In the age of David Duke and the Thomas confirmation hearings, what could be less politically correct than grotesque, bare-breasted caricatures of servile African-American women? Give up? So did the folks at Walt Disney Pictures when they at long last released Fantasia, the studio’s 1940 animated masterwork, on video a few weeks ago. The cassette liner notes call it a ”meticulously restored version of the original, full-length film.” But if it were really that, it would have included the ghastly scene pictured below in a rare publicity still: a ”pickaninny centaurette,” as the film’s animators dubbed her, polishing hooves in the ”Pastoral” Symphony segment.
Instead, the fawning little pedicurist has been cropped from the image in the video version — and she’s not the only tasteless ‘toon whose big moment got recast as someone else’s close-up. Notice those tight, oddly framed shots in the symphony’s third movement when a drunken Bacchus stumbles up some stairs? A lighter-skinned black centaurette could once be seen standing off to the right, trying to help him sit down. Called ”Sunflower” in the animators’ original assignment sheets, she was also shown pinning flora to the other centaurettes’ tails.
”It’s sort of appalling to me that these stereotypes were ever put in,” says John Carnochan, the Disney editor responsible for removing them so artfully. Hired to refurbish Fantasia between work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Carnochan reframed four shots and flatout replaced others that were beyond redemption by repeating some frames-all while making ”the unavoidable music edits as unobtrusive as possible,” he says.
While no one at Disney seems to doubt the wisdom of these changes, some animation buffs are riled by the studio’s unilateral decision to permanently alter an acknowledged masterpiece. ”This is a movie supposedly protected as a national treasure by the U.S. government,” says Jim Korkis, coauthor of a sassy, cult-fan paperback history, Cartoon Confidential. ”But because the original creator can tamper, Disney is allowed to release this on video without a warning label about the changes.” Korkis argues that racial insults are an unavoidable commonplace of ’30s and ’40s cartoons — witness the stereotypical black maid shown in MGM/UA’s Tom & Jerry videocassette compilations, or the blatantly racist caricatures of every ethnic stripe in collections of wartime Warner Bros. shorts. Shouldn’t future audiences be reminded that this kind of humor also figured in Fantasia?
In the considered opinion of John Culhane, longtime Disney scholar and a high-profile pooh-bah among the cartoon cognoscenti, absolutely not. ”Walt’s artistic purpose,” Culhane says, ”was to take Beethoven’s piece, put a visualization to it, and have people feel happy when that harmony was completed. If someone feels demeaned or insulted, that’s going against what Disney wanted when he did it.” And call him PC if you will, says Culhane, but ”Walt was never in the business of pleasing film buffs.”