Now that Disney owns Marvel and Star Wars, it should be no surprise that they are the second largest media conglomerate after Comcast. Immensely powerful with money in far more than just films, they are slowly taking over the film industry and maybe the world. Just this week it was announced that they are seriously considering buying Twitter. Who knows, maybe in a decade Disney will own just about everything.
Disney has been around since the early 1920s and quickly became the most reliable film studio for producing high-quality animated films. With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, they changed the way we think of movies and redefined the entire industry. Since then, they’ve had their highs and lows but have been a staple of American childhoods for the better part of the past 75 years and counting.
Like all studios with such a large and transformative history, though, Disney has some skeletons in their closet. Throughout its long history, Disney has a number of films and moments that have raised some eyebrows among audiences. The depiction of women and race has always been an object of controversy, and while Disney does seem to be trying to write the wrongs of their past, there is no ignoring that moments in even more recent Disney films like Pocahontas can be pretty uncomfortable for audiences who have any grasp of history.
Movies like Peter Pan, Dumbo or even The Jungle Book certainly have their dark secrets that Disney would rather forget, but that only scratches the surfaces on the Disney films that are even worse, that maybe Disney wishes everyone would forget (and mostly have). While this list won’t touch on films produced by Miramax during the period it was owned by Disney (1993-2010), it’s worth mentioning that without Disney, some of your favorite films were never made. During that seven year period, Miramax released Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Kids and Dogma – not exactly what comes to mind when you think of Disney!
For a variety of reasons, the films on this list have been more or less pushed into obscurity by Disney, because they are offensive, weird or a bit too scary. How many have you seen?
15. The Devil and Max Devlin
A little too prescient, the mostly forgotten film, The Devil and Max Devlin cast Bill Cosby as the devil back in 1981. Made really at the low point of the Disney brand when they were ranked at the bottom of all studios, the company decided to try and rebrand and reach out to an older audience. The Devil and Max Devlin is the first of those projects, which was not particularly successful as evidenced by the fact that no one today has ever heard of it. Competing against the new blockbuster superpowers helmed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones, we almost wonder if the recent buy-outs of these franchises by Disney is a kind of down on your luck payback. The film’s basic plot is simple, Max Devlin gets sent to hell, makes a deal with Bill Cosby, the devil, to bring him three new souls within sixty days, and he gets a get-out-of-hell free card. This is also the first Disney film to use actual profanity.
14. Mickey’s Mellerdrammer
In the early decades of Disney, there were are a lot of really problematic racial representations. Mickey’s Mellerderammer is among the most infamous cartoons of the era, parodying (if that’s the right word) the controversial best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which suggested that sometimes slavery wasn’t really all that bad. Among the many problems with the film, the most notable is that Mickey and friends wear blackface, and sing minstrel tunes. In other similar films of the era, there are scenes of happy go lucky slave characters working the fields and getting up to the auction block. Far from a nuanced take-down of slavery, these films only perpetuated the idea that slavery really wasn’t all that bad. Far from a parody or an issue of free speech, these films lack empathy and are super cringeworthy in 2016. Disney has done its best to distance themselves from these works, though in the age of the Internet that’s all but impossible. Disney recently released some of their controversial animated shorts on a DVD collection for adults only, which featured disclaimers explaining that these beliefs reflect a different time and era.
13. The Watcher in the Woods
Just the title of this film should give you a hint that this is not your typical Disney fare. The Watcher in the Woods is a legitimate horror film, released during their troubled early 1980s era. The plot is simple: A teenager moves to the English countryside with her family to a creepy old Victorian mansion. Things are shady from the beginning, but soon every imaginable horror phobia starts appearing. From doppelgangers in mirrors to creepy witches, drowning children and poltergeists. Once upon a time this was actually a Halloween favorite on television and in school classrooms, but has since fallen out of popularity because it’s honestly a little too creepy for most kids. The film plays on ideas about secret societies and aliens too, not leaving any childhood fear unturned.
12. Escape to Witch Mountain
Long before this was remade as a film that nobody went to see, Escape to Witch Mountain was one of the Disney company’s more unsettling films geared towards kids. Made in 1975, the film is about two creepy looking kids with psychic powers who may or may not be aliens and may or may not have amnesia, who are being pursued by an evil businessman who wants to steal their powers. There is so much creepy going on in this film, much of which is barely reflected in the recent remake starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We even kinda think that the 2009 remake was a way to wipe the slate clean of the disturbing original, to make people forget that they made a movie about alien children who are pursued by a scary melting looking man who presumably is going to kill, torture or experiment on them in order to get their powers.
