When Disney's A Christmas Carol opens in theaters this week, the Man Behind the Mouse will be up on the marquee yet again, bringing rich—and usually family-friendly—fare to the big screen.
Walt Disney needs no introduction. Born in 1901, he was named after his father's friend, their family's Congregationalist pastor Walter Parr. His father, Elias Disney, was very strict and would beat his children for minor violations of the Sabbath. Interestingly, Walt and his sister snuck out once to see an early silent film projected on a sheet in a church: of Jesus being crucified and resurrected, most likely the 1912 classic From the Manger to the Cross.
Infatuated with vaudeville and motion pictures, Disney began to draw cartoons for his school papers. After driving an ambulance in World War I, he returned to the States and tried to break into the fledgling animated film industry. After some false starts animating shorts with a few stock characters which he had created, he struck gold in 1928 by creating Mickey Mouse, voiced by the man himself, and the rest is history: Mickey Mouse is one of the most recognized icons in the world. Tony Campolo called Mickey "Adam before the fall. He's a purely innocent creature. And he's never done anything sinful in his life. … Look at the fifth chapter of Galatians, where Paul talks about the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are these: love and joy and peace and patience. All of these godly virtues are wrapped up in Mickey and his followers."
Ion 1949, Disney wrote in Guideposts magazine: "I believe firmly in the efficacy of religion, in its powerful influence on a person's whole life. It helps immeasurably to meet the storm and stress of life and keep you attuned to the Divine inspiration. Without inspiration, we would perish. All I ask of myself, 'Live a good Christian life.' To that objective I bend every effort in shaping my personal, domestic, and professional activities and growth." Even so, Christian response to Disney's work has been polarized: you could fill a few shelves with all the books and articles that have been written about Disney's work and life from the standpoint of our faith, and the tone ranges from adulatory to condemnatory. Most focus heavily on the fact that Disney's use of religion, or lack thereof, will influence millions of children in their most formative years, especially with repeated viewings.
Perhaps the most pointed critique of Disney's ouevre is in the self-reliance preached (very American of him), instead of submitting to the will of God or any higher power. Magic also plays an important part in his films, which brought criticism from some Christian reviewers and preachers—but then, magic also plays a role in the works of more respected (from an evangelical's standpoint) creators like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Disney's films have also been criticized for allegedly racist and misogynist portrayals, but others defend him for merely reflecting the comedy of his time.
Disney eschewed religion in his pictures, perhaps wisely: after all, movies are a mass medium and he had the goal of entertaining—and making money—not preaching. But he did focus all of his films on the victory of good over evil. Campolo also reminds us of another storyteller who used non-religious stories to make a moral point: Jesus, in his parables. Disney's films also lift up the Protestant work ethic, the beauty and energy of upbeat music, and the old adage that cleanliness is next to godliness (one of the chief qualities of Disney's theme parks).
Disneyland and Disney World are America's equivalent to Mecca and Medina, or Jerusalem and Rome, as far as pilgrimages go, and just as sacrificial for most families with the financial strain, the emotional stress, and the lost hours spent waiting in line. Yet they are anything but religious centers: there are no churches in either park, although, at the dedication of Disneyland in 1955, Disney asked his niece's husband, a minister, to deliver the invocation; and Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths were all represented at the ceremony. Evangelist Billy Graham visited the park one day and complimented Disney on what a superb fantasy land he had built. "Oh, you preachers get it all wrong," Disney said. "This is reality in here. Out there is fantasy." Boycotted by Southern Baptists and some other conservative groups in the 1990s and early 2000s, these mega-playgrounds were criticized by the religious right for allowing gay events and for allegedly promoting a "gay agenda." On the other hand, both parks also sponsor huge evenings devoted to Christian music and festivities.
For the purposes of this essay, we will only look at the feature films Disney oversaw in his lifetime, excluding the shorts and the "anthology" films. The later Eisner/Katzenberg/Pixar films have religious and spiritual resonances of varying degrees, but here we're only looking at the filmmaker himself and his influence directly on the films made under his watch.
'The power of prayer'
In Snow White, Disney's great first feature, the first in English and in Technicolor, and one in many ways he always sought to outdo, the eponymous heroine teaches the dwarfs as a mother would, about manners, cleanliness and music. There was supposed to be a scene of her showing them how to pray. The scene was cut and instead Snow White is merely seen passively, patiently praying to an unknown god for her prince to come along and rescue her.
In a book about famous people who prayed, Disney said, "I am personally thankful that my parents taught me at a very early age to have a strong personal belief and reliance in the power of prayer for Divine inspiration. Deeds rather than words express my concept of the part religion should play in everyday life. I have watched constantly that in our movie work the highest moral and spiritual standards are upheld, whether it deals with fable or with stories of living action. … Both my study of Scripture and my career in entertaining children have taught me to cherish them. … Thus, whatever success I have had in bringing clean, informative entertainment to people of all ages, I attribute in great part to my Congregational upbringing and my lifelong habit of prayer."
