Disney made its fame selling us stories about young damsels in distress saved by princes in shining armor. As the years went on, the stories became more about the development of the self and the knowledge that an internal armament can win as many wars as an army. Either way, it wouldn’t be wrong to say the entertainment factory has been the figurehead of the good-wins-over-evil narrative — an ever popular human struggle. To this end, it has produced over 140 films since the 1930s in a mix of live action and animation. The 1970s and ’80s saw the most prolific production of live action films with such titles as “Snowball Express,” “Return from Witch Mountain,” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
Usually billed with a Universal rating or at times PG, Walt Disney’s films have also been known for their good wholesome family fun; the kids and Grandma could sit in front of a Disney film confident in the knowledge that the only big elephant in the room would be Dumbo’s mum (and even she’d be wearing a hat and shawl).
But a few eagle-eyed among us have a different opinion of Disney’s saccharine image. From time to time, its films have been memed for their less than savory subtleties and references, good and bad. They include verbal references to sexism, racism, and homosexuality and even visual pointers to where animators’ minds have ended up with pen to paper. Let’s look a little more closely at some of the more eye-opening discoveries.
1. Pegasus (Hercules) – What’s Up With Hercules and Pegasus’ Relationship?
The 35th animated feature film from Disney, “Hercules” was released in 1997. Nominated for nine awards including a Golden Globe and an Oscar, it was applauded for its subject, animation, and music: “on any level, earthly or otherwise, the ingenious new animated Hercules is pretty divine.” But, on the other hand, some recall that it “provoked little more than a yawn.” Oh dear… well, we loved it, which is the most important thing. And the music was an out-of-this-world heady mix of pop, gospel, soul, R&B, and musical theater.
Throughout the film, the relationship between Hercules and his horse Pegasus is a little iffy. We suspect, on the one hand, that the “boy and his dog” trope works well for the kids, but, on the other, there’s a slightly cranked up bum-slapping buddy feel about the winged one. Here, Hercules shows Pegasus something behind a material screen, which smacks of the same locker-room vibe of “Top Gun.”
2. Horace (101 Dalmatians) – Shrinky Winky…
A Disney live-action film now. “101 Dalmatians” received a mixed reception, but Glenn Close‘s performance as Cruella de Vil was universally praised. The show was also panned by animal rights activists for hiking the profile of cute Dalmatian pups. A huge increase in sales of the animal later gave way to an equally big rise in euthanasia, although we wonder whether this can really be blamed on the film itself. Incidentally, “102 Dalmatians” was more or less a critical flop but still a commercial success.
3. Francis (A Bug’s Life) – Pollinating
This 1998 comedy adventure starred, among others, Dave Foley as Flik, an ant and inventor; Kevin Spacey as Hopper, the dictator of the grasshopper gang; and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Princess Atta, the soon-to-be queen of the colony. The story is a classic good-against-bad with some admirable subtexts on bullying and xenophobia. The film rallied the critics, one being Todd McCarthy, who opined, “And here they surpass it [“Toy Story”] in both scope and complexity of movement while telling a story.”
“A Bug’s Life” grossed approximately $33,258,052 on its opening weekend, ranking at the top for that weekend and managing to retain its spot for a whole fortnight afterward. Maybe that’s because of the awesome innuendos dotted throughout the script. For example, one of the Fly Brothers says to Francis, whom he believed to be a girl, “Hey, cutie! Wanna pollinate with a real bug?”
4. Mr. Potato Head (Toy Story) – Kiss My…
This comedy adventure film from 1995 was a surefire blockbuster. It received worldwide critical acclaim for its visual effects, soundtrack, and ability to “appeal to various age groups, specifically children and adults.” Disney went on to release two more with a fourth (Toy Story 4) heading for our cinemas in 2019. It seems to be one of those films that never dilute by the sequel.
The film is chock-full of adult references, which is one thing Disney’s subsidiary Pixar Animation Studios excels at. The genius of the film is to be, on the one hand, a PG caper for the kids, while on the other, a film that can be fully appreciated by the grown-ups. Mr. Potato Head, in this scene, is seen taking the lips off of his face and motioning them repeatedly to his rear end. Performed right in front of “butt-kisser” Slinky, it’s his own special way of saying what needs to be said.
