Vigilance, Paranoia, and Uncle Walt

MICHAEL D. O'BRIEN

Michael O'Brien reviews all the major Disney films in terms of the moral lessons they teach our children. While some of the early films are quite good, more recent Disney remakes of the timeless classics tend to trivialize the characters and strip the tales of their original moral content.

Michael O'Brien


No assessment of the situation should overlook the influence of Walt Disney Productions. Its unequalled accomplishments in the field of animation and in drama for children have made it a keystone in the culture of the West. Walt Disney became a kind of secular saint, a patron of childhood, the archangel of the young imagination. Some of this reputation was merited. Who among us has not been delighted and, indeed, formed by the films released in the early years of production, modern retellings of classic fairy stories such as Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and Snow White. In these and other films, evil is portrayed as evil, and virtue as a moral struggle fraught with trial and error. Telling lies makes your nose grow long; indulging in vice turns you into a donkey; sorcery is a device of the enemy used against the good; witches are deadly. There are even moments that approach evangelization. In Fantasia, for example, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment is a warning about dabbling in occult powers. In the final segment, "Night on Bald Mountain”, the devil is shown in all his malice, seducing and raging, but defeated by the prayers of the saints. As the pilgrims process toward the dawn, they are accompanied by the strains of Schubert's "Ave Maria". Although there are parts of this film too frightening for small children, its final word is holiness.

Upon that reputation many parents learned to say, "Oh, it's by Disney! It must be okay!" But even in the early years of the Disney studios, the trends of modernity were present. As our culture continued to follow that tendency, films continued to diverge from the traditional Christian world view. Snow White and Pinocchio are perhaps the most pure interpretations of the original fairy tales, because the changes by Disney were of degree, not of kind. Much of the editing had to do with putting violence and other grotesque scenes off-screen (such as the demise of the wicked queen), because reading a story and seeing it are two different experiences, especially for children.

By the time Cinderella hit the theaters, the changes were more substantial. For example, Cinderella's stepsisters (in the Grimm version) were as beautiful as she, but vain and selfish. And the prince (in both the Grimm and Perrault versions) sees Cinderella in rags and ashes and still decides to love her, before she is transformed back into the beauty of the ball. These elements are changed in the Disney version, with the result that Cinderella wins the prince's hand, not primarily because of her virtue, but because she is the prettiest gal in town. Some prince!

Walt Disney died in 1966. During the late 1960s and 1970s the studio's approach gradually changed. Its fantasy and science fiction films began to show symptoms of the spreading moral confusion in that genre. “Bad guys” were at times presented as complex souls, inviting pity if not sympathy'. “Good guys” were a little more tarnished than they once had been and, indeed, were frequently portrayed as foolish simpletons. A strain of “realism” had entered children films — sadly so, because a child's hunger for literature (visual or printed) is his quest for a “more real world”. He needs to know what is truly heroic in simple, memorable terms. He needs to see the hidden foundations of his world before the complexities and the nuances of the modern mind come flooding in to overwhelm his perceptions. The creators of the new classics had failed to grasp this timeless role of the fairy tale. Or, if they had grasped it, they arbitrarily decided it was time to change it. What began as a hairline crack began to grow into a chasm.

The Watcher in the Woods is a tale of beings from another dimension, seances, ESP, and channeling (spirits speaking through a human medium), a story that dramatically influences the young audience to believe that occult powers, though sometimes frightening, can bring great good for mankind. Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a comedy about a “good” witch, softens ancient fears about witchcraft. Pete's Dragon is the tale of a cute, friendly dragon who becomes a pal to the young hero and helps to defeat the “bad guys”. In another time and place such films would probably be fairly harmless. Their impact must be understood in the context of the much larger movement that is inverting the symbol — life that grew from the Judeo-Christian revelation. This is more than just a haphazard development, more than just a gradual fading of right discernment in the wake of a declining Christian culture. This is an anti-culture pouring in to take its place. Some of it is full-frontal attack, but much of it is subtler and pleasurably packaged. Still more of it seems apparently harmless. But the undermining of a child's perceptions in forms that are apparently harmless may be the most destructive of all.

