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Disney's animated Fantasia is famous for its whimsical interpretation of dreams, images and music. Starring Mickey Mouse, it's just the kind of art that opens the eyes of children. Luckily for parents, it's rated "G."
But it may also contain an unhealthy amount of violence and send the wrong messages to kids, according to a highly publicized study released by two researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (SPH).
Analyzing all 74 English language animated films released in theaters from 1937 to 1999, Kimberly M. Thompson, an assistant professor at SPH and Fumie Yokota, a graduate student, found that even the most benign had scenes of violence--and many had repeated scenes where friendly characters assault evil ones.
"Content analysis reveals a striking behavioral message implied by many of the G-rated animated films that the good guys triumph over the bad through the use of physical force," the study concluded.
To conduct the study, Yokota timed the duration of violence--defined in the study as "intentional acts...where the aggressor makes some physical contact that has potential to inflict injury or harm."
The results, which were published in the May 24 Journal of the American Medical Association, surprised both the researchers.
"There was so much violence that I had to stop [the movies and mark the violent segments] all the time," Yokota said.
Each of the 74 films depicted at least one violent act. From there, the amounts varied.
While the 1998 film My Neighbor Totoro contained only six seconds of violence, Warner Bros.' The Quest for Camelot featured more than 24 minutes of violence.
The average for all the films was 9.5 minutes, or 11.8 percent of their total running times.
The researchers also concluded that recent movies were more violent than older ones.
In the early 1940s, animated movies had an average of six minutes of violence. By the late 1990s, that figure had ballooned to 11 minutes of violence.
And the carnage isn't limited to what Yokota and Thompson labeled the "bad" characters.
Though "bad" characters were 23 times more like to die from their injuries, in nearly every movie, at least one "good" character engaged in violence.
In fact, 55 percent of the violence involved clashes between "good" or "neutral" characters and "bad" characters.
Not surprisingly, "good" or "neutral" characters were more likely to instigate what the researchers called "funny" violence, while "bad" characters were more likely to instigate "sinister" violence.
Funny acts included Dumbo shooting peanuts from his trunk at the female elephants in Dumbo and Tigger toppling Rabbit in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Sinister acts included Uncle Scar slaying Mufasa in The Lion King and Mickey Mouse attempting to axe the water-carrying broom in Fantasia.
While in 49 percent of the films at least one character rejoices over an act of violence, characters call for non-violence in only 32 percent of the films.
Still, Yokota cautioned that she and Thompson don't make any links between violent films and children's behavior--though she did provide a word of caution for parents.
"Just because a movie is G-rated doesn't mean the level of violence is safe for kids," Yokota said. "If parents are concerned about violent content, they can't overlook G-rated movies."
Peggy Charren, the founder of the group Action for Children's Television, an advocacy group, said she agreed.
She, like the study's authors, favors a change in the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system to make it more content-based and more descriptive.
But, she said, "the problem is much bigger than the media."
The SPH study has generated a significant amount of attention from the press. Aside from numerous newspaper articles, Thompson has been interviewed for the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather and has appeared on MSNBC and CNN.
Yokota has also spoken to the local affiliates of CBS, NBC, ABC and FOX.
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