Disney Addresses Christianity in Multiple Projects

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Esmerelda sings God Help the Outcast

Credit: Disney

A common criticism of the Walt Disney Company is that things have strayed too far away from the traditional values of the previous century, but Disney has done more than some skeptics might think.

Lilo & Stitch, Moana, Hercules, and Hunchback of Notre Dame are the next Disney live-action films
Credit: Inside the Magic

In 2023, representation is something all companies should strive for. However, in an age where movies, TV shows, games, and other forms of media are incorporating stand-ins for viewers of all colors, creeds, orientations, and religious backgrounds, many still find themselves missing out, especially at the house of mouse.

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Although some of the creative choices being made have garnered mixed-to-negative reviews, Disney has incorporated a lot of characters and plot points that deviate from what some might call “conservative” values. Disney has made steps to represent other ethnicities in lead roles, cultures, and religions as backgrounds, and has even gone as far as creating LGBTQ+ characters in some of its most recent work. That said, one of the loudest complaints is that Disney has little to no representation of the Christian demographic.

Related: Guests Agree, Disney Parks in Worse Condition Than Ever Before

Disney and the Christian faith (or religion as a whole) don’t seem like two elements that would/should mix together, but some of the studio’s biggest projects gave the world some of the faith’s biggest and boldest representation on film. The Walt Disney Company has been under heavy fire for straying from “what Walt would want,” but viewers are so quick to forget just how many powerful and beautiful depictions of Christianity and Christlike imagery Disney has created.

Disney and Christianity

Logo for Walt Disney Animation
Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Biblical epics have been a part of the motion picture industry since the birth of the medium, and Walt Disney himself wasn’t above making references to God, Jesus Christ, the divine, faith, and other such abstracts in his own movies and cartoons. The image of Snow White and her Prince Charming riding off to a heavenly castle in the clouds certainly comes to mind, but that was only the first and definitely not the most direct.

Walt Disney with Mickey Mouses
Credit: D23

Many sources state that Walt was a man of faith, and that his Christian background helped shape many of his projects. Considering many, if not all, of the studio’s iconic fairytale features depict the ongoing battle of good triumphing over evil, it’s easy to make that assumption. In fact, Walt Disney shared his views on matters of faith, religion, and God with Guidepost in 1949,

“Deeds rather than words express my concept of the part religion should play in everyday life. I have watched constantly that in my work the highest moral and spiritual standards are upheld, whether my productions deal with fable or with stories of living action”

Walt later goes on in the report to add,

“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 to keep you attuned to the Divine inspiration. Without inspiration, we would perish.”

While it’s certainly very bold to speak on behalf of a dead filmmaker, the evidence speaks for itself well enough. Even after Walt’s passing in 1966, Walt Disney Studios had more than its fair share of divine inspiration.

Fantasia: “Night on Bald Mountain”

Chernabog in Fantasia
Credit: Disney

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) might have made the Walt Disney Company a household name, but Fantasia (1940) was where the studio showed they could do far beyond fairytales and princesses. Although Mickey Mouse had a prominent role in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment, he was not the only focal point of the project.

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Fantasia was Disney’s first arthouse feature. It was an experimental film that blended animated artistry with famous pieces of classical music. But while Mickey dazzled and delighted audiences, the bacchanal of demonic debauchery defeated by the heavenly chorus of the “Ave Maria” wasn’t just an artistic interpretation.

Deems Taylor (dubbed over by Corey Burton) lays the scene better than this writer in the opening narration for the grand finale of Walt’s “Concert Feature.” This battle of the “profane and the sacred” was absolutely thrilling when it was first released in 1940, but it has since provided many viewers with perhaps their first visual representation of Heaven and Hell.

Related: Christians Launch Petition to Stop Satanic Disney+ Show ‘Pauline’

“Night on Bald Mountain” is undoubtedly one of the most vivid depictions of Hell in the history of cinema, the artists and animators definitely went all out on the depiction of “Satan” (represented by Disney’s Chernabog, the Slavic god of darkness) and his undead minions. However, the “Ave Maria” and its gorgeous representation of a holy service or mass in the forest is nothing short of a heavenly depiction.

Pollyanna

Pollyanna on Disney Plus
Credit: Disney+

To address the elephant in the room, Pollyanna (1960) is a Disney movie that thrives on many stereotypes invented by the studio. It is an absolutely saccharine sweet movie about a plucky blonde and blue-eyed orphan who inspires an epidemic of contagious optimism in a small town at the dawn of the 20th century, and it’s easily something that ticks many boxes for other similar films.

