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Poof: Just Like Magic

The Things Disney Wishes We'd Forget

By Alexandria Kaplan     December 20, 2010

Poof: Just Like Magic
© Mania/Robert Trate

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.)


On The Front Lines

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?


Song of the South

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.



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flinshadytoo 12/20/2010 1:12:02 AM

 Different time, different sensibilities, it might be offensive, but I find (in england especially) it's the white people that find it more offensive than the minorities if portrays. Me I'm a mixture so very little racial stuff gets to me, you'll find a lot of blacks won't give two hoots either, they know what happened back in the day, if you get offended or angry by it then history hasn't really taught us much.

redhairs99 12/20/2010 3:39:57 AM

Exactly, flinshadytoo, it was a different time and while offensive to some, there's no reason why Disney should hide films like Song of the South.  LIke the said, I think there have been films with similar racial protrayals that haven't been critized very much at all like Gone With the Wind. 

Disney, you did these things, for better or worse, they are a part of your history.  Hiding these things only makes them look worse. 

And come on, how many "Top Hollywood Songs" lists don't include "Zippity Do Da!"

Wiseguy 12/20/2010 4:39:01 AM

Hindsight is 20/20 and revisionists are just annoying. Sure we learn from the past but to dwell on it sometimes leads to paralysis and over-reaching for something that can't be undone. We can spend the rest of our lives apologizing for the past. I'd rather we move on. Besides now we've done a complete 180 and in about 50 years maybe someone will write a list about the hyper-sensitive political correctness of our time. And how people looking for reasons to be offended only impeded progress.

goldeneyez 12/20/2010 4:52:52 AM

I totally agree with Alexandria.  It's very irresponsible for Disney to act like this stuff doesn't exist.  When stuff like that is ignored, it's easy for history to be repeated.  People can come along and say, "Oh that stuff never happened... it wasn't really that bad,' and so on.

Stuff has to be taken in the historical context in which it was made.  Hell 50 years from now there will probably be something we're doing today that is considered offensive.  Maybe robots and artificial intelligence will be upset at the way it's protrayed in AI or the Matrix or Terminator or something ridiculous like that.

karas1 12/20/2010 7:00:04 AM

There is a difference between responsibly censering yourself and hiding the truth.  Perhaps some of these things don't need to be seen by a new generation of impressionable children.  There is a difference between Gone With The Wind, a movie made for hopefully discerning adults, and Song Of The South, a movie made for young children.

spence34 12/20/2010 8:04:10 AM

I think it is more an attempt to avoid being nickel’d and dimed to death by the never ending lawsuits that are settled out of court. People tend to forget that in cases like these the accused usually winds up having to pay courts costs and attorney fee’s for the plaintiff. Supposedly it is so the ‘small guy’ can take on the ‘mega corp’. But in reality it just means that law firms can get a payoff Win, Lose or Draw. If a show is a ‘controversy’, it really means that there are X number of lawsuits and the studio/owner is in court somewhere hemorrhaging money.

In the end, it means that a lot of things get buried and forgotten. I’ve always been more amused on how it only seems to be considered a ‘freedom of speech’ issue if it adheres to the current rules governing Politically Correctness.


Tevii 12/20/2010 8:28:07 AM

Interesting list. But I think having these there reminds us where not to be. Eliminating them isnt good for anything. It shows us how far we've come which motivates us to change further.

"urban legends surrounding subliminal messages, and mistakes made by very tired artists (eg. the phallus tower in the original Little Mermaid VHS release). "

As an artist myself, I know how fun it can be to add secret, funny messages in the art. Im not so sure that phallus tower was a mistake. And if youve seen that old image,which they no longer use, then you can see its hard not believe it was the artist messing around.

You also didnt mention in The Lion King, when the lion lays down and the dandelions blow in the wind and spell out S-E-X. So much in fact that the DVD release, they actually reanimated that segment.

karas1 12/20/2010 9:33:19 AM

Also, there is a scene in The Rescuers where the two mice board Orville the seagull and he takes off from the top of a building and plunges down the side of the building to the ground before he catches the air and takes off.  Supposedly you can see a naked woman in one of the windows they fall past but when the film is played at full speed it is too brief to see.  But if you have freeze frame you can catch it.

I have the old VHS Little Mermaid and there is no question in my mind that the penis tower is deliberate.

Betenoire 12/20/2010 9:39:39 AM

You don't even need to get bootleg copies of Song of the South from Japan. Disney legitimately has it on DVD in other regions which has always puzzled me. This material is incredibly racist and offensive...but just in some parts of the world. The rest can handle it. Makes one wonder if they are trying to just avoid the groups of people who wake up in the morning looking to be offended by something.

The Aladdin thing sticks out even worse because not only is the song lyric replaced it is done so in a way that makes it stand out. They could have at least redone the whole song so it looked like it fit.

doublec 12/20/2010 11:35:20 AM

"Responsibly censOring yourself"? Interesting term there. Lot's of ground for debate on whether it's either doable or desirable. And just because something offensive was meant for children does that mean we should withhold it from everyone, including informed adults, on the offchance that children will see it?

I used to work in a videostore (No, I'm really not Quentin Tarantino) that had for several years the copy of the Little Mermaid with the phallic tower. I used to point it out to customers, many of whom even at the time had heard from Disney that it was an urban legend. It was real, and it was obviously NOT a mistake. The story I've heard was that it was deliberate after the artist had a dispute with Disney. Although that story is probably a legend, it wouldn't surprise me is it was true. It's not for nothing that in years past Disneyland workers referred to it as "Mauschwitz".

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