The Christian Life in Disney

Anyone who boldly claims that they know some meaning within a work of art, must clarify whether they mean to tell us what the artist meant, or what they mean they find in the artist’s work. This theory is wholly my own. The Disney films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King present, in their respective order, the story of a believer’s life from conversion, through lifelong repentance, and end with the return of the Lord to restore His people and His world.

In The Little Mermaid, Ariel lives in an unsatisfactory world, longing to walk beneath the sun in that unreachable world above. This desire has precedence; in chapter seven of Moby Dick, Ishmael says, “Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thin water the thinnest of air.” He is echoing the Platonic idea that earth is not real in comparison to the next life, where we shall be more substantive and see clearly—a sentiment familiar to Christian theology. Ariel longs to walk in sunlight, much as mankind has been prevented from walking with God, since Eden. Likewise, her attempts to learn human language mirror the pagan’s grasping to understand the Word.

Ariel’s story is ultimately one of faith, love, and forgiveness. Among all of Disney’s princesses, she is the only one who by the movie’s end has not changed. She remains a rebellious teenager, not sorry for her disobedience (only the painful consequences to her and others), and yet she gets what she wants. Her father gives her the dream of being human. Triton recognizes that Ariel loves Erik, which he blesses because he loves her. His decision depends upon his reciprocal and unconditional love and forgiveness, moving him to undergo the sacrifice of his precious daughter leaving home for good. Ariel prefigured this happy ending by her own declaration that, though she knew not how, she believed that she would reach her dream. Herein is fallen humanity, while still in sin, having faith that God loves them enough to redeem them, a faith that comes because they choose to love Him.

The next step, repentance, is central to Beauty and the Beast. As set forth in the opening sequence, Beast must learn true kindness, after concerning himself with mere appearances and professing penitence only when facing the consequences for his folly. Ultimately, Belle moves him to begin this change, after having no such inclination the whole of his bestial life. His love for her causes him to realize what it means to care for another person, not just himself. He even learns to let go of Belle, to give up control in complete humility and self-denial, and satisfy her needs, even when his own are in dire jeopardy as a result. Beast is like the believer who walks with Christ, learning to purge the fleshly desires and become more human, more like the godly image from before the Fall and the true lover of God.

Beast makes the ultimate sacrifice, to conclude his journey, because this life of turning away from sin is a kind of death. Walking with the Lord, while secure in eternal blessings, is painful because it is not free from death. Beast has to die, to his bestial self and literally, before he can be transformed in Belle’s love and receive the consummation of his redemption. He has become human in spirit, but by death and resurrection (take the final scene of transformation how you will), he becomes human in body. Sappy as it sounds, this is a tale as old as time, of God bringing His people back to Him through the painful earthly life of obedience and into the glory of new, heavenly life.

Finally, the future restoration of God’s kingdom on earth, as He returns to raise the dead to eternal life and judge the wicked, undergirds the sweeping story of The Lion King. This grand savanna epic, arguably the artistic height of Disney animated film (due to no small similarity to Hamlet, except with a happier ending), is about a usurped kingdom, a prince who forgets himself, and a cycle of life to death and to life again. Mufasa is the best example of a loving father and of majestic kingship in the Disney canon, such that his death is the hardest scene to watch, young or old. While Morgan Freeman has played God, James Earl Jones touches closer, in my opinion, to representing God in this role. After he dies, is separated from his son and his people, Simba runs into unknown territory and blinds himself to his princely heritage, while the murderous uncle begins a ruinous tyranny. Echo the Fall, when death takes over and humanity loses its divine image.

Simba needs to reclaim his identity, and then he will bring righteous wrath against Scar and wage ware to reclaim the savanna. Visited by Mufasa, he remembers who he is, and from then on takes up the kingly mantle, a type for Christ and for the restored believer. The direct consequence of this new identity is challenging Scar. As God promised that He would save mankind from death, He has also promised to return someday and give Satan battle for His creation (except He will wipe out His foes without much effort). Heaven comes to the fight at Pride Rock, since the flames that consume the wicked Scar and his hyena minions, now turned against him, were started by a lightning strike.

