For many of us, the current COVID-19 pandemic has been a great excuse to discover or revisit classic movies. Chances are, though, that you’ll be using a streaming service to access these timeless favourites – which means you might be watching a version that’s been altered from the one that first appeared in theatres, and Disney+ is arguably the biggest culprit in this regard.
Disney’s video-on-demand platform first came under fire late last year, after Star Wars fans discovered the original trilogy of films weren’t available to stream as originally released. Instead, only the markedly different, highly controversial Special Edition re-releases of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were on offer, complete with all-new changes that pretty much everyone agrees are just the worst.
But I’m not here to talk about Star Wars (or at least, not entirely). No, today I want to talk about the news this week that Disney has tinkered with 1984 fantasy/romcom Splash before adding it to Disney+. Directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, Splash is as charming a family feature as you’re likely to encounter, and hardly a movie you’d expect to need retroactive censorship.
Nevertheless, it seems the powers that be at the House of Mouse weren’t comfortable with the prospect of kiddies witnessing a few brief shots that feature mermaid Madison’s bare bottom. Their solution? Have Disney’s in-house production team digitally alter the offending scenes to remove any nudity (and curtail any potential complaints from outraged parents).
Now, the resulting CGI – which at its worst, attempts to extend Daryl Hannah’s hair to seamlessly cover her exposed rear, only to end up making it look like her butt is covered in wavy blonde fur – is laughably bad. But there are bigger issues with Disney’s decision to censor Splash than a spot of clunky retroactive visual effects work, not all of which are immediately obvious.
People (and mermaids) shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies
On the face of it, Disney’s decision to expunge Daryl Hannah’s derriere from Disney+ is far from shocking. After all, Disney+ is billed as a “family-oriented” platform, which would seem to automatically rule out any nudity whatsoever. This is an overly simplistic stance, however, and it verges on the irresponsible.
Yes, we can all agree it’s a good idea not to bombard children with images of naked bodies that are sexually charged or overtly erotic… except the nudity in Splash is neither of these things. Instead, by sanitising a movie that’s already a perfectly harmless, all-ages affair, Disney has (intentionally or not) helped to perpetuate the persistent, harmful idea that all nudity is inherently bad, and that, on some level, we should all be ashamed of our bodies – especially if you happen to be a woman.
Do I really think the average 6-year-old sitting down to watch a movie about a guy falling in love with a mermaid is thinking about any of this stuff? Absolutely not. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that Disney’s choice to downplay this instance of innocent, body positive nudity rather than normalising it wasn’t actually in children’s best interests – and in all likelihood, was motivated less out of concern for them than fear of their irate, conservative parents.
So just on that ground alone, censoring Splash was a bad call – and that’s not even the most compelling argument for leaving the movie exactly the way it was.
Leave the filmmaking to the filmmakers
That honour goes to the line of logic that Disney shouldn’t be messing around with artists’ work, even if they do happen to own the work itself. Why? Well, for starters, it’s disrespectful to the artists affected. As with every other element of Splash within his control, Ron Howard intentionally included those fleeting glimpses of Hannah in the buff; not because he’s a shameless perv, but because he believed it would elicit the perfect intellectual and emotional response from the audience.
This dovetails nicely with my second point: tweaking movies after their release doesn’t just alter the director’s vision – it changes the way we, as viewers, connect with the movie itself. Right now, you might be thinking “It’s just a butt, dude (and a mermaid butt, at that)!” That’s a fair point – but I’d argue that it’s a mermaid butt the director wanted us to see (at least partially), and the fact that we can’t see it detracts on some level from the wider viewing experience.
Think about it: if you boil it down, a movie is just a collection of details, some big and some small. If you change any of these details – even if it’s something as seemingly trivial as obscuring the partly visible buttocks of a human/fish hybrid creature – on some level, you’re changing the entire film. And when you’re talking about altering a hit film that critics and audiences alike overwhelmingly agreed was just fine the first time around, odds are your efforts will only result in a movie that’s ultimately less satisfying for viewers, whether they’re watching for the first or fiftieth time.
Incidentally, this even extends to post-release revisions made with the input of the filmmakers themselves. Remember how I mentioned the heavily altered Star Wars: Special Editions earlier? Those were overseen by series creator George Lucas himself, and fans near-unanimously hate them – especially since Lucas (prior to selling his pop culture baby to Disney) actively suppressed access to the original incarnations. So, if the actual people responsible can’t even get away with making post-release revisions to their movies, what chance does a random in-house crew at Disney+ stand of getting it right?
Disney+ needs better parental controls
What’s the solution, then? It’s simple: Disney needs to stop changing movies and start developing better parental controls for Disney+.
Sure, the platform is targeted at families, but that doesn’t mean its entire catalogue of relatively harmless content is appropriate for the entire family, especially families comprised of both teens and pre-teens. To continue the Star Wars example, it’s okay for the average six year-old and 16 year-old to see a brief shot of a severed limb in A New Hope, but both of them watching Anakin Skywalker burn to a crisp in Revenge of the Sith? Not so much – but that’s a scenario that could easily happen thanks to the undercooked parental lock system in place on Disney+ right now.
This doesn’t mean that Disney should go down the same route it did with Splash and edit Revenge of the Sith to remove or obscure its more graphic content (lord knows, the fans don’t deserve more changes), or any other family-oriented movie for that matter. On the contrary, they should upload these films as they are, and invest a little bit more time and money into properly fleshing out the current suite of Disney+ parental controls so that potentially controversial movies (like Splash) and outright inappropriate flicks (like the aforementioned Revenge of the Sith) don’t wind up in front of kids who, according to their parents, aren’t old enough to enjoy them yet.
Not only will this future proof Disney+ for the day when it inevitably morphs into a less family-oriented service, it’ll also keep more puritanical parents who are repulsed by nudity off Disney’s back without needing to tinker with beloved classics. The upshot? The rest of us will finally be free to enjoy movies as they were initially conceived – mermaid butts and all.
Update: since this article was published, Disney has announced the launch of a new Disney+ content hub, Star, targeted at older viewers – and accompanied by the introduction of more comprehensive parental controls.