When it comes to entertaining children, Disney is second to none and has held that honor for over half a century. If the movies aren’t enough of course, there are themed amusement parks and a cruise line along with more toys than you can count. All the extra stuff aside however, when one thinks “Disney” is probably going to think of animated films first. From the timeless Fantasia to more recent instant classics like Frozen, they’ve had the formula for ages and always seem to come up with winners.
Of course, times have changed and Disney flicks have as well. While the themes of talking animals and catchy music will never go away, the subject matter has kept up with the times and the humor has as well. Speaking of the humor, much of what used to be funny is now viewed (by certain people) as offensive and dreadful, and sometimes a joke just doesn’t work as intended. While many gags and characters in early Disney films are downright offensive (whether racist, sexist or some kind of phobic), many recent movies from the franchise have caused outrage.
Some of these controversies are completely warranted and spot on. In many cases the subject matter of older Disney movies is unacceptable by today’s standards, but when social media is in an uproar about a contemporary Disney movie, it may be a case of someone trying to find a reason to be offended. Here are ten legitimate Disney controversies and ten cases in which people just wanted a reason to be upset. If you read through this entire list and can’t figure out why anyone was ever offended however, you’re my kind of person and should go grab yourself a beer.
Ten Legitimate Controversies
20. Aladdin – Offensive to Arabs?
On the surface, 1992’s Aladdin was an exciting tale about an ambitious young man born into tough circumstances in an exotic part of the world. The characters were memorable, and it included two great comics, the late Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfreid. Unfortunately, there were some elements of the film that drew the ire of Arab-Americans. First off, Aladdin was modeled after Tom Cruise and Jasmine was partially modeled after Jennifer Connelly. They looked like youthful Americans with wicked tans. The rest of the characters in the film were basically caricatures of Arab stereotypes.
Along with this, the lyrics of the opening theme song “Arabian Nights” were not well received as they implied that the Arab world was a place “where they cut off your ear, if they don’t like your face,” and later calls the region “barbaric”. Is it the worst thing ever recorded? No, but given that there were Arab-American kids showing up to see this thing in theaters, maybe some concern is warranted.
19. Lady and the Tramp and Aristocats – Asian Cats
Lady and the Tramp had two villainous cats who sang a song and menaced the main character while singing in Asian accents and were drawn with slanted eyes. Why did the Siamese cats have to be Asian stereotypes? Who knows.
There was also an alley cat in Aristocats that would have fit right in with the Siamese kitties in Lady and the Tramp. He was, like the other cats, drawn with slanted eyes, buck teeth, and an accent, and sang some lyrics during the musical number that really helped bring out his accent: “Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo young, fortune cookie always wrong.”
18. The Little Mermaid – Terrible Lesson and Possible Racism?
Many Disney films have great messages. Peter Pan is about accepting that one has to grow up, and The Lion King is a great way to teach kids that your past isn’t something to fear, but something from which to learn. Unfortunately, The Little Mermaid does not have much of a moral. While the intent of the story is probably innocent enough, the basic message is that a young main character should give up part of what makes her special in order and completely change her life for a dude she’s never met. This is a brutal “lesson” no matter what gender you are.
There is also the idea that Sebastian the crab is a lazy Jamaican who sings about how humans “work all day” but this is a bit more of a stretch. The worst thing about the film is the message which is the polar opposite of empowering for any kid who is watching.
17. Peter Pan – What Makes the Red Man Red?
Like we said before, Peter Pan has a great message: that growing up is something to embrace, not fear. Of course, it was made in the 1950s and includes animated Native Americans, it is pretty offensive by today’s standards. The song “What Makes the Red Man Red?” is about as racist as a Disney segment can get. Like most of the legitimate claims of racism seen here, this one is just an example of the times, and while the message of the film still stands, it may not be the worst idea to explain to kids watching today that humor has changed and songs like that are mocking and offensive.
16. Most of the Princess Movies – Bad Lessons for Girls
We already listed The Little Mermaid but consider the primary message of that movie (change yourself and good things will happen) to be potentially harmful no matter a child’s gender.
We aren’t going to come out and say Disney is evil because it peddles terrible messages and occasional misogyny to little girls. The majority of the most famous stories came out in a different time, but even some of the recent ones feature completely useless, and in some cases, spoiled brats as female characters. Cinderella, Snow White and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) are probably the worst examples of old school Disney princesses, while Ariel (who we already talked about) is likely the worst of any princess whose movie was made in the last thirty years.
15. Dumbo – The Crows
It was the fifth theatrical release for Disney and Dumbo remains one of the most recognizable tales the company has made. It deals with the story of a young elephant who is bullied and ridiculed to the point where were he human, he would likely have spent his teenage years listening to Taking Back Sunday in his room.
