Mark Pinsky: What Walt Disney Wrought

Walt Disney Co. no doubt expected kudos for breaking racial barriers in its holiday hit, “The Princess and the Frog,” and that praise has come from some quarters. But the entertainment giant also finds itself receiving stinging criticism from conservative evangelical Christians on a Web warpath. said the animated feature’s preoccupation with voodoo, black magic, bloody amulets and Ouija boards was “too dark and extreme for this kind of kids’ film.” rated the movie “Offensive”; citing a Tarot card reading, soul transfer and implied reincarnation, the site called the film “demonic.” A reviewer for the respected magazine Christianity Today charged that the movie was “disturbing,” with a “hollow, thoughtless core.” These and other essays provoked furious debate involving hundreds of Internet responses, likely echoed in evangelical moms’ groups in churches nationwide. Disney declined to respond directly to the criticism, saying in an email to me: “The Princess and the Frog is a lighthearted musical fairytale set in New Orleans during the jazz age featuring Disney’s first African American Princess, which audiences and critics around the world have enthusiastically embraced.”

What is most interesting about the current controversy is that it’s not new. It’s been going on for more than 70 years, beginning with the release of Disney’s first full-length animated movie, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in 1938. Reviewers at the time voiced similar worries about the dark magic in that groundbreaking feature.

Walt Disney always called himself a Christian, but his biographers agree that he was skeptical about organized religion and rarely set foot inside a church. He insisted that any narrow portrayal of Protestant Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) in his animated features was box-office poison, especially in lucrative, overseas markets. More broadly, Walt’s fear was that explicit religiosity might needlessly exclude young viewers, while a watered-down version might at the same time offend the devout. Yet the studio’s founding genius also understood that, from the ancient Greeks to the Brothers Grimm, successful storytellers have needed supernatural intervention agents to resolve plots. So, Walt decided, Disney’s cartoon protagonists would appeal not to Judeo-Christian religion but to magic, which was more palatable around the ticket-buying world…..

Read the whole article.


Posted in * Culture-Watch, * Economics, Politics, Corporations/Corporate Life, Economy, Ethics / Moral Theology, Movies & Television, Religion & Culture, Theology

28 comments on “Mark Pinsky: What Walt Disney Wrought

  1. Pb says:

    Add to this the family values of Bambi’s family. Bambi is raised by a single mom who is killed by hunters. His dad comes and takes him off to prepetuate the same pattern. The Dead Poets Society was one of the sickest movies I have ever seen. It was about parents who drove their son to suicide against a background of implied homosexuality. When you get by the great art work, this stuff is bad news.

  2. ember says:

    For me, the fatal flaw of [i]Dead Poets Society[/i] was that it stole so much from the far superior—and twenty years older—film [i][url=]The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie[/url][/i].

  3. Chris says:

    I don’t remember anything about homosexuality – I thought the dad was worried he should focus on a business career and give up acting when the latter was what he wanted to do….

  4. New Reformation Advocate says:

    I think Pinshy’s article is actually stimulating and informative. I must admit that I haven’t seen this latest Disney animated feature, so won’t comment on it. But I agree that there is a worrisome tendency afoot at Disney Studios in that it’s seemingly fair game to portray other religions sympathetically, whether the Confucianism behind [b]Mulan[/b] or the paganism behind [b]Pocohontas[/b] (who converted to Christianity, but that is never shown), or even the Judaism behind [b]The Prince of Egypt[/b], but the majority religion of the US, Christianity, so far seems to have been shut out. Maybe because it’s not new or exotic and therefore more interesting??

    I didn’t know that Eisner and Kratzenberg were Jews. That’s not a slam or anti-Semitic remark. But it would certainly be interesting to know if they were observant Jews or not. My guess is not.

    Of course, there are some Christians who object to the modern myths created by C. S. Lewis in his Narnia series, or J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Ring fantasy, and many more who stridently object to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I relish them all, and I have no problem with Disney’s earlier classic films. But I do lament how far the innovative film=making company that Walt founded has drifted from its earlier squeeky clean, family-friendly image. Alas, that always was just a fantasy too. Hollywood and the whole film industry are about as anti-family and even anti-Christian as you can get. And unfortunately, the Disney Company has conformed and become all too typical of the rest of the industry in that regard.

    David Handy+

  5. Br_er Rabbit says:

    When the Harry Potter movie first came out I went to see it to see what the fuss was about. I found it to be highly imaginative and lots of fun, and obviously a pretend-show. It was not trying to be taken seriously or to “sell” any religion or philosophy.

    What I found much more dangerous was Disney’s Lion King series, which was vigorously pushing the eastern religious “Circle of Life” worldview. It specifically tacked the “meaning of life” and proposed a solution. That was the most anti-Christian movie that I have seen from Disney.

