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Keeping the peace 

It happened again. That's twice in the last 30 days. A troubled kid opted to try and resolve his problems by bringing a gun to school. This was followed by the usual media pundits droning on about how this unfortunate incident was a result of the moral decay of American society, which was brought on by a steady diet of violent movies, TV shows and video games.

Can something actually be done to stop these senseless school killings? And how much should Hollywood be held responsible for all the violent imagery that our children see?

These issues reportedly trouble many people in show business, but supposedly none more so than Disney CEO Michael Eisner. As the head of a conglomerate best known for producing family-friendly fare, Eisner is said to have been sickened by the April 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, as well as its copycat killings. That's why the Walt Disney Co. is seeking ways to prove that it's the most socially responsible firm currently operating in Hollywood.

This seems like a fairly innocuous position. But take a look at some of the bizarre ways the Mouse is trying to make this new policy work. Last week Disneyland management announced that its "Jungle Cruise" pilots will no longer use pistols. To do so would unnecessarily bring an instrument of violence into a family-friendly environment.

So cast members can no longer fire blanks into the air to frighten away the audio-animatronic hippos. Instead, the "Jungle Cruise" pilots will sound a horn. Which, it's hoped, will have the same effect on fake hippopotami.

Some gun-control fans are applauding the decision. But, given that these were obviously fake guns used to frighten artificial animals, one wonders what impact this will have on America's youth.

A more significant move may have been Walt Disney Studios' decision to take a pass on Martin Scorsese's next project, "Gangs of New York." This epic film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Liam Neeson, had "big fat hit" written all over it.

But it wasn't only the film's $80 million budget that forced Mickey to tell Marty, "Thanks, but no thanks." Rather, it was the subject matter -- down-on-their-luck teens shoot and strangle their way to the top of gangland society -- that gave the Mouse pause. So, even though the Walt Disney Co. would have dearly loved the prestige that would have come from producing Scorsese's film, the corporation's new "no excessive violence" policy prevented the studio from taking the project.

Mind you, this didn't stop Mickey's art-house arm, Miramax Pictures, from grabbing up "Gangs of New York." That said, it's not that Miramax is immune to the pressures that its Mouse House managers are feeling. Though Miramax made millions off its gruesome Scream film series (as well as last summer's Scream parody, Scary Movie), Harvey and Bob Weinstein also recognize that things are different in these post-Columbine days. That's why they've been sitting on "O" for more than 18 months.

A modern-day retelling of Shakespeare's "Othello," "O" has the star power of Julia Stiles, Josh Harnett and Martin Sheen. But the film's setting -- a prep school -- is certain to cause controversy, particularly given "O's" violent finale.

Originally slated for an October 1999 release, Miramax kept postponing "O's" debut with the hope that, if they just waited long enough, Columbine would eventually fade from memory. In the wake of this month's two California school shootings, the film's recently announced summer 2001 release date now seems very much in doubt. There's currently a lot of talk about the Weinsteins just washing their hands of "O" and opting to go direct to video.

Speaking of video, Disney has recently come under fire for cutting sequences featuring gunplay out of some of its 50-year-old animated films. For last year's video rerelease of the studio's 1946 compilation feature "Make Mine Music," the original opening sequence, a musical satire of the Hatfield and McCoy feud, was dropped. Why? Because it featured lots of comic use of firearms.

Or how about the company's recent video release of its 1948 animated feature Melody Time? That film's finale originally portrayed Pecos Bill as a sharp-shooting marvel. But now, thanks to the cutting of almost 90 seconds of footage, Pecos' pistols spend most of their time hidden in their holsters.

Some have praised Disney for taking the time to trim the less-desirable elements out of the older films. Others -- particularly film historians -- have cried foul, suggesting that the Mouse simply wants its older fare to be more palatable (and thereby easier to sell) in these politically correct times. These same folks are saying that the cuts amount to after-the-fact censorship.

So what exactly is the right thing for Disney to be doing? Are their choices really going to have much impact on society?

And then there's the suggestion that the new antiviolence policy might not be as altruistic as it seems. The Walt Disney Co. took a hammering on Capitol Hill last year. The Mouse was taken to task for recruiting 12- and 13-year-olds to attend test screenings of The Faculty, an R-rated high-school horror flick. So perhaps this new policy is an effort at damage control.

There are still those who find something oddly admirable about Eisner's efforts. Sure, Mickey and Michael may be attacking the wrong targets for the wrong reasons. But if this effort somehow wards off one senseless tragedy, do we have a right to complain?

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