I have had the privilege and blessing of visiting Disney World in Florida many times in my life, both as a child and as a father. Each time I go, I come away with the unshakeable belief that Disney World is, to borrow and invert a phrase from Narnia, a place where it is never winter but always Christmas. Every day, Walt’s park in sunny Orlando offers twinkling lights, colorful parades, magical shows, and breathtaking fireworks; but that is not the primary reason why I compare it to December 25.
Every day at Disney World is Christmas Day because everyone—from the workers to the visitors, the entertainers to the street sweepers, the princesses to the ride operators—treats each other with kindness, patience, love, and joy. It is simply in the air, that yuletide spirit that draws the best out of everyone, that restores their childhood innocence and fills them with song, laughter, and good cheer. If only everyone felt and acted like this year-round, it would be, to borrow a phrase from Middle-earth, a merrier world.
In nearly every Disney animated film, I feel that same spirit and catch a glimpse of a world where hope and love, faith and joy really do win out in the end. Snow White’s goodness is rewarded, Pinocchio learns self-sacrifice and becomes a real boy, Dumbo rises above the bullies to find strength and purpose in the big ears he had once thought a liability, and Bambi survives death and trauma to win friendship, maturity, and love.
The creators of Narnia and Middle-earth, who did not care for film in general, especially did not care for these, Walt’s first four feature-length fairy tales; neither did they care for the many other films that would follow in the wake of Cinderella. But I believe their dismissiveness was unwarranted, because Lewis and Tolkien filled their fantasy stories with the same virtues that Walt Disney highlighted in his animated musicals: courage, justice, self-control, prudence, patience, friendship, loyalty, self-sacrifice, faith, hope, and love.
Evangelicals are right to be concerned with Disney’s recent turn toward progressive values on gender and sexuality, as reflected in films like Lightyear and Strange World. Yet evangelical critiques of Disney often run deeper than conflicting stances on culture-war matters. Disney, the argument goes, teaches children that they must always follow their heart. If by “heart,” Disney merely meant one’s emotions, then the critique would be a valid one.
But for Walt himself, and for those animated films that have remained closest to his vision and legacy, the heart more often means what it means in Scripture: the center of our being, our will, that part of ourselves into which believers can accept Christ. The protagonists of the best Disney films fail when they trust their immature and unstable emotions, their greed or envy or willfulness. It is only when they learn properly to follow their heart—not to thine own self be true, but to thy true self be true—that they achieve their dreams. Think of Aladdin, Simba, and Hercules, or Ariel, Rapunzel, and Anna: Only when they make the right choices, guided by virtue rather than impulse, do they grow into the true heroes or princesses that they are inside.
As an English professor and father who has, until 2022, defended Disney’s feature films against the critiques of many of my fellow evangelicals, it was with great joy that I read Disney and Apologetics: Exploring the Moral Power and Theological Significance of Disney Stories, written and edited by Jeremy Scarbrough and Pat Sawyer.
This timely, much-needed book is really two books in one. The first volume, “Disney as Doorway to Apologetic Dialogue,” offers an extended defense of Disney’s animated musicals as being compatible with many, though not all, aspects of the Christian worldview. The second, “Disney and the Moral Imagination,” offers a fine and spirited collection of essays that take up individual films as well as specific themes like the nature and power of music, virtue, beauty, imagination, and hope. Rather than attempt to cover both volumes, this review will focus only on the first.
Universal, objective goodness
Scarbrough and Sawyer do not mince words in their apology for Disney. In their first chapter, they lay down clearly and boldly the thesis they will defend:
The grand moral meta-narrative running throughout the majority of Disney’s canon of animated classics from 1937 to 2021 depicts an arguably theistic world: Good triumphs over evil; an agape-like, sacrificial love is the highest virtue; and faith and hope in the Kingdom-ever-after is foreshadowed and built upon the bonds of love and community.
Although they springboard off the analyses of such thinkers as Charles Taylor, Alisdair MacIntyre, and James K. A. Smith, Scarbrough and Sawyer bring their own unique perspective to the Disney films that have delighted and instructed families for nearly a century.
At the core of the Disney oeuvre, they discern an optimism that is yet willing to look evil and injustice in the face. As in the creation-fall-redemption-restoration storyline that anchors the sacred narrative of the Scriptures, Disney films often invite their viewers into a once-good world that has fallen on bad times but that will, through the courage, faith, and sacrifice of its protagonists, be brought back into harmony. Often, say the authors, we
encounter an unmistakable evil or appalling injustice, and we almost always encounter an undeniable optimism that the Good, a right-order or proper relationship, will prevail, that the individual is significant, that there is an ever-after happiness where suffering and injustice is eclipsed by the light of love and kindness, and an awakening conviction that the beautiful soul and virtuous character is directly connected to the Kingdom.
Far from offering weak-kneed, sentimental, pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by endings, Disney films, Scarbrough and Sawyer insist, “are quite effective at awakening our desire for Beauty, our hope in Goodness, and our convictions of Justice.” The films may not offer a specifically Christian worldview grounded in Scripture and in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but they do offer transcendent standards of beauty, goodness, and justice, ones that rise above any one age or culture. Neither the existence of a right order, nor the significance of the individual, nor the goodness of love, kindness, beauty, and virtue can be extracted from a Darwinian, materialist, survival-of-the-fittest worldview.
