If anyone spends some time actually listening to their history teachers, they quickly learn the basics. People vilify things they are frightened of, superiority complexes abound, and cover-ups just don’t end well for anyone involved. Why, then, does Disney continue to simply pretend that certain things in their history didn’t happen? Fans were shocked to learn that the original TRON has not been re-released on DVD because Disney worried that the film does not hold up, and that it will hurt the sales of the remake.
It’s not the first time either. In some cases, Disney has made a concerted effort to pretend a number of its creative blunders never happened. Below are four of the biggest. Many other, smaller issue abound as well: most little more than urban legends surrounding subliminal messages, and mistakes made by very tired artists (eg. the phallus tower in the original Little Mermaid VHS release). These little stumbling blocks make for fun trivia, but are fairly small in comparison with the studio’s active and aggressive denial of some of their uglier and more provable errors in judgment. There is no excuse for racism, or hatred, but denial of our past is truly the best way to ensure that we will be doomed to repeat it.
(Please note that this article is not an attempt to vilify Disney in any way. For me, as well as many others, Disney is single-handedly responsible for the best moments and memories in childhood. This is simply an appeal to the company to recognize that we are all adults, and we can handle the truth. Why can the company not simply accept the realities, as they have in Peter Pan’s blatantly offensive portrayal of the Native American Indians? I feel more troubled by the company’s double standard of deciding which racial caricatures are offensive.)
In May 2004 the second wave of Disney Treasures DVDs hit the shelves; among them was a collection concerning Disney’s wartime propaganda. It caused immediate uproar and concern surrounding some very blatantly racist images—including buck-toothed Japanese soldiers--and potentially disturbing war propaganda. Despite the presence of the little-seen Victory Through Air Power—a feature-length film accredited with shaping President Roosevelt’s policy towards airborne combat—the presence of ugly caricatures and disturbing wartime images overshadowed the collection’s historical significance. Disney made serious efforts to address the issue, including commentary from the dizzyingly knowledgeable Hollywood historian/critic Leonard Maltin, but the animated shorts had a very brief shelf life. Maltin provides keen insight in his introductions without excusing the content. I often hope that Disney will continue the responsibility demonstrated by this momentary lapse in its “did we do that” corporate policy.
Is Entertainment Weekly trying to mess with our heads? In a cover story published June 9, 2006, they list Aladdin as #25 of the “most controversial movies ever” (just under Caligula, really?). Shocked? Apparently, within the first verse of the first song--“where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face”--constituted such an embarrassment that the studio felt it necessary to dub over the original lyrics. Are there any people out there with any sense to notice that “it’s barbaric, but hey it’s home” might actually be the offensive part of the lyrics?
Honestly, very few of us have a clear idea of why this classic remains buried in the deepest recesses of the Disney vault. Bootleg copies from Japan can be found here and there, and it is truly a very surreal product of a past that was really just another planet altogether. It is important to acknowledge the mistakes of that era in a mature and responsible manner, without trying to hide them as Disney has done. How many times has Gone With the Wind been released, with barely a whisper of its equally offensive racism (to say nothing of the noble savage thing in Avatar)? Song of The South’s happy Negro slave portrayal is offensive, and we will make no effort to argue otherwise, but couldn’t Disney just have Mr. Maltin provide a good introduction explaining the issue and doing what any decent parent should be able to do? Seriously, the tourism to the parks won’t take a hit from just being honest.
The real kicker on this list--and the most difficult cover-up to find--surrounds the female centaurs in Fantasia, specifically Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (The Pastoral Symphony). Images of a black-faced centaur servant were removed as early as the 60’s. You can find them with some difficulty on the Internet, and they tend to move around as the Mouse scours the web for truth leaks. I have to admit, when I found the clips I was shocked, but I still believe that preserving even an unpleasantly disturbing past is the only way to take responsibility for it.