Continuing our (my) bout of morbid fascination, let’s now look at some characters who survived the original but were doomed by Disney. Yes, this does actually happen from time to time, as these four will attest:
#4: The Sea Witch
Film: The Little Mermaid
Left to continue organ-trading/spell-casting
Impaled by ship’s mast
Disney’s Ursula is by far the more bombastic of the sea witches, turning every trade into a punishment for the mer kingdom rather than letting them get on with their poor lifestyle choices. When she manages to take over, she grows enormous and whips up an evil storm, allowing Prince Eric to steer a shipwreck right into her that somehow makes her explode. Hans Christian Andersen’s sea witch, on the other hand, bears her customers no ill will and presumably carries on creating spells with organ donations.
#3: General Li/Army General
Original Version (Xu Wei)
Defeats opposing army, awarded title of Marquis of Chang-shan
Annihilated by opposing army
In Disney’s Mulan, General Li is the imperial army’s best hope and the father of Mulan’s love interest, so clearly he won’t last very long. He and his soldiers are wiped out by the Huns and found lying in the snow by Shang, Mulan and a small group of undertrained and comical recruits. To add insult to injury, or violent death, these bumbling soldiers are the ones who manage to save the emperor and the rest of China. In Xu Wei’s play, General Xiu Ping could defeat his enemies with a thought and pretty much does so – he is later rewarded with a title and stipend and by all accounts barely has a scratch on him.
Gets engaged to Jane
Hung by jungle vines
I’ll give you a moment to absorb the contrast there. Ready?
Disney have changed Clayton from a jealous love interest into a trigger-happy hunter, and after double-crossing the people who likely funded his transport, food and expedition, he gets into a brawl with Tarzan and switches to stab-happy once his gun is no longer available. His knife conveniently and inadvertently slices the wrong jungle vines and the hunter is left hanging by his neck, lit up by an equally convenient lightning flash. In the book, Clayton gets the girl instead of Tarzan thanks to his more conventional upbringing, and the only thing he threatens Tarzan with is a few catty remarks behind his back.
Kicks Rapunzel out, never seen again
Ages centuries in one go, trips over chameleon, falls to her death
Both Gothels can be considered cast-iron cows, but Disney’s one takes the biscuit by kidnapping and imprisoning Rapunzel and then murdering her boyfriend. Fortunately, giving Rapunzel a funky hair cut both dissolves her powers, slams her with hundreds of years of ageing in one go, and then makes her confused enough to trip over a pet chameleon and fall out of the tower before turning into dust. Grimms’ Gothel? After kicking Rapunzel out for being pregnant and giving the prince a mouthful of abuse, we hear nothing more of her and she presumably carries on being a bitch to her neighbours.
Given the powers and tenacity of Ursula and Gothel in the films, Disney could only hope for a happy ending by bumping them off or giving them a trite or unrealistic character u-turn. Likewise Clayton was never going to be steered away from blasting animals and making money, so his fate was also sealed. But Disney aren’t above killing off good characters – General Li dies to show how desperate the situation is and to create an emotional link between Shang and Mulan, the latter of whom went to war to avoid the same thing happening to her own father.
So the moral of the story is if you’re a villain and you partly succeed in your devilish plan, you’re dead. Unless you’re an animal, or god, or if giving you a taste of your own medicine would be more amusing. If you’re the oldest hero that everyone’s depending on, you’d better take out some life insurance pronto, especially if your next of kin is about to take the reins.
The fate of the characters in the Disney version therefore stems from how they portray that character. For instance, killing off the original Gothel and Clayton would seem unnecessarily harsh, but due to their actions in the film you secretly hope that they die horribly. Tod and Copper’s friendship would also end on an extremely sour note if the ending was the same as in the book. So whether Disney choose to save or kill off a character depends on the story constructed around them and whether this would gel, and not just because “oh my god think of the children!!”.
Then again, if you’re a pretty girl or an animal, you’re probably safe.
I said “probably”.