  6. Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    I don’t know if I agree with the supposition that Disney films are so much anti-Christian, or even anti-Religion, per se. Didn’t Disney distribute the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe movie?

  7. Br_er Rabbit says:

    er, that’s “specifically tackled“…

    Archer, what did you think of Lion King?

  8. Ross says:

    #4: Prince of Egypt was made by Dreamworks, not Disney. They also did a less-successful adaptation of the Joseph story called King of Dreams.

    Oddly, the movies that seem to come out these days (not from Disney, mind you) with overtly Christian themes are the ones based on weird apocalyptic imagery. There are trailers playing right now for the upcoming movie Legion, which is described on IMDB as follows:

    “An out-of-the-way diner becomes the unlikely battleground for the survival of the human race. When God loses faith in humankind, he sends his legion of angels to bring on the Apocalypse. Humanity’s only hope lies in a group of strangers trapped in a desert diner with the Archangel Michael.”

    This is far from the only movie of its ilk. It seems that there is a strong (and lucrative, for the studios) fascination with Christian mythology rather than Christianity as such.

  9. Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    I loved the Lion King. I thought it certainly had some Christian elements to it. I thought the Lion King was about the last good animated film.

    My issue with Disney of late is no so much that I think they are anti-Christian or whatever, but that the films are so politically correct and the plots are just flaky. Give me the Fox and the Hound or Lady and the Tramp any day over recent garbage like Lilo and Stitch and the Tigger movie.

    I did like Finding Nemo though if for no other reason that the parody of seagulls. “Mine! Mine! Mine!”

  10. Br_er Rabbit says:

    #8 Ross,
    Heh. That sounds like the opening of a Douglas Adams novel, with Thor super-glued to the floor because he ticked off his father Odin.

  11. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Ross (#8),

    You’re right about [i]Prince of Egypt[/i] not being made by Disney. I stand corrected. And I also agree that there’s a lot of weird stuff appearing on the big screen these days, all along the ideological spectrum.

    For a while, my son (when he was in high school) thought that [b]The Matrix[/b] was “the best film ever” with a Christian subtext just below the surface. That was, until the sequel came out…

    David Handy+

  12. Ross says:


    Heh. Well, The Matrix certainly has an explicitly messianic theme to it. On the other hand, it’s also highly gnostic — the world is a lie and a trap created by malevolent sub-divine beings — and apparently the main effect of becoming enlightened is that one can really kick ass afterwards. The Wachowski brothers borrowed from many sources, and Christianity was merely one among the many.

  13. clayton says:

    Does anyone else kinda despise the whole Disney princess thing? Is this really the best we can do for little girls? It makes my little sister’s 80s Barbies look relatively reasonable, at least Barbie was an astronaut or race car driver once in a while. Kids today!

    When did I get this old? Get off my lawn, ya whippersnappers, and take your hula hoops and hi-fi with you!

  14. Br_er Rabbit says:

    Yep, yer old. Hi-fi’s went out before boom boxes, and I haven’t seen a boom box in almost a generation.

    The Rabbit

  15. C. Wingate says:

    I did actually see the movie, and as far Christian religion itself is concerned, its biggest offense is the total hash it makes of the church year (and for that matter, New Orleans custom revolving around the same). The scenes with the bad voodoo guy are incredibly scary, some of the scariest Disney animation I’ve ever seen. And I hope it isn’t too much of a spoiler to point out that he is more or less literally dragged down to Hell. You’d have to be pretty clueless to see anything positive in this depiction, and it goes a long way towards illustrating envy as a deadly sin. Now, the good voodoo lady is a lot more ambiguous. On the one hand, she does pretty much nothing magical other than chase off the pursuing evil spirits. On the other hand her big production number is conspicuously borrowed from Afro-American gospel music (and while we’re at it, from a scene in the VeggieTales Jonah).

    But having passed through about ten different reviews from ten different perspectives, part of me is in deep rebellion from all the people who want the movie to tell their kind of story. Notwithstanding the plot problems (which I think get to be pretty bad when it comes to the relationship between the two principals), I don’t think the movie tells an anti-Christian story simply because it doesn’t tell a Christian story– or rather, THE Christian story. In many respects the most central story of Disney since, oh, I don’t know, at least back to Aladdin is the power of pluck combined with friendship, and I see nothing anti-Christian about this.

    Incidentally, ironic point about Dead Poets Society: it was filmed at an Episcopal boarding school. My comment at the time was that SAS rather obviously had to be NOT the kind of school it was portraying on film in order for that portrayal to happen. It is in that manner which it has always seemed to me to be most deeply false.

