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When It Comes to Disney’s Animated Films, “Inclusion” Doesn’t Mean “Everyone”

church in pixar's incredibles
Credit: Pixar Animation Studios

For years, The Walt Disney Company has touted its initiatives toward inclusion across Disney’s many theme park resorts, for its employees, and in its films, series, and stories. But when it comes to Disney’s film and television entertainment, it’s glaringly apparent that inclusion usually applies only to some.

disney's sorcerer's apprentice and disney's nine old men

Credit: Walt Disney Animation/Canva

Related: Disney Loses Nearly 95% of Its Animation Material

Inclusion and Diversity at Disney

Disney has long touted its efforts toward inclusion and diversity and says that examples of those efforts can be found in Disney’s experiences, across Disney’s theme park resorts around the globe, and in its content. But all is not what it seems.

Disney Experiences

According to a Walt Disney Company website reportedly dedicated to offering a transparent look at the company’s impact on society, including its charitable giving and its inclusion and diversity initiatives, Disney “is committed to celebrating an inclusive, respectful world” and promises its dedication in creating “authentic and unforgettable stories, characters, experiences, and products that capture the imagination of our global audiences.”

disney inclusion symbol with mickey head

Credit: Disney/Canva

However, some members of that global audience have done their own research, rather than only taking those online claims at face value, and they’ve come to a different conclusion. You can call it the “inclusion conclusion,” and you can call it unfair.

At Disney Parks

At Disneyland Paris, Disney promises that the company has “an active commitment to create an environment where everyone belongs.”

But the truth is that everyone does belong, whether Disney says it or not. Disney’s “active commitment,” should they choose to have one, should be more in keeping with the idea of making sure that everyone feels that they belong. And it’s not clear that this is Disney’s goal or if that goal is being achieved.

Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion: A Core Value at Disneyland Paris - DisneylandParis News

Credit: Disneyland Paris

In Disney’s Content

When it comes to Disney’s content, the company touts its efforts toward inclusion in its countless productions, including films, television shows, series on Disney+, and other entertainment offerings:

Across our platforms, we champion storytelling that reflects the world around us and helps us develop meaningful relationships with our consumers. We strive to present genuine, authentic, and respectful storytelling. To do so, we engage individuals, families, and communities across the globe, and we embrace different perspectives in our filmmaking, both in front of and behind the camera.

encanto family

Disney’s “Encanto” (2021)/Credit: Walt Disney Animation

However, the content in some Disney films can easily be counted among the most glaringly overt examples of partial inclusion–rather than inclusion for all. Partial inclusion is not inclusion. It is, by definition, exclusion.

If such claims are a bit hard to believe, keep reading to learn about irrefutable examples that leave many feeling excluded when it comes to Disney’s animated films rather than gaining a sense of inclusion, the efforts toward which The Walt Disney Company prides itself with glowing self-analysis.

No “God” Allowed

In a 2014 interview on NPR’s talk show Fresh Air, Oscar-winning songwriters behind the hit song from Disney’s Frozen, titled “Let it Go,” said that the word God is one thing that is strictly banned in Disney’s films and offerings.

disney's frozen

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Related: Disney Welcomes Jesus Through New Partnership

According to the songwriting savants Robert Lopez and Kristen Lopez, Disney isn’t a “sanitized” corporate environment. They explained further, saying that “one of the only places you have to draw the line at Disney is with religious things [such as] the word ‘God.'”

“You can say it in Disney,” Robert Lopez said during the interview, “but you can’t put it in the movie.” Later, however, the Lopezes said that their statements were “misconstrued.”

No “Religious Things” in Disney Films? Really?

So . . . those “religious things” aren’t allowed in films born at Walt Disney Studios? Perhaps it’s only “things from certain religions” that aren’t permitted in Disney films. Let me show you . . .

Pocahontas (1995)

In Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), “religious things” are at the heart of the storyline, as the beliefs and central themes of religion–specifically animism and nature worship–are heavily depicted.

disney's pocahontas

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Animism, the set of religious beliefs and practices related to the concept that all of nature possesses a spiritual essence, including plants and trees, is exhibited throughout the film. For example, the film depicts a tree spirit as the source of spiritual guidance for Pocahontas. The practices and beliefs in Animism are also central to the lyrics to one of the film’s most recognized and best-loved songs.

Disney describes the song “Colors of the Wind” as a “stirring anthem to Animism.” Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz intentionally created the song as such. In other words, the song was written as a celebration of the ideals, beliefs, and values of that religion.

Hercules (1997)

In Disney’s 1997 film Hercules, the ancient Greek religion underscores the storyline. (It is a film about Hercules, so, yes, we expected to see gods and goddesses from Greek mythology in the movie.)

