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 oeuvre 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.