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DISNEY'S MICKEY-MOUSE RELIGION

12:00 AM, Jul 1, 1996 • By JAMES BOWMAN
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When the Southern Baptist Convention recently voted to censure the Disney Corporation, principally for offering health insurance coverage to the partners of gay employees, a spokeswoman for the convention explained the vote: "The Disney Company is not the same Disney that it was years ago when we were growing up. We find there is a philosophical shift at the highest levels of the company which is not friendly to families and people of faith." She spoke more truly than she knew. For it is not Disney's policy on gay employees, nor even the distribution by its subsidiaries of such trashy and anti-Christian films as Kids or Priest, that constitutes a threat to the "family values" Disney still claims to uphold. On the contrary, the very films touted as the most "wholesome" and "family-oriented" movies made in the world today tend to undermine not only civil and religious but also parental authority.

The latest in the long line of the company's popular animated features is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, named for and modeled more on the film version of 1939, starring Charles Laughton, than on Victor Hugo's 1832 novel Notre Dame de Paris. The anti-Christian tendency of Disney is more obvious in this film than ever before.

The only prominently believing Christian in the cartoon, set in and around a church, is the evil Claude Frollo. In the novel and even in Laughton's version, which was largely devoted to an attack on "superstition," Frollo was a good man and a sincere believer tormented by a pride and a passion with which he could never come to terms. In the Disney version he is nothing but a villain and a hypocrite. As the jolly song in which we are introduced to him has it:

Judge Claude Frollo wished to purge the world of sin, And he saw corruption every where -- except within.

At one point, it's true, Frollo does seem to be praying, in his toffee- nosed English accent (voice of Tony Jay), for grace to resist the illicit passion he feels for the gypsy girl, Esmeralda (voice of Demi Moore). But he is quickly reduced, like a moustache-twirling villain of melodrama, to crying out to her phantasm in the fire: "Be mine or burn!" The only spiritual sustenance he receives from the church comes in the advice of the archdeacon (in the novel Frollo was the archdeacon, but to make a clergyman the villain would have been, perhaps, just a little too blatant) that he "can't run from the eyes of Notre Dame" -- by which is meant, of course, not Our Lady but her animated Cathedral. To make the point, the Cathedral's statuary moves its eyes to look balefully at Frollo.

It seems somehow fitting that Disney, our most effcient mass marketer of universally venerable icons, should encourage an idolatrous, if not blasphemous, view of religion. The comic sidekicks that have ever been a staple of the Disney formula are here not little animals but three animated gargoyles from the cathedral. Appropriately, it is the world-class spoilsport Frollo who forces Quasimodo to admit that stone cannot talk, though we have just seen it talking to him. Quasimodo, too, has been turned into a stock Disney figure: a sensitive child (or childlike figure) the constraining of whose imaginative life by a stern and unsympathetic father (or father figure) stands for or accompanies a larger curtailment of freedom.

Disney's gentle Quasimodo (voice of Tom Hulce), though ostensibly ugly, is in fact quite cute, a much softened and cleaned-up version of the hunchback as conceived by Charles Laughton. But naturally this Quasimodo has none of the dark side of Laughton's -- let alone Hugo's. His kidnapping of Esmeralda and his furious misanthropy are omitted from this version (as is his love fbr Frollo). The grotesque and the frightening is, as always, sanitized and banalized and made safe, and where it cannot be made safe it is simply dropped. Instead, everything reinforces the film's central premise: that it is wrong to be prejudiced against people on account of their appearance. It is really Frollo who is the ugly one, because of his inner corruption, and Quasimodo who has an inner beauty, because he's nice to gargoyles and others. "Who is the monster and who the man?" a song asks.

There can be no doubt about the answer, though it is interesting to note that Esmeralda, who teaches Quasimodo to hate Frollo for calling him a monster, still gives him not the slightest consideration as a lover. This gypsy dancer carries another stage further the rather disturbing sexiness noticeable in the title character of last year's Pocahontas. The Indian maiden had a cute little off-the-shoulder dress which showed off her figure to advantage; but Esmeralda is obviously a more experienced woman. he does a pole-dance that could have come out of Showgirls and positively leers at her admirers -- all except Frollo, whom she dislikes on sight. When he cries " Witchcraft!" his opinion appears to be ironically confirmed by the fact that she disappears into thin air. But of course she's only a cartoon witch and therefore quite harmless, at least compared with a Christian believer like Frollo.

At one point Esmeralda seems to pray to the Virgin after she has taken sanctuary in the cathedral, but only after expressing skepticism about Mary's existence and confidence that, if she does exist, it is as a protector of " outcasts" like herself. Thus the religious theme neatly elides into the more political one that it is wrong to be prejudiced -- against the ugly, against gypsies, against gargoyles, or against anybody, really, except Christians.

