Saturday, 27 September 2014

Corrections to the Disney Timeline

Recently, Tumblr user Aish's (disneynewsgroove)  historical timeline of Disney animated films made its way around social media. For the most part it was a very good attempt and it is easy to see where they opted several times to place the film either when the original story was published or the original film released. Of course, there are a few exceptions that we noted and wanted to point out in good fun, because we're a nitpicking blog dedicated to the real historical influences behind Disney films and that's what we do.

Rite of Spring, 4,500,000,000 to 65,000,000 BC

It's worthless trying to figure out when Hercules takes place, since the original stories were mythological. Yet the shortlived Hercules animated series includes Cassandra and Helen (that Helen) as characters, who were present at the fall of Troy. If we look to archaeology and the chronologies of Classical Greek mythology, we get a date for the fall of Troy at 1183 or 1184 BCE. That's not too far off. Complicating matters is that Homer describes Hercules as having laid siege to Troy himself, long before the Trojan War. Really though, that's the least of Hercules' offenses to mythology. We can't blame Disney exclusively though. My own childhood education in the Classics was undermined by this one...

"I'm pretty sure this isn't how the story goes Herc, isn't how the story goes."
"Shut up Newton, nobody likes you."
The timeline places Mulan in the 500's CE, which is impossible. The film takes place during the Xiongnu (Hun) invasions of Han China, which began in 129 BCE. The Han Dynasty itself came to an end in 220 CE. However, to complicate things even more, the historical legends of Hua Mulan place her anywhere between 386 to 536 CE, with the first transcribing of her story coming in the 6th century. It doesn't stop there: China didn't invent fireworks until the 7th century CE. This, as we shall see again and again later, is more Disney's mess than Aish's.

"This literally can't be happening to meeeeeeeeeeeeee..."
It's not known how far back the story of Aladdin goes, and Aish admits that the movie is very anachronistic and therefore difficult to place. One clue is that the fictional city of Agrabah is ruled by a sultan. The term "sultan" is Islamic, referring in the Quran to a wise moral leader. The first political ruler to use the term was Mahmud of Ghazna (modern day Afghanistan and northern Iran), who ruled between 998 and 1030 CE. The term spread and eventually came to denote secular rulers by the 11th century. Given the wealth of the city, it may take place during the Islamic Golden Age, which ended with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 CE. Aladdin is more or less Mediaeval.

Beauty and the Beast dating to 1770's is right out. Based on Belle's dress, we'd be looking at a date closer to 1860's. That works for me, since it means that Ashley's favourite Disney movie and one of my favourite - 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - happen at roughly the same time!

That said, French princes might be difficult to come by in the 1860's. The French Revolution (1789-1799), then the Napoleonic Empire (1799-1815), then the Second Restoration (1815-1830), then the July Monarchy (1830-1848), then the Second Republic (1848-1851), then the Second Empire (1852-1870) would have taken care of that. But who knows, maybe there would have been a young prince in a huge castle lost somewhere in the Provence Alps? I like that idea better than Belle and Adam being beheaded by another angry mob in their not-so-happily ever after.

There is no way that Tangled could take place around 1820. The fashion in it would suggest somewhere around the Renaissance or Elizabethan Period. Or, to be more precise, it's Disney pulling all sorts of vaguely Renaissancey, Mediaeavalish stuff in from across a thousand years of fashion. Mother Goethel's dress is firmly in the 1300's. The shoulder poofs can be considered to date from 1820, which is a total anachronism. It's basically a giant Ren-Faire. Our suspicion is that the timeline placed Tangled when it did because of Rapunzel and Flynn's cameo in Frozen, which it also places at 1820. That's probably off by about a decade or so. The style of clothing in Frozen suggests the 1830's.

Rapunzel's father: Henry the 8th, Richard the 3rd, or Blackbeard the pirate?
When it comes to Cinderella, we first have to make the exemption that her own dresses are straight from the 1950's. There's little way around that. The stepsisters aren't much help either. Their bustles would suggest the 1880's. Lady Tremaine, on the other hand, has an outfit that most clearly reflects the styles of 1885. Another clue is presented by Cinderella's father, whose outfit appears to be from the 1860's. Add 20 years and you get something about right.

1882 is probably too early a date for Tarzan. Jane's fancier yellow dress could potentially be pulled as far forward as 1885, but that's stretching beyond credulity. The expedition clothes worn by the entire group could date to the late 1800's and early 1900's. A number of clues are given in the Porter Expedition's camp. The style of typewriter that the gorillas bang on in "Trashing the Camp" wasn't invented until 1895, which is around the same time that disc-playing gramophones became commercially viable. Both Clayton and Prof. Porter make reference to Queen Victoria, who died in 1901. That said, the Legend of Tarzan television series has a French trader named Dumont build a trading post in Tarzan's territory in 1912 (which is the same year the original Tarzan of the Apes was published). This is another case of it being Disney's problem rather than Aish's... Especially considering that they also make gaffs like putting gorillas and ring-tailed lemurs in the same jungle. Lemurs, for the record, are isolated to the island of Madagascar, where there are no gorillas.

The Little Mermaid poses a particular problem for the fashion conscious. Ariel's wedding dress is pure 1890's, lending credence to Aish's estimate. Her guests, on the other hand, are all dressed for 1860 to 1870. Perhaps the mermaid was ahead of her time and everyone wanted to start dressing like her?

Aish puts The Lion King at 1994, when the film was released. However, if they did put Tangled at the same time as Frozen because of Rapunzel and Flynn's cameo, then logically The Lion King happens at the same time as Hercules, since Scar makes a cameo there as the Nemean Lion.

But then, the Timon and Pumbaa cartoon has pretty modern-looking people in it. So, sure? 1994?

Lastly, an example of how Disney gets their historical details wrong/how we overthink things at Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy. The date given to Sleeping Beauty is dead-on, based on an actual date given in the movie. Prince Philip declares that this is the 14th century and his dad should get with the times. Unfortunately, that might be a century off. Maleficent's outfit could place her between 1399 and 1422. Everybody else's clothing - a style called "Flamboyant Gothic" - comes in around the mid-1400's and is gone by century's end. The hats are really telling: pointed hats draped in veils were all the rage between 1410 and 1490. At least it's kind of nice that they made Maleficent's costume 50 years out of date, for an old fairy that everyone had forgotten about. Anyways, what to make of Philip's flippant remark? Maybe Philip was one of those types who keep saying it was the previous century 10 or 15 years into the next one (who here still thinks it's the 20th century? Hands up!).

"Let's party like it's 1499!"
Altogether, Aish did a great job and our nitpicks only highlight the fact that Disney does about as much research as required for making fairy tale cartoons and not costume historical dramas or documentaries. Trying to put them all on a timeline is just a fun little distraction.

Besides, according to House of Mouse, they all happen at the same time.


  1. My only problem with your listed flaws is using Gothel's fashion sense to date Tangled. Disney deliberately made her attire out of sync with the rest of the movie (or, should I say, the "rest of the movie," since they're hardly in sync to begin with). You can clearly see that she's dressed the same from prologue to the end, and she was using the magic of the flower to keep herself young for hundreds of years. She just never bothered to update her wardrobe.

  2. That is true... The only problem is, there is no "in synch." The fashion for the rest of the characters has no real date.