Peter Rabbit and 8 Other Controversial Kids Movies
When the new live action/animated adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit stories was released in the US earlier this month, it quickly made headlines for a rather unusual reason (especially for a kids movie) as groups of parents called for the movie to be boycotted due to one scene.
(You can read the Movies4Kids review of Peter Rabbit by clicking here, including a detailed description of the scene and the subsequent furore).
Surprisingly, Peter Rabbit isn’t the first kids movie to cause a fuss upon its release – and here are 8 other kids films that caused something of a controversy:
Dumbo (1941) (U)
Disney’s adorable 1941 movie about the big-eared elephant that can fly was acclaimed for many years until author Richard Schickel pointed out in his book The Disney Version (1968) that the crows in the movie are African American stereotypes (the lead crow is even named Jim Crow – the Jim Crow Laws in the US enforced racial segregation in the South). Some critics agreed that the characters’ portrayals and mannerisms are racist, while others defend the depiction, stating that the crows are the only characters that support Dumbo in the movie. More than 75 years after the movie’s first release, the debate continues.
Song Of The South (U)
Another Disney movie charged with racism, this 1946 mix of live action and animation (best known for the song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah) takes place in the southern US after the American Civil War. It’s the story of a young boy named Johnny who visits his grandmother’s plantation and befriends one of the workers, Uncle Remus (James Baskett), who tells him about the adventures of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’Er Bear. So far, so cute, but the film is packed with racial stereotypes and the plantation setting is seen as idyllic despite the fact that there are possibly slaves there. When the movie was released, there were protests at US cinemas, and while it has been re-released theatrically over the years and for home entertainment, there have always been rumours that Disney would rather the film be quietly forgotten about.
This 1953 movie was written by Theodor Seuss Geisel – aka Dr Seuss – so it comes as no surprise to discover it’s pretty trippy. Young Bart has to suffer piano lessons with Dr Terwilliker and during one practice he dozes off and experiences a bizarre musical dream in which he is trapped at the weird Terwilliker Institute, run by a mad dictator who forces Bart and 499 other boys to play an enormous piano. The odd film didn’t go down well when it was previewed to audiences, so 11 of the movie’s 24 songs were removed, some of Seuss’s freakier scenes were trimmed as they scared children, and the opening was reshot. Seuss disowned the film, but over the years since it first disturbed young viewers, it has become something of a cult classic.
Maurice Sendak’s much-loved picture book about young Max and the island of creatures he discovers was written in 1963, but it took more than 40 years for it to be made into a movie. The 2009 film was directed by Spike Jonze – best known for quirky grown-up films like Being John Malkovich – so we shouldn’t have expected a cute, cuddly movie, but as it was based on a children’s book, parents did expect it to be aimed at, well, kids. However, the Wild Things are surprisingly scary, and when Sony, the studio that released the movie, saw it they decided not to market it as a kids film at all. It is pretty dark and gloomy, and there was some controversy about whether children should even see it (it received a PG rating in most countries due to frightening and occasionally violent scenes). The filmmakers noted that kids actually like to be scared once in a while, with author Sendak himself telling Newsweek how he would react to parents saying the film is too scary: “I would tell them to go to hell. That’s a question I will not tolerate.”
Home Alone (PG)
The sequel to 1990’s hugely successful family comedy once again has young Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) squaring off against bungling thieves Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), this time in New York. The controversy isn’t Donald Trump’s horrendous cameo as himself (he reportedly only allowed filming at the Plaza Hotel, which he owned at the time, if the filmmakers put him in the movie) – it’s the level of violence that the movie depicted as Kevin fends off the bad guys by booby-trapping a house. Campaigner Meredith Day, of MACE (Mothers Against Child Endangerment) was just one of the parents who complained about the movie, writing in the LA Times that “if you take children to the film, they will see a 10 year old boy doing the following: playing with matches, playing with power tools, playing with bare electrical wires, playing with kerosene and other toxic substances and throwing bricks at people from the roof of a three story building.”
Disney’s 2017 live action remake of their own animated classic Beauty And The Beast may be Oscar-nominated, but that didn’t stop the controversy about one brief moment in the movie. When the film was released, director Bill Condon mentioned there was a ‘gay moment’ in the film, when LeFou (Josh Gad) dances with another man. Gad talked to Variety about playing Disney’s first openly gay character (“as subtle as it is, I do think it’s going to be effective and I do think it’s important”) but not everyone was thrilled – the BBC reported that one Russian politician asked culture minister Vladimir Medinsky to view the movie and ban it if he found “elements of propaganda of homosexuality”, while a theatre in Alabama stated that they would not be showing the film. “If I can’t sit through a movie with God or Jesus sitting by me, then we have no business showing it,” a statement for the Henagar Drive-In Theatre said on the cinema’s Facebook page.
Finding Dory (U)
You wouldn’t think that lovely clownfish Nemo, his dad Marlin and regal blue tang Dory could be in a controversial movie, would you? Well, the sequel to Finding Nemo isn’t actually shocking at all – but parents who took their little darlings to see the movie at a cinema in Concord, California did find something to complain about. As they settled down to 97 minutes of aquatic cuteness, parents and tots were treated to a trailer for the extremely adult animated movie Sausage Party that featured scenes not really suitable for little ones (check out the grown up trailer here). Walter Eichinger, the cinema’s vice president of operations quickly apologised for the goof: “Playing that trailer was a one-time honest mistake by a theater manager moving screens around in an effort to accommodate several large last-minute groups wanting to see ‘Dory. The wrong movie was started by mistake… We regret it, apologize for it, and we are not happy that it happened. We fully realize this trailer is not appropriate for ‘Dory’ and we would never schedule something like that.”
Watership Down (U)
If you are a child of the 1970s, you can probably remember being traumatised by the animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ classic novel that featured the voices of John Hurt, Richard Briers and Nigel Hawthorne and the haunting theme ‘Bright Eyes’. The story is pretty harrowing on paper – rabbit face death, visions of an apocalypse and danger at every turn – and it is more so on screen, with many debates over the years as to whether the beautifully animated but upsetting film is suitable for children at all. All the old arguments were raised again in 2016, when British TV’s Channel 5 showed the film as its Easter movie on Easter Sunday. As The Independent reported, one Twitter user wrote “Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put Watership Down on Easter Sunday? ‘Hey kids, let’s watch dead Easter bunnies!’”, while many others noted that it’s a rather traumatic, twisted film to be shown when families are sitting down to their Sunday roast dinner.