Do Disney movies contain subliminal erotica?


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Dear Straight Dope: I have heard of many perverted things “hidden” in various Disney movies. Some of these include: the tower on the original cover of The Little Mermaid that bears a stricking resemblance to the male genitalia, a scene in The Little Mermaid where the priest has an erection, a part in The Lion King where the dust rises spelling out SEX, and a scene in Aladdin where Aladdin can be heard saying “good teenagers, take off your clothes.” Are these things for real, coincidental, or just little adult antics added in by the animators? Please shed some light on these mysteries and inform me of any that I missed. Ryan from Castro Valley

SDStaff Eutychus replies:

Surprisingly, this is true. Sometime in the mid 70’s, Disney discovered a great market value in sabotaging their own work to appeal to the prurient interests of pre-pubescent youth …

OK, so I’m being cynical. It’s one of the benefits of transitioning into doddering middle age. But it is an interesting pastime to look for the hidden secrets in certain Disney movies, as long as one doesn’t look too hard and begin to see and hear things that aren’t really there.

There’s a tradition of Disney artists and storymen trying to sneak stuff onto the screen that goes back to the days of the early shorts. This stemmed from Disney’s refusal to share creative credit with anyone. The only credited name on any of the shorts was Walt Disney himself (with an occasional credit to Ub Iwerks in the late 20’s). It wasn’t until the mid 40’s, as the result of an artists’ strike against Disney, that specific credits began showing up on the shorts. But the insult of being uncredited hurt, and the artists tried to get their names inserted into their work in devious ways. Either Disney didn’t notice or didn’t care at this point, as his attention was taken up with the feature films. Most notably, in the Goofy sports shorts, you’ll find that most of the players’ names are the names of Disney artists.

There is also a history of Disney erotica that precedes the idea of Disney purposely adding erotica to its films. One artist was rumored to have produced a picture of a Snow White and the Seven Dwarves orgy back when the film was still in development, 30 years before Paul Krassner published his satirical “Disney Orgy” cartoon. Fred Moore was another suspect. He became well known at the studio, not just for being a first class animator, but for his drawing of mostly naked, nubile young women which became known as “Freddy Moore girls.” These drawings became highly collectible even among Disney insiders but the closest they ever made it to the screen was as the centaurettes in the “Pastoral Symphony” sequence of Fantasia or as the girl in the “All the Cats Join In” sequence of Make Mine Music.

(For a more complete listing of the inside jokes in the Disney short subjects, see The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts, a wonderful site.)

Most of this was innocent, and the so-called “Disney perversions” never made it to film, unless you buy the ideas of Richard Schickel, a Time magazine movie reviewer who found Freudian elements in pretty much everything Disney did. To hear some tell it, things changed in the mid 70’s and 80’s after Michael Eisner assumed the reins at Disney. The studio had been floundering under Ron Miller, Disney’s son-in-law, who took over after Walt died. Eisner brought Miramax films under the Disney wing, which gave the company an outlet for more profitable R and even X rated films such as Kids and Priest. Right-wing Christian fundamentalists, accustomed to Disney as a purveyor of tradtional family fare, apparently saw this as a betrayal of their trust, and began churning out rumors about secret stuff going on in the animated films. A lot of what they saw rightly belonged with the works of Vance Packard or Wilson Bryan Key. Eventually it became a kind of Rorshach game … if you want to see it, it’s there.

Herewith then, the list of what you should be looking for. Note that I’ve broken them down into three categories : A — things that were intentionally put in, but unauthorized by the producer; B — things that were intentionally put in by the producer; and C — things that only people who wear tinfoil hats can see. For more detail on some of these, see The Urban Legend Reference Pages–Disney Films.

1. Clock Cleaners (Category C): Fundy activist Donald Wildmon once claimed that Donald Duck could clearly be heard saying “fuck you” in his fight with a clock spring in the 1937 short Clock Cleaners. This short was featured on a small compilation called “Fun on the Job” and for a short time Wildmon got Wal-Mart to pull the tape from their shelves. Apparently Wal-Mart and Wildmon forgot about it later as the tape showed up in the bargain bins once it went out of print.

2. The Rescuers (Category A): All too true — two frames of a topless model can be seen as Bernard and Bianca take off on the albatross and swoop down through the city. You have to be quick to see it, and you have to have a special copy of the video. The shot was done by a layout artist and a scene planner who worked out the camera moves on the shot. Everyone at Disney knew it was there, but it seemed less of a problem, this being before the days of home video. It was in the original theatrical release and was painted over for its first video release. Either someone at Disney forgot it was there or the new version was made from a different print because when the movie was re-released on video last year, the two frames were there. Disney ended up recalling the entire first run and re-releasing it a few months later with the offending frames cut out. I have a copy of the first release. Ha ha.

