Credible Contenders for the Most Controversial Disney Films

Two Jim Crows, One Caricature
  Two Jim Crows, One Caricature – courtesy of Boardwalk Times

A comprehensive list of Disney films and scenes that will make you think twice about that fond childhood memory you might have and have you saying, “What?”.

We probably can guess why you’re here.

As a recent debacle involving a particular 2002 animated feature film and an opinion that sounds like the literal embodiment of every insufferable “To play devil’s advocate…” debate ever sent you our way?

Maybe you simply have a lot of time now to peruse Disney+ and realize that some of the movies you hold dear have you cringing at certain parts?

Regardless of the reason, the composed list you’ll find below isn’t something particularly new or original, as there have been various other pieces of Disney critiques that have come before this one. However, with the recent spark in live-action remakes of past Disney classics, most notably that of Mulan (2020) and The Little Mermaid, it is as vital as ever to be aware of the media that we consume both in the present and in the past. If not to be able to recognize when something is wrong or false, then to hold the creators of said media responsible for the people and groups that they represent in their content and the stories they put out into the world.

While this list will include the occasional snark, our primary goal is to encourage those who read to consider the films and shows through the occasional critical lense and to know it’s okay to call something out when you see it.

Now, without further ado, let the criticism commence!

The Song of the South

Song of the South
Song of the South – courtesy of IndieWire

It’s no surprise that we would begin our sound off with what is universally understood to be Disney’s most controversial film. Though the movie “Song of the South” did release in 1946 and could be considered another product of its time, portions of the film still managed to weasel its way into Disney’s larger legacy and franchise in the forms of the original “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” song and the famous Splash Mountain ride in the Magic Kingdom at the Walt Disney World Resort and other park locations.

This film is steeped in controversy, both with what occurred on-screen and what happened behind the scenes. Many critics view it as a classic depiction of the “Happiness in Slavery” ideal, a narrative that is often spoken or implied from the former slaves of this era themselves, which is seen when the character of Uncle Remus lives happily on the picture-perfect plantation setting of the film, is upset when he must leave, and then gladly returns and remains as part of the movie’s happy ending. Some also consider this to be the first depiction of the “Magical Negro” trope that still permeates cinema and television to this day. Other on-screen scenes and moments were the subjects of much criticism both then and now, such as the minstrelsy of the animated characters and the literal inclusion of a tar baby in a fable that the characters tell.

Off-screen, the situation does not become more flattering. It’s important to note that James Baskett received a special Oscar for his performance of Uncle Remus, making him the first male African-American to win an Academy Award and that the appearances of two of the film’s stars, Baskett and Hattie McDaniel, mark the first occasion of two Academy Award-winning black actors sharing the screen. Sadly, this historical event is marred by the fact that Baskett was not able to attend the premiere of the film in Atlanta due to the segregation laws of the time. In addition to this complicated fact is that Disney still pulled revenue from “Song of the South” up until 1986, where it brought in more than $17 million when it ran in theatres for a second time as part of the company’s initiative to re-release its animated films in the 80s to capitalize on nostalgia.

We could talk about “Song of the South” for, well, a while, but for the sake of time and the other contenders on our list, we must carry on. However, if you wish to learn more about this film and it’s murky legacy, we highly encourage you to check out the podcast “You Must Remember This” by Karina Longworth. The first episode of her series on “Song of the South” can be found here.

Peter Pan

Image 1 - Smithsonian Magazine
Princess Tiger Lily, The Chief, and Peter Pan – courtesy of Smithsonian Magazine

You might be wondering if we adjusted the colour grading of the image to really make our message hit home? We did not.

It’s absolutely worth including the way that the 1953 classic Disney film “Peter Pan” portrays Native Americans in what many of us can agree is not the House of Mouse’s most beautiful moment. The way that they are represented in the movie is nothing short of abhorrent, from the way that they speak to the idea that they are shown to behave to how the animators chose to draw them. The song “What Made the Red Man Red” only aids in this films doubling down of its racist stereotypes. The over-sexualization of the Native Americans, especially Princess Tiger Lily, only adds to the racial stereotypes that the film perpetuates.

Particular criticism is attributed to the way the movie depicts its female characters, most notably the way that Wendy Darling and the other female characters fight over the affections of Peter. This sends a message to a young and impressionable audience that was rather common in Disney’s older films, and it is that women should compete for male attention and affection over anything else.

While “Peter Pan” was and is still hailed as a Disney Classic, the multiple instances we mentioned above make it one of the worst offenders yet in Disney’s history of representation. For a better understanding of the long and mired history that “Peter Pan” has with race, we highly encourage you to read this piece from Smithsonian Magazine.

Dumbo

Image 5 - The Daily Signal
The Jim Crow character from Dumbo – courtesy of The Daily Signal

As someone who has never seen “Dumbo”, neither as a child or as a now adult, it seems that it was for the best.

“Dumbo” apparently has a lot going on, to make a long story short. From it’s controversial and trippy Pink Elephants musical number to its depiction of animal abuse, make it all too difficult to explain why someone ever thought this would be appropriate for a children’s film. Pro tip: perhaps don’t include moments of alcohol consumption, drunkenness, and heavy hallucinations in a movie for young children.

