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 obvious that inclusion usually applies only to some.
Inclusion and Diversity at Disney
Disney has long touted its efforts toward inclusion and diversity for years.
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 various initiatives, including inclusion and diversity initiatives, Disney claims the company “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.”
But some members of that global audience have done their own research, rather than only taking those online claims at face value, and have come to a different conclusion. You can call it the “inclusion conclusion,” and you can call it unfair.
At Disney Parks
At Disneyland Paris, for example, 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.
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.
But some of Disney’s films offer some of the most glaringly overt examples of only 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 a sense of exclusion when it comes to Disney’s animated films rather than the sense of inclusion on 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 banned in Disney’s films and offerings.
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 allowed in Disney films. Let me show you . . .
In Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), “religious things” are very much a part of the storyline, as the beliefs and central themes of religion–specifically animism and nature worship–are heavily depicted.
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 on exhibit 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 created the song to be such an anthem. In other words, the song was intentionally written to celebrate the ideals of that religion.
In Disney’s 1997 film Hercules, the ancient Greek religion underscores the entire storyline. (It is a film about Hercules, so, yes, we expected to see gods and goddesses from Greek mythology in the movie.)
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.
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 to her ancestors by serving in wartime in place of her father, who is old and ailing since she has no brother to go in her father’s place.
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.
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 serves as the source of Mulan’s help and guidance along her journey.
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.
In Pixar’s WALL-E (2007), the theme of redemption is evident throughout the storyline. Redemption, however, isn’t a theme that’s exclusive to only one or two religions.
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.”
“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 that it is found “in literature all the way back to the Greeks.”
In Pixar’s Soul (2020), the afterlife is explored, as is death, the meaning of life, and an individual’s purpose.
But Pixar largely explores these themes in general terms rather than binding the storyline of the film 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.
But throughout the story, there is an obvious 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 that there are multiple gods).
One Religion Gets a Very Different Kind of Representation
The aforementioned Disney and Pixar films are only a few examples of Disney films with storylines that embrace religion–and not in small ways. Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, and Turning Red include religious practices, ideals, and beliefs as central themes woven into the very fabric of the films.
Confucianism, Buddhism, ancestor worship, polytheism, the ancient Greek religion, Taoism (or Daoism), and other religions are not only embraced in these films; they are depicted accurately, respectfully, and with honor granted to the characters as they express their religious beliefs.
But one major world religion didn’t receive the same respect–damaging Disney’s promise of–and dedication to–inclusion and making everyone feel as though they belong.
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.
The animated feature film drew 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 Cathedral of Notre Dame while telling a story about the breathtakingly beautiful French cathedral as well.
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.
But 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 who was renowned as a loud and harsh critic of institutionalized religion and of the Christian church itself.
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 keeps the clergyman in the role of villain.
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.
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. True inclusion–when everyone’s invited, and each invitee is treated with respect and fairness–must be the standard.
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, all ethnicities, etc.
Every single 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.
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–the right and good and fair and just thing to do.