Gospel According to Disney:
Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust
by Mark I. Pinsky
Westminster John Knox Press, 2004
commentary by John Tintera
Here’s the scene: You’re invited to dine at a friends’ home. These friends have two children, 3 and 5. You’re led into the living room where hors-d'oeuvres and drinks await. You ask where the washroom is and are led past the den, where the two children are staring blankly at a pair of dancing rodents on the TV screen. You say hello to the children by name, but your presence is only slightly acknowledged by the older child and not at all by the younger. You’ve entered the enchanted land of Disney!
If you’re under the age of 100, chances are you were once one of Disney’s little charges. I daresay that since World War II, only our governmental school system and our religious institutions have been more prominent than Disney in the public transmission of values to American children.
For the first fifty years of its existence, a trust existed between parents and the Disney Company whereby the entertainment giant consistently promulgated values that a vast majority of American parents held dear. Fables such as Bambi, Pinocchio, and Dumbo taught generations of children about the importance of honesty and believing in yourself; they oriented children’s sympathies toward the underdog and the outcast. Films like Cinderella and Peter Pan went so far as positing the existence of “magic” and “fairies,” supernatural elements that bear close resemblance to Christian notions of Grace and The Holy Spirit. During this era, Disney’s fictions stood side-by-side tales of such real Americans as George Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Abe Lincoln in the public arena.
Then, about fifteen years ago, a public debate about the legitimacy of Disney’s values began. The discussion was kicked-off by the publication of an unauthorized biography of Walt Disney by Marc Eliot entitled, Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, which brought to light the Disney brothers’ hellish childhood under an abusive father. This was part of a groundswell of probing into the nature of Disney’s art and the raising of consciousness about Disney’s sometimes bracing realism. Since then, Disney has weathered the release of more than a dozen books critical of its products, not to mention a boycott of the company by the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, The Southern Baptist Convention.
In his new book, The Gospel According to Disney, Orlando Sentinel reporter, Mark Pinsky, provides an excellent overview of the Disney Company since its inception and a synopsis of each of its 30 screen features from 1935 – 2003. In the overview he writes brief, yet detailed biographies of the principle leaders of the company, from Walt and Roy Disney to Jeffery Katzenberg and Michael Eisner. The bulk of the book encompasses 5-6 page mini-reviews of all the movies. In them, Pinsky carefully points out material that most people today would find objectionable, but which was socially acceptable at the time the films were made (e.g. the singing Crows in Dumbo or the antiquated views of women in Snow White and Cinderella). He also highlights more specific sensitivities such as the portrayal of sorcery in Fantasia and The Black Cauldron. Sometimes Pinsky recommends that parents fast-forward past objectionable material; other times he calls them “teachable” moments.
For those who see the world through the eyes of faith, the title of Pinsky’s book raises some interesting questions. On one level the title is a misnomer. If readers are hoping for Pinsky to have discovered a coherent proclamation of the Christian Gospel in the films of Disney, then they need read no further. As Pinsky demonstrates, the Disney Company historically has avoided favoring one faith over another. While certain elements of Christian faith and ethics do recur throughout the Disney oeuvre, there are enough troubling, or even anti-faith messages to give the wary parent pause.
On another level we can conclude from Pinsky that there does seem to be a consistency to Disney’s message that one might go so far as to call “evangelistic.” Throughout its existence, Disney has put forth a set of values that idealizes and advances the American way of life. Given our country’s Christian roots, this message was often in sync with what people of faith embraced and applauded. Perhaps the clearest example of this can be found in the much-loved Lady and The Tramp. In that film, a mangy yet charming mutt from the wrong side of the tracks ends up giving an education about true class and dignity to a spoiled pure-bred from a rich family. The film evokes what is perhaps the central myth of American capitalism: the rags to riches story. Still, as Pinsky points out through one of the critics he cites, the Tramp can also be seen as a savior-hero very much in the mold of Christ. Quoting Susan Locherie Graham, he writes, “[T]his story, with multiple examples of release from bondage, suggests that true heroism requires not only the desire to help others in trouble, but the willingness to risk one’s own safety.”
Despite the fact that Disney has continued to produce popular entertainments such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King that promulgate civic and spiritual values, suspicion about he company persists. According to Pinsky, the public outcry began with the release of Pocahontas in 1995, which gives a pro-Native American reading of the Puritan founding of America. Conservative Christians were outraged by the negative portrayal of the English settlers in the movie. At about the same time, Disney World in Orlando began to market “Gay Days,” a weekend each year where gays and lesbians were especially encouraged to gather together at the theme park. (The park also promoted weekends for Conservative Christians, complete with the hottest Christian bands.) In addition, Disney quietly announced that it was opening its employee benefits program to include domestic partners. Because of these policies, the SBC voted to authorize a boycott, but the effects were minimal at best. According to Pinsky, Disney’s profits did decline, but this had more to do with “ABC-TV’s dismal ratings, sluggish sales at Disney’s retail outlets, the recession, terrorism, and the failures of the studio’s animation unit.”
Ironically, since the boycott began, Disney released its first-ever film set in a Christian milieu, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In an effort to be sensitive to Christians, especially Catholics, the writers changed the occupation of the main villain in the original novel from that of priest to lawyer. While this did little to quell the anger of its opponents, it shows that the company is more interested in pursuing potentially profitable story lines than denigrating anyone’s faith.
But the boycott does raise provocative questions. Should Christians be supporting the corporate orientation of our culture at all? Was the SBC boycott in fact too limited—should it rather have addressed all amoral corporations? What about polluters, food giants that are in the tobacco business, and companies such as the major hotels and the cable TV giants that provide access to pornography? Or, should we, as Pinsky suggests in his synopses of the films, support truth where it’s found, regardless of a company’s less acceptable practices and products?
One other spiritual issue that The Gospel According to Disney raises is the ramifications of the cultural shift away from a distinctly Judeo-Christian framework toward pluralism. For example, while the recent hit film, The Lion King does teach about the putting aside of ego, the dangers of the lust for power, and finding the courage to be who you truly are, it also sets forth the Hindu view of “the circle of life.” Despite efforts at ecumenism across denominational lines, the Christian world itself seems to be fracturing and becoming more polarized as well. (Acceptance and rights of gay and lesbian Christians has been a major flash point for all of the main-line denominations.) At the same time, more and more people are quietly drifting away from organized religion. For an entertainment giant like the Disney Company, this must be a source of great corporate anxiety. How do you make a film today that can please so diverse an audience? For the person of faith, conversely, it has become increasingly difficult to find communities of belonging, including vehicles of entertainment, which conform to one’s own deepest desires and dearest beliefs. As a result everyone is making compromises and settling for “good enough.” We know from the warnings to the church in Laodicea where this will get us, but the fact is, one-size does not fit all any more. We ourselves may find sustenance in The Lion King, but not in Pocahontas, while our neighbor may find the opposite to be true.
It is probable that this change in our culture is to blame for Disney’s recent decision to stop making hand-drawn animated features. Many have lamented this fact, yet Disney is determined to produce all of its animated features digitally, a much cheaper process. Presumably, digital animation will enable Disney to hold its market share by producing a greater number of less expensive entertainments, each for a different market segment. While some may see this as further evidence of Disney’s breach of civic trust, I see it as a welcome step in the company’s evolution toward ever-greater cultural sensitivity.
©2004 John Tintera
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