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Sexist? Racist? Violent? Everyone’s a Critic of Disney’s Hit Movie

July 26, 1994 GMT

Undated (AP) _ Sexist. Racist. Homophobic. Violent. Even, perhaps, a threat to democratic ideals. What kind of depraved entertainment could generate such bitter epithets? A Snoop Doggy Dogg video? An Andrew Dice Clay concert?

Would you believe ″The Lion King,″ Disney’s G-rated, coming-of-age saga that’s well on its way toward becoming the highest-grossing animated film in history? Believe it.

Some parents, psychologists and pundits read between the lions and see not family fun but shocking violence and offensive stereotypes: subservient lionesses, jive-talking hyenas, a swishy Uncle Scar, a father’s murder.

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″The movie is full of stereotypes,″ Harvard psychologist Carolyn Newberger complained in an op-ed piece for The Boston Globe.

″The good-for-nothing hyenas are urban blacks; the arch-villain’s gestures are effeminate, and he speaks in supposed gay cliches.″

The movie’s plot is a sort of Hamlet-meets-Abbott-and-Costello-in-the- jungle: The lion king Mufasa is murdered by his evil brother Scar, who then lays the blame on Mufasa’s son and heir, Simba.

Riddled with guilt, Simba runs away and is befriended by a warthog named Pumbaa and a meerkat named Timon who teach him to forget his troubles. Scar takes over and the kingdom plunges into chaos.

Eventually, Simba returns to overthrow Scar and reclaim his rightful crown. In between, there’s lots of singing and dancing and a few bad vaudevillian jokes.

Criticism isn’t new for Disney. Parents still fret about the death of Bambi’s mother. Some feminists are uncomfortable with the prince-as-savior themes in ″Sleeping Beauty,″ ″Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,″ and ″Cinderella.″ More recently, some Arab-Americans denounced ″Aladdin″ as racist.

Ann Adams of Cotuit, Mass., said she hadn’t planned to take her 3 1/2 -year-old daughter to ″The Lion King,″ but gave in after listening to Allison count the days to the movie’s premiere.

Now she wishes she hadn’t. She feels deceived by the movie’s G rating.

″It’s supposed be a family show, a movie that you can take any child to,″ Adams said. ″We ended up sitting in the lobby for half the movie. Bambi was a piece of cake next to this.″

Adams cited the scene most often criticized: the murder of Mufasa, in which the lion falls to his death as Simba watches. That scene, along with the climactic battle between a grown Simba and Scar, has prompted some psychiatrists to recommend that preschoolers and sensitive older children not see the film.

″It’s well beyond what I’d want to take a 2- or 3-year-old to see - just the wickedness of it,″ said Dr. Laurie Humphries, who heads a committee on television and the media for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. ″These are pretty bad guys.″

But that’s just the start of a spirited Disney dissection.

″The Lion King″ is ″a fundamentally sexist film,″ wrote Detroit Free Press columnist Neil Chethik.

Simba’s young sweetie, Nala, may beat him at wrestling early on, but when things go bad under Scar’s rule, she and the other lionesses become ″impotent victims whose only hope is to find a male lion who can save them,″ Chethik wrote.

Then there are Scar’s henchmen, those slobbering hyenas.

Jane R. Eisner of The Philadelphia Inquirer found a harmful message in the helplessness of Scar’s subjects, who wait for the royal Simba to save them.

″Anybody at Disney heard of ’empowerment?‴ she asked.

″If we are ever going to move into the next century with political and organizational structures that truly reflect the wants and needs of the populace, we must teach our children to see beyond the dependency of early childhood, beyond the sense of entitlement and victimization so many embrace and into a world where they believe they can and should and will be responsible for themselves.″

Wow. Is this a deep cartoon, or what?

″These people need to get a life,″ said Disney spokeswoman Terry Press. ″It’s a story. It’s fiction.″

Press offered a point-by-point defense.

Mufasa’s death? ″It’s made very clear in the movie that Simba is not responsible for the death of his father,″ Press said.

Sexism? Without his girlfriend Nala’s prodding, Simba would not return from exile. But that’s beside the point, Press said: ″It’s not her story. It’s his story, about his coming to terms with who he is.″

Racism? ″The hyenas are voiced by Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin,″ Press said. ″Do you think Whoopi Goldberg would lend her voice to a character that is racist? I don’t think so.″

Press said the movie’s popularity speaks for itself. It grossed $199.7 million in ticket sales in six weeks.

″People are going back again and again, so it must have some resonance,″ Press said. ″I can’t get into addressing everyone’s personal concerns with the characters.″

And maybe she doesn’t have to. Consider another expert opinion, this one from Olympia, Wash., where Reed Nightingale, age 5, had just seen ″The Lion King.″

″It was good,″ he said. ″Simba won the fight.″