The old man needed a miracle, a dramatic intervention to give life to his little boy, slumped motionless in the corner of the room.
So the white-haired woodcarver did what might be expected under the circumstances: He dropped to his knees, folded his hands and turned his eyes to heaven.
Then, in his soft Italian accent, he did not pray.
Instead, Geppetto wished upon a star.
The transformation that ensued in Walt Disney’s 1940, Oscar-winning animated feature “Pinocchio” was miraculous but not traditionally divine. As the old man slept, a winged, glowing spirit, the Blue Fairy, advised the marionette to “let your conscience be your guide” and to “choose right from wrong” so he could earn the “gift of life.”
For many parents, Disney’s entertaining morality tales, from “Pinocchio” to the current “Pocahontas,” have offered one of the few safe havens for children’s viewing. But in the more than 30 animated features Disney has released since 1937, there is scarcely a mention of God, a portrayal of prayer or the appearance of any religious symbol from the Christian and Jewish faiths shared by most Americans.
Some have argued that Disney’s decision to exclude or excise traditional religion from animated features was a commercial one, designed to keep the product saleable in a worldwide market.
Others have a more benign interpretation: that the choice was made to keep the films accessible and relevant to children from both inside and outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Few entertainment media have had as profound an impact on small children as the full-length animated features that are the signature of the Walt Disney Co. Together, “The Lion King,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” have sold well over 100 million videocassettes, adding to millions of viewings at movie theaters and readings of bedtime stories based on the films.
The animated classics, which are reflected in all of the Disney theme parks, rely primarily on mythic tales and images, some pre-Christian, that are replete with witches and demons, sorcerers and spells, genies and goblins.
“There is an anathema against the New Testament in the Disney films,” said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim, Calif. “They’re not fair to what the Christian message is of life, death and eternal life.”
The Rev. Clark Whitten of Calvary Assembly in Winter Park, Fla., said , “It is obvious that they sidestep and avoid what I would consider Judeo-Christian figures - literally anything that has to do with Christianity.
“They have a gospel; it’s to make money,” said Whitten, acknowledging that he has taken his children to see Disney films.
Walt Disney Co. officials declined to comment on the subject.
But Robert Schuller, a nationally known evangelist and author, defended Disney’s approach, saying he sees a strong and consistent religious message reflected in the Disney animated films.
Disney’s gospel is that “the bad news will never be the last news,” said Schuller, whose “Hour of Power” television program is broadcast from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.
“Gospel means good news. In the culture which comes from Judeo-Christian values, that is the theme: Ultimately God will reward the right and will never reward the unrepentant wrong.”
In recent years, a debate has raged in religious circles over “secular humanism” - the idea that universal values can be communicated without a religious context. At the same time, millions of little people have learned much of what they know about right and wrong from Disney.
Have they been receiving a message with recognizable religious values - a “Disney gospel” - or simply a form of “secular ‘toonism”?
“The Disney films are trying to represent the predominant, shared values of the community,” said Dennis Campbell, dean of the Duke University Divinity School.
But Disney filmmakers are facing the same dilemma of people in the larger society, the Methodist churchman said.
“I think the trouble is that the shared values have increasingly broken down. What we are seeing now in society is real confusion of values.”
Disney films “very much reflect Christian values in particular,” said Robert Knight, director of cultural studies for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council, which describes itself as a pro-family think tank.
“The values in Disney films generally reflect Judeo-Christian principles,” said Knight, although “it is a little troubling that Disney uses magic as a stand-in, essentially, for the power of the Holy Spirit as a transforming agent of good. On the other hand, with the moral ambiguity that Hollywood has been dishing up, Disney’s clear delineation between good and evil is always welcome.”
Even critic Sheldon, interviewed at his office in the shadow of Disneyland, sees the value in Walt Disney’s early animated features.
“They have a lot of good points, but they do not go far enough to truly reflect the deeply held Christian faith of tens of millions of Americans,” Sheldon said.
A 1954 Time magazine cover story, coinciding with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, noted that Walt Disney had been described as “the poet of the new American humanism” and that Mickey Mouse was “the symbol of common humanity in struggle against the forces of evil.”
The Disney empire, by its own designation, is a kingdom of magic, almost totally without reference to any kingdom of heaven. There are no churches on Main Street at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, although Walt’s daughter Diane told one minister this was because her father did not want to favor any particular denomination.
Disney was raised in a fundamentalist home and attended a Congregational church in the Midwest. Yet as an adult he did not start attending church regularly until he was 40, said critical biographer Marc Eliot.
Another biographer, Bob Thomas, provides a different account.
In “Walt Disney: An American Original,” Thomas wrote that “Walt considered himself religious, yet he never went to church. The heavy dose of religiosity in his childhood discouraged him; he especially disliked sanctimonious preachers. But he admired and respected every religion, and his belief in God never wavered.
“Unlike … other filmmakers, Walt did not believe in mixing religion and entertainment. He never made a religious film, and churchmen were rarely portrayed in Disney movies.”
Throughout his life Walt Disney steadfastly denied there was any great message in his work.
“We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme,” he told one interviewer. “All we are trying to do is give the public good entertainment. That is all they want.”