11. Bon Voyage
You could maybe write off some of Bon Voyage‘s bad humor to a different time, but even in 1962 some of the jokes are the bad kind of racy. A film about an American family on vacation in Europe, the movie follows their misadventures across the continent. Most of the film’s humor is built on weird sex jokes and desires. No one in the film seems to know what sex is, or least of all, to actually respect their significant other. On top of that, most of the other jokes are not much better, including one in which a bidet sprays the family son in the face, oh boy! On top of that there are a lot of fat jokes, which again, is maybe symptomatic of a different time but are not only unfunny but in bad taste. We’re not surprised that these reasons, as well as the fact the film did not do well at the box office, are why Disney is trying to bury it.
10. Old Yeller
Old Yeller may have been an ABC family staple up until the 2000s, but since the early part of the new millennium, it’s as if Disney has pushed to have it erased from the face of the earth. While long considered a beloved classic, earning a lot of money for the company and gaining a strong critical response, the fact that the film’s hero – a yellow dog – gets shot at the end doesn’t really ring well with modern audiences. While taken in context, the decision to kill Old Yeller makes sense and isn’t that out of line with what would happen in the real world, though in most places it seems unlikely that you’d shoot your dog in 2016 when you could just put them down.
9. Der Fuehrer’s Face
Donald Duck as a nazi? Yup, it happened! All the way back in 1943, Disney produced a little film called Der Fuehrer’s Face where Donald Duck is an overwhelmed nazi working in a German factory. With endless “Heil Hitler” jokes and swastikas top to bottom, the film actually intends to mock rather than endorse the Nazi way of life. The film is more shocking than offensive when you realize that Disney is taking as many jabs at Hitler and nazis are possible, though it’s still up to debate as to whether or not making light of Nazi atrocities now that we know the extent of them. It also kinda drums up the uncomfortable truth that Walt Disney, himself, was a known anti-Semite. Just a few years ago Meryl Streep gave a speech at the National Board of Review, reminding audiences of his ugly history, only to have the claims backed-up by Disney’s grandniece who said, “You really need to be as honest as possible about those feelings, or else you are going to lead yourself into many a blind alley in life. Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C’mon he made a film [Jungle Book] about how you should stay ‘with your own kind’ at the height of the fight over segregation! As if the ‘King of the Jungle’ number wasn’t proof enough!! How much more information do you need?”
Many of the films on this list come from Disney’s darkest era, at least in terms of success, and Dragonslayer is no different. One of the first not children friendly Disney films, it ended up eliciting quite a bit of controversy as families went to see it expecting another 101 Dalmations. What they got was an adventure film about an ancient dragon who keeps the peace with a kingdom as long as they feed him beautiful virgins twice a year. Yup, this is not your typical Disney film. Unlike some of the movies on this list, Dragonslayer actually received some critical success and was nominated for an Oscar for its score. To this day people consider the film to feature the very best dragon in the Disney oeuvre and not much else. Shortly after the production of this film, Disney would found a subsidiary company, Touchstone Pictures, to release more adult fare.
7. The Black Hole
The 1980s were not kind to Disney and The Black Hole was another failed attempt at capturing a new audience. The first Disney film to get a PG rating, this movie was an attempt to capitalize on Star Wars‘ massive effect. While The Black Hole is indeed a science fiction film, it’s more 2001: A Space Odyssey than it is a space western adventure like Star Wars. The film is about recovering a ship that was lost over a decade earlier and is now presumed to be in a black hole. Mixing science and religion with no real logic, the film has a hint of blasphemy for skeptics and believers alike. To put it in perspective, the film’s final chapter depicts a half-robot, half-man character being sent to hell, which is depicted in fiery detail.
