"A prayer, it seems to me, implies a promise as well as a request; at the highest level, prayer not only is supplication for strength and guidance, but also becomes an affirmation of life and thus a reverent praise of God." -Walt Disney

By Ken Priebe
Editing and Additional Material by Charles Phillips

This page was created on June 19, 2003
This page was last updated on February 7, 2006

By Ken Priebe

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By Ken Priebe

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Ken earned his BFA from University of Michigan School of Art and Design, where he majored in film and animation. He has a Classical Animation Certificate from VanArts, where he currently works as a manager and instructor. Ken lives near Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife Janet, who is also an artist. They are working on an animated short film, and are involved with graphic arts, drama and Bible studies at their church.

Here are some words written by Walt Disney in 1963, which appeared in an essay by Bill Griffiths.

Prayer In My Life
By Walt Disney

Every person has his own ideas of the act of praying for God's guidance, tolerance and mercy to fulfill his duties and responsibilities. My own concept of prayer is not a plea for special favors, nor as a quick palliation for wrongs knowingly committed. A prayer, it seems to me, implies a promise as well as a request; at the highest level, prayer not only is supplication for strength and guidance, but also becomes an affirmation of life and thus a reverent praise of God.

Deeds rather than words express my concept of the part religion should play in everyday life. I have watched constantly that in our movie work the highest moral and spiritual standards are upheld, whether it deals with fable or with stories of living action. This religious concern for the form and content of our films goes back 40 years to the rugged financial period in Kansas City when I was struggling to establish a film company and produce animated fairy tales. Thus, 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 lifelong habit of prayer.

To me, today at age 61, all prayer by the humble or highly placed has one thing in common: supplication for strength and inspiration to carry on the best impulses which should bind us together for a better world. Without such inspiration we would rapidly deteriorate and finally perish. But in our troubled times, the right of men to think and worship as their conscience dictates is being sorely pressed. We can retain these privileges only by being constantly on guard in fighting off any encroachment on these precepts. To retreat from any of the principles handed down by our forefathers, who shed their blood for the ideals we all embrace, would be a complete victory for those who would destroy liberty and justice for the individual.

These are the words of a man from humble beginnings in Kansas City who became one of the heroes of his generation. His legacy continues on in his theme parks and film companies that still break barriers of art and technology in exciting ways.

Disney Animation, as we know it today, grew from the idea that motion pictures could be used not just to entertain in the way a magician's tricks do, but could tell a story, much like the theater had done for centuries. Film animation was pioneered by people like newspaper cartoonists J. Stuart Blackton and Winsor McCay (right: Gertie) in the early 1900s. The first animated films were a breakthrough in art and technology, with the idea behind photographing a series of drawings or objects to give the illusion of movement. Many of the first films centered around the "magic" of a moving drawing and a string of character gags with very little story structure. It was a brand new idea at the time that dazzled its first audiences, but the novelty eventually wore off and audiences wanted something more.

Walt Disney took the art of animation past the concepts of movement and gags to a new level of draftsmanship and storytelling. He kept saying over and over, "I think it is possible to understand this medium of ours and improve it." This is yet another manifestation of why so many inventions come from the Judeo-Christian world, and precious little from other cultures. One of the most valuable attributes of the Judeo-Christian ethic is the concept that nature (and, by extension, life itself) was created, by God, for a purpose, and that man fits into this Divine plan. That leads us in the West to the tantalizing conclusion that nature is understandable, that if we but work long and hard enough, we can see the mind of God through the workings of nature, just as a creator's art reveals the mind of that Creator. At its core, our belief system announces that life has a pattern to it, because it was conceived with a purpose behind it. Other theologies, notably the Greeks for example, believe that Life was created by accident, or on the whim of a mercurial troublemaker, and contains as much ulterior purpose as the pattern one's corn flakes make after they've sneezed into their morning breakfast. The core belief that nature is understandable, has led us as a species to undertake to understand nature, to analyze it and ultimately to control it, by recreating it to suit our own purposes.