Of course, the film was made in the 1940s and emo music was decades away, so instead, Dumbo learned to make his big ears work for him, learned to fly, and became a star. The nasty part however, was when we met the crows. Oh, the crows. If there ever was a group of characters who were blatant and unrepentant racial stereotypes, it is the crows. One of them was named Jim, in reference to the Jim Crow Laws which essentially outlined the rules of segregation in the southern United States at the time. These characters were mocked in the animated show Family Guy, in which main character Peter Griffin referred to the crows as “good old fashioned family racism”.
14. Three Little Pigs – The Big Bad Wolf’s Costume
While the story of Three Little Pigs goes back well over one hundred years, Disney made a cartoon version of it back in the early 1930s. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1934 and while it is a classic, there is one scene that is pretty racist. We all know the story, the wolf, the pigs, the huffing, the puffing, the blowing, the wolf eventually losing in his quest to eat some pork.
In this cartoon, the wolf disguises himself as a Jewish peddler in order to try to sneak into the third pig’s house. Unfortunately, he doesn’t just dress up like a Rabbi or put on a yarmulke, he has a huge beard, and a nose that sticks out about a foot in front of his face. It was the kind of caricature that would make Joseph Goebbels blush (the man who in that same year, became the Nazi propaganda minister). The short was put back into theaters in 1948 and this scene was edited to get rid of imagery that was frowned upon at the time, being post-World War Two and many in the United States having learned at least a thing or two about what had happened throughout Europe.
13. Pocahontas – Depiction of First Contact with Europeans?
While it won tons of awards, there are a few problems with 1995s Pocahontas. If you’re a history enthusiast or a student of that subject, this film ranks among the least accurate to have been created on the subject of Europeans coming to the Americas. Most of the events in the film are misrepresentations of the real story, but of course, this is an article about Disney movies, so more importantly, yes, there are some animals and some catchy tunes.
The other criticism of this film is that it includes a song called “Savages”. It is defensible because members of the tribe also accuse John Smith and the other settlers as “savage” and “inferior” but this song, along with the portrayal of the tribe throughout the film were deemed offensive by a few Native American leaders. They also claimed that Disney had denied their offer to make sure the movie was culturally sensitive. Who knows what the real story is there, though?
12. The Jungle Book – King Louie
This classic is about as divisive a Disney film as exists to this day. Fans praise the story, the concept and the songs (come on, “Bare Necessities” is at least as catchy as “Eye of the Tiger”). Of course, the story itself was written by Rudyard Kipling, a man widely considered to be an extreme racist, maybe because he wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden” which stated that it was the responsibility of European whites to civilize the rest of the world.
The problem a lot of people have with the Disney film adaptation of The Jungle Book is that while most of the characters have British voices, the monkeys, in particular King Louie, are all voiced by black actors and are considered, much like the crows in Dumbo to be based primarily on negative stereotypes.
11. Song of the South
1946’s Song of the South is a live-action-animated film with both real actors and cartoon characters, and at the time it was one of the greatest feats in this method of film making. With that in mind, it is an iconic piece of work, but it is also pretty undeniably racist. James Baksett, who played the main character Uncle Remus, a former slave, was given an Academy Award and the song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” was also honored with an award.
This movie isn’t racist so much because it slanders any group, but it did receive harsh criticism for portraying slavery in a positive light. The film implied that most slaves were treated fairly and misrepresented many historical facts in favor of a kinder, softer narrative. While some groups at the time simply pointed out that the film was historically inaccurate, others saw it as an affront to all African Americans.
10. Fat-Shaming In Inside Out
Anyone who has seen Pixar’s 2015 gem Inside Out knows that this movie has nothing but good to offer audiences. It doesn’t matter how old you are; the humor is relatable and the premise is a great attention catcher. For those who have deprived themselves: this film tells the story of Riley, an eleven year old girl whose family has moved to a new city. While there are plenty of scenes involving Riley and her family, the majority of the film centers on her five personified emotions inside her head. They are joy, sadness, disgust, anger and fear. They are voiced by (respectively) Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black and Bill Hader. Brilliant voice performances from all those involved by the way.
The problem (for one blogger from the Huffington Post, who didn’t bother seeing the movie before writing her review) was that Joy’s character was bright, tall and thin, while sadness was shorter and slightly… let’s say “round”, and this writer took that to indicate that everyone at Pixar thinks all short, non-thin people are miserable. Sadness wasn’t some disgusting Jabba the Hutt-esque creature riding around on a motor scooter, wolfing down quarter pounders by the pint, Sadness was rather a good animated personification of hopelessness and negativity. Of course, if this person were to have watched the movie, she’d have realized that Sadness ends up being the hero, and the message of the movie is that sometimes it is okay to be sad, learning to deal with it is what counts.