At the climax of the film, Frollo tries to kill Quasimodo and Esmeralda together, crying out in old Bible English: "And he shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit!" But the gargoyle on which he is standing gives way and he falls to his death. "Three cheers for Quasimodo!" cries the crowd below.

Laughton's film (directed by William Dieterie) is a radical simplification of Hugo's astounding feat of literary and historical imagination, but it at least bears some resemblance to Notre Dame de Paris: It is not just about a few individuals, their desires, their passions, and their crimes, but is a large-scale portrait of ideas about freedom and popular will that were to affect the whole of mankind. The Disney version ignores all that. Instead it produces a cookie-cutter version of the standard Disney message, which is that over-indulged children and sentimentalists are good and moralistic adults are bad. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Disney's hands may not look much like Victor Hugo, but it is morally indistinguishable from The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas.

To be sure, it has never been particularly difficult to distinguish between a Disney product and great art. Not long ago, Minette Martin of the London Sunday Telegraph took the occasion of the death in the same week of the original of A. A. Milne's Christopher Robin and of P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins, to note that Christopher Milne's fictional counterpart

met his end long ago. He was murdered, struck down by the dead hand of Disney. Christopher Robin, Pooh, and Eeyore and all the rest were then resurrected as tasteless, anodyne Disney stereotypes, mass-market ghosts sent out to possess the imagination of the world's children, to enrich the evil cartoon empire.

Disney destroys almost everything it touches. When the creator of Mary Poppins . . . first saw the Walt Disney film version of her book, she burst into tears. It was, she said, a desecration of her work.

I passionately agree with her. The strange and mysterious world of the book that I read as a child has been travestied in the film in every way, complete with the mincing Dick Van Dyke among a crowd of sycophantic dancing cartoon penguins. "They missed the point," Travers said. "It's not about sugar and spice."

It is worth noting that, even for those who loved the Disney of the 1960s, the Disney of Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, the company's more recent products have been not just sentimental but morally pernicious as well. For culture, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and into the bland vacuousness of the standard Disney fantasy of talking animals and childish sentimentalists has rushed a ghastly kind of political correctness.

This became apparent with The Little Mermaid (1989), the first of the new Disney animated megahits and the one that set the pattern for the steady stream of Disney animated products that have followed at 18-month intervals ever since. The 16-year-old mermaid Ariel is tyrannized by her father Triton, who is unreasonably prejudiced against "humans" -- whom he variously calls " barbarians" and "fish eaters." When the girl falls in love with one of them, the prince Eric, her father automatically condemns him.

"Daddy, you don't even know him," whines little Ariel.

"Know him! I don't have to know him. They're all the same," he says. He then proceeds to destroy her entire collection of human artifacts, collected from the sea bottom. But when Ariel runs away from home and does a deal with a sea-witch to be human herself and go seek her true love, Daddy is bitterly penitent. In the end he must learn the lesson taught by the West Indian crab Sebastian: hat "children have to be free to live their own lives."

If you think that is a trifle premature in its application to a 16-year-old girl, it is about as harmless a message as you are likely to get from the New Disney, for whom parents, when they are not tyrannical, are simply irrelevant. The princess in Aladdin also defies her father the king, who is weak and manipulated by his chief minister, in order to be with her suitor, Aladdin. Originally a thief, Aladdin is here a street urchin with a heart of gold and a potent genie. It's true he does steal a crust of bread, but he shares it with the poor. Once again the film celebrates the ingenuous good intentions of children, which are rendered magically powerful, and perversely associates the worldly wisdom of their parents with moral impotence.

The irrelevance of parents is also a theme of Beauty and the Beast; here the father is a forgetful and incompetent inventor. But the movie's real theme comes with its rejection of a macho hunter named Gaston in favor of the gentle if grouchy Beast, because the latter is more respectful of Beauty's feminine autonomy. Thus the myth on which it is based, which stresses the risk and sacrifice involved in loving someone, is stood on its head. The real beast is Gaston, who is a slaughterer of Disney-cute animals as well as a male chauvinist, and our Beauty won't touch him with a ten-foot pole.

The Lion King at least features a sympathetic and admirable father, who serves as an appropriate role model for his son. But what is pernicious in The Lion King is not its view of the family, but of nature, which it sanctifies and makes an object of worship. The "circle of life" seems to have mystical significance of a vaguely Eastern and pacifistic kind. Our hero's revenge against the uncle who killed his father and tried to have him killed never comes.

"You're not going to kill me?" says the uncle.

"No," says the lion cub turned lion king, "I'm not like you."

The animist bias of The Lion King is at the center of Pocahontas. The title character is a typical American suburban high school girl who, like Ariel the mermaid, defies her overbearing father to meet a lover from a different ethnic background. Papa must learn from his daughter not to be prejudiced etc., and her liaison with Captain John Smith represents the hope of racial harmony.

