Disney Plus wants to keep its streaming content family-friendly, even if that means accepting ridicule for awkwardly editing digital hair onto Daryl Hannah’s naked butt in Splash. But why not just ban anything that isn’t strictly G-rated from the platform, and bump it to Hulu?
For one thing, not all ratings are created equal. Most of the Marvel and Star Wars movies have gotten PG-13 ratings, and evicting those films to Hulu would put a damper on some of the site’s biggest selling points. There’s also the fact that even within the Disney animated canon, the difference between PG and G movies has been fuzzy. In fact, some of the G-rated movies deal with darker and weightier themes than the movies that earned PG ratings for possibly raunchy jokes.
To put things in perspective, PG-rated Disney movies include Tangled, Frozen, and Finding Dory (though not Finding Nemo). While those movies contain their share of fantasy peril (Flynn dying in Rapunzel’s arms!), thematic action (Dory and Hank hijack a truck), and slightly crude humor (Princess Anna’s mild innuendo “Shoe size doesn’t matter!” in Frozen), there are pieces of the Disney and Pixar animated canon that touch on war, genocide, and sexual desire, but still slide away with a G rating.
Dark themes in G-rated movies aren’t unheard of. Both the original 1968 Planet of the Apes and 2001: A Space Odyssey are rated G, though that’s less about those films being aimed at children, and more about the fact that the PG and PG-13 ratings didn’t exist when those movies came out. (The ratings system was first introduced in 1968, which also means we don’t know how the ratings board would have handled things like Bambi’s mother dying in 1942’s Bambi.) Ratings are contentious, blurry creatures — a couple of F-bombs can put an otherwise family-friendly movie like Erin Brockovich in the same category as the bloody Kill Bill, while the ratings board was kinder to Daryl Hannah’s naked butt back in 1984 than the Disney Plus censors were in 2020.
It’s not that children can’t process mature themes. It’s just worth noting that historically, there hasn’t been much consistency in deciding what content requires parental guidance. Here are some other Disney movies that get away with gruesome deaths and heavy themes, but still pulled off a G rating.
The Lion King (1994)
The death of original lion king Mufasa is incredibly sad and traumatizing. Unlike Disney’s other tragic mid-film animal-parent death in Bambi, Mufasa actually dies onscreen — and instead of the realities of the animal world, it’s cold-blooded murder. Even more distressing, The Lion King has Mufasa’s son Simba nuzzling and even cuddling up to his father’s broken corpse. The villainous Scar also meets an unusually gruesome ending. While he falls from a great height like so many Disney villains before him, it’s not the plummet that kills him, but his own band of once-loyal hyenas. They make it explicitly clear that they want to enact their revenge on him by eating him alive, since they’ve been shut out of the fruitful bounties he promised them — and the animation makes it clear that that’s exactly what happens, even as he cowers and pleads for his life.
Pocahontas is one of Disney’s attempts at a more mature animated film, and it handles some pretty hefty themes. There is, of course, the prevalent overarching Us vs. Them narrative, a sanitized version of colonialism that asks “What if both sides were kinda shitty?”, though it ultimately pins all the problems on one greedy man. While the underlying colonialism and the convenient scapegoat won’t hit kids till they’re older, this Disney movie does contain a scene where a supposed good guy kills another good guy. Mild-mannered British colonist Thomas, sent to spy on John Smith, kills the stoic Native American Kocoum, who was similarly watching out for his betrothed, Pocahontas. The shooting is presented as an act of defense — Kocoum attacks John Smith for daring to kiss Pocahontas, so Thomas jumps to John’s defense. For all intents and purposes, it’s a pretty tame death, with no blood or particularly intense violence, but young, naïve Thomas still has to grapple with the fact he killed someone. And because of his actions, John Smith is sent to get executed by being bludgeoned in the head. Pocahontas doesn’t expressly take place during a war, but the climatic scene shows both the Native Americans and the colonists grabbing arms, ready to kill one another as they type each other as inhuman “savages.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
While Disney watered down the more intense, macabre themes of Victor Hugo’s novel, the villain’s main motivation is that he’s horny for a woman who won’t reciprocate his advances, so he decides to burn her at the stake and commit genocide. Judge Frollo starts out as a racist hypocrite, but his creepy lust spurs his master plan into action. A whole sequence involves Frollo and his lackeys rounding up the Romani people and eventually setting fire to an innocent family’s house. The opening sequence sees him running down a young woman on horseback and kicking her to death without remorse, then nearly throwing her baby down a well. (For what it’s worth, if you’re a real stickler, this is also the animated Disney movie that gets closest to swearing: When hunchback Quasimodo recites his daily alphabet, he says “Damnation!” for the letter D and “Eternal Damnation!” for E.)