  16. Daniel Muth says:

    I’ve been a bit torn regarding Disney for some time. Their animated features had been losing money for years when they struck gold with The Little Mermaid in 1989 – which for the first time presented a Disney heroine as a late-20th century adolescent. From then on, we have been presented with an unbroken string of teen-aged heroes and heroines coming of age in French castles, sultan’s palaces, Indian villages, lion prides, Greek myths, and, well you get the idea. It was said of George Lucas that he may have ostensibly set Star Wars “in a galaxy far, far away”, but his characters, from the blonde surfers to the pretty Jewish – dare-I-say – Princess, never really left Southern California. Likewise, Disney 2-D animation has been doing little more than re-making Gidget movies since 1989. Only Pixar has actually made movies about children and childhood – but they’re in a different league. Even the second Narnia movie got into the adolescent heroine (Susan and Caspian as an item?!) act.

    As long as the movie is good – and many of the Disney animated features (and no, I haven’t seen this one yet) are that and more – I don’t particularly object. My concern is that, in a society that is desperately trying to extend adolescence in all directions, this is at best problematic. As Lady Polly put it with regard to Queen Susan: “Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and stop there as long as she can.” One can understand why a commercial society would want such a thing: adolescents, given their propensity to shallowness, are ripe sheep for the fleecing. Still, it’s troubling to see both childhood and, especially, adulthood shunted aside in the mad rush toward banality.

    Granted, this is a different concern from that voiced in the article. I’ve never been particularly troubled by magic and even witchcraft as presented in Disney flicks. The biblical concern about magic is that it attempts to substitute the human will for the Divine, usurping God’s place. Magic is opposed because it is ultimately idolatrous. That being the case, frankly the misuse of science is a much bigger problem than magic as a fantasy plot device and storytelling shortcut.

    It’s interesting to note that Disney announced some months back that they were dumping the rest of the Narnia franchise. They were uncomfortable with such clearly Christian material. Frankly, I respect that decision, which I think reflects a respect for Christianity. They like mumbo-jumbo and – rightly, I think – want to avoid presenting actual religious beliefs. It sounds like they present voodoo in the Frog flick because they don’t expect anyone to take it seriously as a religion. I’m not sure whether they’re right about that.

  17. Anastasios says:

    I remember my first visit to the original Disneyland about 15 years ago. (Something I had waited to do for 45 years.) I noticed toy figures of Satan from “Fantasia” for sale, but commented to the salesperson that there was no church on the architypical “Main Street U.S.A.” (or any of the other Disneyworlds, either) to represent the Other Side. She completely agreed with me about this disbalance and said that employees were not allowed to mention religion at all.

  18. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Ross (#12),
    I didn’t mean to suggest that the Matrix was actually all that Christian, just that my son took it that way, until the sequel opened his eyes.

    Daniel Muth (#16),
    I agree that Disney tends to pick vaguely religious atmosherics from exotic realms because it seems safe since very few Americans are likely to take it seriously from a religious standpoint. That’s why working in some reference to voodoo is OK, but a Christian healing ritual or worship service wouldn’t be. It’s “just” entertainment; nothing serious intended. Except that now Disney has become oh-s- politically correct, which is very serious indeed.

    Anastasios (#17),
    A wonderful anecdote. Yes, it’s very revealing, both that there is no church on Main Street and especially that employees are instructed to avoid discussing religion, as if it were a radioactive toxic waste you shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. At that point, what you have is merely a secular tendency but borderline secularism, as an ism (pluralism as a belief system and not just a social fact). Thanks for sharing that telling tidbit that really says it all.

    David Handy+

  19. New Reformation Advocate says:

    Sorry for the typo’s. That should be [b]atmospherics[/b] or a little religious color to add vividness and interest, and [b]oh-so-politically corrent[/b].

    David Handy+

  20. carl says:

    The best animated features are coming out of Pixar and not Disney, per se. I don’t think I have seen a Disney film since Pocahontas. After a time, I simply stopped viewing them because the plots became so obnoxiously politically correct. But I have never had such problems with Pixar. These movies may hermetically seal themselves away from religion, but they do not manage to offend me while doing so. Pixar’s 2009 offering [i]Up[/i] was a spectacular movie. The life montage offered in the first 10 minutes was perhaps the best scene I have ever viewed in an animated movie. If it had actually been a children’s movie, I would say it is the first movie that could compete with the animated Gold Standard of [i]Monsters Inc.[/i]

    I do hope Pixar (despite the acquisition) can maintain its independence from Disney so that it can keep making quality movies. It would be a tragedy if Pixar had to start making warmed-over versions of the slop Disney has been making the last 15 years.


  21. Chazaq says:

    I thought about buying Disney stock back in 1985 because I liked Cinderella and Walt Disney World. Since then, after dividends and splits, Disney’s stock price is up about 2000% according to Yahoo Finance. DOH! [headbang on keyboard]

  22. CanaAnglican says:

    #4. “I didn’t know that Eisner and Kratzenberg were Jews.”

