scenes, the ancestors are awakened and start to complain about how Mulan will bring dishonor to the family, and one couple
mulan5.PNGstates that they are worried she will make them lose the farm.
mulan8.PNGThis couple references the couple from Grant Wood’s American Gothic with the man on the right holding a pitchfork, and the woman on the left having a conservative, provincial expression on her face. They are worried that she will make them lose the farm because in the painting American Gothic, it focuses on the farms and small-town lifestyle of the American people. [17] Another art history reference that is somewhat obscure is during the song “A Girl Worth Fighting For” where the men sing what they desire to have in a girl. One of the men, named Chien-Po, is a large man, both in height and size, and is the kindest and gentlest of the men. He occasionally has super-human strength in the film and his actions tend to soothe others around him, similar to the Buddha. In one particular instance of the song there is a statue of him seated in a buddha-like manner with a kartarimukha hand gesture. He talks about how he does not care about what the woman looks like, but all he cares about is what she cooks like beef, pork, and chicken. By the Disney animators showing him with a kartarimukha hand gesture, it supports his claim to finding this “girl worth fighting for” because that gesture resembles scissors to show the separation of a couple who will be connected later in life. [2] Chien-Po has this statue of him in the buddha stance, but it resembles the statue more of the Budai, who is a happy, laughing Buddha, just like Chien-Po [13]. [14]


There are art history references in almost all Disney movies, and this does not exclude a movie based solely off of animated cars. One reference in the movie Cars is when one of the characters named Luigi points to a high tower of tires and calls it the “Leaning Tower of Tires”. An obvious reference to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Pisa, Italy with an unstable tower that over time has leaned more and more over to one side, just like the unstable tower of tires. Another reference made to a famous architectural piece is when Lightning McQueen is staying in a motel room and in the background is a version of the Eiffel Tower in a cone-shaped frame. [4]



Another art history reference made during the credits of a movie is in Brother Bear. The two bears are drawing pictures on rocks and Kenai, the bigger bear, is drawing a simple stick-figure painting while Koda is painting the famous piece of A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Goerges Seurat. [17] Koda laughs at his masterpiece compared to Kenai’s juvenile drawing. [3]


The Princess and the Frog is a Disney story of a girl named Tiana who comes from a very humble family in New Orleans, Louisiana during the 1920’s. Her only dream is to open up a restaurant called “Tiana’s Place” in memory of her father who was not able to because of money issues. Tiana sings the song “Almost There” in her newly bought space for her restaurant and during this song the artists of the film start drawing in a different manner than any other part of the movie. They start drawing in a way that is inspired by Aaron Douglas. Douglas and the artists of the film both limit their palette to a certain range of colors that vary from light to dark in an organized concentration of bands. The abstract bands come from only certain
subjects and they suggest movement or rhythm, which go along well with the song. Douglas painted during the Harlem Renaissance in America which highlights African American achievements, like in his painting Aspects of Negro Life: From Slavery through Reconstruction, and in the song by Tiana it highlights the achievements that she sees in her near future. [17] Other art references during this film connect to the art of Africa. One work that is found right outside of the Shadow Man’s lair (a man who has special power, often of evil, who likes to mess with people for his own benefit) is an example of an Nkondi. These sculptures act as a home to a spirit that can come out and hunt down and harm other people with curses causing sickness, accidents, or bad luck. It is an example of the Kongo’s idea of witchcraft and goes hand in hand with what the Shadow Man does daily. [15] Another reference to the art of Africa is simply the African Masks that are located all throughout the Shadow Man’s lair. Masks’ function were to conceal the identity of the person and also to create a new identity with the spirit world. Masks were often passageways for spiritual power and whenever there are a spirits in the movie [7], there tends to be masks located on the screen. [20]





In The Little Mermaid, Ariel has a hidden grotto where she keeps all the human objects she’s discovered under the sea. In the grotto she sings the famous song “Part of Your World” where she shows off her finds to her best friend, Flounder. One of the pieces she admires while singing the song is the painting Magdalen with the Smoking Flame by Georges de La Tour. Ariel focuses on the flame in the painting and asks herself “What’s a fire and why does it- what’s the word? Burn?” and the way La Tour made the light source so intense that it sometimes seems like the real subject of the work supports Ariel’s only interest in the candle. The woman of the work, Mary Magdalen, has put away her rich clothing and precious jewels and ponders alone over the vanity and frailty of the human world [17]… similarly to Ariel pondering over the human world herself. [12]


