A dozen years ago, a new era of Disney animation began with the release The Little Mermaid. Since then, the works of the Disney renaissance have become cultural icons in their own right, known to millions of children all over the world. In the minds of many, wholesome family entertainment and the Disney brand are inseparably connected.
For others, Disney has a different image entirely. Problems ranging from anti-family corporate practices to objectionable themes in recent Disney features have led many Christians to regard Disney with varying levels of mistrust or hostility.
As a Catholic film critic, I’m often asked if there is reason for concern about the recent crop of Disney animated features. My answer is yes, and in this article I will point out some of the more troubling moral and spiritual trends running through the films of the Disney renaissance.
The moral and spiritual tone of Disney films, like their overall merits as entertainment and art, has tended to deteriorate over time. Earlier Disney nouveau films (such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin) are generally more wholesome and entertaining than later ones (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Tarzan, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire).
But some parents, especially those who wish to avoid supporting Disney, will not want their children watching any of these films. The decision to boycott an offending company can be prudent and effective—even meritorious—but it’s not obligatory. There is no duty in Catholic moral teaching to avoid patronizing corporations of this kind. (In today’s complex corporate world, the line between patronizing and not patronizing a corporation is frequently subjective. For example, since Disney owns the ABC television network, even purchasing a product that advertises on ABC indirectly puts money in Disney’s coffers.)
Selective patronage of worthwhile movies is another option available to parents. The Second Vatican Council, in Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Media of Social Communications), invites us to encourage the production of “decent films.” The Council fathers declared that the “production and showing of films that have value as decent entertainment, humane culture or art, especially when they are designed for young people, ought to be encouraged and assured by every effective means” (IM 14). It can be argued that patronizing decent family entertainment—regardless of who produces it—may also be an effective means of encouraging and assuring the production of such “decent films.”
Many of the classic Disney animated films available on video or DVD, such as Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, are fine family entertainment. More recently, the Disney empire has given us such wholesome family movies as the Toy Story films and this year’s Spy Kids.
In this article, I am concerned primarily with pointing out the negative trends running through Disney nouveau as a whole—not with providing a balanced view of all that is good or bad in Disney. (For a positive look at the moral or aesthetic virtues of one early nouveau film, see the sidebar “Decent Entertainment.”)
In particular, this article points out disturbing trends on two fronts: negative depictions of parents (feeble, domineering, absent, ridiculous, or irrelevant); and unwholesome uses of religious themes and motifs (negative images of Christianity as well as positive pagan or New-Age images).
There have always been plenty of Disney movies in which parents were absent or deceased (as in Snow White and The Jungle Book), fathers were overbearing or unreasonable (Peter Pan, Mary Poppins), or mother figures were cruel (Cinderella, Snow White). However, positive portrayals of active parents were far more common in older Disney films than in Disney nouveau. The nurturing mothers in Bambi and Dumbo, the loving parental couples like Jim Dear and Darling in Lady and the Tramp, and Pongo and Perdita of One Hundred and One Dalmatians find no counterparts in recent Disney animated films. Instead, virtually all modern Disney parents fit into one or more of the following negative stereotypes.
Feeble, ridiculous fathers. Found exclusively in post-Mermaid features, Disney’s feeble fathers tend to be doddering, diminutive, childlike, comical, corpulent, and completely clueless. Certainly they are unable to provide their offspring with meaningful support against the villain—in fact, often they trust the villain implicitly. Belle’s dotty inventor father (Beauty and the Beast) exemplifies this stereotype, as do Jasmine’s dopey royal sire (Aladdin) and Jane’s dippy naturalist-explorer father (Tarzan). A related stereotype—fathers who are feeble but not ridiculous—is embodied by the aged, crippled father of Mulan and, in Atlantis, Princess Kida’s elderly father.
Domineering fathers. Disney’s domineering dads are generally strong and capable—but also imperious, impatient, and impossible to please. Failing to understand their offspring, they have “unreasonable” expectations that interfere with their children’s self-actualization. Eventually, these fathers must learn to accept their children for who they are and repent of their overbearing ways. As mentioned earlier, this sort of father was not unknown in older Disney; but no Disney feature before The Little Mermaid laid such emphasis as that film did on the child’s feelings of frustration and resentment over not being understood. Mermaid’s King Triton is the exemplar of this stereotype, which also applies to Chief Powhatan (who imperiously expects Pocahontas to marry Kokoum) and Kerchak, Tarzan’s surrogate ape-father.
Absent fathers. Post-renaissance Disney fathers are less likely to be absentee dads than their pre-Mermaid counterparts, though they’re such poor parents that that’s hardly a plus. Still, absent fathers in the recent films are not hard to find. Aladdin, Quasimodo, and Tarzan have all lost their fathers. Hercules is separated from Zeus (and of course Hera) from infancy to adulthood. And Simba’s father Mufasa (The Lion King)—otherwise the recent era’s only really positive, active father-figure—dies while Simba is still a young cub.
Absent mothers. The single most overwhelming feature of parenthood in Disney nouveau is the almost total absence of the mothers. They are absent in far greater numbers than either renaissance fathers or mothers of the pre-Mermaid era. In fact, with only a single exception (Mulan), every single relevant major character in Disney’s recent major releases either loses his or her mother in infancy, or is permanently separated from her during or before childhood, or simply has no onscreen mother at all.