The battle won, the ruined kingdom is made whole again. Once evil is vanquished, the rains purify the deadened plains as Simba, in the image of his father, walks up to proclaim himself the rightful lion king. In celebration, the faithful herbivore subjects return to a budding savanna, after the fiery perdition had purged its evil and sent the wicked to their rightful deaths. The circle of life turns again, but so far as the movie is concerned it isn’t a perpetual cycle as the animistic theology of Africa might maintain— it is an image of a dead world being resurrected. The King has returned; life springs forth again. When Christ comes, He promises to judge evil once and for all, and to recreate His world as it used to be, perfect and eternally alive.

Ariel represents the life of sin that gets forgiven, and the sinner, by faith, being promised security of heaven as fulfillment of lasting happiness. Beast signifies the believer habituating real change from wickedness while in this earthly life, ultimately embracing the death of Christ as their final dissolution of sin. And Simba embodies both the believer reclaiming their princely nature and God’s returning wrath and resurrection of this world, through Christ the one true king.

The Problem with “Happily Ever After”

Every good story begins with a problem. A plane crashes on a desert island, leaving its occupants stranded. Two lovers are separated by their families’ hostile feud. A girl falls down a rabbit hole and loses her way in a nonsensical land. By the end of the story, the characters have either surmounted impossible odds to achieve their goal, or succumbed to the impossible odds in a blaze of failing glory. We typically refer to the first kind of story as a comedy, and the second as a tragedy.

Walt Disney’s classic princess films are all comedies. Once the hero and heroine overcome all pending disasters, they are free to meet their perfectly comedic ending and live happily ever after. It is with this idea of a perfect ending that I have trouble.

While some of the princesses encounter truly frightening problems—being chased by a murderous queen or being locked in a castle with a giant monster—for the most part, the only problem the princesses encounter regarding their significant other is an inability to reach them. Each film ends at a moment of bliss: love conquers all, and the prince and princess can finally be together without restraint. Yet this is the catch: the problems they’ve overcome have been outside hindrances to their union. They have not had the time to test their love—or more accurately, their infatuation—with real living. Here are some examples:

Snow White. The heroine is frightened when a strange man trespasses into the palace, sneaks up on her, and listens to her sing. He coaxes her out onto her balcony with a song of his own, and then leaves with a dashing smile. Even though the two did not speak to each other, Snow White spends the rest of the film pining away for her prince and hoping that “someday my prince will come.” When he shows up to waken her from a sleeping death, they ride off into the sunset on the prince’s horse.

Sleeping Beauty. Aurora also meets her prince while singing in the forest, and he enchants her in the span of one dreamy afternoon. When Aurora returns home and discovers that she is neither an orphan nor a common village girl, but the princess and heiress of the realm with two loving parents waiting for her return, she does not rejoice. Instead, she abandons her birthday party to cry in her room, despairing of never seeing the fascinating stranger again. Like Snow White’s prince, Phillip too, awakens his princess from sleep, and the two dance among the flashing lights of Aurora’s color-changing dress.

The Little Mermaid. Ariel sees her prince from afar and does not even interact with him before she is willing to risk losing her soul to be a “part of his world.” Even though she knows nothing about him and he is of a different species, Ariel becomes desperately infatuated and follows him at all costs. After attempting to win his love with no voice and fighting a giant squid, she and Eric get married and sail off into the distance, their ship framed under a rainbow.

These “happily ever afters,” while idyllic, are superficial and incomplete, because the relationships between the hero and heroine are not deep or well-cultivated. Instead, they are shallow and based on physical (and vocal) attractiveness instead of a long-term knowledge of each other’s personality and character. The man is gallant, strong and honorable; the woman is frail, virtuous and naive. Even in Tangled and Aladdin, in which the heroes are deceptive thieves, by the end their innate goodness becomes obvious to everyone around them.

