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March 20, 2014

Is there a Disney universe?

Casual fans accept that Disney movies take place once upon a time, in a land far, far away. But Tumblr users are not casual fans. And they want it all to Mean Something.

Welcome to the esoteric and frankly mind-boggling world of Disney fan theories, which posits that all of Disney's animated movies take place in the same universe and characters from different films interact - across the decades and centuries! - in ways you have to squint to see. Andy's mom in "Toy Story" is actually the cowgirl-doll Jessie's original owner. Belle, from "Beauty and the Beast," secretly loved Aladdin. The latest fan theory rocking this small-but-vocal corner of the Internet involves "Frozen" and 1989's "The Little Mermaid": What if, fans argue, the sunken ship Ariel explored 24 years ago. . . was actually the ship where Anna and Elsa's parents perished in "Frozen"?!

The evidence for this theory is, of course, scarce, despite the amazing effort that some people have pumped into researching it. Still, the idea isn't so crazy when you consider Disney's penchant for dropping similar Easter eggs over the years. Dogs from "Lady & the Tramp" surface in "101 Dalmations"; so-called "Hidden Mickey's" and subliminal messages, often sexual, show up in most films. At one point in Disney's "Aladdin", the sultan stacks a series of model animals that include the beast, from "Beauty and the Beast" - conclusive proof, fans argue, that Disney's creators intended for both films to live in the same "universe."

What that universe would look like, it's hard to say. It would have to include places as far removed as modern-day Australia and magical medieval kingdoms. (Which has led to another unified theory of Disney movies: They take place in the same universe, but non-chronologically, along a timeline that spans millions of years.) Further complicating things - some Disney movies are explicitly tied to real geographic locations, while others are not. Just try pointing to Atlantis on a map.

Nevertheless, that hasn't stopped many fans from trying to plot the Disney universe. An early effort by Redditor translucentfish controversially put "Aladdin" in Saudi Arabia, and "Tangled" close to Germany. Twenty-six-year-old Eowyn Smith's recent map, which she posted with extensive citations on Deviantart, racked up thousands of comments and dozens of media mentions within days. Smith told the Huffington Post that she re-watched all of the Disney movies, noting wildlife, backgrounds and landscapes, in order to make the map. She was helped by fan blogs like Finding Corona and Finding Arendelle, which exist solely to hypothesize where the movies would take place in real life.

All this begs an obvious question: why? Aren't Disney movies enough as discrete, self-contained little pieces of art? Do we have to seek out further meaning? With their clue-sifting and screen-shotting and arcanely labeled diagrams, die-hard Disney theorists share something with their zanier, more paranoid cousins in the conspiracy world: a belief that some greater power is orchestrating everything, and they are the only ones in on the plot.

Of course, there's a big gap between blogging about the New World Order's political machinations and Disney's creative ones. The latter is, obviously, more fun. (Also saner.) That said, it's pretty absurd to think some god-like creative at Disney is lurking in the wings, anonymously plotting the interacting story arcs of hundreds of films and characters.

Then again, if the Tumblr hordes have time for that . . . why wouldn't Disney?

 

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