Monday, November 10, 2014

The Gospel According to Disney by Mark I. Pinsky

When I was 15, I attended church camp for a second time. As much as I want to go into great detail about my experiences there, I will spare you the reader and get to the point that relates to this book review. My friends and I were at evening chapel, soaking in what the Pastor was saying. Suddenly, he stepped aside and the lights dimmed. The screen lit up in a blue glow and once our eyes adjusted it became apparent we were watching a clip from a Disney movie...and not just any Disney movie but The Lion King, one of my all time favorites! What does The Lion King have to do with church? I asked myself. Let me paint the scene for you. Simba has just reunited with his childhood friend who believed him to be dead and confronts him with his past that he thought he left behind him. Angry, confused, and lost Simba walks to the water and stares at his reflection in the water. Suddenly, the peace is disturbed by the wise old Rafiki who tells Simba he knows he is Mufasa's boy. When Simba tells him his father is dead, Rafiki disputes him and tells him his father is alive and he can see him if Simba follows Rafiki. Simba follows and they arrive at another body of water. Rafiki tells Simba to look and when Simba looks at the water, he only sees his reflection. Rafiki urges him to look harder and suddenly Simba is starring at the image of his father. Then Rafiki says the iconic words, "You see, he lives in you." There is a loud rumbling and in the sky stands Mufasa, urging Simba to stop running from his past and to take his place on Pride Rock as King. When Mufasa's ghost fades, Rafiki furthers his message by saying, "Oh yes the past can hurt, but the way I see it you can either run from it or learn from it." Hans Zimmer's score beautifully clashes with the African choir as Simba makes his decision to return to Pride Rock. Tears welled up in my eyes. A great deal of my emotion stemmed from the nostalgia I was feeling. But it was also more than that. I had never known that faith could be seen through "secular" entertainment. Yet here was a perfect example. The Christian symbolism was so clear to me at that moment and it is one of the defining moments of my adolescence for it is the moment that inspired me to study other entertainment and look for hidden meanings in other media I encountered. I began searching for books that discussed this topic of Christian symbolism in Disney films and soon came across this book, The Gospel According to Disney by Mark I. Pinsky. I couldn't wait to read it.
This book is not what I expected at all. While the title implies that the author will be picking out bits of the gospel that are ingrained in Disney films and discussing them, it is quite the opposite. The book begins with a long chapter discussing Walt Disney's relationship with Christianity and faith in general. It takes a deep look at Walt's childhood that greatly summarizes the man the public came to know and either adore or despise. The book then goes into separate chapters discussing a different movie each chapter. Part one of the book focused on the films that were made while and a little after Walt was alive. Part two focuses on the Michael Eisner years. Once again, Pinsky provided a good look at Eisner's relationship with faith. It then goes into a bit about the theme parks and the Baptist boycott. 
Critical reviews of this book are very positive while the reviews I saw online were extremely negative. This made me wonder a great deal, for I was on the latter side. I did not think this book was very good. But I think it is the title that either helped the book or made people cringe at the book. I already stated what I expected this book to be. However, I realize the title can be read another way. Rather than picking out the deeper Christian gospel messages of these films, this book gave a detailed look at Disney's relationship with culture and general religion. It didn't really look for the deeper messages but at surface level material - what Disney the company did, what it would look like if people clung to the films as a religious entity, etc. While this was also a good approach, it has already been done before. None of Pinsky's chapters looking at these wonderful films wowed me or moved me. The only chapters I took great interest in were looking at Walt's life and Eisner's life, the theme parks, and the Baptist boycott. Those chapters contained worth while substance. The rest of the book...not so much.
One huge fault of the book is Pinsky's constant lengthy summaries of each movie he talks about. Literally every chapter is a frame by frame look at the film in question. As an English major in college, I was taught that when you write an essay you should always avoid giving the summary of said subject. The person who is reading your essay or group of essays will most likely be reading it with knowledge of the content beforehand. They don't need to hear it again, they just need to hear your analysis. And if the chapter didn't contain a summary, it was Pinsky bitching about the movie's lack of political correctness. I gained nothing from these chapters which was extremely disappointing.
Another huge fallback of the book was it's lack of even addressing the gospel at all. The chapters talked more about Disney and culture and went on more about tropes and stereotypes. We get it! People talk about this all of the time. Why do we need to hear about it again? Chapters such as Alice and Wonderland and Aladdin never mentioned the gospel once. It made me question why I was continuing with the book when it wasn't even addressing the subject it claimed to tackle in the actual title! And there were a few mistakes made throughout the book as well. The one I can remember off the top of my head was in the Alice in Wonderland chapter when Pinsky kept calling Alice's older sister her governess.
And finally, the book's biggest mistake has to be the title. The word "gospel" should not be in it. It is misleading and insulting to the actual Christian gospel. Rather, the book should be titled Religion According to Disney. The book's focus on religious culture and culture in general combined with no focus on any specific faith tells me this book was not about any gospel. It is about organized religion.
This book disappointed me on multiple accounts. It is a real shame because I think there is a lot of potential in looking for the Christian gospel in Disney films but Pinsky went the cynical route. The fact that he didn't take advantage of what could have been some excellent analysis is just inadequate. 
In short, this book is a compilation of what has already been said and done before. It added little to no new or interesting commentary to these excellent films.
I can't help but compare this book to a similar book I read earlier this year titled The Wisdom of Pixar by Robert Velarde. That book not only looked at Christian wisdom but philosophical wisdom and it took that knowledge and applied it to the Pixar movies. It dissected Pixar and showed where the gospel was hidden and what we as Christians or general audience can gain from it. This does not happen in The Gospel According to Disney and this is what I wanted and expected and I don't think I am alone in feeling this way.
Overall, this book wasn't very good. There were some interesting chapters about Walt himself and the Disney company outside the movies but it really was poorly structure otherwise. For what the book was going for, it wasn't a terrible book. It did a fair job at illustrating how Disney became the almost religious icon that it is today and explained the morals Disney films present that fans live by. But the glaring problems like the misleading title, the semi-present gospel analysis, and the consistent dull summaries were what I would expect from an amateur. I will give this book 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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