The danger of such fantasies—whether applied to Disney princesses or couples of other romantic films—is that they portray relationships as requiring no work at all: no self-sacrifice, no mistakes, no differing opinions or frustrating compromises. The characters don’t have to deal with their beloved’s flaws. The unrealistic and ideal image of love that young (and old) girls cling to makes them disappointed if their reality doesn’t match up with the enchanting fantasy of Disney magic. Instead of making sacrifices, working hard, and choosing to love, they walk away. Today’s discouraging relationship statistics are a reflection of disappointed Disney princess ideals.

There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle’s story is a bit better—she doesn’t know the Beast is a hot prince, and must learn to get along with and love him before the two can live happily ever after. (Of course, Belle also stands as Exhibit A for Stockholm syndrome, so she’s still not the ideal role model for romance.) DreamWork’s Shrek franchise also makes the hero and heroine live out their “happy ending” with marital and parenting problems. And there are other Disney princess films that give a more moderate view on relationships—Mulan and Shan Yu leave the film as friendly crushes, and Pocahontas parts with her love but remains with him in spirit.

Don’t get me wrong—I love happy endings. And as Christians, we know that our own ending will be the happiest of all: we will live for eternity worshiping our Maker in His presence and enjoying the fruits of His love, which is the very fulfillment of our existence. No better ending exists in any story. However, we should be wary of stories that lure us with the siren call of a counterfeit Prince Charming, and instead look to better examples for healthy relationships, such as Christ’s self-sacrifice and patience in the face of sin and failure.

Imagine a New Body, for Everyone

At the tail end of a summer riddled with such high energy sci-fi films as Terminator 4 and Transformers 2 comes Surrogates, a Disney film with it’s own blend of sci-fi adventure sure to please any rabid fan. Surrogates shows us a futuristic world in which humans can experience life through robotic counterparts called “surrogates.” In the safety and comfort of their own homes, they simply sit back in a “stim chair” where they can control their surrogates as if they were their second skin. Bruce Willis plays Greer, an FBI agent who investigates the death of two people who died mysteriously when their surrogates were destroyed; a tragedy that was thought to be impossible. Greer’s investigation leads him to the “dreads,” those who have chosen to live without a surrogate, and their leader. When Greers’ own surrogate is destroyed, he is forced to continue the investigation in his own body.

From there the film dives into its third act, delivering some initially surprising twists that are obvious in retrospect. The film had to break some of its own rules in order to deliver them. In an early sequence, we’re told that no one can use a surrogate not already registered to them. However, in the third act characters change surrogates with as much spontaneity as the various identity switches in Mission Impossible: 2. When a filmmaker creates a new world with a whole new set of rules, he should respect his rules at least as much as he expects his audience to respect them.

Despite having a sizable visual effects budget, Surrogates was lacking aesthetically. Most of the surrogates were played by flesh and blood actors, but something about the stiffness of their performance or perhaps the ultra stylized sheen added to their skin gave the film an odd feeling. I breathed a sigh of relief every time I got to see a “real” human. I never thought a tired, bearded Bruce Willis would give me such a sense of relief.

One of the great advantages of science fiction is its ability to ask serious questions of human nature in creative and imaginative ways. Surrogates offers this to its viewers in some interesting, albeit understated ways. For instance, when a beautiful female surrogate killed near the beginning of the film is revealed to be operated by a balding middle-aged man, Greer and the other FBI agents are unfazed. This simple fact says much about our current society. The filmmakers seem to think this won’t shock their audience, and they are right. In a world where such things as sexual identity are a matter of choice, why would we be shocked? For the Christian, this reveals the need for relief from this fallen body. Yet it also shows quite clearly the inability of modern technology to deliver us from this problem. Technology, in its efforts to free us from the restraints of the world, only imprisons us further.

Surrogates doesn’t have quite the special effects or the exciting action sequences of a typical summer blockbuster, nor does it have the intellectual depth necessary to please serious science fiction fans. It’s most fascinating moments are delivered in the opening minutes during a documentary style presentation of the world that gave rise to Surrogates. Some of the footage they used was in fact real footage, particularly a video of a Japanese robotics engineer who has created a robot in his own likeness. Unfortunately, the film’s thematic subtlety ends there.

by brian walton