5. Little Chef (Ratatouille)
A glorious film about food, love, and little-versus-big, “Ratatouille” was released in 2007. It received a round of applause from critics worldwide with one saying, “A nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film.” We think that’s about spot on. Although admittedly, it follows a tried and tested formula, the results are stunning.
The story follows an ambitious young rat called Remy to the dizzying heights of Parisian haute cuisine. At the same time, he forges a friendship with his host human, the young Linguini. Linguini falls in love with a fellow chef, Colette, and in an awkward moment, Linguini attempts to explain Remy’s involvement in his life. He begins by saying, “I have this tiny little, er…” at which Colette’s eyes dart quickly down to below his waist and up again. It’s subtle, but we caught it.
6. Mike And Sulley (Monsters Inc.) – Gay?
This 2001 animated comedy centers around a “monster world powered by energy from the screams of human children.” It stars John Goodman as Sulley and Billy Crystal as his friend, Mike. It was highly regarded after its release and became a major box office sensation, generating over $577 million in worldwide revenue. 12 years after its initial release, a prequel, Monsters University, was released to as many glowing reviews and almost equal revenue.
True to form, the guys at Pixar (in particular writers Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird and Dan Scanlon) wanted to give their audiences, which comprised of children and adults, something to grab hold of so that the animation and narrative suited all. During one scene, Mike talks to his date about Sulley and tells her he’s “the most beautiful monster in Monstropolis.” Sulley’s immediate appearance suggests the two have a homosexual relationship.
7. Jessica Rabbit (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) – Does the Carpet Match The Drapes?
Released in 1988 and backed by the talent of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, among others, this film received massive critical acclaim and is still thought of as one of the great animations. It won three competitive Academy Awards and a Special Achievement Award. What’s more, it was soon to be the instigator of several homages to the “golden age of American animation,” having been itself a successful account of that era.
We’re interested in a particular scene where both Jessica Rabbit and Bob Hoskins are riding through town in a toon taxi. The animated cab swerves and spins off the road, throwing its passengers free. As Jessica begins to spin and before she lands on the pavement, her skirt has ridden up high enough to show off her, erm… nether regions. You have to be quick, but if you freeze-frame the dolled up bunny, you’ll see what we mean.
8. Zazu (The Lion King) – Are Those Breasts?
In this film, British actor Rowan Atkinson played the voice of Zazu, a red-billed hornbill and Simba’s faithful adviser. The film was an unparalleled success. Released on June 15, 1994, to positive reviews, the critics were glowing about its spectacular music, narrative, and animation. It finished its cinema run as the highest-grossing release of 1994 and the second highest of all time. It also inspired a 1997 musical of the same name, which is still being performed around the world to this day.
In one scene, Zazu is flying across a desert drawn as a barren featureless world of dunes with the odd palm tree placed for interest. What may not have been noticed by many who went to see the film was the shape of the desert; as he passes over two sand dunes, we notice the striking similarity to a pair of breasts. Coincidence? Hardly. We think the animators had their fun with this one.
9. Ken (Toy Story 3) – “I’m Not a Boy’s Toy”
Back to the Toy Story franchise now and number “3” released in 2010. It starred many of the same characters: Woody, Buzz, Jessie and a newbie Barbie, played by Jodie Benson. The story focuses on the toys and their friends dealing with an “uncertain future” as Andy, their owner, prepares to leave home. The film became the highest grossing animation ever making a total of $1.067 billion worldwide. Not bad for a story about essentially inanimate objects.
Michael Arndt was the sole screenwriter for the animation which won or was nominated for countless awards, including Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. In one scene, Barbie meets Ken at the Sunnyside Daycare center, and he shows her around his boudoir. The script hints at Ken’s dubious sexuality; he sports a walk-in closet and a full gimp suit. Ken mentions quite plainly that he’s “not a girl’s toy,” meaning either that he doesn’t want the other toys thinking he’s gay or that he’s a boy’s toy, which, of course, could have a whole other meaning.