Disney's Hercules gods and goddesses

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

The film features Zeus, Hades, Gaia, Hera, Hecate, Poseidon, Athena, Hermes, Apollo, Artemis, and other gods and goddesses are depicted in the film, each of whom plays a role of varying degrees of importance in the telling of the story of Disney’s Hercules.

Mulan (1998)

Then, in 1998, Walt Disney Animation released Mulan, an animated film about a young woman in China who strives to bring honor to her family and her ancestors by serving in wartime in place of her father, who is old and ailing. Because she has no brother to go to war in her father’s place, Mulan takes the role upon herself–and it nearly costs her her life.

to write or not to write — Disney Princesses as Strong Women: Mulan's Masks

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Mulan frequently references the practice of ancestor worship each time she asks her deceased family members for guidance and wisdom. This is a central practice within Confucianism, as there is an emphasis on deference to elders, even those who are deceased, in times of trouble or when a younger family member seeks understanding, direction, and wisdom.

disney's mulan fa family ancestors

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

The film is reportedly accurate in its depiction of Daoist ideas, as well as in its depiction of what is expected of women according to the religion of Confucianism and its depiction of Confucian relationships.

In addition to the depiction of ancestor worship, Mulan includes the dragon Mushu, a minor god–though hilariously characterized by comedian Eddie Murphy–who is the source of Mulan’s help and guidance along her journey.

mulan and mushu disney

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Religious Theme & Ideals in Pixar Films

Pixar, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, has also produced films and shorts over the years that include “religious things” in the form of spiritual and religious themes and ideals, although there are far fewer Pixar offerings that include these types of overt themes.

WALL-E (2007)

In Pixar’s WALL-E (2007), the theme of redemption is evident throughout the storyline. Redemption, however, isn’t an exclusive theme within the realm of religious practices.

Rev. Bond, the rector at Paul’s Episcopal Church, has even preached on the subject of redemptive themes in Pixar films but says that the theme is strongest in WALL-E, as “the Earth is redeemed, and all the people are redeemed and are brought back to establish a whole new ethic.”

walle

Credit: Pixar Animation Studios

Related: Some Believe ‘WALL-E’ is a Re-Telling from the Bible

“It becomes clear to me that the Pixar people are not only into emotions but also into a message of the redeeming of humankind,” Rev. Bond explains. But she points out that “redemption as a theme is universal; it’s in all faiths” and found “in literature all the way back to the Greeks.”

Soul (2020)

In Pixar’s Soul (2020), the afterlife is explored, as is death, the meaning of life, and an individual’s purpose.

pixar soul the great beyond

Credit: Pixar Animation Studios

Related: I Never Dreamed a Disney Film Could Help Me Process the Grief of Loss Until Now

However, Pixar broadly explores these themes in general terms rather than binding the film’s storyline to one religion’s beliefs and teachings about the afterlife. By many accounts, such an attempt on Pixar’s part could be described as “inclusion for all,” except, of course, for those who don’t ascribe to beliefs in an afterlife at all–or in any pertinent meaning to life.

But in 2022, Pixar appeared to change things up, embracing Buddhist themes and ideals with the release of its animated coming-of-age film, Turning Red.

Turning Red (2022)

Turning Red is chock full of pre-pubescent and adolescent rites of passage and milestones–both physical and emotional.

Turning Red

Credit: Disney

But throughout the story, there is an apparent emphasis on Buddhism, and it’s evident that the creators of the film purposely incorporated Buddhist themes and beliefs, as well as the themes of ancestor worship found in Taoism and Confucianism, Zen Buddhism, and polytheism (the belief in multiple gods).

Related: A “Progressive Cult of Ideas”: PIXAR’s ‘Turning Red’ Leaves Parents Seeing Red

One Religion Gets a Very Different Kind of Representation

The aforementioned films are only a few examples of Disney storylines that embrace religion–and not in small ways. Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, and Turning Red each include religious practices, ideals, and beliefs as central themes woven into the very fabric of the films.

arendelle cathedral disney's frozen

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Confucianism, Buddhism, ancestor worship, polytheism, the ancient Greek religion, Taoism (or Daoism), and other religions are not only embraced in these films; they are celebrated. They are depicted accurately, with respect to those who practice them, and great honor is given to the characters who express the teachings and precepts of those religions as part of their individual beliefs.

But one major world religion hasn’t received the same respect–damaging Disney’s promise of–and dedication to–its self-proclaimed inclusion initiative.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

The only animated film produced by Walt Disney Animation in which Christianity and Christian beliefs are central and part of a strong, underlying theme in the storyline is The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was released in 1996.

cross and sunset

Credit: Canva

The animated feature film draws its inspiration from the 1831 novel of the same name by author Victor Hugo and tells the tale of Quasimodo, the bell ringer at the famed Cathedral of Notre Dame, while sharing a narrative about the breathtakingly beautiful French cathedral.

