The list of lost or dead parents in Disney movies is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the torment the studio dumps onto its child characters. But they always show us that there's a bright side -- that any amount of youthful trauma can be brushed off with a bit of song, dance, and finding your one true love.
It's just plain weird to pretend that these abandoned, enslaved, psychologically tortured, and/or abused children would all have enjoyed happy endings, when in reality, they would have endured years of therapy bills, marginalization by society, institutionalization, or even death. And no, I'm not exaggerating. Take, for example ...
4Frozen -- Elsa Would Have Completely Lost Her Mind
Walt Disney Studios
Crazy Shit Elsa Went Through:
After Elsa's emerging powers nearly turn her sister into Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining, her parents decide it's best to keep the two apart. In fact, from the looks of one of the most depressing montages in Disney history, Elsa is locked away in her room not just from Anna, but from the whole kingdom for her entire childhood.
Hey Disney, any chance of us getting a CGI movie where we aren't crying inside of 10 minutes?
The movie demonstrates repeatedly that Elsa can barely spend five minutes in public without her ice powers threatening the sanity and physical well-being of those around her. And you kind of can't blame the kingdom for being afraid. Imagine how you'd feel, knowing that at any second, your entire world could turn into North Dakota.
On top of the isolation, Elsa is forced to repress her emotions. Yes, the parents make her do this in an attempt to help her control her powers, but holy crap, they quite literally teach her to fear herself. Yet she somehow turns out just dandy, despite this clear example of parental abuse. After taking a brief respite in a sweet-ass ice palace of her own creation and indulging in some infectiously catchy motivational tunes, she handily dispatches her enemies to take her rightful place on the throne.
Walt Disney Studios
No better career for someone with zero social experience than national diplomacy.
How She Should Have Turned Out:
Surprisingly enough, social isolation during childhood doesn't usually lead to a mature and well-adjusted adulthood. To see a terrifying real-world example of what isolation does to kids, take a look at the story of Genie Wiley, who was abused and sequestered in a room for more than a decade. Her horror-story treatment resulted in, among other things, physical abnormalities (at age 14, she was the size of an eight-year-old) and the inability to speak or interact in any sort of social situation. Genie was 13 when she was found, and she never recovered from her trauma.
Although we don't see any examples of physical abuse in the movie beyond the solitary confinement, this treatment in and of itself most likely would have resulted in extreme mental and emotional disconnect, speech problems, physical disorders ... think Tom Hanks from Cast Away, especially with the added guilt and shame of near-sororicide. Being without human contact until the age of 21, she should have been making grunting noises and building human-shaped statues out of her own poop. It's kind of hard to be a functioning member of society when your parents have withheld from you the most basic necessities of human interaction.
3Pete's Dragon -- Pete Would Have Been A Self-Destructive Mess
Walt Disney Studios
Crazy Shit Pete Went Through:
There are plenty of Disney movies that try to wash away the horrors of child abuse with the gooey-warm feels of the good guys coming out ahead in the end. Few movies, however, are quite as blatant when it comes to systematic physical maltreatment as Pete's Dragon. The opening song to this movie sounds lighthearted, but if you actually pay attention to the lyrics, the message is pretty shocking. It starts off with "Gonna snag him, gag him, drag him through town. Put his head in the river, let the pup drown," and only gets worse from there.
Ah the good old days, when cannibalism threats could still make it into a family movie.
Actor Sean Marshall was 12 at the time of the movie's release, and the character was portrayed as about the same age. They don't say exactly how long Pete has been orphaned (and presumably abused), but if the only option for living was to end up with the deranged hillbilly Gogan family, he can't have gotten that great a start in life.
Walt Disney Studios
Good rule of thumb: A 12-year-old who still keeps an imaginary best friend is not fine.
Luckily for him, a couple of paranoid delusions and pratfalls later, he finds himself living happily with an alcoholic, an upstanding young woman with the patience of a saint, and her seafaring lover (who totally won't mind this random kid hanging around as they start pumping out hearty New England babies). Pete easily and confidently jumps into social situations with strangers (although with mixed results, due to his penchant for psychedelic and possibly schizophrenic hallucinations). It does take an oddly extended training session before he figures out how to properly move a paintbrush vertically instead of horizontally, but he sure does give a good ol' big-hearted grin when he grasps the concept.
How He Should Have Turned Out:
Sadly, there are plenty of abuse stories that paint a dark reality of Pete's outlook. A more likely result of his treatment would have been for him to withdraw and experience a lack of self-confidence at best. At worst, as in a case as reported by The Dallas Morning News, he would have faced "years of psychotherapy and hundreds of doctor visits ... Fits of rage, long nights of tears and terror, suicide attempts, fistfights, [and] handfuls of mood-altering drugs."
Upbeat sing-a-longs, probably never.
Survivors of physical abuse have all sorts of problems to contend with, and don't turn into happy-go-lucky kids over the course of a few days of being coddled by a pretty lady with a beautiful voice. Some of the problems are physical, such as disabilities caused by beatings, which often aren't followed up with proper medical care in order to keep the abuse secret. Other problems are psychological, such as depression, paranoia, addiction, self-destructive behaviors, and aggression towards other children.
In other words, maybe we shouldn't be so hard on Pete for not having great painting skills.