Aladdin is a movie taking place in the city of Agrabah in the Middle East having to do with the love between a boy and a girl. From the very beginning, one sees the castle of Princess Jasmine raised high above the city’s skyline and can’t help but wonder where they have seen something like it before. One of the most famous buildings in the world was the inspiration for this castle, and it was the Taj Mahal. Both of these buildings have similar elements because they are both a combination of Islamic, Persian, Ottoman, Turkish, and Indian architectural styles. They both are made out of a pristine white material, which for the Taj Mahal is white marble, and they both have minarets (or slender towers) located all around the central building. The difference between them is that in the Taj Mahal the minarets are symmetrical and identically alike and in the
alad2.PNGfilm the minarets vary in height and size and are in no way symmetrical. The Taj Mahal is supposed to resemble the paradise as described in the Koran, and in the movie the castle resembles a paradise for most of the city folk, and especially Aladdin. [17] He desires so much to be able to go into the castle and call it his own with Princess Jasmine on his side, so he relies on the help of the Genie to grant him this wish of the unreachable paradise. However, before he was capable of getting the help from Genie, he needed to get the lamp with Genie in it from the “Cave of Wonders” filled with precious jewels, gems, gold, and more. When Aladdin enters this cave, one can see a subtle Lamassu in the background. A lamassu acts as a guardian protector for palaces and throne rooms. It comes from the Ancient Near East and it is a combination of the bearded head of a man, a body of a lion or bull, the wings of an eagle, and the horned headdress of a god in vast details to represent wealth, which is power. They are gigantic in size,to show the strength of the ruler they are protecting, and in Aladdin’s case it shows great protection over the jewels surrounding it. [17] alad5.PNGalad4.PNG
Aladdin takes Jasmine on a magic carpet ride, where they travel the Eastern Hemisphere and see famous architectural structures. Two of
these places are the Great Pyramids of Giza and the Forbidden City. When Aladdin and Jasmine see the Great Pyramids and continue to fly around it, they startle a man working on the nose of The Great Sphinx. This causes him to accidentally chisel the nose too much and have it fall off. This is Disney’s clever interpretation of how Aladdin and Jasmine caused the nose of the Great Sphinx to go missing. Later they see the site of the Forbidden City. [17] This is where Aladdin and Jasmine decide to take a break on their journey and stop and sit on the top of the roof of the main building. The Great Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza are located in Egypt and the Forbidden City is in China, two very far away places. This goes along with Aladdin singing to her “I can show you the world” as a line in the song “A Whole New World”, by showing her the great wonders of the world. [1]



In one room of the castle in Frozen they have a gallery of paintings with a variety of themes and subjects.One in particular resembles the painting The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard with a girl flirtatiously on a swing with her official lover pushing her while her affair is hiding in the bushes below looking up her skirt. The mood of this Rococo painting is light-hearted, playful, and flirty, just like Anna herself. [17] The painting connects greatly to the personality of Anna and the song she is singing at the time, which talks about love and finding “the one”. [6]

Works Cited

1) Aladdin. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1992. DVD.

2) Anjali. "Kartarimukha Hand Gesture (Mudra)." Online Bharatanatyam RSS. N.p., 2 Jan. 2008. Web. 04 June 2014. http://onlinebharatanatyam.com/2008/01/02/kartarimukha-hand-gesture-mudra/

3) Brother Bear. Dir. Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker. Walt Disney Pictures, 2003. DVD.

4) Cars. Dir. John Lasseter and Joe Ranft. Walt Disney Pictures, 2006. DVD.

5) Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms and beyond. New York: Abrams, 2011. Print.

6) Frozen. Dir. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013. DVD.

7) "The Function of the African Mask." The Functions African Mask. African Mask Gallery, n.d. Web. 04 June 2014. http://www.africanmaskgallery.com/functionsofmasks.htm

8) Gao, Kane. "More than Just a Circle and Square: Shapes in Chinese Culture."Illuminant. Illuminant, n.d. Web. 04 June 2014. http://www.illuminantpartners.com/2012/04/23/more-than-just-a-circle-and-squareshapes-chinese-culture/

9) Hercules. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1997. DVD.

10) "History." CalArts. CalArts, n.d. Web. 07 June 2014. http://calarts.edu/about/history

11) Lilo & Stitch. Dir. Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Walt Disney Pictures, 2004. DVD.

12) The Little Mermaid. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures, 1989. DVD.

13) "Meanings of The Different Fat Buddha Statues." Article Alley. AA, 6 July 2010. Web. 04 June 2014. http://bondy.articlealley.com/meanings-of-the-different-fat-buddha-statues-1638776.html

14) Mulan. Dir. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. Walt Disney Pictures, 1998. DVD.

15) "Nail Figure (Nkisi Nkondi)." Arts Connected. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1998. Web. 04 June 2014. http://www.artsconnected.org/resource/93730/nail-figure-nkisi-nkondi

16) Pedley, John G. Greek Art and Archaeology. 5th ed. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012. Print.

17) Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005. Print.

18) Tangled. Dir. Nathan Greno and Byron Howard. Walt Disney Pictures, 2010. DVD.

19) Thomas, Bob. Disney's Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Beauty and the Beast. New York: Hyperion, 1991. Print.

20) The Princess and the Frog. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney Pictures, 2009. DVD.