Few film companies have as prestigious a place in cinematic history as Walt Disney Pictures. Revolutionizing the animation industry from the mid-1920s onwards, Disney obtained recognition for their various family-friendly films, with many of their movies capturing the attention of audiences the world over.
Like any film company, however, Disney has endured its fair share of controversies over the years, with some of their films receiving scathing criticism for offensive portrayals of ethnic cultures, races, and genders. Find here the most controversial Disney movies from the vault.
Song of the South (1946)
A movie Disney has tried hard to erase from history, Song of the South faced severe criticism from the very moment it made its theatrical debut way back in 1946. While many consider its combination between live-action and animation revolutionary for its age, the film’s prevailing depiction of the Antebellum South and various Black stereotypes makes it Disney’s most infamous release, with the company never distributing Song of the South to Disney+ or in a home media format.
Peter Pan (1953)
One of several Golden Age Disney movies that have aged rather poorly, audiences frequently point to Peter Pan’s harmful representation of Indigenous American culture in the film, right down to a gasp-worthy song number titled “What Made the Red Man Red?”
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
One of the defining films from Disney in the 1980s, Who Framed Roger Rabbit drew widespread acclaim from fans and critics alike, mostly owing to its then-novel combination of live-action footage and traditional 2D animation. In more recent decades, though, Who Framed Roger Rabbit has faced some complaints for its depiction of Jessica Rabbit, the buxom human wife to Roger Rabbit. The controversy around Jessica’s character mostly stems from an incident involving an allegedly obscene shot in the LaserDisc release of the film. Disney has since digitally altered it.
The Aristocats (1970)
Like many films of its era, The Aristocats fell back on age-old stereotypes of non-white character–in this case, individuals of Asian backgrounds. Viewers can spot this in the cliched character of Shun Gong, a Siamese cat who speaks with an exaggerated accent, plays the piano with chopsticks, and mutters about fortune cookies, Shanghai, and egg foo young.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Another product of its era, Lady and the Tramp–like the aforementioned Aristocats–features gross caricatures of Asiatic characters, something best seen with the entire “The Siamese Cat Song.” In the 2019 remake, Disney chose to omit the song in its entirety, replacing it with the bluesier “What a Shame” while recasting the Siamese cats Si and Am as a pair of mischievous Devon Rex cats.
Praised by fans across multiple generations, Dumbo’s release met with controversy upon its original release in 1941–a controversy that continues to shadow the film as the decades pass. In particular, the film features several troubling depictions of Black characters who meet and befriend Dumbo, with the movie relying on numerous stereotypes related to P.O.C.s at the time. For startling evidence of this fact, viewers need only look at the name of the avian in charge of the group: Jim Crow, a ghoulish reference to the segregation laws plaguing the American South from the post-Civil War era to the civil rights movement.
Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
An underrated classic from Disney’s live-action period, Disney+ branded Swiss Family Robinson with the same warning messages as Dumbo, Peter Pan, and The Three Caballeros. Like those three films, the movie relies on harmful depictions of non-white characters–in this case, pirates from Southeast Asia (many of whom are played by white actors in race-altering makeup). The film also earned the ire of fans for its heavy focus on colonization and for its simplistic rendering of women, with the female characters assigned the role of passive gatherers who rely on their male counterparts for survival.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
While fans tend to forget about this 2013 Disney Western, the company garnered significant controversy for casting Johnny Depp in the lead role of Tonto, the Native American companion to the eponymous Lone Ranger. Though critics have accused the film of whitewashing in its casting process, Depp stated that he intended for a more judicious portrayal of Indigenous culture in the film, redeeming the often unflattering representation of Native Americans in traditional Western films.
The 2020 live-action remake of Mulan endured several intense controversies almost from the get-go. When hiring the film’s cast and crew, several critics felt the movie lacked sufficient diversity in its developmental team, with the director, writers, and cinematographer all white. Fans of the original Mulan also called out Disney for removing Mulan’s original love interest, Li Shang, from the film. In addition, fans and human rights activists called out the company for filming several scenes in Xinjiang, not far from the notorious internment camps established by the Chinese government, making Mulan perhaps one of the most controversial Disney movies in recent memory.
Three Little Pigs (1933)
A groundbreaking short film in its day, the original version of 1933’s Three Little Pigs features a gross depiction of a stereotypical Jewish man. In the first cut of the film, the Big Bad Wolf attempts to break into the Pigs’ break home by posing as a humble peddler. Disguising himself, the Wolf dons a thick Yiddish accent, a flowing black beard, heavy spectacles, and a large protruding nose (all disgusting tropes attributed to individuals of Jewish backgrounds). Following World War 2, Disney re-edited the scene, removing many aspects of the Wolf's anti-Semitic disguise.
