Brow Beat

Disney+ Is Finally Opening the Disney Vault. Fans May Not Like Everything They Find Inside.

Viewers can access nearly all of Disney’s history, including the racist parts.

The crows from Dumbo and the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.
Some Disney fans might be unpleasantly surprised by their childhood favorites. Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Disney.

If you spend any time on Twitter, it was all but impossible to avoid being barraged a few weeks back with a seemingly unending thread from one of the biggest companies in the world. The official account for Disney+, the long-touted streaming platform that finally launches on Tuesday, spent the morning of Oct. 14 individually listing every film, TV movie, and show that would be available for its subscribers, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the new Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian. This deluge of titles promises a treasure trove for Disney fanatics and amateur film historians. However, the streaming service also promises a potential series of unexpected and unwelcome surprises for casual viewers.

Reactions to the Disney+ tweetstorm, which, in addition to the studio’s greatest hits, included such forgotten titles as Davy Crockett and the River Pirates and Halloweentown II: Kalabar’s Revenge, ranged from sly sarcasm to straight-up confusion. (Among the befuddled was Josh Gad, the voice of a Disney-branded snowman who loves warm hugs.) For the dedicated Disney fan, the new service offers an unprecedented level of access to the Walt Disney Co.’s archives, a dramatic break from the “Disney Vault” strategy of rotating titles in and out of availability in order to build up demand. Movies like Pinocchio, The Jungle Book, and the original Lion King, which were at points out of circulation for the better part of a decade, will be available on Disney+ from Day 1, and a Disney spokesperson confirmed last week that once a title is added to the service, it will stay there for good.

This unprecedented bonanza will make many Disney fans happier than Scrooge McDuck in a pile of gold. But it may also lead to a jarring wake-up call for people who regard certain Disney movies as pillars of their childhood but haven’t actually watched them in years. One of Disney+’s offerings is a live-action/CG hybrid remake of Lady and the Tramp, similar in style to this summer’s Lion King. But the nearly 65 years between versions means the new Lady and the Tramp has to make more of an adjustment than casting Beyoncé. The original’s infamous “Siamese Cat Song,” which draws heavily on Asian stereotypes, has been cut entirely. But there’s more ethnic shorthand in Lady and the Tramp ’55, outside of that scene. We all remember “Bella Notte,” the swooning ballad sung while Lady and the Tramp share a plate of spaghetti and eventually an unexpected kiss. Some people may not, however, remember that the song is preceded by some faux-comic business between the owners of the Italian restaurant where the dogs have their date; at one point, one of the two men says to the other, unironically, “What’s-a-matta-you, I break-a you face!” That, too, has not been replicated in the remake, for obvious reasons.

Disney+ will allow you to be touched by the sweet love story between Lady and the Tramp, and perhaps recoil at the aforementioned stereotypes. You can similarly rediscover some unpleasant stereotypes in a number of the Disney animated films that have been given remakes, such as The Jungle Book (criticized for styling its orangutans as racist caricatures of black Americans by no less than Walt’s grandniece Abigail Disney) or Dumbo. Early reports implied that the 1941 version of Dumbo would arrive on Disney+ in censored form, removing the minstrel-show crows who sing “When I See an Elephant Fly”—and Song of the South, which won an Oscar for “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in 1946 but has since been roundly condemned for its racist depiction of black Americans, was pointedly omitted from the list of Disney+ titles. But even a truncated version of Dumbo might still include the “Song of the Roustabouts,” an early musical number in which dark-skinned, literally faceless circus workers sing about being illiterate and happy to work long, tireless hours.

If there does end up being a long-term issue for Disney+, it’s not that people will be shocked to discover the depth and breadth of weird movies that Walt Disney Pictures made in the 1960s and 1970s. (No one’s forcing you to watch Mr. Boogedy or Fuzzbucket.) It’s that audiences may stream something like Dumbo and be shocked at what they’ve forgotten from beloved classics or familiar characters. The studio’s most iconic character, Mickey Mouse, will be accounted for on Disney+ in the form of kid-friendly shows like Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and specials like Mickey’s Twice Upon a Christmas. But there’s been no mention of the dozens of Mickey Mouse shorts from the first half of the 20th century, including Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey and friends perform a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, complete with blackface. In the now-defunct Disney Treasures DVD series, the critic and historian Leonard Maltin placed films in their historical context, and in the case of some particularly problematic content, his introductions were impossible to skip over. Disney+ is offering hundreds of titles that have long been unavailable or ignored. But while they’re opening the vault, there doesn’t seem to be a strategy to contextualize what people will find inside it.

One of Disney+’s slogans is “Discover new worlds,” and while that’s a strange pitch for a service that’s largely launching on the strength of its back catalog—not just Disney’s library, but Marvel’s and Pixar’s and Star Wars’—Disney’s past may be an undiscovered country for many subscribers. When Disney+ goes live, you’ll have access to more than 80 years of content from a studio that is now a dominant—arguably the dominant—force in the industry. It may not seem like you’re discovering new worlds, but exploring the films that you loved when you were a child may be a jarring revelation.