This is the only Disney movie that explicitly takes place in the middle of a war. The moment when Mulan’s pals joyfully sing about their romantic fantasies, then stop short when they discover a desolated village, burnt to the ground, all its inhabitants slain, is absolutely chilling. They then move on to a battlefield covered in frozen corpses, clearly including the commander seen earlier in the movie — one of Mulan’s friends retrieves his helmet and brings it to the commander’s son, presumably since the body is too mangled or frozen to retrieve. So Mulan saves the day by causing an avalanche, single-handedly slaughtering an entire massive army of Mongols. (Mulan is also the rare Disney movie to actually feature a bloody wound — with more visible blood than we see in Tangled, which was rated PG in part because of its mild violence.)
Tarzan kicks off with a pretty perilous depiction of a storm, which itself isn’t terribly scary, though it implies that everyone on board with Tarzan’s parents tragically drowned. Tarzan’s parents get mauled to death by a jaguar, and presumably eaten, given the bloodstains Tarzan’s adoptive gorilla mom Kala sees when she comes around to investigate. Tarzan’s loneliness in the animal world and his desperation to connect to both his gorilla family and the incoming humans are highlighted all the more because of the loss of his parents.
At the end of the movie, the villainous hunter Clayton dies when he gets tangled in vines and accidentally slashes the wrong one, hanging himself. At the end, lightning flashes, and the silhouette of his mangled corpse is briefly illuminated.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
This film’s misappropriation of voodoo turns a real-world ritual spiritual practice into the magical act of summoning terrifying shadow creatures. Disney villains don’t shy away from being scary, but Princess and the Frog nemesis Dr. Facilier feels less theatrically grandiose than many Disney villains, and closer to something out of a horror movie. In the transformation song sequence where Facilier traps suave Prince Naveen to turn him into a frog, Dr. Facilier forcibly draws Naveen’s blood to use in a talisman. The split-second drop of blood isn’t the horrifying thing about this sequence — it’s the way Naveen is writhing and trying to get away from Facilier’s snakes. It sets him up as a formidable villain, going after what he wants and doing anything to get it. But the real kicker is Facilier’s fate: he’s literally dragged to hell by his own shadow creatures, leaving his terrified face engraved on a tombstone.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
The original Toy Story had its creepy moments stemming from dissected or destroyed toys, and its tragic elements as space toy Buzz Lightyear came to terms with his own toyhood. The sequel got even grimmer, by interrogating the relationship between the toy cast’s immortality, and the fleeting, ephemeral nature of childhood. Toy Story 3 continues this trend, taking it up a notch by thrusting the toy characters right into the fiery maw of death. The shock isn’t that they’re about to die, it’s that they’re given several long, strained, frightened moments to contemplate the notion of ceasing to exist (is there even a toy afterlife?) and accept that they’re going to meet their end. Also, that big broken baby doll creeping around in the nighttime scenes is downright terrifying.
The list of Disney movies with PG ratings has increased in the last few years. Is the ratings board getting more squeamish about darker moments that might potentially upset parents looking for completely unobjectionable content? Both Zootopia and The Hunchback of Notre Dame deal with systemic oppression, abuse, and violence, but Zootopia wound up with the PG rating. Inside Out, where characters come to terms with sadness being a part of life, apparently hit the ratings board harder than Toy Story 3, where the characters come to terms with death. The brief moment of blood in Tangled is shorter than in Mulan, but it is rendered in CG, which may make it more lifelike to the ratings board. Arguably, animated movies now lean on much more adult humor, than they did in past decades, which definitely plays into the idea that the ratings board comes down harder on off-color language and anything implying sex than it does on overt violence and tense action. Then again, in these darker G-rated movies, the weightiness doesn’t come from the excessive violence so much as it does the more mature themes.
Weaving in themes of war, racism, and death in a G-rated film is a way of reminding families that these themes can be discussed without the use of excessive violence. While some of the imagery may be frightening and heartbreaking (has anyone really gotten over Simba trying to wake up his dead father?), they are rarely used for shock value — they’re about speaking to these stories’ greater themes, just like the often dark fairy tales and folklore that inspired these stories. The entire Toy Story series is about coming to terms with immortality, if you really think about it, and even though Pocahontas dulls down the actual conflict, it still presents an argument against prejudice. Thematically, these movies present mature concepts in easy-to-digest ways. The moments of tragedy and horror aren’t errors, or exploitation. They’re evidence that children can handle these concepts.
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