By the 1990s, old fairy tales such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid were being remade by Walt Disney Productions in an effort to capture the imagination (and the market potential) of a new generation. The Little Mermaid represents an even greater break from the original intention of fairy stories than earlier retellings such as Cinderella. The mermaid's father is shown to be an unreasonable patriarchist and she justifiably rebellious. In order to obtain her desire (marriage to a land-based human prince), she swims away from home and makes a pact with an evil Sea Witch, who turns her into a human for three days, long enough to make the prince kiss her. If she can entice him to do so, she will remain a human forever and marry him. So far, the film is close to Hans Christian Andersen's original fairy story. But a radical departure is to be found in the way the plot resolves itself. Despite the disasters the little mermaid causes, only other people suffer the consequences of the wrong she has done, and in the end she gets everything she wants. Charming as she is, she is really a selfish brat whose only abiding impulse is a shallow romantic passion. In the original Andersen tale, the little mermaid faces some difficult moral decisions and decides for the good, choosing in the end to sacrifice her own desires so that the prince will remain happily married to his human bride. As a result of her self-denial, she is taken up into the sky among the “children of the air”, the benign spirits who do good in the world.

“In three hundred years we shall float like this into the Kingdom of God!” one of them cries.

“But we may get there sooner!” whispers one of the daughters of the air. “Unseen, we fly into houses where there are children, and for every day that we find a good child who gives its parents joy . . . , God shortens the time of (our) probation.”

Obviously there has been some heavy-handed editing in the film version, a trivialization of the characters, stripping the tale of moral content and references to God, with a net result that the meaning of the story is seriously distorted, even reversed. In a culture dominated by consumerism and pragmatism, it would seem that the best message modern producers are capable of is this: In the “real” world the 'healthy ego' goes after what it wants. You can even play with evil and get away with it, maybe even be rewarded for your daring by hooking the handsomest guy in the land, winning for yourself your own palace, your own kingdom, and happiness on your own terms.

Harmless? I do not think so.

Aladdin, especially represents the kind of films that are apparently harmless. To criticize it in the present climate is extremely difficult, because so many people in Christian circles have simply accepted it as “family entertainment”. But Aladdin begs some closer examination.

The animated version is adapted from the Arabian Nights, a fairy tale that originated in Persia and reflects the beliefs of its Muslim author. According to the original tale, a magician hires a poor Chinese boy named Aladdin to go into an underground cave in search of a magic lamp that contains untold power. Aladdin is not merely poor, he is lazy. Through neglect of his duties, he failed to learn a trade from his father before he died and now is vulnerable to temptation. When he finds the lamp, Aladdin refuses to give it up and is locked in the cave. When he accidentally rubs the lamp a jinn (spirit) of the lamp materializes. In the Islamic religion the jinni are demonic spirits, intelligent, fiery beings of the air, who can take on many forms, including human and animal. Some jinni are better characters than others, but they are considered on the whole to be tricksters. According to Arabian mythology they were created out of flame, while men and angels were created out of clay and light. Whoever controls jinn is master of tremendous power, for the jinn is his slave. Aladdin, helped by such a spirit, marries the Sultan's daughter, and the jinn builds them a fabulous palace. But the wicked magician tricks them out of the lamp and transports the palace to Africa. Aladdin chases them there, regains the lamp in a heroic struggle, and restores the palace to China.

In the Disney remake, Aladdin is now a young hustler who speaks American urban slang in an Arabian marketplace. He is a likeable teenage thief who is poor through no fault of his own. He wants to make it big. When he meets the Sultans daughter, who is fleeing the boring confinement of her palace, and rescues her through wit and “street-smarts”, the romance begins. The film strives to remain true to some of the original plot, but in the characterization one sees evidence of the new consciousness. The film's genie is a comedian of epic proportions, changing his roles at lightning speed, so that the audience barely has time to laugh before the next sophisticated entertainment industry joke is trotted out. He becomes Ed Sullivan, the Marx Brothers, a dragon, a homosexual, female belly dancers, Pinocchio, and on and on. It is a brilliant and fascinating display. He is capable of colossal powers, and he is, wonder of wonders. Aladdin's slave. An intoxicating recipe for capturing a child's imagination.

