Since Disney+ went live, there have been a lot of different discussion points swirling around among fans of the various and sundry titles available on the streaming service. If you have somehow not heard, the original Star Wars was revised once more so that Greedo says “MacLunkey” (or something that sounds an awful lot like “MacLunkey”) before being shot by Han. And The Simpsons’ first 20 seasons, give or take, are not currently being presented in the correct aspect ratio. Most importantly, a lot of Disney films, shorts, and TV shows feature a brief warning message in their dedicated page on the service, regarding “outdated cultural depictions”.
Disney+ is still young, relatively speaking. There’s plenty of reason to assume that the new service is going to continue making changes in the days, weeks, and months to come. (The outcry regarding The Simpsons already has led to Disney+ stating that the original aspect ratio for affected episodes will be offered sometime in early 2020.) And that’s fitting, because so much of the Walt Disney Company is defined by how it changes, and makes itself better. Consider this essay as an argument for one way in which Disney+ can be updated, and soon: the streaming service needs a host.
First, A Bit of Background
Disney+, on the whole, cannot brand itself as the equivalent of Turner Classic Movies. Although it boasts hundreds of older films, the service doesn’t have quite as many options from cinema’s past. However, a large chunk of the films, shorts, and shows offered on the service could have found a home on TCM back in the day. (In fact, not so long ago, some of the films offered on the streaming service, including 70s-era fare such as Snowball Express and Candleshoe, did get presented on TCM as part of their quarterly Treasures from the Disney Vault series.) Turner Classic Movies isn’t just a wonderful cable channel because it offers a repository of a hundred years’ worth of cinema. TCM succeeds because it offers context about that repository as often as possible.
Depending on the time of day, it doesn’t matter what movie you’re watching on TCM: an untouchable and easy-to-rewatch classic like 2001: A Space Odyssey or a more obscure foreign or silent film. If it’s the weekend or a weeknight, you’ll likely see the beaming face of a cinephile such as Ben Mankiewicz or Alicia Malone, presenting a brief introduction with a little bit of clarity and historical context before the film begins. Of course, they’re following in the footsteps of the late, great Robert Osborne, who served as the chief host of TCM for more than two decades before passing away in 2017.
Though Disney+ doesn’t have the exact same wealth of content that TCM can boast, it does have decades’ worth of classic films, shorts, and TV shows that need some kind of context before a casual viewer begins watching. Take, for example, the 1941 film The Reluctant Dragon, whose poster peers out at you on Disney+ with a colorful animated dragon. But if you click Play on the film, you might need to know what you’re getting into — a mix of live-action and animation, a blend of fiction and non-fiction, all wrapped up in a tour of the Walt Disney Studios. Disney+ could have a host offering up just a few minutes’ worth of fun facts and clarifying details before the main attraction begins. And the good news is, there’s a perfect candidate for this possible job: Leonard Maltin.
And Now, Your Host
Maltin, depending on your level of knowledge of film criticism, may be best known for his yearly guide of thousands of films with capsule reviews. Or you might know him as a passionate fan of Disney films and characters. Or, hell, you might know him as the man who helped inspire the Leonard Maltin Game on the long-running “Doug Loves Movies” podcast. In short, Maltin has decades of experience and insight into film. Plus, he’s not only a Disney fanatic, but he’s worked with the Walt Disney Company before…doing this exact kind of hosting gig.
Fellow Disney fanatics likely are aware of, if they don’t own a copy of, the Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection. Released in the early 2000s, these DVD sets were intended to shine a light on the lesser-known titles of the Walt Disney Company, as well as to offer to fans a full offering of short films with characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Pluto, all in a home-media package never before made available. The collections were always limited editions, and covered everything from Mickey Mouse to World War II propaganda films to the history of the Disneyland theme park. And there was one unifying element: Leonard Maltin.
Maltin starred in brief interstitials and videos, shot on the Walt Disney Studios backlot in Burbank, California. In these videos, he not only offered an overall introduction and overview of whatever DVD set you were watching, but he provided specific details regarding a given short or film. Though some of the content on these sets were very clearly for the serious fan only — I can only imagine how many people read the previous paragraph and are stuck on the phrase “World War II propaganda”, because yes, that is a thing the Walt Disney Company did in the 1940s — Maltin’s expertise and insight were invaluable ways to ground whatever would play after he spoke.
The Leader of the Club
It’s that spirit that’s very much in need of a guide now on Disney+. If you have the service, you’ve no doubt seen the phrase “outdated cultural depictions” plastered in front of titles as diverse as Dumbo and The Mickey Mouse Club. On one hand, it’s a point in Disney’s favor to acknowledge this, simply because they had never acknowledged the possibility of…well, “outdated cultural depictions” in the past. Think about the other times you might have seen Dumbo, either in a theatrical re-release in the 1980s or via home media, and think about how often you’d seen that kind of message before.
The problem, though, is that Disney acknowledging the reality of racially offensive depictions of African Americans in Dumbo or Asian people in Lady and the Tramp, and so on, doesn’t complete the job. (It should also be stated here that fans and critics are doing the work of even deciphering what “outdated cultural depictions” refers to, on a case-by-case basis.) What the company needs with Disney+ is someone to at least discuss briefly why it is, for example, that there were dark-skinned, faceless roustabouts in the 1941 animated classic, or why so many of the animals in Lady and the Tramp are ethnic or racial stereotypes, not just the Siamese cats.
Enter Leonard Maltin. (And to be clear: I’m not against Disney+ having multiple hosts with a breadth and range of film knowledge. The more, the merrier! Another off-the-top-of-my-head recommendation is Monica Castillo, a film journalist, Disney fan, and classic film lover.) Maltin would be able to offer a few details about these films, or the short films of the same era, or TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s that are now available on Disney+. His literal decades’ worth of film writing about Disney — his book The Disney Films was first published in 1973 — as well as plenty of experience in front of the camera makes him the perfect person for the job.
When You Wish
But I can imagine what you’re thinking: “Disney would never want to talk about its mistakes. We should consider ourselves lucky that they even put the disclaimer up on Disney+!” While that second sentence is potentially true, the first one isn’t. A good chunk of the shorts and films included on the Walt Disney Treasures collection were themselves chock-full of “outdated cultural depictions”, and instead of essentially letting them be released into the wild, Disney had Maltin acknowledge as such and offer a brief message or two of caution before you could watch them.
It’s easy to understand why Disney might not want to talk about its darker past now. The company is one of the most important and powerful conglomerates in the entire world, and they’re built on families embracing everything they do. Talking about times of racism, sexism, ethnic stereotypes, and more is not the way to maintain that brand. But here’s the thing: when the decision was made to acknowledge the stereotypes that litter past Disney films with the disclaimer on Disney+, the bar was raised. Yes, Disney can just put that disclaimer there and hope no one notices. But putting that disclaimer is equivalent to opening the door to a larger conversation. To open the door and not walk through it would be irresponsible.
In full honesty, I talked about this wish, of having a host for Disney+, on Twitter the weekend after the service went live. The tweet got a bit of a signal-boost from both Maltin himself and his daughter Jessie Maltin, the latter of whom implied pretty heavily that the issue isn’t a lack of interest on their end: it’s that Disney hasn’t reached out or just isn’t listening yet. I’m not so arrogant to presume that everybody (or anybody) working at Disney or Disney+ is reading this. But maybe someone is, and maybe the message can get passed along.
Disney+ represents an exciting new frontier for the Walt Disney Company, but just like Disneyland, it’s not perfect and it has to be willing to change. Adding a host to Disney+ would be an exciting change for the positive. Here’s hoping.
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