What, then, does Walt offer in his films? Influenced by his membership in the Order of DeMolay, which the authors describe as “an organization for developing leadership skills in young men,” Walt adopted for himself, and then integrated into his films, its non-sectarian values: “filial love, reverence for sacred things, courtesy, comradeship (encouraging strong ties of membership, loyalty, and trust), fidelity, cleanness (which includes respectful thoughts, actions, and words), and patriotism.”
Though not equivalent to Christianity, this package of values did allow Walt to unite both sacred and secular perspectives into “a shared celebration of artistic beauty, moral virtue, family, community, and the significance of faith and trust.”
By means of this package, Walt established a pact with American families from all denominational backgrounds. Rather than speak in the specific theological language of Christianity, he used “the art of animation, music, and storytelling to reinforce the conviction of a universal, objective goodness which triumphs over evil and is connected to the fostering of virtue within the individual and beauty within community.” By so doing, he aimed at achieving what America’s secular-progressive public schools have failed to do: preserving and passing down a moral education grounded in objective standards.
Disney movies have, in their own way, cried out for tolerance, fairness, and equality, but not, as our public schools do today, as fashionable values cut off from, if not opposed to, the wellsprings of traditional morality.
The virtues that the protagonists of Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast, Moana, The Lion King, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Sword in the Stone, and The Princess and the Frog must learn transcend the categories of self-interest, utility, and duty. They are linked instead to what the authors call “a created order—a way-things-should-go,” and to what Aristotle called their telos: their purposeful end, what they were meant to be and should be in a world properly ordered.
Disney has long envisioned a world in which the virtues of “faith, fortitude, hope, humility, courage, compassion and an altruistic love” are set against the greed, egoism, and injustice of villains who flout the moral order. Those virtues are individual, but they are not individualistic, for they help to bring about a kingdom where such virtues can flourish for all:
Both the Judeo-Christian story of reality and Disney’s Kingdom-oriented moral metanarrative emphasize that the Kingdom is one in which justice is realized—good triumphs over evil—but also that injustice and moral depravity are ultimately issues of character, requiring a reorientation of the heart for those who choose to seek the Kingdom and to live in light of the goodness expected from those who wish to become a citizen.
Justice and dignity
Were this all that Scarbrough and Sawyer offered their readers, it would be enough. But they venture even further in their defense of Disney, wrestling with contemporary narratives of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
How does the Disney message compare with the claims of progressive social justice? As before, Scarborough and Sawyer do not mince words in declaring their thesis: “Disney narratives want us to question perspective, while pointing to a higher grounding for truth. They entreat us to identify with and care for hurting and alienated individuals, but also to look to a higher goodness-beyond-just-ness.”
Like the novels of Charles Dickens, Disney movies frequently allow us to see the world from the point of view of dispossessed people, like orphans (Oliver & Company), the Roma community (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), “street rats” (Aladdin), undervalued women (Mulan), indigenous peoples (Pocahontas), and outlaws (Robin Hood).
But most of the time, they do not reduce such characters to their race, class, or gender. Individual dignity, not identity politics, is the message taught by Disney. It is instructive, and an aid to virtue, to open ourselves to the perspective of marginalize characters, but pre-2022 Disney films do not erase the fact that good and evil, virtue and vice, are real things that exist apart from any one group.
“In The Lion King,” Scarborough and Sawyer do well to remind us, “Scar and the hyenas overthrow the institutionalized narrative. The previously marginalized were now liberated, but the land knew no justice. When the king returned, the traditional power structure was re-established, yet goodness and justice reigned because there was a proper order.”
The same goes for the return of King Richard at the end of Robin Hood and the re-enthronement of Triton at the end of The Little Mermaid, as well as for the royal marriages that end so many of the princess films. Not all hierarchy is illegitimate or dehumanizing. Christians do, after all, look forward to being citizens in a kingdom ruled by a holy and just but merciful and loving king.
Social justice advocates can and do point out injustices that need to be remedied, but a purely secular ideology of social justice cannot provide a firm foundation for the inherent value and worth of every human being or offer a firm hope for the triumph of justice. “Theism,” Scarborough and Sawyer argue, “provides the only substantive basis for Justice, and the Jewish and Christian perspectives offer the most robust grounding for intrinsic human dignity and vision for human community.”
This, I hope, most evangelicals will agree with, but Scarborough and Sawyer go one step further, suggesting that Walt Disney, by means of his creative, non-sectarian approach, was able to participate in a parallel enterprise that complements, rather than imitates, the message of the gospel: “We submit that Disney attempts to mediate (not necessarily knowingly or always successfully) between these perspectives—advocating for consideration of perspective and care for the alienated, while also appealing to objective truth and right-order.”
The church, I would submit, is desperately in need of just such a dual perspective if we are to heal the polarization that has crept from the public square into our sanctuaries. Perhaps we all need to take a trip to the Magic Kingdom and breathe in its Christmas air.
Louis Markos is professor in English and scholar-in-residence at Houston Christian University, where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities. His books include On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, Apologetics for the 21st Century, and the forthcoming My Life in Film, due out in 2024.