This is a charming film. It contains some very fine scenes and deserves some praise for an attempt at morality. The genie, for example, admonishes the young master that there are limits to the wishes he can grant: no killing, no making someone fall in love with you, no bringing anyone back from the dead. Aladdin is really a “good thief”, who robs from the comfortable and gives to the poor. He is called a “street-rat” by his enemies, yet he feels within himself aspirations to something better, something great. He is kind and generous to hungry, abandoned children; he defies the arrogant and the rich, and he is very, very brave. He is only waiting for an opportunity to show what sterling stuff he is made of. It is possible that this film may even have a good effect on the many urban children who live close to that level of poverty and desperation. By providing an attractive role model of a young person determined to overcome adversity, it may do much good in the world. There are even moments when spiritual insight is clear and true — when, for example, at the climax of the tale the magician takes on his true form, that of a gigantic serpent. And yet, there is something on the subliminal level, some undefinable warp in the presentation that leaves the discerning viewer uneasy.

Most obvious, perhaps, is the feeling of sensuality that dominates the plot. It is a romance, of course, and it must be understood that a large number of old literary fairy tales were also romances. But this is modern romance, complete with stirring music and visual impact. Aladdin and the Princess are both scantily clad throughout the entire performance, and, like so many characters in Disney animation, they appear to be bursting with hormones. There is a kiss that is more than a chaste peck. Nothing aggressively wrong, really. Nothing obscene, but all so thoroughly modern. At the very least, one should question the effect this stirring of the passions will have on the many children who flock to see the latest Disney cartoon. The cartoon, by its very nature, says “primarily for children”. But this is, in fact, an adolescent romance, with some good old cartoon effects thrown in to keep the little ones' attention and some sly innuendo to keep the adults chuckling.

The handling of the supernatural element is, I believe, a more serious defect. To put it simply the jinn is a demon. But such a charming demon. Funny and sad, clever and loyal (as long as you're his master), harmless, helpful, and endlessly entertaining. Just the kind of guardian spirit a child might long for. Does this film implant a longing to conjure up such a spirit?

The film's key flaw is its presentation of the structure of reality. It is an utterly delightful advertisement for the concept of “the light side of the Force and the dark side of the Force”, and as such it is a kind of cartoon Star Wars. Like Luke Skywalker, Aladdin is a young hero pitched against impossible odds, but the similarities do not end there. Luke becomes strong enough to battle his foes only by going down into a cave in a mysterious swamp and facing there “the dark side” of himself. Then, by developing supernatural powers, he is enabled to go forth to defeat the evil in the world. Similarly, Aladdin first seeks to obtain the lamp by going down into the jaws of a lionlike beast that rises up out of the desert and speaks with a ghastly, terrifying voice. The lamp of spiritual power resides in a cave in the belly of the beast, and Aladdin takes it from him. Here is a clear message to the young who aspire to greater things: If you want to improve your lot in life, spiritual power is an even better possession than material powers such as wealth or physical force. It could be argued that Luke does not enlist the aid of demonic beings, nor does he cooperate with supernatural forces for selfish purposes. Indeed, he is a shining idealist. But this argument presumes that developing occult powers does not place one in contact with such evil beings — a very shaky presumption to say the least. At best there is an ambiguity in Luke's cooperation with “the Force” that leaves ample room for the young to absorb gnostic messages.