But now what stands in the way is not just a misguidedly overprotective father but virtually the whole band of English settlers in Virginia, who, unlike John Smith, are foolishly afraid of the Indians and their "savage" ways. Their only interest in the New World is in the gold which they imagine is to be found there, and the evil governor, Radcliffe, celebrates greed by singing: "All the gold is mine!" Not only is he a proto-capitalist but also a proto-NRA member, since he tells one of the younger settlers that "a man's not a man unless he knows how to shoot." In all the confrontations with the Indians, naturally, the whites are the more sinister party, and shoot first.

Even Smith appears ethnocentric and insensitive when he says to Pocahontas: "We'll teach your people how to use this land properly." Naturally she bridles at this and primly instructs him that when he calls the Indians " savage" and "uncivilized" what he really means is "not like you." The Indians never make any such errors. Pocahontas's instruction points out the error of thinking that the earth is "dead, and can be owned" when, in fact, "every rock and tree and creature has a life a spirit and a name." Hence:

You can own the earth but still, All you'll own is earth until You can paint with all the colors of the wind.

That clanger of a mixed metaphor seems somehow appropriate to the casual detachment from reality of the New Disney: Only in a cartoon could the wind have any colors. Yet at the same time there is here, more than ever, a pretense of seriousness in dealing with the clash of white and Indian. As usual, however, this comes down to the child's-eye view of serious conflict. " Maybe we should try talking to them" says Pocahontas to her fellow Indians. Hmm. Never thought of that. So the Indian Chief, Powhatan, goes forth to make peace. "We have all come here with anger in our hearts," he explains. "From this day forth, if there is to be more killing, it won't start with me."

Radcliffe, who has promised the whites to "eliminate these savages once and for all," and ordered that "anyone who so much as looks at an Indian without killing him is guilty of treason and will be hanged," shoots anyway. The stereotypes of the good guys as well-intentioned and harmless nature- worshippers and the whites as greedy and violent Christians are fulfilled in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The sensibility of the New Disney is anti-religious and especially anti- Christian for the same reason the rest of Hollywood is: fashion. But Disney's reputation as a purveyor of wholesome children's entertainment gives it a special ability to do harm. Christianity will very likely survive the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the damage done to children by linking the anti-religious tendency to a more general attempt to discredit adult and especially parental authority may be more long-lasting.

Look, for instance, at James and the Giant Peach, released in the spring. The changes made in this charming fable by Roald Dahl are not as blatant as those wrought upon Victor Hugo's novel, but their vulgarity and fakery are the more insidious for being subtle. Dahl's escape-and-revenge fantasy, always appealing to children, has here lost all its whimsy and become instead an appallingly earnest paean to "self-esteem."

Roald Dahl had managed to keep the novel's verbal texture light enough that its villains -- the oppressive aunts Sponge and Spiker -- occupied the same moral dimension as the angry rhinoceros that is said to have eaten James's parents. But in the film, the aunts become an all-too-real fantasy of adult oppression. They insist that James "work, work, work, work, work"; they starve him and say no to him and tell him he is "lazy" and "worthless" and " nothing." Their cruelty is so insistent, so obtrusive, so overblown, that it suggests childish exaggeration. You never let me have any fun, says the spoiled child, you always make me work. This is that fantasy writ large. And so the center of attention is not, as it should be, the marvel of the giant peach, a wonderfully gratuitous image, but rather poor James.

Likewise the equally marvelous bugs -- a spider, a centipede, a ladybug, and an earthworm -- who inhabit the peach are turned from the wonders of a mysteriously souped-up nature into James's support group. They build his self- esteem by telling him that they owe everything to the brilliance of his plan in harnessing the seagulls to fly the thing to New York. The Spider tells him: "No one can make you do anything, James, if you do not want to" -- those words that every child subject to parental correction wants with all his soul to hear. "We're Family," the bugs all sing to James: "We never could love anyone as much as we love you." Indeed, they say, "Without you there would be no 'us.'"

It is interesting that that is the one thing every child knows is not true of his parents. It is a kind of signal that the chief point of Disney fantasy is to conjure up a world and a "family" in which it is true -- to provide children with a family that makes no demands and yet loves them unconditionally. "We'll always be together, won't we?" asks James. "You're stuck with us, kid," says the Centipede.

There is also the one moral such a fantasy will admit: Be yourself no matter what; pursue your dream in spite of all obstacles. James must face down the rhinoceros that supposedly did in his parents; the rhino appears in the clouds and charges James's flying peach. "You're not even a real rhino," James hollers at it. "You're just a lot of smoke and noise. I'm not afraid of you."

But if it's not a real rhino, how did it manage to eat his parents? Disney wishes to tell children that they live in a world where the only dangers are imaginary, where perfect strangers should love each other, where they should reject nothing but religious instruction and parental guidance, where they should seek wisdom in their own imaginations. In the world of the New Disney, imagination itself has become a dangerous thing.