by Kyle Seeley
It's possible to forget that there is more to Kingdom Hearts than Square Enix's engaging presentation and storytelling or Disney's charming, familiar characters and environments. With the series spanning more than half a dozen games and containing over twenty worlds based on various Disney franchises, there is a wealth of inspirational material. It's no secret that many of Disney's films are based on fairy tales: many of those have different places of origin. Even the worlds original to the series, such as Traverse Town or Twilight Town, take architectural cues from existing locales, though not necessarily based on any one place.
When considering that many JRPG settings are based on existing cultures and time periods from our actual history, one realizes it's not uncommon to have civilizations based on medieval Europe coexisting with others themed after entirely different places. The Kingdom Hearts series is no different. From Agrabah's Arabian themes to Port Royal's Caribbean setting and all the way to Land of the Dragons' take on China, the series draws from locales across the planet to create a vibrant but fractured world. So, let's go back to where all of this started — the worlds of the original Kingdom Hearts — focusing on their historical and cultural context and how they relate to the game's themes as a whole.
Image credits: Top: RPGFan, Bottom: Pinterest
Original Film: Alice in Wonderland (1951)
Time Period: Late 19th Century
Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland serves as the basis for the first Disney world Sora visits in Kingdom Hearts. While Wonderland itself is not based on a particular location, the titular Alice is from what seems to be 19th Century England. Carroll's original oral telling of the story in 1862 centered on a girl named Alice (in Kingdom Hearts, one of the Princesses of Heart) who, out of boredom, goes off seeking adventure. Following a peculiar, human-like white rabbit down a hole, she finds herself in a hallway filled with countless locked doors before finally finding a key to one. Being a great deal more symbolic than the rest of the Disney-based worlds in the original game, Wonderland is perhaps the most appropriate for the player to visit first after the introductory sequences. The parallels are striking: Like Alice, Sora is a young person seeking a more adventurous life and is beginning to find it beyond his home world of Destiny Islands, where he too ventures into a cavernous hole. With the help of his own key, he finds countless worlds of chaos and intrigue.
Original Film: Hercules (1997)
Time Period: Around 1300 BCE
The myth of Heracles (here referred to by his Roman name, Hercules) was heavily composed in the Hellenistic period. One of the most celebrated heroes of the era, Hercules allegedly lived during the Mycenaean Age (1100-600 BCE), which would have been a dark period in Greece's history, rife with social and economic problems. Liberties were taken with the original exploits of the mythic figure, but one aspect that fits into the Kingdom Hearts series quite well is the theme of what makes someone heroic. Hercules is often depicted in the games attempting to overcome challenges and better himself, which likely alludes to the Twelve Labors of Hercules from the original myths. The redemptive struggles of the mythic character do seem to align with many of the characters in Kingdom Hearts.
Original Film: Tarzan (1999)
Location: Atlantic Coast of Africa
Time Period: Early 20th Century
Flashing several thousand years forward in time, Deep Jungle is part of the late 19th/early 20th century. First appearing in the Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes, the character has been featured in over two dozen sequels and adapted in numerous formats. Deep Jungle itself is situated on the Atlantic coast of Africa, though Tarzan himself was of English descent. At this point in history, Deep Jungle would have faced threats from European colonization. A parallel could be drawn between the threat of the heartless to the worlds and the interference of colonialism with the natural world.
Original Film: Aladdin (1992)
Time Period: 15th Century
Agrabah is somewhat harder to attach to a specific culture. The Disney film seems to imply that it takes place in an Arabic country, but much of the imagery in the film also reflects Indian, Persian, and Turkish culture. The character of Aladdin first appeared in A Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. Spanning several centuries, its stories have roots in various cultures over time. Sometimes it's easier to go directly to the source for a definitive answer. In the Platinum Edition DVD of Aladdin's commentary, the writers and producers confirm that Agrabah is based on a fictional 15th Century version of Iran.
Original Film: The Little Mermaid (1989)
Time Period: 19th Century
Atlantica has its origins as an ancient continent in the South Atlantic Ocean. It was formed some 2 billion years ago, and was comprised of parts of modern-day South America and West Africa. As for the original story that the Atlantica world in Kingdom Hearts is based on, Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 publication, The Little Mermaid would have taken place off the coast of Denmark. As story elements go, in Andersen's original tale, the Little Mermaid's grandmother tells her that while mermaids fade away after death, humans have an everlasting soul. This is reminiscent of Kairi's grandmother sharing the story of how the hearts of children rebuilt the world after it fell to darkness.
Original Film: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Location: East Sussex, England
Time Period: Early 20th Century
One of the last worlds that might be expected to have real-life inspiration is the 100 Acre Wood. In some ways, it is perhaps more true to life than most others listed here, and more accessible to boot. While presented in Kingdom Hearts as a whimsical storybook world, the 100 Acre Wood is based on an actual forest in East Sussex, England. Ashdown Forest was a source of joy to A. A. Milne, author of the original Winnie-the-Pooh stories, whose son Christopher Robin Milne would often explore there. Many locations from the stories are inspired by real, visitable places in Ashdown Forest.
Original Film: Peter Pan (1953)
Location: London, England
Time Period: Early 20th Century
A fitting bookend to Wonderland as the first Kingdom Hearts Disney world is its final one: Neverland. While Neverland itself is a fictional place, the world in Kingdom Hearts does feature Big Ben, the famous clock tower in London. Peter Pan, one of Scottish author J. M. Barrie's early 20th century creations, shares many themes with Sora's role in Kingdom Hearts. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter is described as an infant in London who, to escape his coming adult life, flees through the window in his room. Sora, too, flees his parents through his bedroom window in favor of adventure. Another parallel to Sora comes from Peter Pan's origins: the character of Peter was based off of J.M. Barrie's older brother who died tragically in an accident right before he turned 14, leaving the family forever thinking of him as a boy. This puts David at approximately the same age as Sora in Kingdom Hearts. Barrie's later story Peter and Wendy, explains that in order to remain young, Peter must forget all of his friends and experiences. Similarly, in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, Sora forgets all of his friends and adventures. Jessica Hedrick suggests in her piece, Wendy's Story in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, "in order to be true, one must remember, and in order to remember, one must grow up." This one last foray into the fairy tales and stories of childhood is a perfect prologue for later worlds which force Sora to grow up and embrace his destiny. More like Wendy than Peter, Sora awakens in Kingdom Hearts II both older and wiser, with his memories (mostly) intact.