LITTLETON, Colo. (BP)–Just days after the school year began at Columbine High School, a subsidiary of The Disney Company was premiering a film portraying the kidnapping of a teacher by three students.
After last April’s mass murder at the suburban Denver school, Miramax Films postponed the May release of “Killing Mrs. Tingle.” The Disney subsidiary has since changed the film’s title to “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” and slated its premiere for Aug. 20.
The plot, described by one reviewer as a “black comedy,” involves a would-be valedictorian whose chance for a college scholarship may be ruined by her history teacher’s accusation of cheating. Miramax’s Internet site calls the film “wicked,” while an advertisement in the Aug. 15 Los Angeles Times promises, “This Friday, three students are about to get even with the teacher from hell.”
“Just about the time we think we’ve pushed the envelope we push it a little further,” said Darrell Scott, father of Rachel Joy Scott, one of the 12 students killed at Columbine. “I’m just amazed at how we’ve taken God away from our kids in school and filled it with violence at school and in movies and with video games.”
Miramax denies the Columbine violence had anything to do with the new title. Co-chairman Bob Weinstein told Entertainment Weekly it was changed to emphasize the film is a comedy, not a teen horror flick.
“Movieguide” magazine has given “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” a “minus two” rating, signifying only adults should see it and use extreme caution in deciding whether to go. The rating is only one rung above the lowest possible mark.
Ted Baehr, head of the Christian Film and Television Commission, which publishes Movieguide, said in an interview the film’s most negative element may be its original title. “It’s not what you expect it to be,” Baehr said. “It’s not killing the teacher. Actually the teacher has some moral points, but she’s pretty negative and stiff. So it’s more complex than anything else.”
Fortunately, it’s not a “Natural Born Killers,” Baehr said, referring to a movie alleged by critics to have sparked various acts of violence.
Although likely less offensive than anticipated, “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” may well raise concerns among parents in the Littleton area, Baehr acknowledged.
Tensions already were brewing at Columbine when school opened during the week of Aug. 16, according to a report in the Denver Post. A Nazi swastika was discovered etched in a brick retaining wall outside the high school and two more in a girls’ restroom.
Such symbols aren’t anything new, said Deniece Norman, spokeswoman for Concerned Columbine Minority Parents. She told the Post her son had seen swastikas and “white power” signs periodically during the past school year.
E. Michael Caner, a Southern Baptist pastor who spent three consecutive days in Littleton counseling grief-stricken people last April, voiced outraged over the new Miramax/Disney film.
While movies like “Saving Private Ryan” can be a stirring and truthful reminder of the effects of violence, Caner said, “‘Teaching Mrs. Tingle’ romanticizes violence and places it in the arena of ‘hijinks.’
“Such a movie not only communicates that violence is necessary, it is ‘cool.’ This is terrifying in a community where violence has so decimated our families.”
Caner, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church in Aurora, Colo., has already written Miramax a letter and encouraged church members to do the same.
Billy Epperhart, pastor of Trinity Christian Center in Littleton, also has raised his voice against the film. While he was traveling and not available for comment during the week of Aug. 16, he told The Washington Post last spring “Mrs. Tingle” would face opposition in Littleton.
“I can tell you it’s going to be protested [here] and it’ll be protested by every group, religious and otherwise,” Epperhart said. “There is an absolute community agreement here regarding anything that has to do with violence and kids in school.”
In addition to the Christian community, the movie has been condemned by the nation’s largest teacher organization. National Education Association President Bob Chase wrote to Miramax in June to register a strong objection on behalf of NEA’s 2.4 million members.
Chase also attacked the Disney company during his annual convention speech in early July. Noting that slain Columbine teacher Dave Saunders was to be honored by the NEA that afternoon, the teachers’ union leader said, “It defies belief, but Miramax studio is set to release a movie about students who plan and carry out an attack on a public school teacher.”