9. Snow White and… Her Friends?
Similar to many of the animated classics on our list, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a complete mess of a film. Of course, a few memorable phrases and songs have rendered this one a classic. This isn’t much of a controversy, but there was a theater in England that was producing a pantomime version of the movie for Christmas in 2015. They determined that the “dwarfs” would be offensive to include and instead used the title “Snow White and Her Seven Friends”.
If you trust a source like Little People of America (an online community for little people), the word “dwarf” is still okay to use, along with “little person” and just using the person’s name. According to that site, “midget” is the term that is considered offensive by the community. Of course, it depends who you talk to, but changing the name of a play because of a word that isn’t actually offensive is silly and unnecessary.
8. Homophobia in Wreck-It Ralph (and a few other films)
If you spend enough time on the internet, eventually you will come across the Huffington Post. In turn, if you spend enough time on HuffPo, you’ll (it’ll likely take 8.3 seconds) run into an article written by somebody who was offended by something. In this case, a “blogger” said that he was infuriated at the homophobia in Disney’s 2012 video game based flick Wreck-It Ralph. He cited one scene in which the titular character shakes the main villain and calls him a “Nelly”. This quickly searched Google and realized that it is considered a slang term for a gay man.
The villain, who was effeminate and lived in a primarily pink castle, had been called out and insulted by a burly character in the movie. The writer of this piece said that he was able to find a few people who agreed with him online and referenced other Disney villains such as The Lion King’s Scar, Jafar from Aladdin, and Shere Kahn from The Jungle Book, who are also considered somewhat effeminate.
The use of the word “Nelly” was an unfortunate choice, but shouldn’t make the movie unwatchable. The character was not attacked for being gay, rather his sexuality is speculated at most. He was called out for being somewhat effeminate, but gay and effeminate are not the same thing. Not all gay men are effeminate: Michael Sam, a gay football player, played in he NFL, is that effeminate? Similarly not all effeminate men are gay. Andy Dick is an example; most people think he is gay, but he has several kids from multiple women.
Wreck-It Ralph had a slip up and used a poorly chosen word. That doesn’t mean the creators have anything against gay people, but it may indicate some misogyny if they made the main character berate and assault the villain for having feminine characteristics. Either way, if there were either of these problems, Sarah Silverman would have torn the cast and crew a new one if she had a problem with anything; she is about as much of a “social justice warrior” as exists even in today’s liberal show business. Calling this movie and other movies with “effeminate” villains “homophobic” is inaccurate and an example of someone looking for something about which to get angry.
7. Beauty and the Beast Isn’t about Abusive Relationships – He’s Just a Criminal
Much like most of Disney’s animated movies Beauty and the Beast has a great lesson. Belle falls in love with the beast despite what he looks like. It is a delightful ending and something every kid needs to learn. Beauty is skin deep and just because you don’t like looking at someone, that’s no reason to ignore or vilify them.
Here’s the problem: she doesn’t come to the realization that he’s a good guy because of any nice things he does for the local townsfolk, it is because he imprisons her father and then lets them swap places. The beast is the victim of a curse and keeps Belle in his castle. She eventually realizes that he isn’t a complete monster. It’s a messed up plot and the Beast as a villain is a pretty poor one, but to say that this movie glorifies an abusive relationship is a sign that someone is looking for a reason to be angry. Consider the fact that he held Belle’s father before her. He’s not an abusive lover, rather he is a maniac who keeps people in his castle against their will. He is a criminal, not an abusive lover.
It is also not about Stockholm Syndrome, some people need to learn what certain words mean before they start belching them up in public. Arguing that a garbage villain/plot represents either an abusive relationship or Stockholm Syndrome is insulting to people who have actually dealt with these things.
6. Frozen – Lack of Male Heroes
There are a few reasons Frozen is one of the best Disney films in recent memory. The songs are awesome, the plot is intriguing and entertaining, there are plenty of life lessons, including “be yourself” and “follow your dreams”, and finally, there is plenty of humor. Despite making an absurd amount of money and winning the love of Disney fans and critics alike, Frozen was criticized for a lack of male heroes. Elsa and Anna were the main protagonists and the primary supporting good guys were Kristoff and Olaf, who provided the laughs. Not every movie needs a male hero and Frozen is a good watch no matter what parts the characters may or may not have. Lack of male heroes is a stupid complaint. Our guess is that some conservative news outlets (in this case it was Fox who got upset) had a slow day, kind of like when Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One took heat for female main protagonists Rey and Jyn.
