In late summer of 2016, a fascinating claim took the Internet by storm. The claim was shocking but just believable enough to sweep across media outlets and Disney fans’ social feeds. It was that Disney films prohibited only three things—and those three things were smoking, impalement, and beheading. We even covered the story at Reader’s Digest in 2017, and it continued to draw interest. But while diving deeper into Disney’s properties, we had to wonder…was it true?
The original interview
Where did the claim originally come from? Well, it did come from a legitimate source. In an interview with Ain’t It Cool News, David Lowery, the director of 2016’s Pete’s Dragon remake, dropped the bomb. “When you sign a contract with Disney, the things it says your film cannot have are beheadings, impalement or smoking,” Lowery said. “Those are literally the three things you are not allowed to put into a Disney film.” So, yes, that’s pretty cut and dry, and coming from a man who actually made a Disney movie. But, again…there seem to be some obvious exceptions.
Of course, no one sharing this story was suggesting that this rule was always the case. As we pointed out in our piece, Pinocchio‘s smoking scene is one of the more memorable from the 1940 classic, and one of Disney’s most famous villains, the sea witch Ursula, dies by impalement.
So could it be a relatively new rule? Well, Olaf’s memorable (if totally harmless) encounter with an icicle in 2013’s Frozen—only three years before Lowery said that—would seem to debunk that possibility. Not to mention that while that 2016 interview took place when Pete’s Dragon came out, Lowery started shooting the movie—and presumably had to sign that contract—in early 2015. That’s only a little over a year after the release of Frozen.
And then there’s the matter of Disney’s franchise properties—some of its most-seen films and biggest money-makers. Impalement by lightsaber is a somewhat regular occurrence in the Star Wars films (rest in peace, Han Solo). And in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time, the megalomanic Thanos gets beheaded. Twice.
A brief history of Disney self-censorship
In the 1970s, the Walt Disney Company had a minor identity crisis, according to Christoper Lucas, author of Top Disney: 100 Top Ten Lists of the Best of Disney. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) had debuted its rating system in 1968, changing the movie-making landscape. Movies as a whole could now be a little less buttoned-up in terms of their content, and it was paying off. Disney—the epitome of a family-friendly company—felt backed into a corner. “Their hands were tied, because they were considered…G-rated, family-friendly,” Lucas explains. And, sure enough, their box office numbers suffered a little.
In 1984, Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law and then-CEO of the company, created the production company Touchstone Pictures (originally called Touchstone Films) “so they could make movies that were a little edgier,” Lucas says. Touchstone produced such notable—and not family-friendly—movies as Pretty Woman, Good Morning Vietnam, and The Royal Tenenbaums. “It’s still Disney; they’re still making the money and producing the movies,” Lucas says. But the Disney logo is absent, and even film aficionados who know that Disney owns Touchstone Pictures probably wouldn’t readily call any of these “Disney movies.”
But the knowledge that these do fall under the Disney umbrella shines a whole new light on what types of content Disney as a whole will and won’t “ban.” To call back to the three “forbidden” things, in the first minute of The Nightmare Before Christmas—a Touchstone film that actually is targeted at kids, and one that most people do actively consider a “Disney film”—several (albeit inanimate) carved pumpkin heads are impaled on spikes. And the hero of that film, Jack Skellington, removes his own head. (Again, non-violently.) But still, that contract David Lowery signed is beginning to seem more and more arbitrary.
The smoking ban does stand (mostly)
As for smoking, Disney CEO Bob Iger specifically spearheaded that prohibition in 2015. The MPAA had been taking the presence of smoking into account when rating movies since 2007, but Iger specifically forbade it in any future Disney film with a PG-13 rating or below. And, yes, this includes other studios that Disney owns. As Iger put it, it applies “across the board: Marvel, Lucas, Pixar and Disney films.”
But even then, there are exceptions. Smoking is allowed in Disney films if the film “[depicts] a historical figure who may have smoked at the time of his or her life,” or if it “[portrays] cigarette smoking in an unfavorable light or [emphasizes] the negative consequences of smoking.” (So…maybe that Pinocchio scene would still be cool today…?)
What’s the difference?
So…why did Pete’s Dragon, of all films, have these specific restrictions? Was it because it’s live-action? Does the rule apply only to Walt Disney Studios films, with the Cinderella’s Castle logo appearing at the beginning?
Well, Lucas speculates that it probably doesn’t have to do with just the Walt Disney logo. Touchstone Pictures was able to fly a little more under the radar, but it’s no secret to many that Star Wars, Marvel, et al. are Disney properties (just look at the parks!), and they break these rules.
There’s one thing Lucas is sure of: “They’re more worried about the ratings than they are about soiling the Disney name.” And that probably has more to do with Pete’s Dragon being subjected to such a crackdown. It was specifically targeted at children and families, with a PG rating, whereas there are definitely some adults who love Star Wars and Marvel films as much as, if not more than, kids.
If Pete’s Dragon got a PG-13, it would lose a lot of that target audience in a way Star Wars and Marvel wouldn’t. If it were to get out even that Disney had submitted a film like that to the ratings board and been told to tweak things or they’d get a PG-13 rating, “that would be very bad publicity for them,” Lucas says.
On the contrary, it might seem downright strange for a Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe film to get less than a PG-13 rating. And Lucas also acknowledges that the violence in films like these does, for better or worse, tend to get more of a pass from the ratings board. “If a beheading is considered ‘cartoon-y,’ [the ratings board] will let it go by,” he says. These films, by nature, are fantastical and “comic book–y.” Lightsabers don’t resemble any real-world weapon, just as Thanos is huge, purple, and very obviously not human. On the other hand, Pete’s Dragon, while obviously still a fairy tale, was set in the real world, grounded enough to not be able to cross lines that those other films can cross.
So, bottom line? No, there’s no cut-and-dry ban on three things, and only three things, from Disney movies. The bans operate on more of a case-by-case basis, and at the end of the day, it’s the one on smoking—the one that was portrayed as the “tamest” in that flurry of 2016 coverage—that’s the strictest. Next, uncover these secrets Disney park employees won’t tell you.