Recounting that the film’s original title was “Killing Mrs. Tingle,” Chase said, “After Columbine, they changed the name to ‘Teaching Mrs. Tingle.’ What in the world do they mean? The attackers are going to teach Mrs. Tingle a lesson? It takes your breath away, doesn’t it? Does the market god have no sense of responsibility? No decency? No shame?”
Despite the animosity against the movie, no metro Denver residents contacted by Baptist Press during the week of Aug. 16 knew of any organized demonstrations planned against the film.
Given its rather ambiguous nature, Baehr said the best form of protest by parents and other concerned Christians may be to simply avoid seeing it.
The film, which is rated PG-13, contains objectionable elements, he said. Among them are kidnapping, more than two dozen obscenities and profanities, drunkenness, sexual situations and lying, according to an advance copy of Movieguide’s review.
It also condones an implied, adulterous relationship between two high school seniors, a primary reason for its negative rating, Baehr said.
Yet, the movie also takes a slightly moral worldview, he said. In the end, most people are rebuked for their wrong actions and must pay the consequences, he explained.
“It’s not anti-authority for the sake of being anti-authority,” Baehr said. Nor does it use “adolescent rebellion [or] all the common politically correct, Marxist-type diatribes, or anti-teacher type things, although it plays on all those sentiments. It’s much more finely wrought than that.”
In addition, Baehr said “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” is nowhere near as violent as “slasher” films like Miramax’s “Scream” and “Scream 2,” although all three films were written by Kevin Williamson. Nor is it as crude as “Something About Mary,” “Austin Powers,” “American Pie” or “South Park,” he said.
Given its mixed content, Baehr said too strong a message against “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” will create a backlash among young people.
“Unfortunately, when you target something that is more delicate, kids go to it and say, ‘If this is bad, they’re kidding us.’ You sow the seeds of reaction. It’s the ‘sky is falling’ syndrome. Kids say, ‘We saw it and the sky wasn’t falling; you lied to us.'”
Disney’s resolve to move ahead with “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” contrasts with an April decision in which its Miramax subsidiary dropped a film titled “Dogma,” which, by several assessments, had promised to offend Christians as deeply as the 1988 film, “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
“Dogma,” which nevertheless will make its way to theaters at a yet-to-be-announced date via a yet-to-be-announced distributor, includes a Skee-ball-addicted “God” played by pop star Alanis Morissette; a Jesus who, according to the New York Post, is “an updated Christ who no longer hangs from the cross but instead offers a thumbs-up salute;” a foul-mouthed 13th apostle who, according to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, resembles Howard Stern, the radio personality seeking to make a name for himself via moral depravity; and a story line in which one of Virgin Mary and Joseph’s descendants becomes a lapsed Catholic who works in an abortion clinic.
The Catholic League began a boycott of Disney in 1995 over the Disney/Miramax film “Priest.” Another Disney boycott also was begun in 1995 by the American Family Association over concerns about citing a decline in moral and family values at the entertainment conglomerate from the days of founder Walt Disney. The boycott has since been joined by the Southern Baptist Convention (in 1997), Focus on the Family, the Assemblies of God, Concerned Women for America and other religious groups.
The SBC boycott resolution in 1997 noted, “… this is not an attempt to bring The Disney Company down, but to bring Southern Baptists up to the moral standard of God,” because: “Everything Christians possess of time, money, and resources is given to them by God as a stewardship for which they will give an account before a holy God … .” The resolution urges “all Southern Baptists to graciously communicate the reasons for their individual actions to The Disney Company and other companies,” noting Disney “is not the only such provider” of morally objectionable movies and televisions programs.
Last fall for the first time, Disney’s involvement in the nation’s largest soft-core pornography cable channel, Viewer’s Choice, was revealed in a new book, “Disney: The Mouse Betrayed.” Husband-and-wife authors Peter and Rochelle Schweizer reported Viewer’s Choice officials would not disclose Disney’s ownership status, but the officials said no other company holds a larger stake in the channel.
Art Toalston contributed to this article.