5. The Lion King – Are the Hyenas an Inner City Gang? (No, They’re Not)
We mentioned The Lion King earlier as an example of great lessons to be learned in Disney films, and learning from your past is a great message. This movie should be about as squeaky-clean as they come, but some people tried to read into some of the characters far too much, and tried to claim that because two of the hyena voices; Whoopi Goldberg (a black woman) and Cheech Marin (a Mexican-American man), were those of minority celebrities, that the movie had racist undertones. This is a textbook example of sentient complaint departments looking for a reason to get mad and finding one.
4. Moana – Concerns Over Obesity and Cultural Sensitivity
The most recent of the flicks on our list, 2016’s Moana is still in theaters (at the time of writing) and has been met with great acclaim. Furthermore, Disney went to great lengths to make this movie as pleasant as possible for everyone who would watch, especially those of Polynesian descent, as the movie deals with that culture and belief system.
A few university professors (the epitome of high-minded, self-important, sets of perpetually flapping jaws) have objected to the film’s portrayal of Maui; a demi-god portrayed by Dwayne Johnson. Disney spoke to numerous people in the region about this character, and according to their findings, he’s viewed differently in various places (hero, trickster), and some have complained that he was presented in an immature light in Disney’s film. They may be missing the point, it’s a Disney film. It is meant to entertain and make kids laugh while giving them a life lesson and also entertaining their parents.
The character of Maui was also criticized for his size in the film. He is a big guy, with a gut but also some significant muscle mass. He looks like a bodybuilder on a cheat week. Of course, because obesity is a large problem in the Polynesian islands, there is some problem with portraying one of the movie’s heroes the way Disney has. It’s 2016 and people everywhere want to be offended by everything. A children’s entertainment company went to great lengths to make an entertaining film featuring a strong, female lead and an interesting but little-known culture (to North Americans) and still there are people raving about how dreadful the movie is.
3. Hercules – Offensive to Christians?
Remember 1997’s Hercules? It was pretty funny, and featured a harsh but well-intentioned hero mentor voiced by Danny DeVito and a sarcastic, nonchalant, likable Hades voiced by James Woods. Of course, the movie tells a story of Heracles (Hercules), the son of Greek God Zeus. What I imagine is a very tiny minority of Christians took offense to the movie because of some imagery and a single line in one of the musical numbers. The complaint included the fact that there was a group of muses in the film who sang and resembled gospel singers, and one of the lines in a song includes the phrase “that’s the gospel truth”. Of course, very little (if anything) in Greek Mythology is linked to the story of Christianity and the Bible, so a few people were less than pleased. Chances are, the use of this word occurred because they needed two-syllables that meant “absolute” to make the song work, not to mock Christians.
Again, we must point out that it would be inaccurate to say that this film is offensive to Christians. Rather, it struck a nerve with a small group of that community who probably get offended by every Disney movie and likely experienced visions of the apocalypse when they saw the movie title (not Disney, of course) All Dogs Go to Heaven.
2. Tangled – Anti-Feminist and Anti-Semitic?
2010’s telling of the story of Rapunzel, Tangled was Disney’s attempt at a pro-feminist film. They characterized Rapunzel as an independent, strong, intelligent woman, but of course, the film was attacked for being against women because Rapunzel’s mother was controlling and obsessed with her youth. Many blogs ignored the fact that the main character pushed back against her mother’s authority throughout the story. Maybe to appease the feminist bloggers out there, Rapunzel should have ditched Eugene at the end of the film and bought a couple of cats. Sorry, was that offensive?
It has also been suggested that Rapunzel’s mother Gothel is anti-Semitic, but that accusation is based largely in the fact that she has somewhat “Jewish” features and controls her daughter in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a stereotypical Jewish mother. This criticism has received far less publicity and is most definitely a stretch.
1. The Lion King – Depiction of Africa
We already listed the hyena voices as a laughable non-controversy a bit earlier, but we need to go on a tirade about this next criticism. It has been suggested that The Lion King depicts Africa as a massive wildlife reserve devoid of human life. Of course this is untrue; Africa is home to over a billion people. The setting of Africa is completely unimportant to the plot of the movie however, and circumstantial given the fact that it is about anthropomorphic animals that live in that region.
Consider the plot of the film by the way, how would humans fit into the story? Would Scar have tricked Simba into leading his father into a trap set by some poachers? Could Timon and Pumbaa have been replaced by children from a village that Simba ends up living near after he ran away? Seriously, you need a road map to understand the “logic” of anyone saying that The Lion King presents an offensive portrayal of Africa.