The 1990s gave us a lot of great movies. Just before the new millennium, there were highs in many genres, with long epics, thrilling action movies, and plenty of releases in what would later be called Disney’s renaissance. While some of these films have held up and even improved over time, some remain a product of their time, with storylines that would be considered dated and unacceptable today. Here’s a look at some problematic family movies from the ’90s, in no particular order.
seven Free Willy (1993)
Save Willy, directed by Simon Wincer, actually has a somewhat heroic storyline. Twelve-year-old Jesse (Jason James Richter), an adopted child, is about to clean up graffiti he painted in a park that contains killer whales. He forms a bond with an orca named Willy, who is unhappy in captivity. When Jesse learns that the park superintendent wants to let Willy die and get the insurance money, he helps bring Willy back to the ocean. The film was a hit and launched two sequels and a television series. The problem lies in the reality of the captive orcas behind the film – a reality that still holds true. Ironically, the problematic whale that played Willy, Keiko, was still in captivity at the time of the film’s release. The studio used her for filming and always kept her captive, a move not unlike the film’s antagonist. The film’s release actually started a campaign to free her, which was successful.
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6 The Waterboy (1998)
Although often considered an inspirational sports film, Frank Coraci’s film The Waterboy is entirely based on making fun of people with intellectual disabilities. Adam Sandler stars as Bobby, a man who serves as a water boy for a Louisiana football team, who bullies him. The team later fires him after unfair accusations of being disruptive. After being hired on a new losing team, Bobby ultimately helps the team win a major championship. The film was profitable, but received negative reviews for its cheap humor, most of which poked fun at people with disabilities and other minorities.
5 Big Daddy (1999)
Another Adam Sandler film, that of Dennis Dugan Grandpa, stars Sandler as Sonny, an immature man. After his girlfriend Vanessa dumps him for being irresponsible, Sonny decides to “adopt” Julian, his roommate’s newly discovered five-year-old son, currently overseas. Although the bond with Julian helps Sonny mature and put his life back together, his actions of pretending to be a guardian of a child – and using that child for his own gain – are problematic and even illegal. Plus, Vanessa is unfairly mean for wanting her boyfriend to be more mature, with a scene of her as a waitress at the end meant to serve as reward. Despite this, the film remained Sandler’s highest-grossing film until Hotel Transylvania 2 in 2015.
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4 Mrs. Doubtfire (1993)
Mrs. Doubtfire, Chris Columbus’ 1993 hit movie, is hilarious and boasts one of Robin Williams’ best performances. Although still loved and funny, it must be said that the basis of the film can be considered problematic. After continuing problems with their marriage, Miranda (Sally Field) files for divorce from Daniel (Williams), and she gets sole custody of their three children. To win custody, Daniel must maintain a job and a residence. Rather than do this, Daniel dresses up as an elderly British woman, Mrs. Doubtfire, and pretends to be a nanny to see her children. Williams is so earnest and lovable in the role you want him to succeed, but it’s not to be said that he breaks legal agreements and several relationship boundaries to do so. Additionally, men pretending to be women for their own benefit is another problematic and transphobic trope.
3 Blank Check (1994)
The plot of Rupert Wainwright’s film Blank check is more absurd than problematic – an 11-year-old named Preston (Brian Bonsall) finds himself with a blank check signed by an escaped convict, which he cashes in for a million dollars and uses to buy extravagant things. He finds himself involved with the FBI, with an agent pursuing him. The agent is called Shay (Karen Duffy), a woman in her thirties, who takes Preston on a date as part of the investigation. They even kiss during the film and agree to meet again when Preston turns 17 – which would still be illegal. This puts a stain on the film, which received negative reviews but was a box office hit.
2 Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
Tom Shadyac’s film Ace Ventura: animal detective stars Jim Carrey as the titular detective. Carrey brings his usual brand of fun comedy as he investigates the disappearance of the Miami Dolphins’ team mascot. He solves the case and learns that the culprit is a transgender woman from the Miami Police Department. He then forcefully denounces her to everyone, who reacts with disgust. The film treats being transgender as a horrifying and ugly secret. Although the film was a success and remains highly regarded, it is another harmful example of transphobia that casts the film in a bad light and unfortunately remains a problem.
1 The Parent Trap (1998)
Nancy Meyers’ successful 1998 adaptation of The parent trap has a highly problematic basis. Hallie and Annie (Lindsay Lohan) are twins who meet at summer camp. As they bond, they realize that they each have a divorced parent and half of the same photo. They eventually find out they are twins, and when their parents divorced, each parent took on a twin. Now united, the twins hatch a plan to reunite their parents. Lohan is excellent in both roles and her performance holds up well. But that can’t erase the fact that the film is based on two parents separating their children and lying to them for twelve years, then getting back together without properly addressing what they put their children through.