Leading Article: The wonderful world of Disney subversion

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THE accountants at the Walt Disney Company must have been reading the American press with unusual enjoyment over recent weeks. Not only have most US papers reported that Disney's latest cartoon epic, The Lion King, grossed almost as much in its first week at the cinemas as Jurassic Park, last year's moneyspinner; they have also provided further useful publicity by fomenting a controversy over the film's alleged subversive political messages.

In a film directed at children, which contains no human characters, Disney has been accused of sexism (because the lionesses rely on their male mates to rescue them), racism (because the villain's mane is black), and homophobia (because of alleged gay stereotyping among some of the animals). One academic has even accused The Lion King of perpetuating a psychology of dependency, and has bitterly asked: 'Anyone at Disney heard of empowerment?'

The Disney press office has rightly poured scorn on these complaints. But commercial discretion makes it difficult for the company to make its motives clear. If it is to make the profits that it does, Walt Disney must do its best to ensure that cartoons such as The Lion King appeal not only to children but also to the parents who must take them to the movies. That is why the company's recent productions can be enjoyed at two separate levels. But it would be a mistake to confuse one with the other. Most of the film's supposedly objectionable characteristics would hardly be noticed by the average child of five.

There is one question, however, worth asking: whether The Lion King, and other cartoons like it, might simply be too frightening. Paradoxically, very small children who can watch hi-tech dismemberments in Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger films with equanimity may be terrified by the death of Bambi's mother - and may have nightmares for months about Cruella de Vil, the villain of One Hundred and One Dalmations.

Most parents of young children will probably reflect that it is better for their offspring to come to terms with death and mayhem in a cartoon that guarantees a happy ending than elsewhere. Long before the days of political correctitude cartoons were teaching children the difference between right and wrong, and that bad things sometimes happen to good people.

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