Disney’s Retroactive Editing

In Featured, Industry Insights, Joe Campbell by Amanda Valdovinos

– By Joe Campbell –

When Toy Story 2 was re-released on blu-ray this year, fans were quick to notice something was missing.  During the end credits a blooper reel full of character “outtake” plays, often having Woody, Buzz, and the gang break character as on-set shenanigans ensue.  The blooper reel was still there, but one bit involving elderly prospector Stinky Pete chatting with a few Barbies was gone from the montage. In this bit, Stinky Pete admiringly comments on how similar the beautiful Barbies are, then follows that up with, “I’m sure I can get you a part in Toy Story 3…”, before jumping in embarrassment in discovering he’s being filmed.

In 2018, Toy Story 2 director (and one of Pixar’s founders) John Lasseter left Pixar after allegations of sexual misconduct came to light.  In the wake of the #MeToo movement, especially after the accusations against Lasseter, the clip with Stinky Pete feels especially uncomfortable, seeming to make a gag out of a disgusting history some producers have had of offering actresses roles for sexual favors.  It’s understandable that Disney would want to distance itself from anything even mildly controversial, but there’s a bigger conversation to be had out of all this.

Toy Story 2 is hardly the first time Disney has gone back and edited its history in the name of good taste.  Shortly after the release of Aladdin, Disney altered a lyric at the request of the Arab-American community (the line, “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” was changed to “where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense”), a racist caricature was edited out of Fantasia, and when Disney’s upcoming streaming service (Disney+) launches later this year, don’t expect to see the scene with the crows in the online version of Dumbo.  In its most famous example, Disney has elected to bury an entire film, Song of the South (1946), as the movie about sing-song, happy plantation workers has yet to see any official release in the States.

While Disney’s choice to clean up the ethical image of its past movies is understandable, and even praised by many (some claim Disney hasn’t gone far enough, as the song “What Makes the Red Man Red” has yet to be edited or deleted from any version of Peter Pan), it opens up questions about the line between historical preservation and moral obligation.  Should these problematic memories from an outdated era be erased completely? Is there an argument that they should be preserved as a witness to how far we’ve come, or is the damage their existence can cause greater than their historical significance?

First of all, it’s shortsighted to wave off that these scenes are “not that bad to begin with,” as many defenders would have us think.  It’s true that some are more offensive than others to various degrees, but just because the good-natured, free-wheeling crows in Dumbo aren’t as outlandishly offensive as the subservient dark-skinned centaur in Fantasia doesn’t mean both haven’t negatively impacted black viewers.  If the people who are most directly affected are saying these portrayals are hurting them, we should listen.  We should have versions of these movies that preserve the joy they bring but exclude the harmful material. This isn’t like Birth of a Nation where the offensive elements are burned into the story at its core, these are easily removable bits in films that ultimately are better without them.

There’s also an argument to be made for doing away with the original versions entirely and keeping only the cleaned up movies for future generations.  There will always be racists, misogynists, and other hate-filled degradants around, and as long as offensive content exists, they will weaponize it.  It may be something as actionable as showing Triumph of the Will to hype up a dangerous movement or it may be as passive as wanting to raise their kids on “the true” version of Aladdin that has that one line they like.  Anything we can do to make hate more difficult to circulate should be pursued, even if it means losing a piece of a movie that “isn’t all that bad” to begin with.

But I’m dubious about handing over gatekeeping of this material to any one corporation, especially one so massively all-encompassing as Disney.  Even aside from this retroactive censorship, Disney has a dangerous track record when it comes to preserving its past. If it’s so easy for them to eliminate offensive moments from past movies, what’s to stop them from  altering pieces of art (as these movies are) in the name of commercialism?

When Brian Henson original directed A Muppet Christmas Carol, he included an emotional song for the normally irascible Ebonezer Scrooge (played by Michael Caine).  It’s a tender, quiet moment meant to expose Scrooge’s surprising humanity, and Henson fought for it. But the heads at Disney had him cut it because they thought kids would get antsy during the song.  Since then, the originally intended version of the movie has been reinstated on and off with various home video releases, but as of now, this important moment has been excluded from the most recent blu-ray releases of the movie.

Another area where Disney has been negligent is in remastering its catalogue of classics.  In some cases, the image isn’t merely cleaned up for high definition, it’s completely taken apart, recolored and digitally altered, then put back together.  Because of this process, the films often feature different colors than in the original animation and details such as line work can be erased altogether (this can be notably seen in how Cinderella’s dress goes from layered fabric to a block of color between the original release and the blu-ray)  It seems their restoration process is less about preserving the original animation for future generations and more about presenting something shiny and new that doesn’t look like it was shot half a century ago.

Considering how callous Disney has been with preserving some of its past, I’m worried about giving it free rein to determine what is and isn’t acceptable.  We live in an age when more and more movies are being lost forever to time, degradation, and destruction. While we celebrate each re-discovered film that had thought to have been lost forever, why are we so quick to deliberately erase elements we do have?  Part of growing as a society is seeing how far we’ve come by looking at how we got here.  I think there’s something to be said for keeping these problematic scenes intact to show why they weren’t acceptable, why they were tolerated back when they came out, and in many cases to document the growth of film history.

But Disney is understandably not in the historical preservation business, and they release entertainment meant to be absorbed by impressionable children to love and cherish.  I get why they’re doing this, and in many respects it’s commendable, so how do we conserve these important works without losing their commercial potential?

One way would be to host screenings of the unaltered versions, whether in theaters with supplemental introductions outlining the history of the films or as part of an art exhibit.  Another possible solution would be to include the offensive scenes as separate bonus features on future blu-ray releases, with appropriate disclaimers and contextual descriptions. Maybe even include the full, uncensored versions as a secondary option (much how the theatrical edition of Star Wars was included as a special feature on a second disc in one DVD release).  When Warner Bros. released a backlog of some of their outdated and offensive cartoons, they included an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg talking about how they reflect an important part of history that shouldn’t be excused or ignored.  “These jokes were wrong then and they’re wrong today,” she said, “but removing these inexcusable images and jokes would be the same as saying they never existed…”

Whoopi Goldberg is also a driving force behind campaigning for Disney to re-release Song of the South today and even merchandise the controversial crows from Dumbo in an attempt to repossess their status as memorably positive figures rather than shameful caricatures that should be buried.  You may agree or disagree with how drastic her measures may seem, but I think the spirit of her sentiment is in the right place.  We can not and should not rewrite history to fit our ever evolving understanding of ourselves and social issues. We also should have appropriately consumable versions of classic movies for our children to grow up with.  I don’t think the two ideals need to be mutually incompatible.

About the Author

Joe Campbell graduated from JPCatholic in 2012. He now works as a production manager for filmilliterates.com, in addition to being a stay-at-home dad to two kids.  He was born, raised, and currently lives just outside Seattle, Washington.  Some of his favorite filmmakers include Andrei Tarkovsky, Sam Raimi, and Joe Dante.  Besides film, his other interests include hiking, the board game Dominion, and coffee.

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