What is communicated about the nature of spiritual power in Aladdin? Leave aside for the moment the question of the hero being helped by a “good demon” to overcome a bad one. Leave aside also the problem of telling the young that they should ignore their natural terrors of the supernatural in order to succeed in their quests. Leave aside, moreover, the subtle inference that light and darkness, good and evil, are merely reverse sides of the same cosmic coin. There are subtler messages in the film. For example, a theme running throughout is that Aladdin is “worthy” to master such power, though we never learn what constitutes his worthiness. The viewer assumes that it is his bravado, cunning, and basically good heart. In reality, none of us is worthy of powers that properly belong to God alone. None of us is worthy of restoration to Paradise. Salvation is God's gift to mankind by the merits of his death on the Cross. Even so, we have not yet reached our one true home. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and in this world no one is capable of wielding evil supernatural powers without being corrupted by them. It is modern man's ignorance of this principle that is now getting the world into a great deal of trouble. A powerful falsehood is implanted in the young by heroes who are given knowledge of good and evil, given power over good and evil, who play with evil but are never corrupted by it.

Beauty and the Beast handles the problem differently but the end result is the same — the taming of the child's instinctive reaction to the image of the horrible. The Beast is portrayed as a devil-like being. He is not merely deformed or grotesque, as he is in the written fable. In the film his voice is unearthly and horrifying; he is sinister in appearance, his face a hideous mimicry of medieval gargoyles, his body a hybrid abomination of lion, bull, bear, and demon. His castle is full of diabolical statues. Of course, the central themes are as true and timeless as ever: Love sees beneath the surface appearance to the interior reality of the person; and love breaks the spell that evil casts over a life.

Yet here too there are disturbing messages: A “good witch” casts the spell in order to improve the Beast's character, implying that good ends come from evil means. But no truly good person does harm in order to bring about a good. While it is true that good can come out of evil situations, it is only because God's love is greater than evil. God's primary intention is that we always choose the good. In the original fairy tale, the spell is cast by an evil sorcerer, and the good conclusion to the plot is brought about in spite of him.

The Disney Beast really has a heart of gold. By contrast, handsome Gaston, the “normal” man, proves to be the real villain. He is a despicable parody of masculinity, a stupid, vain macho-man, who wishes to marry the heroine and chain her to the ennui of dull village life. The Beauty in the original tale embraces the virtues of hard work and the simple country life that result from her father's misfortune. The Disney Beauty pines for something “better”. There is a feminist message here, made even stronger by the absence of any positive male role models. Even her father is a buffoon, though loveable. This gross characterization of "patriarchy” would not be complete without a nasty swipe at the Church, and sure enough, Gaston has primed a clown-like priest to marry them. (The depiction of ministers of religion as either corrupt or ridiculous is practically unrelieved in contemporary films — Disney films are especially odious in this respect.)

To return for a moment to the question of beauty: A principle acknowledged in all cultures (except those in a terminal phase of self-destruction) is that physical beauty in creation is a living metaphor of spiritual beauty. The ideal always points to something higher than itself, to some ultimate good. In culture this principle is enfleshed, made visible. If at times spiritual beauty is present in unbeautiful fictional characters or situations, this only serves to underline the point that the physical is not an end in itself. In Disney's Pocahontas we find this principle inverted. Dazzling the viewer's eyes with superb scenes that are more like impressionistic paintings than solid narrative, stirring the emotions with haunting music and the supercharged atmosphere of sexual desire, its creators are really about a much bigger project than cranking out yet another tale of boy-meets-girl. Beauty is now harnessed to the task of promoting environmentalism and eco-spirituality. The real romance here is the mystique of pantheism, a portrayal of the earth as alive, animated with spirits (for example, a witchlike tree-spirit gives advice to Pocahontas about the nature of courtship). The earth and the flesh no longer point to something higher than themselves; they are ends in themselves. The “noble savage” understands this; the white, male, European Christian does not. And as usual, Disney portrays masculinity in its worst possible light (excepting only the hero, Smith, who is sensitive and confused). The other European males are rapacious predators, thoughtless builders, dominators, polluters, and killers; and those who are not any of the foregoing are complete nincompoops. It is all so predictable, all so very "consciousness-raising”. What child does not take away from the film the impression that, in order to solve his problems, industrial-technological man need only reclaim the lost innocence of this pre-Columbian Eden?