Falling into the same pitfalls as Dumbo and The Aristocats, Disney’s Fantasia drew upon some negative tropes associated with the 1940s. The controversy arose around the segment accompanying The Pastoral Symphony, which featured stereotypical Black centaurs waiting upon their white counterparts, right down to polishing their hooves. In the 1960s, Disney trimmed these characters from the film, although much of Fantasia’s The Pastoral Symphony remains intact.
The Three Caballeros (1945)
One of several anthology films Disney made during its post-war years, The Three Caballeros follows Donald Duck as he tours Latin America. Though conceived as a good-will project for South American audiences, The Three Caballeros has since come under fire for its stereotypical portrayal of Latin American characters and culture. Like many other films on this list, Disney+ has since re-released The Three Caballeros with a warning message.
Given its historical subject matter, many fans voiced uncertainty about Pocahontas from the get-go. Unfortunately, the finished results lived up to these critical misgivings, with Pocahontas often accused of portraying the English settlement of America in an overly simplified and romanticized manner.
Beauty and the Beast (2017)
Like the original version of Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s 2017 live-action remake encountered scrutiny over its main romance, some audience members viewing Belle and Beast’s romance as a positive endorsement of Stockholm syndrome. In addition, Beauty and the Beast faced backlash from international audiences for insinuating that LeFou–Gaston’s loyal lackey–harbored homosexual feelings for his domineering companion.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Often credited with kicking off the influential Disney Renaissance, The Little Mermaid has also attracted some criticism for its central narrative. Many of the thematic problems fans took umbrage with involve Ariel’s willingness to sacrifice her voice and body to pursue a romance with Eric, and the lack of vocal consent in the kiss sequence between Ariel and Prince Eric. Specific detractors of the film include Keira Knightley and Mindy Kaling, who have said they feel uncomfortable showing The Little Mermaid to their younger daughters.
Doctor Strange (2016)
Like 2013’s Lone Ranger, Doctor Strange received numerous complaints centered around Marvel’s casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character who appears as an Asian man in Doctor Strange’s comic book history. After facing accusations of whitewashed casting, the production team behind Doctor Strange explained the rationale behind their decision, citing their desire to avoid cliched Asian stereotypes associated with mystical powers or spiritual wisdom.
Return to Oz (1986)
A sequel most people tend to forget about, 1986’s Return to Oz followed up on MGM’s 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz. Utilizing a larger budget and more up-to-date practical effects, the finished film proved a far more frightening experience than most audience members (especially children) seemed ready for. Though it retained the tone of L. Frank Baum’s original novels, Return to Oz terrified viewers with its realistic effects, darker atmosphere, and horrifying creatures. Though one of the most controversial Disney movies, today Return to Oz has undergone a critical reappraisal, and enjoys a cult following.
Incredibles 2 (2018)
Compared to the other films on this list, Incredibles 2 never featured any harmful depictions of non-white characters or female characters. Rather, the film gained notoriety for its heavy use of strobe light effects–the common calling card of the main antagonist, the Screenslaver. When the movie debuted to theaters in 2018, Disney requested cinemas play a warning message ahead of the film to prevent seizures and other physical maladies triggered by the flashing light effects.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
An unsung classic from Disney’s Renaissance period, The Hunchback of Notre Dame pushed the envelope in more ways than one. Far more gritty and adult-oriented than most other Disney movies, the film analyzed such far-ranging topics as faith and religious fanaticism. For its weightier themes, concerned parents expressed uncertainty about the film’s content, believing it too intense a film for younger audience members. At the same time, some critics attacked the film for toning down the adult themes–especially those of sexual repression and the corruption of the Catholic Church–from the source novel.
Yet another treasured film born out of the Disney Renaissance, 1992’s Aladdin battled repeated complaints for its depiction of the Middle East. Many of these complaints gravitated around the song “Arabian Nights,” which features lyrics like “where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face” and “It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.” After backlash from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Disney altered the lyrics in the 1993 home media release of the film, changing the first line to “where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense.”
Richard Chachowski is an entertainment and travel writer who has written for such publications as Wealth of Geeks, Looper, Screen Rant, Fangoria, and Sportskeeda, among many others. He received his BA from The College of New Jersey and has been a professional writer since 2020. His geeky areas of interest include Star Wars, travel writing, horror, video games, comic books, literature, and animation.
Richard has been an avid consumer of movies, television, books, and pop culture since he was four-years-old. Raised on a diverse mix of Clint Eastwood Westerns, Star Wars, sci-fi and horror films, Alan Moore comics, and Stephen King novels, he eventually turned his various passions into a creative outlet, writing about film, television, literature, comics, and gaming for his high school and college newspapers. A traveling enthusiast, Richard has also managed to create a career out of journeying abroad, venturing to such awe-inspiring places as the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, the rainforests of Costa Rica, and the scenic coastline of Haiti. Upon graduating from TCNJ, Richard set his sights on a career in journalism, writing extensively about the art of traveling and the entertainment medium for various online publications. When he’s not busy making his way through The Criterion Collection, he can be found either reading or planning a trip somewhere (preferably someplace with a scenic hiking trail).