Will Finn made a comment about weenie villains that got me thinking about the interplay between Disney villains and the threat of death.
Except for Snow White, the early Disney features didn't have single villains. Pinocchio has Stromboli, Honest John, the Coachman and Monstro. Dumbo has the elephants, the circus patrons, the clowns and the ringmaster. Bambi has the hunters, their dogs, their fire, but also winter and male rivals. I think that this kind of villainy is in line with the complexity of the Depression. There was general frustration that there was nobody to blame or hold accountable for the economic collapse. It was a multifaceted problem, and so audiences of the time were able to deal with the idea that obstacles and threats come from many sources.
Once World War II arrived, you've got individuals who are singled out as the root causes of the problem: Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo. In the post-war world, Stalin, Kruschev and Mao take their places. Once Disney got back to full length animated features with Cinderella, only three of the films through the retirement of the nine old men had multiple sources of conflict and not single villains.
Alice in Wonderland is more of a road movie than one where the Queen of Hearts is the source of conflict. Lady and the Tramp is very situational, with Lady having to deal with the repercussions of a new baby in the family. If there's a villain in the film, it's the rat, but the rat doesn't drive the film the way that Cinderella's stepmother or Captain Hook drive theirs. The other film that is somewhat situational is The Sword in the Stone, where the medieval society prevents Wart from realizing his potential and only a miracle can free him from serfdom. There is Madam Mim, but like the rat in Lady and the Tramp, she hardly motivates the majority of Wart's troubles.
Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers are all driven by villains. However, here is where the "weenie" part comes in. Prior to Peter Pan, no Disney villains in features had bumbling sidekicks. (Honest John has Gideon in Pinocchio, but Honest John himself is not the threat; it's where he takes Pinocchio that's the problem.) Comic sidekicks for villains are also present in Dalmatians, Robin Hood and The Rescuers. In some films, like Pan, Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood and The Rescuers, the villains are treated comically themselves.
This is why death doesn't seem as threatening in the later Disney features. It may be present, but there's so much comedy surrounding the villains or the climaxes (Baloo is tossing off one-liners while Shere Khan is attacking), that the films are winking at the audience, reassuring them not to get too worried.
There is no winking in early Disney features. The conflicts and obstacles facing the characters are not funny, which is why the threat of death is taken seriously.