If you were a kid in the ’90s, or even if you weren’t, the rumors were as familiar as a white vinyl VHS case: Did you know there’s a hidden phallus on the cover art for The Little Mermaid? And by the way, the minister definitely pops a boner during the wedding scene. Oh, and there’s a cloud spelling S-E-X floating over Simba in The Lion King. Perhaps most iconically of all, in Aladdin, as the titular prince tries to woo Princess Jasmine for a magic carpet ride from her balcony, he secretly whispers some lascivious words to the adolescent audience: “Good teenagers, take off your clothes.”
If you remember this as an innocent bit of childhood folk knowledge passed down by cool kids at sleepovers, it wasn’t always that way. As the rumors started taking hold in the early 1990s, they spread rapidly, sparking outrage among church groups already suspicious of Hollywood and inspiring one parent to call Aladdin “a toddler introduction to porn.” Disney responded angrily at the time.
Search for “good teenagers take off your clothes” now—or, actually, don’t!—and you will quickly find Disney’s official explanation that the line of dialogue is really “Scat, good tiger, take off and go.” Listen for yourself, and what you hear will likely depend on how much you wish Disney was sending us all secret sex signals. The rumor is silly, to my ear at least, but it’s also a schoolyard urban legend for the ages, and many of us still want to believe. Even Snopes’ 2000 debunk, which deemed the rumors “False,” seemed unwilling to let go of them entirely: “A close listening to the audio track revealed Aladdin,” the site wrote, “speaking the words ‘C’mon … good kitty,’ and just as Aladdin said the word ‘kitty,’ a second voice began to whisper, ‘Pssst … take off your clo- …’.” It added, ominously, “Who this second voice was, and exactly what he said, is a mystery.” Snopes even included slowed-down audio to support its claims. (I shared the moment with a Slate audio producer, who said: “I don’t necessarily buy there is a second voice there. It all sounds like Aladdin, but it may have been an error in the sound editing and mixing that resulted in the way it is here and why it sounds jumbled.”)
If there’s any real “mystery,” it’s how a rumor like this got started, much less spread, especially pre-internet. The answer seems unknowable, like why so many kids were certain Tommy Hilfiger was racist when they were in ninth grade—a weird troll lost to the ’90s. But in fact, it’s not really unknowable at all. In 1995, a Wall Street Journal reporter named Lisa Bannon set out to uncover the origin of the rumors, and in a detailed, quite entertaining investigative report, she basically did.
“We had a brilliant Page 1 editor at the Wall Street Journal at the time named John Brecher,” Bannon told me over the phone. “I was a reporter in L.A., covering entertainment. And I think he had this idea. The reports of subliminal messages in the Aladdin movie just kind of exploded all over the media that year. And he was good. He was the one who said, ‘How does it happen? Figure out where this came from!’ ”
Bannon, she said, “just followed it backward.” The Associated Press had written a story reporting the rumors, so she called the reporter to ask for his sources. The reporter pointed her to another item in a newspaper from Newport News, Virginia. The writer of that piece told Bannon he had first seen the rumors about not just Aladdin but also The Lion King and The Little Mermaid in a Virginia anti-abortion newsletter from the American Life League. (He said the newsroom had cheekily gathered around a TV to assess the claims for themselves.) The American Life League, in turn, said it highlighted the allegations against Disney because of letters and calls from grassroots Christian organizations. They had read about it somewhere else: a Christian movie guide called, uh, Movie Guide.
Movie Guide still publishes today. It had alerted readers of the rumors under the headline “Aladdin Exposed,” but it retracted the piece after Disney complained. (Its review of the movie today reads, approvingly, “Aladdin is a sure hit and a sweet cinematic confection bursting with kinetic energy and firmly grounded in the message of the importance of personal honesty and integrity.”) The retraction, naturally, stopped zero of the chatter, but Bannon had found the rumor’s great vessel: Christian networks, especially in the South, that were convinced the Disney Renaissance was secretly corrupting children.
