It was the Maclunkey heard 'round the world: On Tuesday, November 12, Disney+ revealed itself online in full. And while the new streaming service offers hundreds of older films and TV shows, as well as some new stuff such as The Mandalorian and a remake of Lady and the Tramp, one wrinkle of the new service became a social-media trending topic, all boiled down to one gibberish word: Maclunkey.
In case you somehow haven't heard, "Maclunkey" is a new line of dialogue ... kind of ... in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. Amid all the unveilings, it became clear on Tuesday thanks to some intrepid fans watching one of the most infamous scenes in the blockbuster classic that Star Wars impresario George Lucas had changed it once again.
The scene that he refuses to stop updating used to be simple enough: Cocksure Millennium Falcon pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is met and threatened by the alien bounty hunter Greedo, and then shoots the alien before he's shot himself. Or, in the 1997-era Special Edition release of the movie, Greedo shoots Han (missing inexplicably, because they're sitting right across from each other at a small table) right before Han fires back. And now, right before Han kills Greedo, Greedo says an alien phrase that sounds like ... well, "Maclunkey."
Disney was quick to confirm on Tuesday that it had no part in this latest update — before Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, he made this one final tweak. (Why, no one seems to know.) As much fun as it's been to turn "Maclunkey" into a social-media meme — and it really has been quite a delightful way to pass the time in the middle of nationally televised impeachment hearings that hover like a bleak cloud over the future of this country — this tweak was just one of a few surprising revelations related to the proper way to watch some of the content on Disney+. And it highlights the biggest possible concern about the future of Disney+, too.
Another big new thing you can find on Disney+ is the phrase "outdated cultural depictions." That phrase is plastered across plenty of the company's films, TV shows, and short films that can be streamed in HD. You don't have to read too deeply between the lines to understand what's really being said: If you select a film or show with the phrase "outdated cultural depictions" in the Details tab, you're about to watch a movie that you will likely find racist, sexist, or a combination of the two. Still, there are some films that absolutely should be considered as those with "outdated cultural depictions" that don't include the phrase, such as the 1992 film Aladdin.
That aside, this became a story on Disney+'s opening day in part because the use of the phrase is rare for the Walt Disney Company. Yes, it's released many, many, many problematic things over the past 100 years, based on very outdated cultural norms. However, Disney has not been in the habit of acknowledging that fact; "outdated cultural depictions" is the closest it's come so far to mirroring how Warner Bros. has handled similar issues with the Looney Tunes short films being available on home media in the 21st century.
Moreover, there were plenty of reports earlier this spring (all stemming from a single post on a blog not previously or since known for its breaking-news traditions) implying that the 1941 Disney classic Dumbo would be censored to remove the offensive crows, who stereotyped African-American culture. That rumored censorship has not come to pass (and if you think about the movie and how the story goes, it wouldn't make a lot of sense, either).
Instead, Dumbo lives on in full with the warning that it "may" feature outdated depictions. ("May" is in quotes here because the film, as wonderful as it mostly is, absolutely does feature such depictions.)
Consider these two stories with one more that's also made a lot of news in the past few days: The Simpsons is on Disney+, 30 seasons' worth. Or, rather, a version of The Simpsons is available on Disney+, but in the wrong aspect ratio. And this isn't simply a case of wanting to see a program the way it was originally presented; there are plenty of visual jokes being missed because of the choice to stretch out older episodes into the 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of the 1.33:1 ratio in which they were originally presented.
Now, The Simpsons' presentation is both concerning and not at all new. When the iconic TV show was first placed on the FXX streaming app in 2014, its standard presentation was via the wrong aspect ratio. The key difference between then and now is simple: FXX gave viewers the choice to change aspect ratios; Disney+ does not. (You might wonder: Why did FXX present the older episodes in a correct and incorrect ratio, instead of just ... the correct one? Good question! No idea!) But you didn't have to go too far during Disney+'s opening week to find reports capturing intense frustration about the aspect-ratio problem.
Just as you could find plenty of reports about the "outdated cultural depictions" ... or Maclunkey.
What all of these stories are linked by is a stark but important realization: While streaming options seem like the future (and can often have a lot of upsides for both casual viewers and hardcore cinephiles), they only serve as a reminder of how impermanent digital media can be.
No matter what you think about Dumbo and its crows, it is unequivocally good news that the film wasn't censored, simply because censorship (especially censorship after decades of the film being available uncut on home media) is troubling and wrong. From a social-media perspective, "Maclunkey" was a delight, but from the perspective of a Star Wars fan who's exhausted by Lucas' continuing to meddle with a scene that was perfect to begin with and now has lost some of its edgy allure, it's another brick in the wall of frustration. And if you love The Simpsons, the news about the aspect ratio (which remains as yet resolved) is a reminder to hold onto your physical media.
That, in effect, is the story here: If you love Star Wars and you happen to have a version where Han shot first, you should never let it go. (You probably don't need me to tell you that.) If you love The Simpsons, find it on DVD or Blu-ray to make sure you'll always see it the right way. And if you love Dumbo, keep it close by on one of the many Blu-ray or DVD releases. That film hasn't been censored (and again, it's likely safe to presume that it wasn't ever going to be censored). Yet. The Simpsons is now likely going to return to its original aspect ratio in early 2020, based on a statement from Disney+. Likely. And Star Wars and its follow-ups might not go through any further changes. Might.
But the possibility always exists. Take, for example, a story from a couple of weeks ago, before Disney+ debuted. In it, a Disney spokesperson confirmed something that should be obvious: Titles that are on Disney+ now are not going to be rotated in and out of the service. What you see now should be what you see in one or two years' time (allowing for the possibility of more content being added, not removed).
The story seems logical enough. Compared to a service like Netflix, where titles go in and out because of licensing deals with other distributors, that shouldn't be the case with Disney+. The only films, shows, and shorts on the service are owned by Disney. It shouldn't have to license anything.
Consider, then, a Twitter user noticing that, in Disney+'s coding, expiration dates are listed for some titles. In the case of Aladdin, that expiration date isn't until the year 3001. (Sorry to all of you immortals, you may have to live without Aladdin after that date.) But the Disneynature film African Cats has an expiration date of 2022, which is a lot sooner and a lot more baffling. There may not be a lot of viewers champing at the bit to watch African Cats, but if that title might be up for expiration, think of how many more might receive the same fate. Disney+ is permanent ... until it's not.
It's not that Disney+ is a streaming service you shouldn't subscribe to. (I've got a multi-year subscription myself, both because I'm fascinated by the company's history and because I have a 5-year-old. So ... duh.) It's that Disney+ cannot serve as the only repository for people to access these beloved titles. Not to advocate for it, but if this kind of thing — censorship or revisions, unexpected or intentional — was happening to more obscure titles, it might be easier for consumers to accept. If, say, The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (yes, that's a real movie) is in the wrong aspect ratio, or a scene is censored, how many people would notice?
But consider this: If Disney+ can revise how The Simpsons looks, or if it can't supersede how George Lucas wanted Star Wars to look (a film that, in other versions at least on the Disney+ launch day, didn't feature "Maclunkey"), who's to say it won't do something else? The company owns it all, so it has the right to do whatever it wants. Disney+ is a very exciting service, but it's only as ephemeral as the next streaming option.
Streaming is easy and simple, but it can't replace your VHS, DVD, Laserdisc, or Blu-ray.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.