When you’re as large and influential as Disney, you’re going to have controversy follow almost every decision you make. It’s been happening since that company formed and it still happens today. Recently, Disney had to pull their Moana Halloween costume because it was basically one giant brown face outfit. Looking back at Disney’s history, they’ve had a number of controversial films and animations. Essentially, every time they tried to portray a race or an ethnic group on film, they’ve used stereotypes to generalize the population. Without getting into the reasons why they chose to do this, or why any film chooses to do this, let’s just accept that it has happened. As we know now, stereotypes are no good. People don’t like them. Add to that the fact that our society is becoming increasingly more sensitive to the wishes and feelings of all the cultures around the world, the act of looking backward at Disney films can be pretty cringeworthy.
Now we’re not about to go through Disney’s entire resume and pick out every one of the offenses. They number far too large to do that, and that’s not meant as a criticism. Dealing with caricatures is a tough, and often insulting business, so it is what it is. What we will do, however, is look at the animations that caused the greatest uproars; the ones that made everyone feel a little awkward while watching. Almost every example on this list has been revised by Disney after the fact, so it’s not like they aren’t aware that they’ve made mistakes. We could even commend them for being open to changes. We probably won’t, but we could. We also won’t try to make sense of Disney’s choices or guess what their philosophies were. There’s trouble in them thar hills, so we won’t even attempt that journey. What we will do is just look back at the ugliness of Disney’s past and shake our heads in disgust, together.
Here are the 15 Most Offensive Animations Ever Seen in a Disney Film.
15. King Louie – The Jungle Book
King Louie of the original 1967 Disney film The Jungle Book, has always been a lightning rod for controversy. The character was meant to be voiced by Louis Armstrong and much of his personality was based on Armstrong, but Disney feared that having a black man voice an ape would lead to major issues, so they had Louis Prima voice the ape instead. That didn’t really help matters because King Louie came across as a racist Louis Armstrong caricature anyways. The discussion has always been centered around the apes being “outside” of the more civilized society of jungle animals. That they “wanna be like you” and be included in the jungle society shows a level of segregation that critics have always latched onto. The counterargument for the film is that today’s children won’t see any racial motivations behind the animations, but that simply brings up other issues. Should we be exposing the children of today to the racial stereotypes of yesterday even if they don’t carry the same connotations?
14. The Crows – Dumbo
The crows in Disney’s 1941 film Dumbo, are probably the least offensive on this list, but that’s not saying very much. The four crows, first of all, speak with a stereotypical African-American slang, but that’s not the worst part, not even close. The worst part is that the main crow is named Jim Crow, clearly a reference to the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, and he is voiced by a white actor, Cliff Edwards. That part is pretty awful. Many people will point to the fact that the crows are actually some of the most endearing characters in the film, but that doesn’t make the racial stereotypes any less offensive. Again, this is actually a pretty tame example, all things considered.
13. Indians – Peter Pan
In the 1953 animated film Peter Pan, Disney films chose to really go all out on the racial stereotypes for the Native people within. They gave them very large and racist facial features, Tonto-speak and are constantly referred to as savages. In total, there are only two types of natives in the film: noble savages or savage savages. The lost boys even discuss hunting them along with animals, likening the Natives to animals at the same time. Then there’s the song, “What Made the Red Man Red?” which discusses the origin of the Native’s red skin, just about the worst song you could write. The answer, if you were wondering, is because they’re always blushing from chasing Indian women around.
12. Blackfish and Fluke, The Duke of Soul – The Little Mermaid
Since its release in 1989 was so much later than most of the films on this list, you would think that The Little Mermaid would have less controversy. Disney must have learned from their past mistakes, right? Wrong. Take the two fishes, Blackfish and Fluke, The Duke of Soul, for instance, the only two fish who speak with distinct African-American voices and have very stereotypical African-American characteristics like large lips and droopy eyes. When the whole thing is racist, you don’t ask why. You sort of just accept that the whole animation team was racist in a way. But when Disney chooses to just plop in just two fish with racist undertones, you’ve got to wonder whose idea it was or who that specific animator was.
11. Jewish Peddler – The Three Little Pigs
In Disney’s 1933 film The Three Little Pigs, the Big Bad Wolf tries to trick the pigs into letting him into their homes. In order to trick them, he dresses up in costume. The costume he chose to pull the heist was pretty controversial and has since been edited. Originally, he got all decked out in a stereotypical Jewish peddler costume, fit with a large nose, a beard and glasses. His accent was of a Yiddish type and he declared that he was “giving away a free sample.” When the film was recut and brought back to theaters in 1948, the peddler was changed to “a Fuller Brush man,” but everything else remained the same. Later still, when the film was released on home video, the free sample line was changed to, “I’m working my way through college.”
10. Germans – Education for Death
Disney dabbled in propaganda from time to time, some of which we’ve dealt with in this list, but one of the most striking examples is the 1943 film Education for Death. In this short, we see how, in Disney’s world, all German children are raised within the Nazi order. It shows the children going through their mandatory training, learning to associate themselves with only the strong and to never feel pity for the weak. They participate in books burnings and also replace Christian symbols with Nazi symbols. Condemning Nazism isn’t the issue at hand here; it’s how they depict all German children as following along sheepishly with a Nazi education and how they equate being German with being a Nazi.
9. Japanese Soldiers – Commando Duck
Disney made several war time films with some anti-[insert nationality here] sentiment. One of the worst was Commando Duck, starring Donald Duck in Japan. When he lands in the jungle, floating down river in an inflatable raft, Donald is spotted by some Japanese Snipers. They are in disguise as a rock and a tree, but we know that they’re Japanese soldiers because the damned tree has slanted eyes and buck teeth, classic Japanese stereotypes. You know Disney is racist when they even stereotype Japanese trees. The soldiers then proceed to speak in some brutally offensive broken English. As Donald floats away, we then learn what Disney believes the Japanese custom war custom is: to “always shoot a man in the back.” It gets a little better from then on out, so you might still find this cartoon on TV these days with those flagrant stereotypes edited out.
