Disney+ "Outdated Cultural Depictions" Disclaimer Raises Questions, Say Advocacy Groups

RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest; Walt Disney Pictures/Photofest; Buena Vista Distribution Company/Photofest
From left: Disney's 'Dumbo' (1941), 'The Jungle Book' (1967), 'Peter Pan' (1953), 'Lady and the Tramp' (1955)

Several representatives of minority advocacy groups spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about their reactions to the streamer's disclaimer for films such as 1967's 'The Jungle Book' and 1953's 'Peter Pan.'

As 10 million Disney+ subscribers browse through the new streaming platform's hefty film and TV library, a line at the end of select content summaries might catch their attention: "This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions." 

The disclaimer appears with some animated Disney classics such as 1967's The Jungle Book and 1953's Peter Pan, offering caution to viewers of racist and culturally insensitive depictions and references in the plots and characters of those movies.

But just which films and shows meet the criteria for the disclaimer is not clear. Jungle Book received a disclaimer, yet its 2003 animated sequel did not. Additionally, 1992's animated Aladdin, criticized for its racist depictions of Middle Eastern and Arab culture, does not feature the warning in its synopsis.

Several representatives of minority advocacy groups spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about their reactions to the Disney+ disclaimer and what, if any, extra measures can be enacted by Disney to caution viewers of culturally insensitive material. Overall, group representatives say they appreciate efforts made by Disney to recognize "outdated cultural depictions" while advocating for films like Aladdin or 1995’s Pocahontas to also receive the disclaimer.

"I would hope that Disney would do it for all the films that might include some things that are a little outdated," says Azita Ghanizada, founder of MENA (Middle Eastern North African) Arts Advocacy Coalition. "Especially with Aladdin, with those orientalized tropes that we're kind of pushing back against."

Ghanizada notes a 2015 Public Policy Poll in which one-third of Republican primary voters supported bombing the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, the setting of Aladdin.

"These animated films teach us so much, and especially young kids," Ghanizada says. "It would be great if Disney did it across the board for all of their older cartoons that may be a little insensitive."

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), says he has never seen 1992's Aladdin himself, but he was friends with Don Bustany, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and late deejay Casey Kasem, who were a part of a successful campaign to change problematic lyrics in Aladdin's introductory song "Arabian Nights." 

"They had meetings to talk about their concerns about how it was stereotyping Arab culture and how they wanted to get one line of the song changed," recalls Aoki. "I know that they would be very disappointed that there is not even a disclaimer to acknowledge that there are some questionable things in that film."

In Disney’s animated Pocahontas, the most striking inaccuracies are her age (she was a child when she met Captain John Smith, according to Encyclopedia Britannica) and there was no real romantic relationship between the two.

In Peter Pan, offensive Native Americans caricatures appear throughout the story, along with the problematic song, "What Makes the Red Man Red." Lady and the Tramp and another Disney animated animal film, Aristocats, both feature cats that mock Asian Americans with illustration and voice acting.

Looking further back, 1940's Fantasia has been criticized for the depiction of a black centaurette called Sunflower polishing the hooves of a white centaurette, as well as another named Otika who briefly appears in the Pastoral Symphony segment.

Sonny Skyhawk, founder of American Indians in Film and Television, tells THR that films such as 1995's Pocahontas and 2013's The Lone Ranger require the disclaimer due to inaccuracies and insensitivity towards the Native American community. For The Lone Ranger specifically, Skyhawk explained Johnny Depp taking on the role of Tonto, described as a spirit warrior from the Comanche tribe, was offensive casting resulting in an offensive character. 

"We talked to people at Disney about that depiction ... I said there are probably a hundred [Native] people of that caliber that can do that and yet you're going to try and force Johnny Depp down our throat," says Skyhawk. "That's basically what they did and it's the arrogance of Hollywood and the arrogance of Disney to say it's our idea, it's our money and we're going to do it, whether you like it or not."

Ian Skorodin, director of strategy and outreach for the Barcid Foundation (a Native American non-profit organization), adds that it is unfortunate" that Pocahontas did not receive a disclaimer. 

"Is it inaccurate? Yes. Is it stereotypical? Yes," Skorodin says. But, he adds, with Native American actress Irene Bedard as the voice of Pocahontas in the film, some in his community might both enjoy and accept it as presented. 

He says that while working with young filmmakers, he has never insisted "they don't watch it or they don't appreciate it or that it's wrong.

"We just let them know that it is a piece of media from another time," Skorodin says.

Aoki, who has worked with Disney-owned ABC in the past as a part of the Asian Pacific American Media Colation, says he has concerns that the language in the disclaimer would not be understandable to a younger audience, likely the biggest demographic for the massive Disney+ library that dates back over eight decades. 

Aoki believes it should specifically note what the issue of each film is, rather than offering up an ambiguous line. "It would be helpful if they were more specific as to what's the problem because I think people can learn from this," he says. Extra commentary could be added to films requiring a disclaimer, he explains, such as the 2009 DVD rerelease of Breakfast at Tiffany's that includes a featurette Aoki participated in, discussing Mickey Rooney's problematic character "Mr. Yunioshi."

"We had several people from MANAA talking about the concerns of yellowface and what was wrong with Mickey Rooney's portrayal," he adds. "It was even broader than that because we talked about the history of stereotypes and the lack of roles for Asian Americans. That was really fantastic of [Paramount] to do that."

Ghanizada says the language feels "similar to the warning that this program contains nudity or violence," adding that it is a broad catchall. "It protects the filmmaker from feedback. If you are a younger person and you're watching something and that you're not aware that there's potential violence or now, cultural insensitivity, I think [the disclaimer] is kind of protecting [filmmakers] the same way that it does those other catchphrases."

Still, she says that Disney's decision to include a disclaimer is appreciated, noting it is "the first step to correcting things that might not have been thought about 10, 20, 30 years ago when these [films] were being made." 

Aoki echoes that sentiment, saying he finds Disney today to be "a totally different company from the one that existed even 20, 25 years ago." He adds: "I spoke to a Disney executive a few years ago who told me that, I think it was every Friday, [CEO] Bob Iger has a meeting with all the company heads, including Marvel and Pixar and everybody that is under their corporate umbrella, and he says, ’OK, report to me what you have done to further diversity at this company.’ So it's not lip service as far as, 'Oh, yes, we believe in diversity and we try to have open casting.'"

Skyhawk notes that even with disclaimers, the damage created by outdated depictions will be difficult to erase: "That having been said, I'm just glad that we're now entering a new phase of sensitivity towards minorities and including the native people of America that is long overdue."

Disney did not respond to THR's request for comment.