Related: Disney Made ‘Bluey’ Remove a Reference to Jesus

That being said, the subject of God, faith, and Christianity plays a central role in the film’s plot and background. Pollyanna herself is a child of parents working in the mission field, the local church is a prominent set-piece and it’s reverend a solid supporting character, and the cast brings up religious subjects in a tasteful, conversational manner that doesn’t feel forced.

Pollyanna sits in church
Credit: Disney

One thing the film does exceptionally well is incorporate the concept of faith and religion in a community setting. It’s practically the lifeblood in the town of Harrington. Furthermore, this was a Walt Disney production that bore his seal of approval, and his own religious background definitely played a part in its development.

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Pollyanna is undoubtedly an underrated gem from Walt’s day that deserves rewatching. It is a movie saturated in positivity and features some of the studio’s heavy hitters of the ’60s, including a very young Haley Mills in the lead role.

The Small One

The boy and his donkey in Small One
Credit: D23

There are few representations of Christianity in Disney animation that are more direct or more precious than The Small One (1978). This animated special by the legendary Don Bluth of Pete’s Dragon fame was a Disney adaptation of the Nativity story from the New Testament involving the donkey that carried Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem.

Related: Christians Outraged After Disney Makes Minor Change to Candlelight Processional

Despite its short runtime, the film utilizes its biblical imagery to great effect. Like a Sunday school painting come to life, the story of a Nazarene boy who must sell his beloved donkey tells an intimate story that soon pays off in an overflow of emotion.

While DreamWorks had its biblical epic in the form of The Prince of Egypt (1998), Disney doesn’t really need something to that scale (although they could do it). Using such a simple story to introduce children to such a massive part of history and Christianity is nothing short of genius.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Quasimodo frees a baby bird in Hunchback of Notre Dame movie
Credit: Disney

You can’t talk about Disney and Christianity without including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1997). Although Disney’s adaptation was far lighter and brighter than Victor Hugo’s gothic novel, it did not skip on the darkness or the heavy religious imagery and allegories.

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The Notre Dame Cathedral and the city of Paris are the unspoken stars of the show, and the story that unfolds beneath its stone gargoyles and stained glass windows is easily one of the most mature endeavors to come from Walt Disney Animation. To quote Clopin, “It is the tale of a man… and a monster.”

Frollo confronts his demons
Credit: Disney

This Disney movie is by no means shy about its religious background and themes. Although it is quick to represent the importance of God, faith, and community, it is also not afraid to talk about religious corruption and the subject of sin. Frollo and his infamous song, “Hellfire,” are such strong points because they are grounded in reality, and Disney was not afraid to go there.

Related: Songwriter Proves ‘Hellfire’ Is the Scientifically Perfect Disney Song

Although that sequence is indeed the biggest thing many take away from the film, it also shows the beauty of God’s love so wonderfully in Esmeralda’s “God Help the Outcasts” number. This isn’t just a beautiful Disney song; it’s a prayer put to music that expresses an outcry for God. Is it any wonder so many people want Disney to go back to this age?

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Credit: Disney

When most people imagine Christianity and fantasy, conflict often arises. That is not the case with The Chronicles of Narnia, considered widely to be one of the biggest names in Christian fiction. Based on the books by C.S. Lewis, the series is loaded with Christian parallels and imagery, which Disney did not skimp on in its adaptation.

Related: Every TV and Movie Adaptation of ‘The Chronicles’ of Narnia,’ Ever

Disney adapted the first three books in the collection, and many consider them currently the best representations of Lewis’ works. Like the novel that came before it, the studio’s production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe maintains its Christian roots without sacrificing any of its substance.

narnia-mr-tumnus
Photo Credit: Walden Media

While C.S. Lewis was almost entirely against allegory and metaphors in his books, the relationship between the religious themes in Disney’s version of Narnia doesn’t go unnoticed. From the blatantly obvious representation of Jesus seen in the form of Aslan, the lion to the subtle notes like the parable of the Good Samaritan seen in the kindness of Mr. Tumnus and the example of childlike faith seen in Lucy.

It’s true that the studio did stray from the source material somewhere around Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but the series is still an enjoyable experience, regardless of whether or not you’ve read the books.

Should Christianity Still Shape Disney?

Walt Disney posing in front of 'Sleeping Beauty' concept art.
Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

To ask if Disney is maintaining the moral standards set forth by Walt is a loaded question, and that’s the kind way to put it. Although the studio has produced many controversial films in recent years, at least one core thing remains intact after all these years.

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Good will still triumph over evil, love will still conquer all, and there will always be hope in reserve when everything’s said and done. While things have definitely changed since Walt’s day, at least fans still have those core values to cling to.

Do you think Disney needs divine intervention? Let Inside the Magic know in the comments down below!

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