The Physical Basis For Classic Disney Characters
1. Ursula was based on Divine
The character of Ursula, the villain from The Little Mermaid, is originally based on the ‘sea witch’ character in Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the same title. However, Ursula’s physical appearance in the film was actually based on the curvaceous figure of the famous drag queen Divine, who sadly died while the film was still in production.
2. Pocahontas was based on Irene Bedard
Pocahontas’ name means Little Mischief in Native American and she’s based on a real historical figure. Her physical appearance however, was modelled after the Native American actress Irene Bedard who also provided Pocahontas’ speaking voice. Her singing voice was provided by Judy Kuhn.
Snow White was the first and youngest official Disney Princess and provided the basis for later heroines such as Cinderella and Aurora. Snow White’s appearance was inspired by the 30s/40s starlet Marge Bell (who later become known as Marge Champion). Champion also modelled for more Disney films following Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, including Pinocchio and Fantasia.
Fun fact: when it was decided that Snow White’s head should be slightly larger than average, Champion was made to wear a football helmet to make her head bigger. This was stopped after 5 minutes, as Bell found it impossible to act for the animators wearing the headgear.
4. Ariel was based on Alyssa Milano
The character’s body type and personality were based on Alyssa Milano, who later became famous for her roles in Melrose Place and Charmed. At the time The Little Mermaid was being made Milano starred in the sitcom Who’s the Boss?
The look of Ariel’s flowing hair when underwater was based on Sally Ride (the American physicist and astronaut) in space. Also, Actress Sherri Stoner was used when designing Ariel’s mannerisms. Stoner was also a big inspiration behind Belle – see below!
5. Belle was based on Sherri Stoner
Sherri Stoner was both an inspiration for Ariel and Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Sherri was an employee at Disney, where she worked as a producer and writer on some of their TV shows.
Disney animators who knew her well worked in her little quirks into their drawings such as Belle brushing hair away from her face or Ariel biting her bottom lip. As with Irene Bedard in Pocahontas, Stoner was the animation model for Belle.
6. Chernabog from Fantasia was based on Bela Lugosi
Bela Lugosi was a Hungarian-American actor, famous for his iconic horror movie roles, most notably Count Dracula in the original 1931 film. For live-action reference, Wilfred Jackson, the director of Night on Bald Mountain, shot footage of actor Lugosi so the animators could study him. Later Jackson scrapped the footage because Lugosi’s movements weren’t quite right. A fellow animator was asked to step in his place.
7. Captain Hook was based on Hans Conried
Hans Georg Conried was an American comedian and actor who provided the voices of Captain Hook in Walt Disney’s version of Peter Pan. The original plan was for Confried to be as a voice actor only, but he was so compelling in costume that the animators used his look for the character as well.
8. Aladdin was based on Tom Cruise
The inspiration for Aladdin’s appearance was initially Michael J. Fox, and specifically how he played Marty McFly in Back to the Future, but this later changed to Tom Cruise. The animators felt they needed someone a little more mature and suave – Tom Cruise was their man!
Fun fact: the movement of Aladdin’s loose pants were based on the trousers worn by MC Hammer.
9. The vultures in The Jungle Book were based on The Beatles
The look of The Vultures, with their mop-top haircuts and Liverpool accents, are a homage to The Beatles. It’s pretty clear that one bird specifically sounds and looks like Ringo Starr. The Vultures were even going to be voiced by The Beatles themselves, or at least that was the plan. The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, approached the Disney studios about having the music icons appear in the film and Disney created the characters specifically to be voiced by them.
However, when Epstein took the idea to the Beatles, John Lennon vetoed the idea ( sad face). When the Beatles declined the project, the song in the film was rewritten for a barbershop quartet to make it more timeless.
10. Peter Pan was based on Bobby Driscoll
Bobby Driscoll was THE child star of the 1950s, he represented that innocent boyish charm you can see in Peter Pan himself. Driscoll served as an animation model and provided the voice for the title role in Peter Pan (1953). He also starred in “Treasure Planet” as the young Jim Hawkins.
Robin Williams was the voice of the Genie character, and according to the Aladdin DVD commentary, most of his dialogue was improvised. In the sequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, there’s a little homage to Williams – the Genie turns into Mrs. Doubtfire when trying to cheer Jasmine up. More info here
12. Maleficent was based on Eleanor Zellman
Eleanor Zellman was an American actress who lent her voice to radio and television and starred in various TV and film roles. Zellman provided Disney with arguably their most spine-chilling villainess voice: Maleficent.
13. Helene Stanley was the inspiration behind Cinderella, Princess Aurora and more
One of Disney’s most prolific live-action reference models was Helene Stanley who began working for Disney towards the end of her film career. Stanley modelled Cinderella and her stepsister Anastasia, Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty and Anita Radcliffe in 101 Dalmatians.
14. Tinker Bell was based on Margaret Kerry
It’s long been rumoured that Peter Pan’s high-tempered pixie pal was based on Marilyn Monroe, however this is just an urban legend. Tinker Bell was actually based on Margaret Kerry who was summoned to audition during the planning stages of the film. During the audition she had to pantomime the motions that would eventually be animated as Tinker Bell. She was successful at the audition and spent the next six months at the Disney Studios on a mostly empty soundstage acting out the part. The studios provided props, notably a giant keyhole mounted on a stand as well as a pair of giant scissors, which you can see in the film when Tinker Bell gets trapped in a jewellery box.
Kerry also provided the basis of the red-haired mermaid in the Neverland lagoon scenes