Related: The Cathedral of Notre Dame Likened to a “Politically Correct” Disneyland

disney hunchback of notre dame

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

It’s true that Disney had no responsibility in the original work that inspired the Quasimodo film, but it’s important to point out that for centuries, poets, novelists, and writers of every genre have offered up a proverbial buffet of inspiration upon which modern films can be based, and Disney could have chosen numerous other stories related to Christianity or Christian themes.

However, when Disney chose to produce an animated film that would take any level of dive into Christianity, it used as its inspiration for that film a novel written by an author renowned as a loud and harsh critic of institutionalized religion and of the Christian church itself.

victor hugo and notre dame

Credit: Flickr/Scottgma/”The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo/Canva

Author Victor Hugo intentionally wrote his novel to characterize Claude Frollo, a member of the clergy, as the evil force responsible for the pain and sorrow experienced by characters within the story, and though Disney’s version of the story gives Frollo a different title within the church, it reserves the role of villain for the clergyman.

Paste Magazine points out that the Disney film begins with “a hate crime on the steps of the cathedral,” aimed at creating a loathing of the man of the cloth that–understandably–lasts for the duration of the film and beyond.

the hunchback of notre dame disney

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

True “Inclusion” Leaves No Room for Exclusion

This writer takes no issue with the depiction of religion and religious practices in Disney films, but such representations must be carried out with equal respect across all religions. True inclusion–when everyone’s invited, and each invitee is treated with the same respect and fairness–must be the standard.

Celebrate Your BFF with 7 Fave Disney Friendships - D23

Credit: Walt Disney Animation/D23

Further, this writer has no interest in calling on others to protest such films or boycott Walt Disney Company productions, as I happen to be a dedicated Disney fan. This writer does, however, take issue–alongside many of my colleagues, friends, and fellow human beings–with a watered-down version of “inclusion” that leaves room for the exclusion of some.

Neither rocket science nor high-level analysis is required; two words that are antonyms (opposites) do not become synonyms (the same) because of someone’s justification or subscription to a baseless, thoughtless idea of relative morality. True inclusion would be a monumental step in working toward peace among humans of all faiths, all backgrounds, and all ethnicities.

Awwww act of kindness | Disney facts, Disney animation, Disney quiz trivia

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

Every human being has the right to believe as he or she wishes, about what they wish, for as long as they wish–so far as those beliefs don’t trespass on the rights of others.

Regardless of our individual beliefs, the color of our skin, our social status, and the state of any other metric by which we choose to count and categorize human beings, one central, undeniable truth exists: Showing respect, kindness, and hope is always the right and good and fair and just thing to do.

Inclusion is only one part of that respect, but it’s vitally important.

Kindness | Disney Plus Press

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

The Walt Disney Company is not required to set a moral code or tone for the world, but Disney can choose to use its position and power to unify its patrons–or to distract and create division among them. And only one of those choices seems–like true inclusion–to be the right and good and fair and just thing to do.

Have you noted a difference in how religions are depicted in Disney films?

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

4 comments

  1. You can’t include everyone your better off excluding everyone

  2. I don’t think the founder walt Disney would have been happy with the direction of his company. I believe he was a family loving Christian based on what I read. I’m not saying that any religion should be forced on anyone but I don’t always need to change the channel if the story isn’t based on Christianity because I’m a Christian. You can’t include and represent everyone and you definitely can’t represent a group when it makes up less than 1% so I wish they would stop forcing those things. Movies are buisness and trying to appease the 1% of a certain group will not be profitable if it alienates the other 99%.

    • Walt Disney was an infamous occult member and nazi sympathizer. While he created a company that has created many family friendly films, by no means does that mean he had the “family friendly” ideals you are referring to. Though, i agree that he would dislike the new direction of his company — largely because he was incredibly racist.
      I think everyone should have media that appeals to their personal beliefs. In my opinion, the ambiguity and wide spread appeal of the religion / morals of the characters in most Disney Pixar films allows any person to project whatever religion they want onto the main characters, especially if they relate to the character (ex princess and the frog, Encanto, luca, etc — movies where the characters do not have a “cannon” religion).

  3. Religion and cultural identity are two very different ideas. In the examples you shared they are so very intertwined. Religion does not need a platform. Especially Judea Christianity. I was raised Lutheran and went to a Christian school. It was a choice my parents made but in not terms was it wrapped up in my cultural identity. Religion itself is exclusionary and had no place in world wide media. Keep reaching for topics. This fell flat.

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