"How Disney bypassed God to preach the gospel of dreams coming true"
The entrepreneur who became icon of family values shied away from religious imagery, and none of his company's theme parks contains a church.
Disney may have colonised the imagination of the world's children for the best part of 80 years, but - remarkably in one of the world's most ostentatiously Christian countries - the entertainment company has done so without the aid of God, a new book points out. The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust, by Mark Pinsky, an American journalist and best-selling author of a similar book about The Simpsons, shows that the film industry's most family-orientated entertainer has rarely mentioned God, and that such religious figures as there are in its animated films are almost entirely bad.
"...The Gospel of Disney is all about me," Pinsky writes. "My dreams. My will. 'When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.' The Disney bible has but one verse and that's it."
Pinsky, the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, argues: "In the more than 35 animated features Disney has released since 1937, there is scarcely a mention of God as conceived in the Christian and Jewish faiths shared by most people in the western world and many beyond." The first ordained character to have a big part in a Disney cartoon was Frollo, the villainous priest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he did not make his appearance until 1996, nearly 60 years after the studio began making feature films. American Christians appear to have scarcely noticed that none of the Disneyland theme parks - replete with every other aspect of US main street culture - has a church. The company's cruise liners do not have a single chapel on board. The reason, the book says, was Disney's determination not to offend anyone in a way which would hamper the making of money. Instead, it has quietly subverted the Christian gospel by substituting some decidedly unchristian themes: belief in the power of magic, that good people are handsome, and that what you wish for really can come true. "The Gospel of Disney is all about me," Pinsky writes. "My dreams. My will. 'When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.' The Disney bible has but one verse and that's it. "Walt's religion was built on the unfailing American belief that virtue and hard work will make all your dreams come true." Pinsky notes that even in the earliest films, the company shied away from religious symbolism. When Geppetto, the woodcarver in Pinocchio, falls to his knees to ask for his puppet to be given life, he does not pray to God, even though his eyes are raised heavenwards, but to a blue fairy. In Fantasia, the finale may be Schubert's Ave Maria but instead of showing a stained glass window, as originally planned, the film ends with trees forming a gothic arch through which the sunset can be seen. The book quotes Walt Disney's daughter Sharon as saying that her father, who died in 1966, was a very religious man. "But he did not believe you had to go to church to be religious. He respected every religion. There wasn't any that he ever criticised. He wouldn't even tell religious jokes." The films' generally whole some messages have been used by clergy for decades to teach children about self-reliance, compassion and loyalty. The films have also portrayed less positive ideas: in the casual racism of the early pictures - the black crows in Dumbo, or the obsequious black female centaurs in early versions of Fantasia - and in occasional anti-semitism. The book argues that since Disney's death, the company has branched out into animism in Pocahontas, feminism in Beauty and the Beast and Mulan, adventure capitalism in Atlantis, and even Hinduism's great circle of life tradition in The Lion King, which is set in Africa. It got its fingers burnt when Aladdin, made a decade before the attacks on the World Trade Centre, prompted complaints of Arabophobia. All the film's villains have large noses, dark complexions, facial hair and heavy accents. It is only in the past few years that one of the US's most influential religious lobbying organisations has complained - and then because of the corporation's off-screen activities. The 16 million-strong Southern Baptists launched an unsuccessful boycott of Disney products in the mid-90s after Disney introduced equal rights for gay employees and their partners. The book says the Baptists also complained about a one-second sequence in the marriage ceremony of The Little Mermaid, which, they said, showed the officiating minister in a state of sexual arousal. Closer inspection showed that the offending picture actually showed the minister's knee. "Walt Disney created his animated features to entertain people and to make money, not to evangelise," Pinsky argues. "If in the process Disney made the world a better place, that was a fine but unintended byproduct. His company was never a philanthropic undertaking." The Gospel According to Disney will be published in the UK in the autumn.