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Walt Disney
Disney and Jesus Christ
Just How Devout (or Heathen) Are the Studio's Films?

This article focuses on Walt Disney’s Christian beliefs and the way he depicted Jesus Christ in his animated and live-action films and television shows.

Walt grew up in a Christian home, and didn’t formally reject the Christian teachings he received. This would naturally include a belief in the person and work of Christ. Taken together, the biographical sources and the Disney films suggest Walt Disney regarded Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world.

Walt said he tried to “live a Christian life.” This quote is found in two books: Walt Disney: Famous Quotes (p. 82), and The Gospel According to Disney (p. 20). The authors of Walt Disney’s Missouri wrote that Walt professed to be a Christian but didn’t adhere to any particular religious dogma [1].

The classic Disney films made many references to Christianity and to God, but there are few explicit references to Jesus Christ. This might have had to do with the film industry’s censorship code, which discouraged producers from making movies with Christian-specific themes. Such films were considered controversial by their very nature, and Hollywood generally avoided making them.

Walt Disney might have avoided direct references to Jesus Christ in his public statements and in his films because he didn’t want to risk offending or alienating his religiously diverse audience. He and other filmmakers seemed to think it was safer to make references to God rather than Christ. The concept of God was more universal, embraced by Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. To mention Christ was Christian-specific and had the potential of being divisive. The scarcity of references to Christ in the Disney films might have been due to Walt’s views on religious tolerance. Walt might have been one of the first in Hollywood to implement political correctness in the portrayal of religious subjects.

Nonetheless, some Disney films do make specific references to Jesus Christ. In Saludos Amigos (1943), a live-action film about South America, the narrator refers to the “Christ of the Andes,” a huge statue of Jesus located in the Chilean mountains. A crucifix is depicted in a World War II propaganda film called Education for Death (1943). The Christ Child is alluded to in portrayals of the Christmas story in The Three Caballeros (1945) and in The Small One (1978).

Disney’s live-action dramas like The Story of Robin Hood (1952) and The Prince and the Pauper (1962), a film created for the Disney TV show, make references to “the cross” and to “our Lord Jesus Christ.” One of the episodes of the Zorro TV series, “Zorro’s Secret Passage” (1957), refers to the power of the cross, the symbol associated with Jesus’ sacrificial death. Another Zorro episode, “Zorro Saves a Friend” (1957), makes other allusions to Christ. The priest Padre Felipe refers to Christian salvation, and Don Diego speaks of the Church’s mission to teach people about “the life of our Savior.”

The live-action film Greyfriars Bobby (1961) depicts a somber funeral service of the Church of Scotland. The minister quotes passages from the Gospel of John (11:25), traditionally recited at Christian funerals to give the mourners, and possibly the departed soul, the hope of eternal life in heaven. Because this is one of the few places in the Disney films where Jesus Christ is explicitly referred to as the Son of God and the Savior, I have transcribed the whole funeral service as presented in the film. In the scene, the minister intones solemnly:

I am the resurrection and the life,’ saith the Lord. ‘He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’ We therefore commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, which Thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce on all that love and fear Thee, saying, ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ Grant this, we beseech Thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our mediator and redeemer. Amen.

Some Disney films allude to Jesus Christ in implicit, poetic terms. He is called “the Prince of Peace” in the “Ave Maria” sequence from Fantasia. The song in Song of the South (1946), “All I Want,” makes an appeal to “my Savior,” a title of Jesus. “Peace on Earth,” a Christmas song heard at the beginning of Lady and the Tramp (1955) refers to the “Child of Peace,” an allusion to the Christ Child. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), the good fairies give Prince Philip a “shield of virtue” to protect him from the attacks of the evil fairy Maleficent. The shield bears an image of a cross, suggesting part of his defense lies in the power represented by the symbol of Christianity. The most unexpected reference to Jesus Christ in the Disney productions appeared on a children’s record. The 1964 album Happy Birthday and Other Songs for Every Holiday alluded to Christ’s resurrection in a song commemorating Easter.

The Disney films made in the 1990s made fewer references to Christianity than the ones produced in Walt’s time and that of his immediate successors. But even these newer films made occasional references to Christ. Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) displays an image of Christ in a stained-glass window. A remarkable feature of this image is the marks of Christ’s crucifixion in His hands and feet. This is, at this point, the only appearance of Jesus in a Disney animated feature.