6. The Littlest Horse Thieves
Also known as Escape from the Dark, this fun little Disney movie is about a family that moves to the English countryside, and about a failing coal mill and a pony slaughter. Yes, the majority of the film is devoted on one hand to a family being pushed out of house and home due to encroaching technology and the literal murder of ponies. This isn’t just a small throwaway line, this is the major crux of the film. Unsurprisingly, these happy go lucky themes didn’t quite resonate with audiences and Disney has never really had a huge impulse to make sure people remembered this non-classic. Among the most obscure films in all of Disney’s catalog, very little can be found on its reception and production history. Old Yeller was one thing, but a whole movie about the slaughter of ponies was a bit too much for audiences and Disney hoped we’d all forget it.
5. Something Wicked This Way Comes
With a screenplay by Ray Bradbury based on his novel of the same name, if this film was made by anyone but Disney, it’s possible it would be better remembered. A bizarre horror fantasy about two young boys who attend a mysterious carnival that springs up overnight in their town. What they don’t know, is that the ringmaster is not in the entertainment business, he’s in the collecting soul business and wants to take over the town completely: body, mind and soul. This movie may be a little campy now, but there is actually a lot to love and is also quite scary. Though we’re also not surprised that Disney has tried to set up a bit of a distance from such a dark, off-brand project. Disney has not really given it a proper release at any point, though they were in talks to remake it just a few years ago, let’s see if it actually comes to pass.
4. Miracle of the White Stallions
Perhaps not as overtly offensive as some of the other films on this list, there is still no denying that Disney has tried hard to bury this film that basically no one has heard of. Set during World War II, the rare Lipizzan stallions are threatened with extinction unless Alois Podhajsky can enlist help from the warring factions to save them. He not only gets some assistance from General Patton but also a sympathetic nazi, and the film seems to have a message that horses are as important as people. Clearly geared to those members of the audience who really love horses, the film’s overall message doesn’t really ring true in context of the holocaust and the greater losses of World War II. While no doubt not every nazi was a monster, the sympathetic portrayal here only makes the whole film a little more insincere and saccharine.
3. Song of the South
The most infamous of Disney’s filmography that they’d wish you’d forget, at this point, it seems like no one will let the company forget their involvement with Song of the South. More so than any other film on this list, Disney has fought the hardest to make sure no one ever sees Song of the South. Made in 1946, the film is based on short stories by a former slave owner who claimed to feel more at home with his slaves than with white people, discounting, as they say in the Indiewire article, “needless to say, I’m sure the black slaves
on the plantation didn’t feel quite as comfortable, as Harris could always go back to his comfy bed at the end of the day, while the slaves had to stay there.”
Once upon a time the film was actually an important film in their oeuvre, representing their first live action project. The film was controversial from the start though, when more than one black actor in the 1940s turned down the role for being too demeaning: that should speak volumes for why Disney really doesn’t want you to see it. Disney has never released it on DVD, VHS or Blu ray and has no plan to anytime in the future.
2. Return to Oz
The muppets fans among you may be familiar with Return to Oz, a sequel to the Wizard of Oz released nearly fifty years later. The film has amassed a pretty substantial cult following over the years, but even that fanbase seems more or less unaware that this movie was produced by Disney. Directed by Walter Murch (who was the editor on Apocalypse Now, among other films), this return to the land of Oz is not just creepy for a children’s movie, it’s one of the scariest films of the decade. This is not just unintentional scares either, the film is very much crafted as a creepy send off to the original novel. Critics were shocked by how intense and scary the film was, unable to decide who the audience was – because in their minds, this movie is definitely not for kids. The film features not only a lot of creepy monsters, but the human world is just as bad. The movie opens with a young Dorothy being treated for depression with shock treatment by a horrifying doctor. Reviewing the film, Dave Kehr wrote, “it’s bleak, creepy, and occasionally terrifying.”
1. The Story of Menstruation
Whether you’re quite old or your school never updated its health class, you might be among the few people who actually watched The Story of Menstruation in sex-ed. Part of a series made for schools, The Story of Menstruation was intended to educate young women not only on what menstruation was but on managing life around it. Among other films the film discourages the use of tampons (because Tampax was a rival of Kotex, who also sponsored the film), tells young women they can still do anything they like and gives advice on avoiding constipation and still looking your best. Bizarrely, the depictions of menstruation in the animated film are all white, and the movie doesn’t mention reproduction at all. The real focus of the film is focused on sanitation, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering the film is promoting Kotex products. The film has more or less been forgotten, though it is available to watch on YouTube.