Mickey Mouse `religion' instills lasting values

October 20, 2004|By Mark I. Pinsky

MANY OF US who have drifted from faith often return to organized religion as parents, if only in search of moral instruction for our children. But there is a more pervasive communicator of values closer to home: the animated features produced by Walt Disney.

The time children spend watching these movies, developing a sense of values, dwarfs that spent in church, synagogue, mosque or temple.

From Pinocchio, Dumbo and Peter Pan, they learn that with faith, all things are possible.

From Aladdin, they learn that you shouldn't pretend you are something you are not, just to be popular.

From Beauty and the Beast, they learn not only that they shouldn't judge people by appearances, but that people can transform and redeem themselves.

From Mulan, Pocahontas and Brother Bear, they learn that there are belief systems outside the Judeo-Christian tradition that deserve respect.

Few brands are more widely known or more deeply embedded in worldwide culture than the Walt Disney Co. For seven decades, the company's films, songs, comic books, T-shirts and billboards have spanned the world.

An avatar of modern globalism, Disney spent $65,000 in 1937 to dub its first full-length feature, Snow White, into Arabic and Hindi, as well as into European languages. With this reach, and especially with developments in technology that encourage repetitive viewing of videos and DVDs, Disney has brought with it an indelible way of viewing life and inculcated it on young minds.

So, given the impact of this on children, what are the tenets of the Church of Walt? Is there a set of values to comprise a "Disney gospel"?

Definitely.

Good is invariably rewarded and evil punished. Faith -- in yourself and in some higher power -- is essential. That is, faith in faith. Optimism and the Calvinist paradigm that hard work is rewarded with upward mobility complete the Disney canon.

All of this is presented in a context vaguely implying Western Christianity. But curiously, this is a largely secular scripture almost without God or Jesus. Salvation is attained through faith and works, not by grace.

There is little explicit Judeo-Christian symbolism or substance in 70 years of Disney animation. This despite the almost pervasive use of a theological vocabulary: words such as miracle, sacrifice and divine. It seems a contradiction, portraying Judeo-Christian values without sectarian, or even a godly, context -- the fruits without the roots.

It could be argued that since 1937, viewers of the studio's features have been receiving a message with recognizable, if watered down, values. I call this Disney gospel "secular 'toonism." This reluctance to make organized religion a significant part of the fabric of the films mirrored Disney's early commercial concerns: fear of offending and fear of excluding audiences in the United States and abroad. It also reflected Walt Disney's experience of growing up with a rigidly fundamentalist father who soured him for life on organized religion.

Thus the Disney empire, by its founder's designation, is a kingdom of magic, almost totally without reference to any kingdom of heaven. Take the theme parks, sites of quasi-religious pilgrimages for many families and advertised as the happiest places on Earth -- not the holiest.

There are no churches on Main Street at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, or chapels on Disney cruise ships. Mr. Disney's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, told one minister that there are no churches because her father did not want to favor any particular denomination. It is an explanation still repeated, as if the company's genius for the generic did not extend to creating a one-size-fits-all church.

There is a darker side to Disney's films. The earlier ones put forward an unrealistic view of what life holds in store for children, and some include troubling racial, ethnic and gender stereotypes. And yes, mothers are frequently dead, crazy or just plain missing.

Yet the strength of the more recent animation is the growing assertiveness of the girls and young women, perhaps reflecting the growing number of women at the studio, and the respect they now accord different ethnic groups, religions and nationalities. This has a great deal to do with reflecting changes in the culture at large. And it probably has much to do with Disney's identification of its target market for such movies.

Disney's animated features are not a substitute for worship or Sunday school or ethical education. But they are tools in building moral sensibility and in reinforcing parental and religious values.

Mark I. Pinsky is the religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. He is author of The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust.

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