How the film industry is reviewing its history in digital form

Hot on the heels of Cats’ digital dalliance with CGI nether regions comes another bum-related movie controversy: viewers have noticed some unsubtle changes to the mermaid romcom Splash as it appears on Disney+. There is a shot of Daryl Hannah diving into the sea, having just kissed a dumbstruck Tom Hanks. In the 1984 original, Hannah’s blond hair just about covers her naked bottom; in the new version, that hair has been digitally extended to cover her entire buttock area – and badly at that. It looks as if she is wearing a hairy skirt. A forgotten 80s comedy may not be the hill most cinephiles would choose to die on, but we should still be concerned. What else is being altered without our knowledge?

Retrospective tweaking to movies has been going on for decades but in the digital age it has become easier than ever to cover your tracks. Disney, especially, has been guilty of this, what with all the politically incorrect skeletons in its closet. You will not find the notorious Song of the South on Disney+ or the original, racist lyrics of Aladdin’s opening number. A sequence from the credits sequence of Toy Story 2 – where Stinky Pete propositions two Barbie dolls – has also been quietly removed. Elsewhere, Disney’s main concerns have been swearing, violence and particularly smoking; hence the digital removal of cigarettes from both old cartoons and even photographs of Walt Disney (who was a heavy smoker). First they came for the cigarette butts, then they came for Daryl Hannah’s.

Star Wars fans have become accustomed to this constant making-over. George Lucas added new CGI creatures to the 1997 reissue of A New Hope but also adjusted a crucial plot point. In one key scene, Han Solo kills the bounty hunter Greedo in cold blood. But in the re-edited version, he doesn’t: Greedo shoots first. Good luck finding the original “Han shoots first” version anywhere; it is no longer commercially available.

Disney is not alone here. In his 20th anniversary reissue of ET, Steven Spielberg substituted the clunky animatronic ET for a more convincing CGI model in some scenes (just wait till he gets around to Jaws), but he also digitally replaced the guns in the hands of the pursuing cops with walkie-talkies, thus softening the sentiment. (He has since backtracked and reinstated the guns.)

There is a worrying air of propriety to Disney’s slashing of Splash. In the globalised marketplace of cultural taboos, we are in danger of sanitising everything to an absurd degree. Next it might put a nappy on Simba and a T-shirt over the Little Mermaid’s scallop-shell bikini. And, now that we are getting most of our content digitally, how do we know what was the “original” version anyway? Past movies can be tinkered with endlessly, in ways their creators never intended. Better to leave history as it was, butts and all.