After being tricked by the Evil Queen in the guise of an ugly hag, and having fallen into a stupor imitating death (it doesn't get any more passive than that!), Snow White is rescued from death with a kiss from her prince. Snow White won an honorary Oscar (along with seven miniature statuettes) for being "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field."
In his next film, Pinocchio (1940), Disney put the little puppet through temptation, and preached salvation by works, especially truth-telling. It's a classic story of the creature rebelling against its creator, and is rife with the consequences of sin—Pinocchio's nose growing longer, the "bad" boys turning into donkeys, etc. Meanwhile, the film's Blue Fairy has been compared to the Virgin Mary, and the boy's conscience, Jiminy Cricket (whose name became a replacement curse for another "J.C.") calls himself the "still, small voice that people won't listen to," echoing the analogy for God's voice within us. The characters being swallowed by a whale references Jonah, of course, but Disney writes his own gospel in the song lyric that when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true. This is the opposite of Christian theology that when you pray to God, His dream for you comes true. The film was not as great a success as Snow White.
Fantasia (1940) showcased Disney's love for music, while highlighting Greek mythology, the occult, evolutionary science, and a frightening depiction of Satan and his minions dancing through the night, only to be thwarted by the sunrise, the chiming of the Angelus Bell (representing the Incarnation), and a parade of monks carrying candles to Schubert's "Ave Maria." (Interestingly, the original script had the procession enter a church; the Fantasia Anthology bonus disc includes numerous concept drawings of gothic architecture, stained glass windows, and statues of the Virgin Mary. But Disney deemed this ending as too overtly religious, and scrapped it.) Fantasia did not fare well at the box office, perhaps because of the religious syncretism, but more likely because of the format, decades before music videos became commonplace.
Dumbo (1940) may have the least religious or spiritual references of any Disney film, although it does teach tolerance for people's differences (despite some troubling racist scenes with the crows and roustabouts), turning your weaknesses into strengths to take flight, and, very strongly, proclaiming the Disney gospel to believe in yourself to succeed.
Bambi (1942) led many to despise hunting and love nature with its adorable animals and horrendous hunters with their guns. Since Aesop, fables have been a classic vehicle for storytelling, as well as for morality-imparting. "The fable is the best storytelling device ever conceived," Disney told Wisdom magazine, "and the screen is its best medium. And, of course, animal characters have always been the personnel of fable; animals though which the foibles as well as the virtues of humans can best and most hilariously be reflected."
Cinderella (1950) is another passive female who is saved by a prince, although the princess shows a bit more pluck in winning her man. Like the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio, Cinderella's Fairy Godmother descends from the heavens when Cinderella has lost all hope, despairing, "There's nothing left to believe in!" Her faith in herself is ultimately rewarded when the glass slipper fits.
Disney did not fare so well in trying to adapt Lewis Carroll's masterpiece Alice in Wonderland (1951), a box office failure. Peter Pan (1953) fared better, but still was problematic in its treatment of native Americans (some of whom protested), and of the weak, bumbling father Darling, manipulated by the mother (albeit one of the few mother figures in any Disney film: they are either dead, absent or replaced with evil stepmothers). Lady and the Tramp (1955) showed the mixture of the classes, and highlights Disney's themes of tolerance and love overcoming powerful obstacles.
But it wasn't until Sleeping Beauty (1959) that a religious theme—resurrection—was restated, in an echo of Snow White's ending, and with fairy godmothers making references to shields of virtue and swords of truth, echoing Paul's "armor of God." The battle of Prince Phillip with Maleficent turned into a dragon calls to mind the legend of St. George, which, though not scriptural, does have religious overtones, as does the feature Disney made a few years later patterned after the legend of young King Arthur, The Sword and the Stone (1963).
101 Dalmatians (1961) returned to animal characters, as did The Jungle Book (1967), which was finished after Disney's death, but still showed his influence. Surprisingly, when the bear Baloo apparently dies defending the boy Mowgli from the evil tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli's friend Bagheera, the panther, actually quotes a line of Scripture to him—in fact, the words of Jesus himself, saying, "Greater love hath no one than he who lays down his life for his friend." The seriousness of the scene is deflated, though, as Baloo awakes, and urges that the praise of his sacrifice continue.
Disney, a chain smoker, died in 1966 of lung cancer and, counter to popular legend, was not cryogenically frozen, but cremated. In his lifetime, he received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Légion d'Honneur, a special medal from the League of Nations and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His legacy lives on and always will—so as long as children continue to believe in wishing on stars, magic fairy dust, and that believing in themselves will help make their dreams come true.
Filmmakers of Faith, an occasional feature at CT Movies, highlights directors who adhere to the Christian faith—sometimes strongly, sometimes loosely, and sometimes somewhere in between. This series will include everyone from biblically-minded evangelicals to directors who may only have a "church background" and perhaps a lapsed faith … but their films are clearly informed by their spiritual history.
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