Add in the racist undertones in “Song of the Roustabouts” and the more blatantly racist overtones of the Jim Crow character and his group, and you’re just asking for criticism at this point. The crows have been more recently criticized with “Dumbo” being added to the streaming service Disney+ for their depiction as minstrel characters. Disney+ does add a disclaimer for racist stereotypes, similar to what was done for Peter Pan, which is a step in the right direction when it comes to addressing poor representation from the past.

Pocahontas

Image 4 - The MarySue
Pocahontas still from the animated film of the same name – courtesy of The MarySue

This inclusion comes off the heels of having heard “Colors of the Wind” recently by chance, something that we find to be somewhat ironic. Though one could argue that “Pocahontas” was Disney’s first historically based animated film and helped to diversify the Disney Princess lineup with a Native American lead, that does not mean that the film is accurate by any means.

When revisiting this film as an adult, the way that the studio romanticized colonialism and fictionalized actual historical accounts becomes all the more apparent. The film itself isn’t exactly overtly racist, as it does have an anti-capitalistic message by the end of the film and has Captain Ratcliffe set up as the villain of the movie. However, “Pocahontas” ultimately fails in its cultural message with the implications that both sides must learn to get along and see eye-to-eye and the overall sugar coating of the truth of how colonialism affected Native Americans and the role that Pocahontas played.

While certainly a step-up from Native representation in “Peter Pan”, it’s essential to keep in mind that anyone watching the film should certainly not take it for an accurate historical account.

Blank Check

Image 6 - OMG Facts
Brian Bonsall and Karen Duffy in Blank Check – courtesy of OMG Facts

 

If you thought that we would leave your live-action Disney films alone, then you’re in the wrong place, my friend. And while there aren’t many that come to mind that is comparable to our other movies in this piece, we feel that the 1994 film “Blank Check” deserves an honourable mention when it comes to a specific particular gag-worthy moment. Though we wouldn’t say this is Disney’s most controversial film, there is one thing worth bringing to the surface.

While the movie itself has a lot of problems and plot-holes, and that it’s just generally what civilized society would describe as “not good”, the film was the subject of significant blowback as it features a rather awkward kissing scene between the main character Preston Waters, an 11-year-old boy who suddenly comes into a million dollars, and the undercover FBI agent Shay Stanley…who is 31. No, the numbers are correct on these two counts; and yes, we did have a “What the H?” moment.

If it makes you feel any better, at the time of the film’s release, some people did take issue with this scene. And in recent years with more movie lovers going back and watching pictures from their younger years, many have voiced their concern, with some critics voicing their opinions as “feeling totally grossed out” or describing the act as “borderline pedophilia”.

The Out-of-Body Phenomena

Image 7 - IMD
Tiana post-transformation in The Princess & the Frog – courtesy of IMDb

While we aren’t quite sure if there is a technical term for this, or if there is even any term for it at all, we’ve noticed a rather recurring theme when it comes to Disney films that feature characters of colour.

Characters of colour, usually Black characters, tend to spend less time in their human forms or in their actual bodies in films where they have lead roles.

For the sake of the discussion, we’ve decided to refer to this as the “Out-of-Body Phenomena”. The character, usually a lead of colour, will often undergo some sort of transformation or out-of-body experience that leaves them in a different form or outside of their physical body. By the end of the movie, they will have returned to their form or transfigured back into their regular body, but will still have spent a majority of the movie/plot in a physical form that is not the one they live in day-to-day.

The best example of this is with “The Princess and the Frog”. While this film is famous for having Tiana as the lead character, making her the first African-American Disney princess, it is also worth noting that by having her exist frog for the majority of the film, Disney ends up undoing any positive racial message it was trying to send. Though she may be a Disney princess, unlike her fellow royalty Tiana does not have the same relatability as her predecessors. By trying to meet so many agendas and appeal to all audiences, Disney alludes any meaningful racial message that would come with having an African-American princess for the first time ever in their history and waters down her impact for those who would take the most away from seeing her on the big screen. Also, having Tiana spend more time as a frog than as a Black woman can unwillingly tie back to the issue of black people being referred to as animals (usually monkeys) and, therefore, subhuman.

Other examples of this Out-of-Body phenomena can include Disney’s Coco, which is made more complicated as it respectfully treats and represents Mexican culture but does not technically showcase characters of colour as a majority of the movie takes place in the Land of the Dead where its inhabitants exist in skeletal forms. And while Disney has yet to release its upcoming film “Soul”, from what we have seen and read so far in regards to the plot, it appears as though this theme will occur yet again in the 2020 film.

In Conclusion…

While severe and critical discussion over our favourite childhood films and classics can be trying, they are essential to have. In the larger scale of representation and inclusion, it’s the responsibility of both consumers and creators to call out shortcomings where they see them so that future works and viewers can be better for it. This isn’t to say that you can never watch any of these films again or that you must always mention these points to anyone and everyone should they come up in conversation, to do so would be exhausting.

Instead, be aware of the content that you consume and if there is something that you see or experience that doesn’t sit right, perhaps take some time to do more digging and better understand and process the thoughts and feelings you have.

Nothing is perfect, and it doesn’t have to be, what’s important is that we try to do better than what came before.

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