J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on Walt Disney and Fairy Tales

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis on Walt Disney and Fairy Tales The Garrett Ashley Mullet Show

I have written about a few of the Disney animated films of recent years. What drove this was feeling uncomfortable with the answers to the question of what the morals of those stories were.

Some thought my articles served as proof that yours truly is a stick in the mud. And that was to be expected, I suppose. But my sense from the outset was that everyone would think I was being a fuddy-duddy. So where anyone complimented the effort, or thanked me for my work, it came as a pleasant surprise, and it encouraged me to produce more of the same.

Some parents did reach out to say complimentary and grateful things, by the way. They felt like they were taking crazy pills to have objections to anything put out by Disney. They too were afraid they’d be laughed at, shushed, and get wagging fingers from what passes for polite society these days. But my talking more seriously about the trouble with the content – particularly the morals of the stories – made them feel not so alone. And such parents should not feel alone because they are not alone. So here we go again.

I remember again now reading a book maybe 10 or 15 years ago by Mark L Pinsky. Titled ‘The Gospel According to Disney,’ Pinsky’s book helped me understand how Disney’s childhood and private thoughts on religion – especially the Christian religion – influenced the decisions he made with the animated films he put out, as well as the company he built.

That Pinsky work helps make some sense of the current strategic decisions being made by the Walt Disney Company more recently, as well as the sentimental bias which possesses many adults who were raised on Disney animated fare – as I was. And if you too want to understand better what all is in play here from an ideas and principles standpoint, the Pinsky book may serve you well, and I commend it to you accordingly.

But a suspicion of mine has been growing, in no small part thanks to Pinsky. And that suspicion is increasingly maturing into what might eventually pass in modern society for a well-formed opinion. That suspicion is simply this: that the Walt Disney Company did not just go bad in recent years. The House of Mouse did not become the way it is overnight, what with their decreasingly subtle peddling of transgenderism and homosexuality to our children as normal, healthy, and sane.

Yes, yes – it was only recently that they passed over Tim Allen to reprise his iconic role because he is a conservative. And only in recent months did they insert a lesbian kiss into the Lightyear flick. And, yes, it was only in recent weeks that they announced they were putting openly transgender characters into their TV shows. But these decisions all came from somewhere. And as it turns out, the somewhere these decisions come from has deep roots in the history of both the company and the man who founded it.

So here is a once upon a time for you. What if I told you that the creators of the beloved fantasy worlds of Narnia and Middle Earth went together to see Walt Disney’s Snow White when it was in theaters? Furthermore, what if I told you Tolkien and Lewis came away from that outing hating not only that picture we regard as classic, but also utterly loathing and despising the broader general approach to fairy tales by that man Disney himself?

To quote Tolkien from this article which a certain Monique Jacobs published about a year ago:

“I recognize his talent, but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”

These are strong words for a Brit generally. They are especially strong for an academic and gentleman like Tolkien was.

It is helpful, I think, to get Tolkien’s and Lewis’s insights on Disney from decades ago. They went to see his very first full-length traditionally animated film in 1937. As master storytellers themselves, they were also expert in the works of other master storytellers from the preceding centuries. Their insight into and attitude about Disney is especially poignant, then. And one wonders what they’d have to say if they were alive today and could see what the Walt Disney Company has become and is producing now.

A quote from CS Lewis too, though, since I shared with you that one from Tolkien.

“[A]ll the terrifying bits were good, and the animals really most moving: and the use of shadows (of dwarfs and vultures) was real genius. What might not have come of it if this man had been educated–or even brought up in a decent society?”

And notice what Lewis is saying here. The scary stuff was good. He was glad it was included. But more or less, Clive Staple is upset that a certain lack of education and decency is inherent to the editorializing done by Disney. The classic fairy tales were “cleaned up” and tamed when and where they did not need to be. And something was left on the cutting room floor which Lewis believed was not a bug so much as a feature of character formation in children. In the place of these cuttings, both Lewis and Tolkien were repulsed to find what they termed a cynical approach.

In my experience as an American living in the 21st century, none of my peers or countrymen would think to call Disney’s approach to fairy tales cynical. The ardent devotees and critics alike would say Snow White was especially “wholesome.” But Lewis and Tolkien knew better. They perceived in the dumbing down of fairy tales a low opinion of what children are capable of understanding and persevering through. And this in turn they recognized as providing a limiting effect on what children would be able to benefit from in such works emanating from such cynicism.

As an aside, though a very small one, I think Tolkien’s and Lewis’s objections were of a piece with my criticism of Veggie Tales. For those unfamiliar, my criticism of Phil Vischer’s magical talking vegetables is, in part, that they have taken all the sex and violence out of Biblical stories. That is, children are handicapped by our malnourishing them with these sorts of treatments. And we really should reconsider what we are implying about God’s Word when we take these kinds of liberties with what He gave us for our instruction, correction, and training in righteousness.

When I was a kid, PG stood for Parental Guidance. It still does, of course. But it seems as though many parents have forgotten that. Many parents decreasingly want to guide their children through these stories, or much of anything really. Consequently, or at least concurrently, the production studios and creators of works for children cater to this aversion. And that is to all our individual and collective detriment, I think.

That is also, I think, what Tolkien meant by saying he felt nauseated by Disney’s productions. Moreover, that is what I believe Lewis was lamenting when he asked the question “What might not have come of it?”

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting! I’ll admit I never thought to wonder what literary figures at the time would have made of the “Disneyfication” of fairy tales before it became normal, but I should have.

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