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Disney's new PC pirates

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Walt Disney Co. has gone and done it again.

It was troubling enough when Disney's movie studios turned the real lives of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith into a cartoon fantasy that had no relation to history.

It was even more troubling when Disney Studios took the blood and tragedy out of Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Now Disney has turned inward on its own creation, the Pirates of the Caribbean, one of the most popular rides in Disneyland, the company's California amusement park.

When the ride reopens in early March after two months of "rehab," park officials have announced, its mechanical buccaneers will still pillage and drink rum in great quantities.

But they will no longer chase fair damsels as they did in the past. Instead, the pirates will run after women who carry trays of food.

Apparently calories are OK at Disneyland these days, but any hint of S-E-X is not.

Alas, this is not an era that welcomes the likes of a swashbuckler in the Errol Flynn mold. This is the era in which a 6-year-old first-grader in North Carolina was suspended for sexual harassment for kissing a little girl on the cheek. No wonder Disney saw the handwriting on the wall.

Just a little food

"We're basically just putting some food into the hands of some of the women," said a Disneyland representative, Susan Roth, playing down the earth-shaking significance of the change.

"Pirates" has been around for more than 30 years and was one of the last rides to be supervised by the late Walt Disney himself. The changes were ordered after "concerns" were expressed by some visitors and even by some Disneyland employees. "This is one way to bring the ride into tune with the '90s," Ms. Roth said.

Ah, but do we want our pirates to be in tune with the '90s? How about the 1690s?

I applaud Disney's concern for the feelings of its customers. This is not political correctness. It is public relations.

Still, something about this Disneyfied version of the buccaneer era troubles me. After all, good taste and decorum are not qualities for which pirates are widely known. Pirates did a lot of unwholesome things you would not want to depict in a family park. Disney is justifiably concerned with how much of that reality it should show.

Frat boys of the high seas

But I'm just as concerned with the flip side: How much do you leave out? If you don't depict any of their most questionable behavior, do you present an unrealistic picture of pirates as a nice, if boisterous, bunch of regular guys, sort of a Harvard dining club on the high seas.

"They're not going to be Boy Scouts," Ms. Roth assured me.

Nor, she said, will the men be the only ones who are having fun. In another blow to a traditional stereotype, changes are being ordered in a mechanical version of a heavyset woman who has been wielding a rolling pin and chasing a man.

During the closing, the woman is slated to have her rolling pin lifted -- and the man she is chasing will be carrying a ham.

Chalk up another victory for Disney revisionism. Lust in Disney's fantasyland is OK, as long as it is for food.

Ah, well, it's their park and they can do what they want with it.

(There are no plans for changes in Florida's Disney World version of Pirates of the Caribbean, by the way. A spokeswoman there assured me that the company is satisfied with the current setup, which features men chasing all sorts of things and at least one woman chasing a man.)

Where will it lead?

If this Disney revisionism spreads, just imagine what we may be in for next:

Zorro could trade in his sword for a feather duster.

Donald Duck could lose his speech impediment.

Snow White could be teamed with the "Seven Vertically Challenged Persons."

Instead of the guide shooting at a hippopotamus in Disneyland's wild Safari Ride, he could beat it on the head with a parasol.

Instead of killing a bear with a bowie knife, Davy Crockett, in a hat of polyester raccoon fur, could gently subdue the beast, then put him in a petting zoo.

And, in his glorious last stand at the Alamo, Crockett could negotiate a hasty peace with Santa Anna, split Texas down the middle, then seal the deal over beer and tacos.

Of course, future Disney production possibilities are endless. Consider, for example:

The War of 1812 re-created as a pie-throwing contest.

The French Revolution punishing Marie Antoinette by forcing her to stand in a corner.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/28/97

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