8. Shun Gon – The Aristocats
The alley cats in Disney’s 1970 film The Aristocats, all have some visual or auditory ethnic stereotypes, but the one that really stands out the most is Shun Gun, the Chinese cat. In addition to the visual slanted eyes and buck teeth, Shun Gon also puts a cymbal on his head like a Chinese bamboo hat and plays the piano with chopsticks. Rather than singing any normal song, Shun Gon basically just says words that allow kids to identify with Chinese culture, or at least the Westernized view of it, words like Shanghai and fortune cookie. Add to that the poor Chinese accent and you’ve got yourself a very racist kitty cat. As you’ll see, Disney has a thing about Eastern cats.
7. Siamese Cats – Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers & Lady and the Tramp
The Siamese Cats from Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Lady and the Tramp both feature extreme Asian stereotypes like buck teeth, slanted eyes and broken English, but, we gotta say, one of these things is not like the other. The Lady and the Tramp Siamese cats are bad, but the Chip ‘N’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers cats, the Siamese Twin Gang, are much worse just by what they’re associated with. First of all, they own a laundromat and an illegal underground casino. Like they really had to force in those stereotypes to make sure they were in the final cut, didn’t they? What kind of a cat runs a laundromat anyways? These are the types of associations that kids watching Disney films make with Asian culture and this is why people harp on Disney stereotypes so much.
6. Black Doll – Santa’s Workshop
Santa’s Workshop is a 1932 film that is still seen on TV around the holiday season, but there’s a part missing in the modern cuts. In the original, when some dolls are coming out of the toymaker, Santa teaches them how to say “mama.” A white doll comes out and, after one mistake, correctly says the word “mama.” Santa chuckles and then stamps the doll’s butt with the “OK” stamp. Next is a black doll who comes out, a face full of lips, screeches the word “mammy,” which really tickles Santa’s funny bone, stamps her own butt and runs off. It’s subtle and it’s quick, but it doesn’t take too much thought to see how awful this is.
5. Arabs – Aladdin
There’s a lot to like about Disney’s 1992 Aladdin and there’s a lot to be offended by. We won’t get into what the Gulf War may have had to do with this film, but we can look at the offensive stereotypes within. Truthfully, that’s bad enough. Visually, there’s a lot there. The men are kind of grubby and have big noses, while the women are all sexualized but silenced, seen but not heard. Then there’s the song “Arabian Nights,” which needed to be edited because the Arab people were incensed by the line, “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home.” This was eventually changed to, “where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense. It’s barbaric but hey it’s home.” Much better.
4. Blackface – Mickey’s Mellerdrammer & The Night Before Christmas
We thought we would mention the little blackface moment in the 1933 Disney “silly symphony” The Night Before Christmas, but it’s not so bad because it could be somewhat innocent. A little boy goes to the fireplace where Santa had left from and looks up. As the ash falls on his face, it makes perfect blackface makeup. It is awkward but not necessarily evil. The other film on this entry, however, Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, is awful. Mickey and his gang decide to put on a show of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the 1933 film. This, in their minds, requires them to put on blackface, which they apply in creative ways. One guy uses the soot from a candle, while Mickey just blows up a stick of dynamite that he holds in his mouth. Yep.
3. Sunflower the Centaur – Fantasia
You’ve seen Fantasia, but unless you saw it pre-1969, you may not have seen Sunflower the Centaur, the black centaur who really pumped out African-American stereotypes. Sunflower is first seen shining the shoes of a white centaur. Racist much? If that wasn’t already bad enough, she then grooms the other centaurs, while they walk around doing whatever they want. Super racist. In almost every way you look at it, this is a slave centaur. There’s really no good way of looking at it. Disney apparently agreed, so they decided to take it out of the film.
2. The Black Birds – Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood
Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood is actually a great piece of Hollywood history if you can ignore the blatant racism in a few of the scenes. The animated film parodies several different nursery rhymes but it uses caricatures of Hollywood icons. There are two moments within it that go from sweet and innocent to super awkward, and both, for some reason, have to do with pie. The first comes when a pieman (Oliver Hardy) throws a pie at Simple Simon (Stan Laurel) who ducks. The pie hits Little Bo Peep (Katharine Hepburn) in the face as she is looking for her sheep. The pie strikes her mid-sentence, but, as it covers her face, it turns to blackface and she changes her speech to African-American slang. Next, in “twenty blackbirds baking a pie,” a bunch of black jazz and swing musicians come out of the pie and start singing. Their facial characteristics are exaggerated and racist as all hell. Outside of that, it’s actually a good film too.
1. African Natives – Cannibal Capers & Trader Mickey & Mickey’s Man Friday
Released in 1930, 1932 and 1935 respectively, Cannibal Capers, Trader Mickey and Mickey’s Man Friday are all Mickey Mouse cartoons that depict African Natives, and oh boy are these bad. Cannibal Capers is about a tribe of cannibals who dance around with skulls and bones and cook each other, if only accidentally. By the title alone, this one would never be shown again on TV, but the tribesman also look pretty ridiculous. In Trader Mickey, a tribe of cannibals capture Mickey and Pluto and starts to cook them up before Mickey teaches them how to play music and trades his instruments to let him live. In Mickey’s Man Friday, Mickey saves a monkey-like native from being eaten by fellow cannibals. In each of these animations, the African men are portrayed as unintelligent, animal-like and cannibalistic. There’s no secret why Disney has tried to hide these scars deep in the vaults.