When Did That Disney Movie Happen? (Updated)

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Second star to the right, and straight on till morning!"
“Second star to the right, and straight on till morning!”

Matt Blum recently did a masterful job examining the fan theory that Disney’s Tarzan is the little brother of Frozen‘s Elsa and Anna, showing pretty convincingly why the notion, while fun, is not at all supported by the facts of the stories. The behind-the-scenes conversation around this topic raised the question of what Disney movies take place when, and a few hours down the Google rabbit-hole later, we have some conclusive answers for you.

First, a disclaimer: We’re not telling you not to invent stories about the films and their characters; if you want to come up with your own fan theories to explain how the various films are connected to each other, or write fan-fiction about having the various characters meeting, you’re entirely welcome to do so. However, we think it may be helpful to take into account the actual details of the films, so we’re going to give you an overview here. At the very least, now you’ll know the relative ages of the characters and whether or not you need a time machine to bring them together.

Sleeping Beauty by Claire "Shoomlah" Hummel
Sleeping Beauty by Claire “Shoomlah” Hummel

Next, let’s narrow our scope; we’re only talking about Disney animated theatrical features; We’re excluding all the shorts, as well as prequels, sequels, or spin-offs; no Pixar, Marvel, Muppet, or Lucasfilm releases, no Studio Ghibli or other rebranding, no TV or direct-to-video releases. The Unified Pixar Theory is somebody else’s problem and we’re not going anywhere near it. This means we’re leaving out the Three Caballeros, Winnie the Pooh, and Ichabod & Mr. Toad, among others. Also, there’s no way to pin the two Fantasia films down to a particular time setting, so we’ll skip them as well. If somebody wants to figure them out, that’s what comment sections are for.

We found a number of helpful sites and blogs offering their own timelines; wonderfully talented artist Claire Hummel has created some fantastic historically-accurate costumes for the Disney princesses (a few of which are shown here), and her arguments for particular time and place settings are generally pretty convincing. There’s also the very helpful “Disney Princesses” blog on LiveJournal, and this well-done Buzzfeed video and post on the topic. There are a few others out there as well, and while we may dispute the particular details of one movie or another at each of these sites, we think they are all worth a look. Please don’t think we’re declaring our dates to be definitive or that these others are wrong; we’re just taking our best shot at deciphering whatever clues we can find and taking our best guess, just as they did.

The timeline here includes all of Disney’s feature films except those mentioned earlier, and our estimate of time and place for each is based on the following criteria:

Tiana by Claire "Shoomlah" Hummel
Tiana by Claire “Shoomlah” Hummel

In-story details come first; if a film says when and where it takes place, we go with that; for example, Atlantis: the Lost Empire directly states that it takes place in 1914, so there’s no question there. If a film doesn’t explicitly say when and where it occurs, the next thing we look at is the details shown in the film; things like clothing, technology, references to news events, history and culture, and so on.

If there’s little to go on within the film, then the next thing we look at is the animators’ comments on their inspirations and references. Frozen doesn’t indicate an exact year, but the filmmakers said it’s set in 1840, so we’ll accept it.

The last resort is to look at the source material on which the film was based. For example, The Sword in the Stone never says when the story is set other than that it’s England in the time of knights; the kind of armor and castles shown are what one might have seen around 1200 AD, but the King Arthur legends go back to the fifth century. Since T. H. White, in his novel The Once and Future King, on which the film is based, mentions that Uther Pendragon died in 1216, and Arthur is 16 when his father died, we’ll go with that date.

Belle by Claire "Shoomlah" Hummel
Belle by Claire “Shoomlah” Hummel

There are three additional rules we applied:
The “Musical Number Exception.” Any references that are only mentioned in a song are considered “artistic license.”
The “Magical Character Exemption.” Anachronisms presented by magical or supernatural characters such as the Genie, Merlin, Mushu, and others are chalked up to magic and not evidence of anything beyond that.
The “Easter Egg Nullification.” Nothing in any film is dated on the basis of a background reference to another Disney movie. If it’s obviously just the animators having fun, we don’t attach any importance to it or cite it as proof of anything.

A few examples:
Musical Number Exemption:

  • Frozen: Elsa mentions fractals in “Let it Go.” The word “fractal” was invented by Benoit Mandelbrot around 1970 and didn’t come into common usage until several years later.
  • Beauty and the Beast: The dinnerware forms itself into an image of the Eiffel Tower about 120 years before it was built.
  • Aladdin: “Friend Like Me” is a cornucopia of anachronisms, and during “I Can Show You the World,” the young couple sees scenes that occur thousands of years apart, from the sculpting of the Sphinx to Chinese fireworks.

Magical Character Exemption:

  • Practically everything the Genie says or does is a pop culture reference.
  • Merlin mentions events and inventions from the future.

Easter Egg Nullification:

  • Hunchback of Notre Dame: Belle from Beauty and the Beast is seen walking through the streets of Paris, but Hunchback still takes place a couple hundred years before Belle was born.
  • Aladdin: Sultan plays with a Beast toy, but Aladdin is still set 2,100 years earlier.
  • Tarzan: There is a tea set that looks suspiciously like Mrs. Potts and Chip, but Tarzan is still 150 years later.

In order to make the timeline a little more manageable, we’re dropping off the two extremes; Dinosaur is set in the Early Cretaceous Period, roughly 125 million years ago, and Treasure Planet takes place in a far-distant future with no dates given or implied, possibly 10,000 years from now. Of the other 42 films, the range is narrowed to about 6,000 years or less, from just after the Ice Age to 2037.

GeekDad Randy Slavey generated the great timeline presented here, which I’ve decorated with poster images lifted from Disney’s “Oh My Disney” blog.

UPDATE: After questions were raised at Reddit, I took another look at Aladdin‘s details, and as a result have moved it forward in time to around 1000 AD. Most of the “historic” references in the film are seen in the musical numbers, and they are all over the place. Some characters use the term “Allah,” but the word was in use in the region prior to the rise of Islam; it’s very similar to terms in multiple Semitic languages including Hebrew; we don’t see any other references to Islamic worship. Jasmine’s name is of Persian origin, while Rajah is a Sanskrit word. The first use of “Sultan” as a title comes from 980 AD, while the first use of “Grand Vizier” was during the Ottoman Empire in 1364. I don’t think Agrabah was part of the Ottoman Empire (though I’m no expert), so I’ve decided to treat the Grand Vizier title as a bit of artistic license, using a more familiar term so that modern audiences would understand who Jafar is (after all, they are speaking English instead of Arabic); we could apply the same reasoning to “Sultan” as well, but putting the story at 1000 AD sets it pretty much in the center of all its many anachronisms.

Also, let’s clarify the Easter Egg Nullification: In the Little Mermaid, if you look closely during the concert scene, you can find Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy. The appearance of Belle in Hunchback or Rapunzel in Frozen should be considered in the same category with this, as just a little joke the filmmakers slipped in. They are basically the same as Stan Lee’s cameos in the Marvel movies: cute but insignificant to the story.

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