Disney was part of this belief system based upon the idea of progress, and the citadel of success he built through his career offers comforting proof that this belief system pays dividends. Disney had faith in his ability to grow, to continue his understanding of things, as we all have faith in our ability to improve, because we believe that there is something to improve toward. When America is said to be built from "the pioneer spirit", here again we have the idea of faith guiding us to a better place. If Americans didn't believe that there could be a better place to get to, they never would have crossed the ocean in the first place, let alone barren deserts and ferocious wilderness. How many of Disney's contemporaries believed that animation needed to be improved, or even could be improved? To many of them the question wouldn't have made any sense. Ask a Borneo headhunter about reaching towards a higher goal, through an increased control over himself and his environment, and see if they look at you with the same vacant stare that Paul Terry or Leon Schlessinger (former directors of TerryToons and Warner Brothers Studios) would have offered. "Why change?" Because we can!!

The artists at the Disney studio, under Walt's encouragement and guidance, reached for ever higher levels of realism and believability in their work. They studied the anatomy of the human figure and the complexities of nature. They analyzed how natural things move, to a degree that catapulted their achievements beyond what most other animation studios did at the time. Basic principles of weight, timing, color, and believable form and structure in animation which are now taken for granted were mostly developed by the Disney studio. While the industry felt that animation belonged at the bottom of the bill, in a short format designed to warm-up audiences for the feature film attractions, Disney saw no reason why cartoons could not be expanded to feature-length format and treated like any other movie. The whole idea behind creating a full-length animated feature was thought ridiculous and unprofitable, until Walt proved them wrong with his widely successful first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Many things about Walt Disney the man remain a mystery to us today. One thing we can see, as indicated previously by Walt himself, is that a deliberate attempt was made to tell stories with lessons and virtues that correlate with the stories and teachings of his religious upbringing. He made films, not only to entertain people in times of war and distress, but to inspire Godly values in us in order to make a better world. Bob Thomas' biography of Walt tells us he considered himself a religious man whose belief in God never wavered, even though he was not an avid church-goer. It is suggested that, though he retained his relationship with God, he was turned off by the stuffy legalism of the church as an organization. (This attitude was reflected in his 1960 live action film Pollyanna.) Though Walt did not personally animate, draw or directly write any of his best known works, it was his vision and knack for spotting good talent that drove his staff of artists. Basically, he was a storyteller, and sought to improve the world by telling good stories and preserving our history and folklore. Like the parables of Jesus, another storyteller in His own right, there are themes in many of Disney's features that illustrate the truth of humanity and spirituality. Some of the most spiritual of the Disney Company's films, both before and after his death, also tend to have been the most successful.

(And as he is famously quoted in saying, "My only hope is that we never lose sight of one thing, that it was all started by a mouse.")

Disney's feature films have taken us all over the globe, from New York to China to France and elsewhere. They've taken us into the past and into worlds that exist only in our dreams. By analyzing the films over a period of nearly 70 years, it's fascinating to see the history of the 20th century unfold. Artistic styles and techniques used to capture images change and become more advanced. Spiritual themes and philosophies move from pre-dominantly Western to Eastern, female roles shift from passive princesses to independent warriors, pop culture references shift from subtle to broad. Styles and attitudes have changed, but most of the films and stories themselves are practically timeless. As films, some are better than others, but they are all a testament to the visual miracles that can be produced when artists work together in the medium of animation. The word animate literally translates as "to breathe life into." Animators breathe life into their drawings because God has breathed life into them, and all of us, whether we choose to acknowledge that or not. Thus, God can speak to us through story, through cinema, and ultimately through art and animation, in ways we don't always recognize. Any art, seen in this context, has a glorious opportunity to exist as an act of worship and "sub-creation" in the image of God.

So why this connection and why bother writing of it? Are movies, animated or otherwise, purely "escapist entertainment" with no relation to "real life," or this there more underneath the surface? What are we "escaping" from anyway? Could cartoons, widely looked upon as "kids stuff", even allow adults to ponder the meaning of life? Could the success of these films have something to do with our hunger for meaning and hope? Could God be speaking to us?

Let's take a look at some of Disney's animated features and the spiritual parallels therein...
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