Another allusion to Christ was made in The Proud Family, an animated series created for the Disney Channel in 2001-2003. In one episode, a school principal refers to the ethnic diversity of the students. “Whether we are red or yellow or black or white, we are all special in His sight,” the principal says, paraphrasing lyrics from the Sunday school song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” The principal’s phrase “in His sight” is a reference to Jesus Christ, who loves “all the children of the world.”

The New Testament states that Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of humanity by suffering and dying on the cross. After his sacrificial death, he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven in a glorified body. Several Disney films patterned their scenarios of death and resurrection after Christ’s death and resurrection. The following Disney characters sacrificed themselves for others and were miraculously brought back to life as a reward: Pinocchio, Trusty the bloodhound from Lady and the Tramp, Baloo from The Jungle Book, Darby from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and Gurgi from The Black Cauldron. To paraphrase the gospel, they gained their lives by losing them (Matt. 10:39).

Classic Disney films like Pinocchio and Bambi show crosses in the background and on characters’ clothes. This imagery contributed to the films’ themes of death and resurrection. The main characters in these films, Pinocchio and Bambi, seemed to gain divine favor by their heroic virtue and sacrificial acts. According to the message of these and other Disney films, the struggle for goodness in this world led to spiritual glorification in the next. Walt Disney used the Christian concept of sacrifice to give his films spiritual dimension and substance.


Notes

1.     Burnes, Brian, Robert W. Butler, and Dan Viens, Walt Disney’s Missouri. Kansas City Star Books, Kansas City, MO, 2001. p. 155.

 



5 Responses to “Walt Disney”

  1. Mark Sommer  

    Welcome to HJ, Candy! Nice analysis.

  2. Bruce Meyer  

    Very good analysis, and research too.
    I’ve always been concerned with the song, When You Wish Upon A Star, a song which has gone on to be one of a small number (3, 4?) of the most iconic of Disney songs.
    As a young person when the TV show was new, in the mid 1950s, I meditated often on the lyric to make a wish upon a star. When I turned to Christ, I discovered that praying to stars was explicitly called a bad thing to do. Not to put to fine a point on it.
    That troubles me, along with the occult themes in Fantasia, and the “will to power” themes that seem to dominate the entire Disney entertainment persona, especially Epcot Center.
    Nevertheless, it is good to see a straightforward acknowledgment of Jesus coming forth from time to time.

  3. Nathaniel  

    I appreciated this article, Candy. It’s clear to me that Disney’s morality was the Christian morality, and he wasn’t opposed to giving us explicitly Christian heroes (Rob Roy, Toby Tyler, Pollyanna) from time to time.

    The Small One is an interesting case. It was produced and directed by Don Bluth, who later left Disney to form his own production company, taking a third of the animation department with him. Bluth was a Mormon. The Small One was a personal project for him, and uncommonly religious for any piece of mainstream entertainment at that time. In fact, I can’t recall another Disney film that uses iconic Christian imagery in quite the same way.

    I’m looking forward to more articles like this in the future. I hope you’ll consider tackling some of the thornier issues connected to the Disney legend, such as the Darwinian evolution proffered in the True-Life Adventures documentaries, or Disney’s lifelong fascination with magic (externalized in Fantasia, The Sword in the Stone, Sleeping Beauty, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and others) that caused some conservative parents’ brows to furrow.

  4. Denise Roper  

    The Princess and the Frog depicts New Orleans’s St. Louis Cathedral and also the numerous crosses in the church’s graveyard. The despicable, Voodoo-practicing villain is defeated in this setting; that is, he meets his demise upon hallowed ground. This event takes place on the night of Mardi Gras/Ash Wednesday. Also, Tianna and her prince have both a froggy wedding in the swamp and a human (presumably Catholic) wedding in the cathedral at the end of the film. I am a Roman Catholic from Louisiana and I really appreciated these visual references to the religion that dominates so much of the culture of my home state.

  5. Jenn  

    Another piece of evidence supporting the Christian foundation of Walt Disney’s life is his explicit request that a Christmas performance of the entire nativity story be performed every year. Narrators have included Phylicia Rashad and James Caviezel (my husband and I heard him do the narration the same year *The Passion of the Christ* was released). His emphasis on telling the full story of Jesus’ birth is an incredible statement of Disney’s personal convictions.

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