This week, actress Meryl Streep presented an award to Emma Thompson for her performance as P.L Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, in the recent film Saving Mr. Banks. During her effusive praise for Thompson, Streep also took the opportunity to remind the world of Walt Disney’s personal flaws, calling Disney a “gender bigot” and “supporter of anti-Semitic industry lobbying groups.”
When we can converse about why “What Makes the Red Man Red” is offensive, then he’s probably old enough to watch it.
Disney’s view of women and minorities isn’t news—both his reputation and the classic films his studio has produced in the last century have long courted controversy. But Streep’s words offer an important reminder of how easily we can forget to look critically at films we love.
Take the Disney animated film Peter Pan. When I was a child, it inspired my imagination to no end. A magical land with eternal childhood and sword fights and battles against Captain Hook. My nostalgia for Peter Pan remains strong and I fondly recall my days of reveling in its story.
But I don’t think I’ll share Peter Pan with my son anytime soon. It’s just too racist. That may seem extreme to some, but provided one maintains a commitment to equality and respect for diversity, Peter Pan is very difficult to watch today. Children are affected by movies in a way that’s easy to forget as an adult, and as a father I don’t want to my son’s young imagination to be captured by the stereotypes about race, gender, and culture found in Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, or other Disney classic animated movies.
Which isn’t to imply these films are without merit. With context and history and the capacity to think critically, many of Disney’s classic animated films remain enjoyable and moving. But we should not deny that our society’s progress toward equality over the past century has complicated many of the stories we previously held dear. As we progress through history, so too do our tastes.
Maybe when he’s older, and able to add context to what he’s seeing, my son and I will watch Peter Pan and talk about Native American representations in film over the past century. When we can converse about why the song “What Makes the Red Man Red” is offensive, then he’s probably old enough to watch it. But until then, I’m keeping him off the old-school Disney train.
Lucky for my son, there’s a world of magnificent animated cinema that’s been created in recent decades. Movies built on stories of magic and delight. Movies that do not pander to children, underestimate their intelligence, or strip characters down to stereotypes. If holding off on the Disney classics for a few years means that we’ll engage in a much more diverse array of cinema, then that’s a sacrifice I’m comfortable making.
Here are five Disney films that have found controversy over the years, and five films to consider in their place.
1. Replace Fantasia (1940) with The Secret of Kells (2009)
Featuring eight musical vignettes telling eight separate stories, Fantasia is best known today or a segment called “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” in which Mickey Mouse creates magic beyond his capacity to control.
But it was another segment that has caused controversy over the years. In “The Pastoral Symphony,” Beethoven’s music is accompanied by a panoply of Greek mythological figures gathered for the festival of Bacchus. Among those in attendance are a group of white centaurs being attended to by a black centaur, portrayed in pickaninny fashion, who is clearly their servant.
The scene was deleted from the film before the 1969 theatrical rerelease. For a time Disney denied the scene had ever existed. Erasing our dubious artistic creations is rarely a solution to be praised. But as film critic Roger Ebert rightly stated, “there is no need for the general release version to perpetrate racist stereotypes in a film designed primarily for children.”
We don’t always have to leave Disney to find excellent alternatives to the studio’s troubled past.
Fantasia does offer a rare animated experience, but it is not alone in that regard. Equally enchanting is the Irish/Belgian film The Secret of Kells. Set in medieval Ireland, The Secret of Kells offers a fictional account of the Irish Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the New Testament gospels created by Celtic monks around 800 A.D. Basing the animation in 2-dimensional geometric shapes and line work, in a style reminiscent of medieval illumination and iconography, the movie tells the story of Brendan and his Abbot uncle, and their attempt to protect the Book of Kells from the invaders.
A stunning visual experience and a story that is mystical and moving, The Secret of Kells offers families a hand-drawn animated experience more akin to the classics of Disney than the computer-animated experiences popular today.
2. Replace Dumbo (1941) with The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Like Peter Pan, Dumbo finds itself plagued by portraits that now complicate the film’s higher achievements. The simple story of the young elephant, separated from his mother and mocked for his oversized ears, today is muddled by the presence of unfortunate racial stereotypes.
These stereotypes reach their apex in a group of jazz-era crows, whose leader, Jim Crow, exemplifies the stock treatment of African-American representations of the era. It’s a mess of a legacy for a film that otherwise puts simplicity of story and image to masterful use.
We don’t always have to leave Disney to find excellent alternatives to the studio’s troubled past. Replace the anthropomorphic animals of Dumbo with household appliances and join an adventure of equal power with The Brave Little Toaster. A hit at the 1988 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a “special jury recognition,” this little treasure embodies the simplicity of style and story found in Dumbo without the troubling racial representations. Add the Van Dyke Parks score, outstanding voice work, and an emotional depth that is rare in stories about talking appliances, and it’s not difficult to discover why the film, largely unseen upon release, has since become a classic.
An interesting note: Among the animators involved in The Brave Little Toaster is Pixar Director John Lasseter, who would later directToy Story and its two sequels. That series uses the same “objects come to life and make audiences cry” model earlier found in The Brave Little Toaster.
