What Other Things May Disney Need to Modernize?
Disney officials recently announced that the company is finally willing to address a historical embarrassment.
Back in the day, Disney chose to theme Splash Mountain to Song of the South, which was a poor decision at the time. Today, it’s just…yikes!
What other attractions may Disney need to modernize?
Dumbo the Flying Elephant
Disney+ has made parts of this conversation straightforward. When the streaming service arrived, it came with some caveats.
Film executives added warnings to some of the films that came from the Disney Vault. They understood that cultural norms have changed over the past 90 years.
Something that seemed entertaining in the 1940s may appear offensive today.
In fact, we’ll discuss something later that few minded as recently as five years ago.
The world changes fast, and Disney doesn’t want to alienate customers by celebrating vestiges of prior eras that no longer exemplify societal beliefs.
Oddly, one of those titles is Dumbo. Pull up the movie on Disney+ if you don’t believe me.
You’ll notice a warning that states, “(Dumbo) may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
Specifically, the film includes some crows, one of which goes by the name of Jim. Yes, there’s a character named Jim Crow in Dumbo.
Disney wisely chose to drop that character from the 2019 Dumbo remake.
A producer from the film explained:
“It’s funny, you hear people like, ‘Oh, I hope the crows are in it!
But the screenplay that we received didn’t have it in there, and while I’ve never heard anything officially from Disney on it, probably any which way you’d try to represent that it wouldn’t work.”
This statement makes perfect sense. And it shows that Disney got a bit lucky, too.
Dumbo the Flying Elephant opened at Disneyland in 1955, but Imagineers thankfully didn’t include the crows on the ride.
If they had, this attraction would desperately need an overhaul to modernize it. Thankfully, there’s no reason to do it without the crow problem.
So, Dumbo the Flying Elephant will remain as you know and love it.
Hall of Presidents
Here’s where the discussion grows more challenging.
At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Walt Disney and his Imagineers built an attraction for the State of Illinois Pavilion.
To this day, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln remains in operation, and that one’s fine.
After all, Lincoln’s arguably the most heroic President of the United States ever.
Unfortunately, several of the other Presidents on that stage were slave owners, criminals, and warmongers.
A reason why many people hate to learn about world history is that much of it is messy. The phrase, “Never meet your heroes” exists for a reason.
Some of the people you admire from history are, well, lacking in character.
Right now, Disney has no need to alter the Hall of Presidents.
However, recent events have demonstrated that a situation can turn at a moment’s notice.
A bunch of longstanding statues seemed safe right up until they toppled to the ground.
So, I don’t expect any changes to the Hall of Presidents. Still, I also can’t totally rule it out, depending on whether someone suddenly grows unpopular.
Peter Pan’s Flight
Peter Pan represented a lifelong passion project for Uncle Walt. That doesn’t mean that everything about it is acceptable today, though.
Once again, I invite you to search for the film on Disney+. You’ll see this disclaimer:
“This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”
Specifically, the representation of the Native Americans is problematic, at least to anyone not named Dan Snyder.
Clichés abound, and that IS a problem for Disney theme parks.
Peter Pan’s Flight is a staple at five of them, with only Hong Kong Disneyland lacking the attraction.
Unfortunately, the Native American scenes are a part of the set pieces, and they’re undeniably presented in stereotypical fashion.
Then again, so are the mermaids and pirates. I’m not saying this to be glib, as I have Cherokee heritage and certainly don’t want to be dismissive here.
Instead, I’m suggesting that many attractions require broad strokes since we only watch them for a few moments.
Otherwise, the story wouldn’t qualify as distinguishable. And story matters to Disney.
Ergo, I think the odds of this one changing are quite low for now. Again, that could change at a moment’s notice, though.
Not everything under discussion here involves a theme park. Disney recently acquired ownership of many Fox licenses, including The Simpsons.
If you’ve watched Disney+ any since its debut, you know this.
The series has dominated the Trending chart, meaning it’s the most popular Disney+ offering.