It’s the heroines who are being raised by single fathers with no sign of a mother. The heroine’s motherlessness serves to accentuate her own feminine virtues and independence, since her father is invariably either domineering, feeble, or ridiculous, and there is no “competing” feminine figure to suggest that the heroine needs any support or guidance.
With the male leads, by contrast, a balancing female presence is almost always presented. Simba and Hercules, though separated from their mothers in childhood, are reunited with them in adulthood; Tarzan and Hercules each get surrogate mothers. The only unambiguously involved and positive parent-figure of either sex in the entire Disney renaissance is Tarzan’s surrogate mother, Kala—and she’s not human.
Benevolent but irrelevant mothers. The mothers of Simba and Mulan don’t stand out in their respective films. Unlike their husbands, the mothers aren’t even plot points. Much the same could be said for an irrelevant foster-mother, Alcmene (Hercules. In contrast to pre-Mermaid mothers who took an active role in helping their children deal with adversity—Mrs. Jumbo, Bambi’s mother, Perdita in Dalmatians Duchess in The Aristocats—these modern moms are passive. For example, even with Mufasa dead, Simba gone, and her evil brother-in-law Scar tyrannizing the kingdom, Sarabi can only wait around for her son to grow up and return to set things right.
Disney and Religion
Disney has never been friendly toward religion. Religious references in earlier Disney features were mostly limited to obligatory church weddings (e.g., Cinderella, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Robin Hood), plus a few special cases, like the climactic Ave Maria sequence in Fantasia, and Robin Hood’s likeable Friar Tuck.
Christianity in the Disney renaissance. At first glance, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast seem to continue the basic pattern of nominal Christian references, with clergymen in both films poised to preside at Christian weddings. In fact, this is not a positive use of religion like the church weddings in earlier features.
For one thing, in both of the newer films’ clerics are brought in for botched weddings, with the villain (Ursula and Gaston, respectively) trying to marry one of the principals. At the end of the films, with hero and heroine happily reunited, there is no sign of a clergyman or a church wedding.
Secondly, both clerics are contemptible. The bishop presiding at the wedding of Ursula and Eric—with his Coke-bottle glasses, droning voice, and diminutive build—is a perfect candidate for the feeble, ridiculous father stereotype. Even worse is the village priest in Beauty and the Beast a dupe who shows up to celebrate a wedding when the “bride” hasn’t even been proposed to, let alone given her consent, and who laughs when Gaston makes a joke of this fact. (A priest’s active role in such a mockery of a wedding would be an ecclesiastical crime of such enormity as to bring the bishop and possibly even Rome down on his head.)
In general, Disney seems to prefer eliminating references to traditional religion. The Christian theme of the original Hans Christian Andersen Little Mermaid story—in which the mermaid wishes to marry her prince because it is the only way for her to obtain an immortal soul and know the happiness of heaven—has been excised from the Disney version. In Aladdin, not wanting to offend either Muslims or Christians, the moviemaker carefully avoided any positive or negative reflections on Islam.
Disney eliminated an anti-clerical undertone in The Hunchback of Notre Dame by changing the nefarious Dom Frollo—an archdeacon in Victor Hugo’s original novel—into a self-righteous judge. On the surface, this seems admirable. But Hunchback was released a year after a Disney subsidiary, Miramax Films, stirred religious anger with its anti-Catholic movie Priest. At the time, the Catholic League for Civil and Religious Rights claimed Disney, “still smarting from the controversy over Miramax’s Priest dodged a potential outcry from conservatives by changing Frollo from the cleric he was in Hugo’s novel to a pious judge” (Catalyst, September 1996).
In any case, Frollo is explicitly Catholic—a twisted Catholic tortured by perverse notions of sin, holiness, and damnation. The only real spirituality in Hunchback comes from the agnostic Gypsy girl, Esmerelda, who in a musical number offers a selfless prayer for others while, in the background, venal Catholics petition God for wealth, fame, and glory. Hunchback represents Disney’s last word on Christianity to date, and it isn’t fare for Catholics, young or old.
Pagan and New Age motifs. With Pocahontas, Mulan, and Atlantis, a new Disney pattern has emerged: an increasing development of pagan and New Age themes and imagery.
Pocahontas, who was the first American Indian to be baptized in Virginia, has been de-converted by Disney and made into a sort of pagan priestess who communes with a tree-spirit that she calls Grandmother Willow. In the jargon of political correctness, Disney has “silenced the voice” of the historical Pocahontas with its disregard for her courage and freedom in accepting the gospel (a decision that was not without risk—witness the sufferings and martyrdom of another Indian woman, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha).
Mulan draws on traditional Chinese beliefs and practices concerning worship and invocation of ancestors. After Mulan runs off to do battle in her father’s place, her parents petition their venerable ancestors for her safety, whereupon the ancestors appear as luminous comic spirits, still carrying on old family feuds.
But it wasn’t until Atlantis that Disney got serious about pagan and New Age imagery. Crystal spirituality, stone circles, totemism, ancestor worship, pantheist mysticism, UFO pop-culture imagery, and other New Age motifs pervade the fabric of this film.
Are the people at Disney really a bunch of Shirley Maclaine fans out to convert our children to worshiping crystals? Doubtful. The driving force here is more political than religious: It’s one more way of hyping “diversity” and “tolerance” while putting down all that is rigid, dogmatic, patriarchal, Western, and authoritarian.
Bottom line: Catholic fathers and mothers must be aware that in the Disney films of the last dozen years, their identity both as Christians and as parents is frequently under fire.