3. The Little Mermaid (Category A): A couple of points we should cover here. One is the infamous “penis” cover art that was supposedly done by a disgruntled artist the day before he was scheduled to be fired. This is not true — the artist was one of Disney’s top layout artists who has worked on and off for Disney since the fifties and still does. To quote my source, “He did intend for the tower to look like a penis, but when he finished it, he realized it was bit too obvious. (Artists often put hidden images in their work … are a lot of classical paintings with subliminal skulls and sexual imagery in them. It isn’t a recent thing at all.) The painter was on a deadline to turn it in, so he didn’t have time to fix it. He pointed it out to the production person at Disney and offered to paint it out if they wanted him to. The painting was sent up to a committee of marketing execs for approval. The artist never got a call to change it, so he assumed they liked it with the semi-subliminal penis in it.”

The other question is about the “priests’ boner” (Category C). During the scene where Eric and Ursula are about to be married, it appears that the priest is getting an erection. Closer inspection reveals that it is only the priest’s knee.

Another interesting non-subliminal feature of “The Little Mermaid” to look for: Watch carefully at the beginning when King Triton swoops down over the crowd. After he passes across the screen, below him and to his left Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy can be seen sitting in the crowd.

4. Aladdin (Category C): According to some far-right Christian groups, in a scene where Aladdin is attempting to woo Jasmine and Rajah the tiger is accosting him, Aladin is heard saying, “Good teenagers take off their clothes.” It certainly sounds like it if you’re told what to listen for. But that’s probably not what he’s saying. For one thing, it makes no sense to the plot. For another, Disney, who never does anything nowadays without looking at the bottom line, surely doesn’t see any market value to their customers in naked teenagers.

Never mind. Let’s go on.

5. The Lion King (probably Category A): The word SEX is supposedly formed in the clouds above Simba’s head after he watches his father die. Once again, this one you can see if you know exactly what to look for. What the meaning is is anyone’s guess. Many have said the letters are actually “S-F-X,” which stood for Disney’s special effects department. This explanation is less than satisfying, but probably true. The lettering is difficult to make out, even when viewing the still frames. It may just be a Rorschach effect in a random cloud. At any rate, if Disney did it on purpose, and it has some subliminal value as some assert, it’s difficult to see any market value in movie-goers heading out to the lobby for a quickie in the middle of the movie.

6. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Category C): Because of the nature of the movie and the overtly sexual nature of a few of the characters, this film has attracted more than its share of suspicion. To begin with, supposedly, during the onstage duel between Daffy and Donald Duck, at one point Donald calles Daffy a “goddamn stupid nigger.” Once again, you can hear it if you know what to listen for. If you don’t it just sounds like Donald’s usual gibberish. Another Rorschach test.

One possible gag (Category A) was the inclusion of Michael Eisner’s home telephone number on a wall in ToonTown in the theatrical release. Supposedly it was erased for the video release.

The other issues are with sexuality (Category C). Rumors surfaced at one time that there was a single frame featuring a naked Betty Boop in the original theatrical release that was excised for the video version. The other instance, which is still extant, is the two-frame sequence where viewers claim they can see Jessica Rabbit’s vagina during a sequence where she is bounced out of the taxicab. Whether you see it or not depends on how you interpret a small patch of brown ink between her legs in these frames. Could be pantyhose, could be something else.

Disney later made three other Roger Rabbit shorts and issued them on a video entitled The Best of Roger Rabbit. A short time later, the laserdisc edition of this was recalled by Disney due to “adhesive” or “packaging” problems. Some suspect, however, that because of the high resolution of the laserdisc format, people would be able to pick out inside jokes that Disney did not want known (and which wouldn’t be as clear on the VHS edition). In one case, for instance, there’s a poster of a rather buxom woman riding a chainsaw with the logo “Rigid Tools.” There’s lot of stuff like that — when Steven Speilberg started the ball rolling, he gave the animators carte blanche to put in as many inside and hidden jokes as possible. It’s become a game for some to see how many they can find. Kind of like a cartoon Ulysses. A more complete write up on these, and the reason you’ll probably never see a Roger Rabbit sequel, can be found at (Editor’s Note: Link now defunct.)

Like I said, for most of these, if you want to see them you’ll see them. But just to be safe, the next time you go to the theater, keep your clothes on, take your saltpeter, and remember, it’s just a cartoon.

SDStaff Eutychus, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

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