However, The Simpsons has a problem. Since its inception, the program has featured a character named Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
You may know where this is going.
In 2017, an American Hindu comedian named Hari Kondabolu wrote and starred in a documentary named The Problem with Apu.
This movie meticulously chronicles the uncomfortable stereotypes with the character.
Hank Azaria, the voice actor for Apu, appreciated the argument and has already settled on a solution. He has retired from portraying Apu in future episodes.
As recently as 2020, the show’s creator, Matt Groening, has indicated that Apu will remain.
Since then, the concept of cultural misappropriation has become more of a hot-button topic.
Other Caucasian actors have withdrawn from roles where they voice people of different races, genders, and colors.
This is a time to acknowledge our acts of complicity. Heres 1 of mine. Playing the Molly in Central Park shows a lack of awareness of my pervasive privilege. Casting a mixed race character w/a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race & Black American experience. pic.twitter.com/8AL8m4K7Uk
— Kristen Bell (@KristenBell) June 25, 2020
Disney may need to overrule Groening on the continued appearance of Apu, as the character does cause discomfort for some people.
That’s a problem for a show whose goal is to produce laughter and some intellectual enlightenment. Apu has become a step backward.
At a minimum, I expect Disney to recast the role with an Indian character. Alternatively, Apu may go away for good.
Update: After this article was completed, The Simpsons updated its casting policies.
Fox, the broadcast network for the series, has decided that The Simpsons will no longer have caucasian actors voice non-caucasian characters.
Once again, Disney’s leading by example on this topic.
Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room
Speaking of cultural misappropriation, let’s talk about the birds who live in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
The walls of this building suggest Polynesian heritage, but some of the voices are decidedly from south of the border.
Press materials describe the lead bird, Jose, as laid back and slightly lazy.
So, Jose sounds and acts like Cheech Marin in virtually every Cheech Marin movie, but he’s voiced by Wally Boag, an Oregonian.
This show comes with several uncomfortable aspects like that, which is understandable to a certain degree.
Comedy requires broad strokes to appeal to everyone, and the Enchanted Tiki Room has entertained children (of all ages) for half a century now.
However, the attraction may need some retooling. Disney’s been reluctant to replace the voices on some of its oldest attractions.
Modernizing the voice actors may make the birds more entertaining for modern audiences, too.
Disney has good reason to make this change, but I’m doubtful that the outcry is strong enough to necessitate it.
Walt Disney’s Statue and Other Paraphernalia
Okay, here’s the most awkward conversation of all. Please remember that I love Disney as much as you and have written millions of words on the topic.
However, I’ll post this quote about Uncle Walt: ““Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!”
Who said these brutally harsh words? The answer is someone who could legitimately call the man, Uncle Walt, his grand-niece, Abigail Disney.
Here’s how the still-living Disney described her ancestor’s complicated legacy:
“(Walt Disney) has also encouraged that most grim and American tendency to gloss over the untidy complexities of life, sometimes at great cost to the lived experiences of many others.”
However, Abigail Disney also says:
“(Disney) has rightly and admirably brought a lot of pleasure – joy even– to a lot of people who needed it given that life can be hard and pleasure hard to come by.”
These statements exemplify the divide in the entire conversation. Future generations always struggle with the legacies left by those who came before.
Even someone who is a blood relative isn’t quite sure how to perceive someone who lived two generations before her but whose impact remains to this day.
Should park officials diminish the presence of Walt Disney in parks? I don’t think any of us want that, even though some of his grandniece’s accusations hit home.
Nobody knows for sure what will seem right or wrong in 65 years. The remarkable part of the discussion is that people still care so much today.
So, don’t expect a new resident at Walt Disney’s Apartment or the removal of the Best Friends statue. It will NOT happen.
No matter how much the world changes, the Happiest Place on Earth will always celebrate the existence of the man who created it.
Feature Image Credit: Matt Stroshane/Bloomberg via Getty Images