I did not view Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in a theater but watched the video release at home. The effect of the full-screen experience must have been overwhelming for audiences, because the visual effects in the video version were very impressive, clearly among Disney's most brilliant achievements in animation. However, I was disturbed by themes that have now become habitual with this studio. Within the first ten minutes of the story, a self-righteous Catholic moralist rides into the plot on horseback and chases a poor gypsy mother, who runs barefoot through the streets of Paris, carrying her baby in her arms, in a desperate attempt to reach the sanctuary of Notre Dame cathedral. She stumbles on the steps of the church and dies. The moralist picks up the baby, discovers that he is deformed, a "monster”, and decides to dispose of him by dropping him down a well, all the while muttering pious imprecations against this "spawn of the devil”. So far, not a great portrait of Catholicism. In the only redeeming moment in the film, a priest rushes out of the cathedral, sees the dead woman, and warns the moralist that his immortal soul is in danger. To amend for his sin, he must agree to be the legal guardian of the baby The moralist agrees, on the condition that the monster be raised in secret in Notre Dame.

In the next scene the baby is now a young man, Quasimodo, a badly deformed hunchback who lives in isolation in the tower of the cathedral. He is the bell ringer, a sweet soul, humble, good, and creative, content to make art and little toys and to observe from his lonely height the life of the people of Paris. His solitude is broken only by the occasional visits of the moralist, who takes delight in reminding Quasimodo that he is a worthless monster who survives only because of his (the moralist's) "kindness”. Is there anyone in the audience who has missed the point: The moralist is the ultimate hypocrite, the real monster. Quasimodo's only other friends are three gargoyles, charming, humorous little demons who are reminiscent of the Three Stooges. They encourage him to believe in love, to believe in himself to have courage. In one interesting short scene, the gargoyles mock a carving of the Pope. Later in the film there is a scene depicting the churchgoers praying below in the cathedral. Without exception they pray for wealth, power, and gratification of their desires — a portrait of Catholics as utterly selfish, shallow people.

A sensual young gypsy woman flees into the cathedral to escape the moralist (who is also a judge). Safe inside, she prays for divine assistance in a vague, agnostic fashion. In stark contrast to the prayers of the Catholics, there is nothing selfish in her prayer. She merely asks for justice for her people. As the music swells, she turns away from the altar, still singing her prayer'', strolling in the opposite direction of the Catholics who are approaching the altar. Her supplication dissolves into a romantic musing that is more sentiment than insight into the nature of real mercy and justice. Disney's point is clear: Traditional Christianity is weak, blind, and selfish; "real Christian,'' is sociological and politically correct.

The romantic element, a mutual attraction between the gypsy woman and a young soldier, is simply a rehash of the screen romances that have become a necessary ingredient in Disney animated films. Lots of body language, lots of enticing flesh, a garish portrayal of the tormented moralist's secret lusts, a contrasting depiction of the beautiful young couple's sexual desire as pure and natural, and a sensual screen kiss that is inappropriate for young viewers (as it is in Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and other Disney films). Perhaps we should ask ourselves if viewing such intimate moments between man and woman is ever appropriate, even for adults. Is voyeurism, in any form, good for the soul?

The Hunchback of Notre Dame concludes with a frenzied climax in which the forces of love and courage are pitted against the ignorance of the medieval Church. Quasimodo has overcome the lie of his worthlessness through the counsel of his gargoyles and is now strong enough to deft the moralist. He rescues the gypsy girl, who is about to be burned for witchcraft, and flees with her to the bell tower. There the moralist tracks them down (after first pushing aside the ineffectual priest who tries to stop him) and attempts to kill them. As one might expect, he comes to a bad end. The gypsy and the soldier are reunited, and Quasimodo makes do with platonic love. All's well that ends well.

Based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same title (published in 1831), the film retains much of the plot and characterization and even manages to communicate some truths. But the reality-shift evidenced in the modern version is a serious violation of the larger architecture of truth. The truths are mixed with untruths, and because of the sensory impact of the film medium, it is that much more difficult for an audience to discern rightly between the two. This is especially damaging to children, who because of their age are in a state of formation that is largely impressionistic. Moreover, most modern people do not know their history and do not possess the tools of real thought and thus are vulnerable to manipulation of their feelings. Young and old, we are becoming a race of impressionists.

