Learning from the foundations of Disney

Written by Steve Norton

As a dad, it’s fair to assume I’ve had a steady diet of Mickey and Co. over the last decade. From Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to Star Wars and Marvel, I’ve gotten to know the Mouse over the years, for better or worse.

Over the last decade, Disney has begun to flex its Infinity Gauntlet by swallowing companies like Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox Studios. During this time, the House of Mouse has grown from a popular supplier of kid’s content into a global corporation with influence across the industry and beyond. 

With plans for housing developments and even dipping their toes into the realm of politics, Disney is prepared to step outside the grounds of what one would expect from a major Hollywood studio. 

But beyond the shareholders and profit margins, I can’t help but remain impressed by the vision behind Walt Disney’s creation. For him, the goal was always to create something that inspires the imagination. 

There’s no question that you can dissect the Disney “magic” as simple smoke and mirrors, but the true joy is that Disney doesn’t just want to sell you a thrilling experience. It invites you to believe.

The concept of belief has always been key to Walt Disney’s ethos. Named after their family’s pastor, he grew up in a Christian home and built his legacy upon the idea that there’s more to life than what we see. He once said, “Whatever success I have had … I attribute in great part to my Congregational upbringing and my lifelong habit of prayer.” Believing and dreaming of a world that was bigger than himself was an important part of his life, and he wanted his creation to reflect that.

And that’s what sets Disney apart. There doesn’t seem to be any other major film studio that embeds “belief” as part of their mandate. For Walt, the core of Disney was to be a place of innocence, acceptance, and empowerment, where good and evil would be clearly defined, and where the natural world would be appreciated. 

Diversity, inclusion, safety, and courtesy are embedded within the company’s ethos. By developing new projects with a heavier emphasis on diversity (Encanto, for example, a film about a magical realm set in South America) and reimagining old ones to be more inclusive (such as the forthcoming live action The Little Mermaid where Ariel is played by Black American actor and singer Halle Bailey), Disney is trying to give others a voice and presence. 

At a time when injustice, violence, and war have shown us the dark side of humanity, there’s a cynicism about our world that drains us emotionally and spiritually. But, when someone creates a space that puts an emphasis on hope, dreams, and magic, something special takes place. 

Walt Disney’s world was always meant to be a place with a soul.

To take it a step further, when you examine the keys to the Kingdom of God, it’s hard to ignore the similar values (on paper, at least). As a place of shalom, where injustice and violence give way to peace and equality, Jesus established his Kingdom as a place that stands in contrast to the world around it. 

By shining Christ’s light and love, the Kingdom of God is a signal of hope to those who are lost or broken.

By spending time in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, we’ll see that the Kingdom is meant to be a place of justice that leaves a mark on the soul.

In a world that doesn’t follow the King, there’s still a need for a Kingdom. And the Disney brand is all too happy to try and fill that spiritual void. There’s no question that Disney’s world is in part a façade that reflects the company’s financial bottom line. 

But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Disney has also tapped into something deeper. By infusing the mega-corporation with a desire to inspire, it becomes more important as an idea than as a theme park strategy.

In other words, even though there are obvious cracks in Walt’s kingdom, its foundation is still worth building on.

Steve Norton is a Toronto-based pastor, podcaster and writer who loves to listen to what matters to our culture on screen. Having worked as a youth and community minister for almost 20 years, he learned that stories help everyone engage with the world around them. He’s a proud hubby, father (times two) and believes that Citizen Kane, Batman Forever (yes, the Kilmer one), and The Social Network belong in the same conversation.

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