Movie Guide had itself first learned about the supposed hidden messages from letters, and Bannon traced back the rumor still further through one of the letter writers, an Iowa woman who eventually led Bannon to an Iowa college senior named Matthew Ford. Ford claimed to have noticed the line on his own. Shocked, he told his sister, who then told her best friend, and so on. Case closed? Maybe—except, following another strand of Christian rumors all the way to the origin, Bannon found Jon Wood, a 16-year-old boy who also claimed he had first heard the line himself in 1994 while watching his “little sister’s copy” of the movie (whatever you say, buddy). Then he showed it to his brother. Then they showed their aunt, whose husband was a pastor. In both cases, before long, there were throngs of people who felt, as one mother put it, “as if I had entrusted my kids to pedophiles.”
So really, the rumor started where it would go on to most memorably persist: in the horny minds of teenage boys and college kids. Then, Christian groups, in a panic reminiscent of fears about messages in backward-playing records, ran with their findings across the Bible Belt. Patient Zero was the adolescent male mind. “It wasn’t a neat, perfect narrative, where it came from one person, which is what I was hoping for as a reporter,” Bannon, who now runs the Wall Street Journal’s Life & Arts section, said. “I worried it’s just too messy. But editors liked it even better, because they thought it was more nuanced and more complicated.” (Even with the live-action remake arriving this weekend, Bannon said, “I hadn’t thought about this story for, I don’t know, 20 years. When I wrote this, I wasn’t even married yet. Now I have three teenagers. I sent it to them, and they were like, ‘You wrote this?’ ”)
If it’s easy to scoff at overheated teenage imaginations and religious busybodies, well, not so fast. Disney’s righteous denials of the era may be accurate, as far as they go, but the idea that animators would slip Easter eggs into movies—even sexually explicit ones—is not so ridiculous. They used to do it all the time.
Tom Sito, a former Disney animator who worked on The Lion King and Aladdin (the genie’s hype-man routine during “Prince Ali” is his handiwork), assured me that the Aladdin rumors were bunk. “Those were Christian, conservative guys who animated that scene, and we had a director who was pretty straight-laced and wouldn’t have allowed anything like that,” he said. But, he added, it was hardly rare for animators to slip in jokes for each other, going back to Bugs Bunny cartoons in the 1930s and ’40s. He said it was sometimes a kind of game to try to evade censors in the Hays Code era, when censorship was official, and see what would get past. After that, it was mostly for fun. “We knew these images were 1/24 of one second,” he said, “and no one would notice.”
He noted the most famous example is a frame in The Rescuers, from 1977, which contained a full Playboy centerfold in a city sequence. Disney scrubbed the moment from an initial VHS release—the company seems to do that a lot—but when it moved ahead with the DVD release later in the ’90s, it failed to involve animators in the transfer, and the image made it onto thousands of DVD copies. (“No one asked us,” Sito said. “After, we were like, ‘Yeah, everyone knows about the naked billboard of The Rescuers.’ ”) Disney recalled the DVDs in 1999 and apologized for the “objectionable background image,” the first many in the public had learned of the prank.
Sito said that by the time Disney Renaissance movies like Aladdin arrived in theaters, the company had already begun to crack down on the in-jokes, partly because the VHS era meant people would be equipped to prove the thing they thought they saw was real. But for many animators, Sito says, the real turning point came at the 1991 Oscars, when Disney created a short animated segment to introduce the nominees for Best Animated Short. It featured Woody Woodpecker, who at the time was celebrating his 50th anniversary. The animators took advantage of the segment’s quick turnaround to surreptitiously slip in a number of hidden messages, some of which—including such lines as “Looking for satanic messages?”—are still visible in the official upload on the Oscars’ YouTube channel. (Skip to 4:41 in the video below, when the mischievous Woodpecker unfurls his scroll.) According to Sito, they also included the phone number of Michael Eisner, then Disney’s CEO, and something else: a covert F-bomb.
“Within a day, people were reviewing the tape and getting furious with Disney,” Sito told me. “It was then we realized, ‘Hey, people are really starting to pay attention to this stuff.’ ”
Bannon also noticed when Disney recalled The Rescuers DVD in 1999. She remembered Disney treated her questions about Aladdin as absurd: “I remember them dismissing it as complete craziness—there was no, you know, ‘Off the record: Please don’t write the story. It’ll destroy us.’ Categorical denial.” But she said she doesn’t so much blame the company as the animators. “Thinking back on it, you know, probably it’s the animators were having some fun. I’m not sure Disney, or the official spokesperson, even knew it. I would bet they didn’t.” Of Disney’s esteemed animators, she said, “They’re kind of naughty.”