Rather than thinking with ideas, we "think” in free-form layers of images loosely connected by emotions. There would be little harm in this if the sources of these images were honest. But few sources in culture and entertainment are completely honest these days. And even if the mind were well stocked with the best of images (a very rare state), it is still not equipped to meet the spiritual and ideological confusion of our times. The problem is much deeper than a lack of literacy, because even the mental imagery created by the printed word can be merely a chain of misleading impressions, however well articulated they may be. The real problem is religious illiteracy, by which I mean the lack of an objective standard against which we can measure our subjective readings of sensation and experience. Without this objective standard, one's personal gnosis will inevitably push aside the objective truth and subordinate it to a lesser position, when it does not banish it altogether. That is why a modern maker of culture who feels strongly that Catholicism is bad for people has no qualms about rewriting history or creating anti-Catholic propaganda and will use all the powers of the modern media to do so.

One wonders what Disney studios would do with Hugo's Les Miserables (published in 1862), an expressly Christian story in which two central characters, the bishop and Jean Valjean, are heroic Catholics fighting for truth, mercy, and justice in the face of the icy malice of the secular humanists, against the background of the French Revolution. Would the scriptwriters and executives sanitize and politically correct these characters by de-Catholicizing them? It would be interesting to observe the contortions necessary for such a transformation. Perhaps they would do what Hollywood did to Dominique Lapierre's wonderful book, The City of Joy. The central character in that true story, a Christlike young priest who chose to live among the most abject of Calcutta's poor, is entirely replaced in the film version by a handsome young American doctor (who was a secondary character in the book). In the Hollywood rewrite, the doctor is idealistic but amoral, and he is in the throes of an identity crisis. Uncertain at first if he is merely a technician of the body, slowly awakening to the possibilities' that he might become a minister to the whole person, in the end he chooses the latter. Following the gnostic pattern, he becomes the knower as healer, the scientist as priest. It is a well-made film, containing some good insights and moving scenes, but by displacing the priest of Christ, it loses an important part of the original story's "soul”, cheating us of the real meaning of the events on which it is based.

Where Catholicism is not simply weeded out of the culture, it is usually attacked, though the attacks tend to be swift cheap-shots. Take, for instance, Steven Spielberg's smash hit Jurassic Park. Again, there is much to recommend this film, such as the questions it raises about science and morality, especially the issue of genetic engineering. In the struggle between people and dinosaurs there is plenty of human heroism, and the dinosaurs are even presented as classic reptiles — no taming or befriending here. So far so good. On the level of symbolism, however, we are stunned with an image of the reptile as practically omnipotent. The Tyrannosaurus rex is power incarnate, and its smaller cousin, the Velociraptor, is not only fiercely powerful, it is intelligent and capable of learning.

There is a telling scene in which the most despicable character in the film, a sleazy lawyer, is riding in a car with two young children. When a dinosaur approaches the car to destroy it, the father abandons the children to their fate and flees into an outdoor toilet cubicle. The T-Rex blows away the flimsy structure, exposing the lawyer, who is seated on the “john”, quivering uncontrollably and whining the words of the Hail Mary. The T-Rex picks him up in its jaws, crunches hard, and gulps him down its throat. In the theater where I saw the film, the audience cheered.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

O'Brien, Michael. “Vigilance, Paranoia, and Uncle Walt.” In Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 70-85.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind. - ISBN 0-89870-678-5.

Chapter six of this book describes the best fantasy literature now available outlining what it is that makes the work of J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald so exceptional.

THE AUTHOR

Michael O'Brien is a professional artist and the author of a series of novels including his most recent A Cry of Stone, the best selling Father Elijah, and Eclipse of the Sun. In addition, he is the author of A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child's Mind which looks at the proper role of children's literature in the forming of character (see sample chapters from this book on the CERC site). O'Brien's articles on faith and culture have appeared in numerous journals throughout the English-speaking world. Michael O'Brien is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center. Visit his web site at: studiobrien.com.

Copyright © 1998 Ignatius Press


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