    David, apropo of nothing, Disney was also a Jew. I think he must have taken a secular approach to everything in life, seeing that as attractive to the most customers. Christians could worship on Sunday and Jews on Saturday for all he cared, but he wanted them in his movies or parks any day of the week. From all I have seen of him on TV he was extremely friendly and avuncular — sort of an early Walter Cronkite. From what I have read about, he was a very hard taskmaster to his workers. Perhaps some of the other commenters know him better. As for Walters, I met Cronkite but never Disney.

  23. The young fogey says:

    I’ve not seen it but agree that erasing New Orleans’ Catholicism from the story seems wrong. That said although I don’t like ‘rewriting history’ I appreciate why Disneyland has no church etc.: to include Jews etc. Or if Main Street USA had a Protestant church as a real Main Street 100 years ago would have had, that would shut me and others out. (There were my kind of churches then but in mainstream small-town America chances were they metaphorically or even literally weren’t on Main Street but the other side of the tracks – ‘Polish Town’ in ‘Our Town’ for example.)

    Secular doesn’t necessarily mean secularist so I’m not about to declare jihad on Disney. I like Pixar too.

    Walt sounded like a common American type in his day and ours, an indifferent Protestant. No big deal.

    As for the evangelicals’ objection to voodoo etc. my answer is the same as to the same objections to something else I never got into, Harry Potter: it’s folklore, something old European fairy tales are full of, and get a life! (They’re like that Canadian academic who got all worked up over messages of oppression in… Thomas the Tank Engine. Arguably both objectors are variations on Calvinism, one left, the other right, so there you are.)

    Re: the Disney princesses. Politically incorrect possibility… because here the market is only responding to what little girls in our culture like?

  24. C. Wingate says:

    re 20: Carl, the executive producer of this film was John Lasseter.

  25. CanaAnglican says:

    Correction to #22:

    Walt Disney was in the Congregational Church according to some of his autobiographical writing. I must have must have misread something 40 years ago (or more) that made me think he was Jewish.

    Apologies, –Stan

  26. Sarah says:

    RE: “The biblical concern about magic is that it attempts to substitute the human will for the Divine, usurping God’s place. Magic is opposed because it is ultimately idolatrous.”

    I do not agree with this, I think. I mean — all sin of course wishes to substitute the human will for the Divine. That’s a given.

    But I think specifically that magic is opposed in scripture because of the specific calling up of the forces of Satan for power and relief. It is a deliberate arrayal against God of the demonic, and as such its practitioner is “anti-Christ” and “pro-Satan.”

  27. Daniel Muth says:

    Sarah #26 – It’s always an iffy proposition to write in shorthand about broad matters and I’m quite sure I could have been more careful in how I worded things. That being said, I’ll stand by at least the gist of my statement. What you say is surely reflective of the attitude of Luke in Acts and I don’t doubt that Our Lord during His earthly ministry would likely have held a similar view that divinization, necromancy, etc. is forbidden because of the satanic nature of the forces being appealed to by its practitioners. I don’t think, however, that your statement accurately or adequately sums up the attitude of most of the Old Testament wherein satanic forces aren’t particularly mentioned in connection with magic (an iffy word to use, of course, since it refers to so many different things) and divinization, for instance, via urim and thummim is acceptable since it is God’s will that is being inquired of.

    As I noted in my recent article on witchcraft in The Living Church, we do well to remember that it was only comparatively recently discerned that we live in a scientific world rather than a magic one and so blanket condemnations of magic, even those intending to be reflective of New Testament attitudes, are problematic. Perhaps it’s just a personal prejudice, but I see the biblical (or at least Old Testament) condemnations of witchcraft as much more applicable to biomedical research than to Harry Potter books or Disney flicks.

  28. Sarah says:


    I see the two as two separate categories. Magic as the calling on alternate sources of knowledge [maybe] from the spirit world. I was specifically thinking of the “witch of Endor” passage in the OT when I commented above. [blockquote]When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. 6 He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. 7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”
    “There is one in Endor,” they said.

    8 So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”[/blockquote]

    God refused to answer Saul through His Spirit, and so Saul consulted an alternative spirit world.

    I agree that “magic” in these days can be too broadly applied. I take the condemnations of scripture against divination as quite narrow, but as precluding the pursuit of the black arts that Wiccans engage in. I agree that Harry Potter and such “magic” subjects aren’t covered in Scripture at all.

    I can certainly see lots of sins springing from the pursuit of knowledge of God’s world. The biosciences are hotbeds, as you say, of sinful behavior. But I cannot apply the scriptural condemnations of witchcraft to biomedical research.

    I doubt either of us will persuade the other, though.

    Thanks for the exchange.