Remember the hookah-puffing Caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland? The one whose cloudy exhalations made poor Alice cough, sputter and sneeze? His killer buzz just went up in smoke.
Disney president Robert Iger recently vowed to snuff out all depictions of smoking in the studio’s future family films. He said the company recognizes its profound influence over children, and while entire generations have been misled into believing that charming princes will rescue helpless but pretty girls, and that we should all adopt the life philosophy of a shiftless singing meerkat, he wants them to also know that a drag on a Marlboro will kill you dead.
Or something to that effect.
I suspect the decision was, in part, a nod to the ghost of Walt Disney himself, a chain smoker who died of lung cancer in 1966.
Advocacy groups have been hard-pressuring Hollywood to kick its on-screen smoking habit, and the Motion Picture Association of America announced in May that it would add smoking to the list of cinematic sins – including violence, profanity, nudity and drug use – that earn films harsher ratings.
Which is ironic, of course, when you consider the silver screen’s Golden Age, during which stars like Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart were rarely seen without a cig in their elegantly lit, black-and-white fingers.
But if you add up the admittedly disturbing numbers – 75 percent of youth-rated movies depict smoking, and 175,000 Americans die from lung cancer each year – Disney’s decision makes both dollars and sense.
Sure, the ban is one of those wholly symbolic gestures that will benefit the studio more than any of its viewers. There never was much puffery in Disney properties to begin with: Cruella de Vil’s long cigarette holder, Peter Pan’s peace pipe. So an official smoke-out is a tiny effort to make in order to look like Hollywood heroes.
In some ways, the new policy is goofy. Iger’s reasoning is that “cigarette smoking is a hazard.” But so are sea witches, flying elephants and power-mad, hook-handed pirates. Disney films are full of behavior you wouldn’t want your kids to emulate: driving like Mr. Toad, lying like Pinocchio or stealing like Robin Hood – a common thief despite his right-hearted empathy for the poor and his sexy (I’m sorry, but prrrr) vigilante persona. Is it irresponsible for Disney to romanticize the artery-clogging pasta binge in which Lady and her high-cholesterol Tramp so carelessly engage?
Ultimately, though, I don’t want my kids lighting up any more than Bob Iger wants his stock dropping down. And since I’ve never bothered to complain that Disney flicks don’t show unprotected sex between unmarried mermaids, or depict needle-sharing between HIV-postive forest dwarves, then I really can’t lament the loss of realism when they choose to begin erasing other ugly habits from their otherwise immaculate scripts.
No, the problem isn’t in Disney prissing up its kiddie flicks; it’s in Iger’s promise to make a “serious attempt to eliminate” smoking in the company’s subsidiaries, Touchstone and Miramax. How would Miramax’ period films Gangs of New York, Chicago and The Aviator have looked with no cigarettes in them? How do you suppose Quentin Tarantino will react when they tell him that the characters in next year’s planned World War II flick Inglorious Bastards can maim as many people as they want, but they’d better not blow a single smoke ring?
The director’s bound to have some R-rated words for them, and I hope the movie-going public speaks up, too. Because when the Mouse House begins dictating which real-life behaviors grown-ups have a right to see – when cinema verite becomes cinema very-tame, and the exalting of squeaky clean role models become hazardous to my entertainment – then forgive me, Walt, but it’s time for us all to pipe up.
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