This article focuses on Walt Disney’s Christian beliefs and the way he depicted Jesus Christ in his animated and live-action films and television shows.
Walt grew up in a Christian home, and didn’t formally reject the Christian teachings he received. This would naturally include a belief in the person and work of Christ. Taken together, the biographical sources and the Disney films suggest Walt Disney regarded Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world.
Walt said he tried to “live a Christian life.” This quote is found in two books: Walt Disney: Famous Quotes (p. 82), and The Gospel According to Disney (p. 20). The authors of Walt Disney’s Missouri wrote that Walt professed to be a Christian but didn’t adhere to any particular religious dogma .
The classic Disney films made many references to Christianity and to God, but there are few explicit references to Jesus Christ. This might have had to do with the film industry’s censorship code, which discouraged producers from making movies with Christian-specific themes. Such films were considered controversial by their very nature, and Hollywood generally avoided making them.
Walt Disney might have avoided direct references to Jesus Christ in his public statements and in his films because he didn’t want to risk offending or alienating his religiously diverse audience. He and other filmmakers seemed to think it was safer to make references to God rather than Christ. The concept of God was more universal, embraced by Jews and Muslims as well as Christians. To mention Christ was Christian-specific and had the potential of being divisive. The scarcity of references to Christ in the Disney films might have been due to Walt’s views on religious tolerance. Walt might have been one of the first in Hollywood to implement political correctness in the portrayal of religious subjects.
Nonetheless, some Disney films do make specific references to Jesus Christ. In Saludos Amigos (1943), a live-action film about South America, the narrator refers to the “Christ of the Andes,” a huge statue of Jesus located in the Chilean mountains. A crucifix is depicted in a World War II propaganda film called Education for Death (1943). The Christ Child is alluded to in portrayals of the Christmas story in The Three Caballeros (1945) and in The Small One (1978).
Disney’s live-action dramas like The Story of Robin Hood (1952) and The Prince and the Pauper (1962), a film created for the Disney TV show, make references to “the cross” and to “our Lord Jesus Christ.” One of the episodes of the Zorro TV series, “Zorro’s Secret Passage” (1957), refers to the power of the cross, the symbol associated with Jesus’ sacrificial death. Another Zorro episode, “Zorro Saves a Friend” (1957), makes other allusions to Christ. The priest Padre Felipe refers to Christian salvation, and Don Diego speaks of the Church’s mission to teach people about “the life of our Savior.”
The live-action film Greyfriars Bobby (1961) depicts a somber funeral service of the Church of Scotland. The minister quotes passages from the Gospel of John (11:25), traditionally recited at Christian funerals to give the mourners, and possibly the departed soul, the hope of eternal life in heaven. Because this is one of the few places in the Disney films where Jesus Christ is explicitly referred to as the Son of God and the Savior, I have transcribed the whole funeral service as presented in the film. In the scene, the minister intones solemnly:
I am the resurrection and the life,’ saith the Lord. ‘He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’ We therefore commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, which Thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce on all that love and fear Thee, saying, ‘Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ Grant this, we beseech Thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our mediator and redeemer. Amen.
Some Disney films allude to Jesus Christ in implicit, poetic terms. He is called “the Prince of Peace” in the “Ave Maria” sequence from Fantasia. The song in Song of the South (1946), “All I Want,” makes an appeal to “my Savior,” a title of Jesus. “Peace on Earth,” a Christmas song heard at the beginning of Lady and the Tramp (1955) refers to the “Child of Peace,” an allusion to the Christ Child. In Sleeping Beauty (1959), the good fairies give Prince Philip a “shield of virtue” to protect him from the attacks of the evil fairy Maleficent. The shield bears an image of a cross, suggesting part of his defense lies in the power represented by the symbol of Christianity. The most unexpected reference to Jesus Christ in the Disney productions appeared on a children’s record. The 1964 album Happy Birthday and Other Songs for Every Holiday alluded to Christ’s resurrection in a song commemorating Easter.
The Disney films made in the 1990s made fewer references to Christianity than the ones produced in Walt’s time and that of his immediate successors. But even these newer films made occasional references to Christ. Disney’s animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) displays an image of Christ in a stained-glass window. A remarkable feature of this image is the marks of Christ’s crucifixion in His hands and feet. This is, at this point, the only appearance of Jesus in a Disney animated feature.
Another allusion to Christ was made in The Proud Family, an animated series created for the Disney Channel in 2001-2003. In one episode, a school principal refers to the ethnic diversity of the students. “Whether we are red or yellow or black or white, we are all special in His sight,” the principal says, paraphrasing lyrics from the Sunday school song “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” The principal’s phrase “in His sight” is a reference to Jesus Christ, who loves “all the children of the world.”
The New Testament states that Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of humanity by suffering and dying on the cross. After his sacrificial death, he rose from the dead and ascended to heaven in a glorified body. Several Disney films patterned their scenarios of death and resurrection after Christ’s death and resurrection. The following Disney characters sacrificed themselves for others and were miraculously brought back to life as a reward: Pinocchio, Trusty the bloodhound from Lady and the Tramp, Baloo from The Jungle Book, Darby from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and Gurgi from The Black Cauldron. To paraphrase the gospel, they gained their lives by losing them (Matt. 10:39).
Classic Disney films like Pinocchio and Bambi show crosses in the background and on characters’ clothes. This imagery contributed to the films’ themes of death and resurrection. The main characters in these films, Pinocchio and Bambi, seemed to gain divine favor by their heroic virtue and sacrificial acts. According to the message of these and other Disney films, the struggle for goodness in this world led to spiritual glorification in the next. Walt Disney used the Christian concept of sacrifice to give his films spiritual dimension and substance.
1. Burnes, Brian, Robert W. Butler, and Dan Viens, Walt Disney’s Missouri. Kansas City Star Books, Kansas City, MO, 2001. p. 155.