10. That Shadow (Peter Pan)
Animated fantasy film “Peter Pan” was released in 1953. It was based on the play “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” originally written by J M Barrie. The fourteenth animated cartoon under the Disney banner, it was mostly praised by critics after its release. But the film has been slated in recent years as racist and mocking of the Native American. According to some, the film portrays them as “wild, savage, violent, and speaking in a stereotypical way.”
A scene in the film where Peter Pan dances with his shadow has, for some time now, been doing the rounds as an example of Disney’s cheeky Easter egg hunts. Whether deliberate or by mistake, the shadow on the wall appears to have a very distinct penis, although when the shadow is referenced to the solid figure, the “penis” could well be the tail of Pan’s suit.
11. Annie James (The Parent Trap)
This 1998 family comedy follows the story of Nicholas Parker (Dennis Quaid) and Elizabeth James (Natasha Richardson) who play a couple who file for divorce pretty soon after marrying. Lindsay Lohan plays both Annie James and Hallie Parker, 11-year-old twins who were separated shortly after birth and “following their parents’ divorce, were raised separately with no knowledge of each other.”
It’s a Disney film with a difference, it has to be said, because it touches openly on some bigger adult issues. As such, it resonated with both children and adults who had been through the same thing, so the producers could be excused for adding a little grown-up angst to the script. When Annie goes shopping with her mum, she asks whether what her mum does for a living (making wedding dresses) brings the f-word to mind, for which she clarifies, “Father.” It’s subtle, but it’s there.
12. The Genie (Aladdin) – The Honeymoon Joke
Animated musical fantasy Aladdin, released in 1992, was another smasher, although it garnered some mixed reviews. On one hand, it was applauded for its actors’ performances and music, and Warner Bros. Cartoons director Chuck Jones even called the film “the funniest feature ever made,” but on the other, Slant Magazine called it “racist, ridiculous, and a narcissistic circus act.” Nevertheless, it was widely regarded as yet another smash hit in a long line of them from Disney studios.
There are one or two lewd references to homosexuality and most of the dirty jokes, as we might expect, came from Robin Williams who excelled in comedy ad-libbing. However, this frame, with The Genie dressed as a Sultan, shows how ambiguous Disney can be. Of course, they’d deny it, but we think the words “I thought the earth wasn’t supposed to move until after the honeymoon” are an awesome reference to bumping uglies.
13. Road signs (Cars) – Convertible Waitresses?
OK, we’ll cheat a little with this one. Directed and co-written by John Lasseter (and six other writers), the 2006 animation was Pixar’s final independently-produced motion picture before it was bought out by Disney. That said, the sequels “Cars 2” and “3” and several other spin-offs have been released since under the Mickey banner, so we don’t feel that bad. The film features the awesome voices of actors like Owen Wilson and Paul Newman, and the film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.
“Cars” is packed with references to adult themes, and yet, is a superbly entertaining PG movie. The British Board of Film Classification tells us it “contains mild language and scary moments,” but at no stage did anyone mention the road signs in this still: A “top down” truck stop with “all convertible waitresses” seems to be veering toward something racier.
14. Sulley (Monsters Inc.) – The Voyeur
Back to Sulley and Mike and the colorful Metropolis of Monsters Inc. “filled with houses, buildings, businesses, cars, and everything that makes a city run smoothly along with a population.” As the film progresses, Sulley grows attached to a young girl called “Boo.” Mike eventually succumbs to her charms, although he’s less enamored with the ward at the start.
In general, the film was deemed “clever, funny, and delightful to look at [and] delivers another resounding example of how Pixar elevated the bar for modern all-ages animation.” And as if to prove a case in point, the scene we’re interested in is when Sulley is looking for Boo in a public lavatory; the monster crawls on the floors to find the girl as Mike walks in then asks, “What are you doing?” A suggestion, some say, about Sulley hoping for some voyeuristic action. Shudder.