3. Replace Peter Pan (1953) with Spirited Away (2001)
Peter Pan is perhaps the most egregious offender in dated Disney classics (excluding Song of the South, the live-action/animated film hosted by the former slave character Uncle Remus, which has never been released on video or DVD in its entirety).
Peter Pan tells the story of a group of London children visited by Peter Pan and magically whisked away to Neverland, where, alongside the Lost Boys and Tinker Bell, they evade pirates, encounter mermaids, and battle the evil Captain Hook.
Where Peter Pan finds itself in trouble is in the film’s portrayal of Big Chief, Tiger Lily, and their tribe. The Native Americans in the film are depicted as equally savage and foolish. In singalong fashion, children learn that Native American skin color is the result of the first “Injun Prince” kissing a girl, and that foreign language is an invitation to cultural assimilation. The whole effort is a reminder of how dismissively and unseriously nonwhite cultures were treated in halls of Disney.
If you want a tale of children in a magical world, consider Spirited Away instead. Winner of the Academy Award for best animated film in 2001, Spirited Away tells the story of 10-year-old Chihiro and her time in a world ruled by spirits and gods. After her parents are turned into hogs, the witch Yabuba steals Chihiro’s name, and thus her freedom. Chihiro spends her days laboring in a bathhouse run by the witch, where she must learn to work alongside her new friends to recover her name and return her family to the real world.
Spirited Away is considered by some to be the best film to come from director and animator Hayao Miyazaki and his workshop, Studio Ghibli. And for good reason. It is a magnificent story beautifully told, and one sure to inspire a child’s imagination.
4. Replace The Little Mermaid (1989) with Coraline (2009)
The Little Mermaid ushered in the modern era of animated cinematic culture. It spawned the Disney Renaissance, and returned the studio to the kind of massive popular success not seen in decades. The Little Mermaid quickly became the highest-grossing animated film of all time and won two Academy Awards. It also introduced era of the Disney Princess, that dominant cultural icon and all its attendant merchandising, with the least inspiring story imaginable.
Based in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, the Disney version is so sanitized that the only the most gender-stereotyped elements remain. Briefly, the mermaid Ariel sees a man named Prince Eric and immediately falls in love with him. Determined to be with him, she makes a Faustian bargain and trades her voice to the evil witch Ursula in exchange for a human body. She then has three days to receive a kiss from Eric or she will be returned to mermaid form and henceforth belong to Ursula. Ariel has no agency beyond her obsession with Eric, and her life is one of either dutiful daughter or—by any means necessary—dutiful bride. When the New York Daily News ran a series of satirical posters for several Disney films, the title of this one was appropriately replaced with Change For Your Man.
Fortunately, there are moving fairy tales that provide a robust female experience without building the story on the rescue and marriage of a hapless young girl. One of the best in recent years is Coraline, the stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy children’s novel.
Like The Little Mermaid, Coraline involves the adventures of a young girl pulled between two worlds and the machinations of an evil witch looking to seal her fate. But unlike Ariel, Coraline is allowed to inhabit an actualized character: she’s grumpy and creative; troublesome and loyal. And when her behavior puts her world in danger, she’s given the opportunity to resolve those dangers with her own wits.
To be sure, Coraline is a scary movie, the kind parents might hesitate to show but children find irresistible. As Henry Selick, the film’s director, once said, Coraline is a movie for “brave kids of any age.”
5. Replace Aladdin (1992) with Azur and Asmar: The Princes’ Quest (2006)
By the time Disney got to Aladdin, the company had regained its position of cultural dominance. The success of The Little Mermaid was followed by the masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (the only animated film ever nominated for an Academy Award for best picture). Then came Aladdin, and with it, protests.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee protested the depiction of Arabs in Aladdin. The film contains a range of unfortunate Middle Eastern stereotypes, but attention focused especially on the film’s opening scene, in which a merchant (voiced by Robin Williams) sings a song about life in Arabia, where “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
That line remains in the film, but Disney did change one line as a result of the protests: In the theatrical version, the merchant sings of a place “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.” For the video release Disney altered the lyric to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense.” The controversy led to Aladdin being included in Entertainment Weekly‘s list of the 25 Most Controversial Movies Ever.
Similar in subject matter but lacking the controversy is the French animator Michael Ocelot’s Azur & Asmar: The Princes’ Quest. Azur & Asmar is the tale of two boys—one French, one North African—raised as brothers in the same home. Later, separated and returned to their distinct lives, the two become competitors in search of a djinn-fairy (genie) that both recall from the stories of their childhood.
Like Aladdin, Azur & Asmar is a medieval fairy tale in part sourced from 1001 Arabian Nights. The visuals are wholly original and take some getting used to, as 3-D computer animation is set atop 2-dimensional painted backgrounds. But once the audience is accustomed to the visual style, Azur & Asmar provides audiences a richer, and far more affecting film experience than Aladdin does.