Three decades of writing scripts and reviewing children’s films has shown me that there is a glacial shift in entertainment underway. And nowhere is it more evident than in the movies produced by market-leader, Disney.
Today, The Walt Disney Company controls the four most significant production houses for children’s storylines: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm (thereby acquiring the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises).
The result has been a domination of the family entertainment market. In 2018, Walt Disney had more titles in the top 10 highest-grossing films than any other production company. Worldwide, Disney’s movie and music business generated revenue of $14.7 billion, up from $12.3 billion in 2017. Add to that Disney’s revenue of $2.3 billion in retail and other sales, plus $4.5 billion in licensing, publishing and games, and you start to get a picture of just how invested we are in its storylines. Which begs the question: What have we got for our money?
From the very beginning, Disney has been a company with a vision of how the world ought to be. The production company’s trademark “be all you can be” philosophy has its roots in founder Walt Disney’s own inherent optimism and determination to succeed. From Pinocchio’s wish to be “a real boy” to Merida’s determination to “be free”, Disney’s characters have always championed the individual dream as a right.
Yet Disney’s creative drive to make his “dreams come true” was always held within a greater framework. He was a devoted Congregationalist, a brand of Christianity that traditionally holds strongly to the Bible as the only way of knowing God. Disney firmly believed that, though we should strive to be everything we can be, we do that best when we connect with our Creator:
“Whatever success I have had in bringing clean, informative entertainment to people of all ages, I attribute in great part to my Congregational upbringing and my lifelong habit of prayer,” he is quoted as saying on The Magic in Pixels website.
Yet, the entertainment the Disney company is producing now is drifting from the idea that we might require guidance from anything other than our own hearts. Take the Toy Story movies as an illustration.
In 1995, the Toy Story characters found their chief joy in “belonging”. First and foremost, they were Andy’s toys. He was the god of their bedroom universe and they couldn’t think of anything better than bringing him joy. Woody was threatened by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear and conspired to see him gone, but that’s only because Woody feared that more of his owner’s love for the newcomer meant less for himself:
Woody: I’m lost, Andy is gone, they’re gonna move into their house in two days and it’s all your fault!
Buzz: My—my fault?! If you hadn’t pushed me out of the window in the first place . . .
Woody: Oh yeah?! Well if you hadn’t shown up inside your stupid little cardboard spaceship and taken away everything that was important to me . . .
Yet by the end of the movie, our cowboy hero comes to the conclusion that there is room in his owner’s heart for all of them, and they can please him together.
This togetherness became the theme for 1999’s Toy Story 2. Woody falls into the hands of a toy collector and the rest of Andy’s toys set out to save him. Meantime Woody is confronted with two possible futures, one in which he is played with and suffers the usual trials of a toy’s life; the other where he’s kept in pristine condition, but disconnected from his purpose.
For Woody, the choice is obvious:
Woody: Japan? No, no, no, no, no, I can’t go to Japan!
Jessie: Ha, ha, ha. . . .What do you mean?
Woody: I have to get back to my owner Andy! Look, look, look, see! (points to the name Andy on the bottom of his boot).
Woody isn’t ashamed to be a toy, or to find his pleasure in pleasing someone else, because he’s always known that’s what he was made for. He and the rest of the toys take joy from belonging to someone.
However, a great deal changes in the following 11 years. Happiness and Andy begin to separate in 2010’s Toy Story 3, as Andy prepares to go to college and no longer needs toys. Once again, Woody and the gang face two futures: either going up into an attic with the Christmas decorations, or ending up at the dump and falling into a fiery furnace. But instead, the toys opt for a third option: rather than ascending or descending they’ll find themselves a new owner and keep playing. There’s lots to be said about other spiritual parallels here, but one thing remains constant: our hero’s purpose is found in belonging to someone else, a prospect only the villain thinks is a bad thing:
Lotso: No owners means no worries. We don’t need owners at Sunnyside, we own ourselves. We’re masters of our own destiny.
Yet by the time Toy Story 4 arrives, the villain’s philosophy has become the hero’s hope. The 2019 world sees belonging to someone else and finding your meaning in their happiness to be undesirable. Woody goes on a road trip with his new owner Bonnie, only to discovers his owner’s affections are fickle, and not something you can trust your future to. Eventually Woody heeds the advice of a good friend and chooses to find his own meaning. Having done his time pleasing someone else, Woody decides it’s now time to please himself.
The Toy Story franchise sits well in the Disney catalogue because its episodes are all “life lesson” scripts. You can’t help wondering, though, where Disney hopes kids will apply this wisdom. Are they supposed to apply it to their relationships with other kids? Or maybe their parents? Hopefully not their marriages . . . One thing’s for certain, though: being “owned” is no longer a viable option. As he watches his old life pull away from the parking lot, we’re led to believe that Woody has made the brave choice in not building his life’s meaning on serving anyone, unless it’s himself.
It’s hard to truly know where Walt Disney stood with God. He was certainly a man with faults. His biographies talk about the perfectionism he demanded from his staff and the workaholism that adversely affected his family. Yet I suspect even he’d be surprised at the distance his company has placed between children and something greater than themselves.
However, the Bible views that perspective as the one we need the most. Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—“fear” in this sense meaning awestruck reverence.
The greatest secrets of happiness the Scriptures contain are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. . . . [and to] love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 38).
It’s not surprising, though, that children’s films should be taking this glacial path away from God as the One who legitimately owns us and gives our lives purpose, or that the world’s largest producer of family entertainment might encourage them along it. We forget at our peril that children’s films are written by adults, and this world has been walking away from God for quite some time. But if there is one baby step believers could help their families take back towards our Creator, it would be to remind them that they do not exist for the sake of their own stories. Buzz Lightyear only became complete when he finally realised he belonged to someone else and that he existed for their joy, before he could experience the personal joy he was designed for all along.
Mark Hadley is a film reviewer and cultural critic. He lives with his family in Sydney, Australia.