In Tangled, the Walt Disney Company’s new animated, feature-length, 3-D adaptation of “Rapunzel,” critic Armond White finds, sadly, that the story of the girl with the very long locks not only “has been amped up from the morality tale told by the Brothers Grimm into a typically overactive Disney concoction of cute humans, comic animals, and one-dimensional villains,” but also that the film’s “hyped-up story line . . . gives evidence that cultural standards have undergone a drastic change” in the decades since Walt Disney first set out to charm both children and adults with his animated retellings of fairy tales.
“The once-common moral lessons of fairy tales no longer get passed on the same way they used to,” says White, writing in the December issue of First Things. The wildly reworked story of the aptly named Tangled “gets strained through a sieve of political correctness that includes condescending to fashionable notions about girlhood, patriarchy, romance, and what is now the most suspicious of cultural tenets: faith.”
Although White is absolutely right about the tendency of today’s animated films (Tangled included) to pander to the most annoying and depressing aspects of popular culture even as they ignore or deny the richer, deeper culture from which most classic fairy tales emerged, the animated features that Disney brought to the screen when Uncle Walt himself still oversaw the studio made a point of drawing considerable aesthetic, emotional, and narrative power from specifically Christian aspects of the culture that, even today, America shares with Europe.
Walt Disney’s Fantasia is an ambitious—even, for its time, daring—film: not a fairy or folk tale, but a series of animated interpretations of seven pieces of classical music played by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski and introduced on screen by composer and critic Deems Taylor. Everyone remembers Mickey Mouse as Paul Dukas’ (and Goethe’s) Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and, once seen, the vision of toe-shoed ostriches and tutued hippos performing Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours stays forever in the mind’s eye.
Fantasia begins with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, as arranged for orchestra by Stokowski himself. The audience sees the maestro silhouetted on his podium, summoning forth music from his orchestral forces. Images and colors shift and swirl as the music rises and falls; along the way there are fleeting suggestions of Gothic tracery, images of light shafting down through darkness, and the sun rising through clouds. The often-mesmerizing sequence ends where it begins, with Stokowski, the wielder of musical power, on his podium.
After pieces by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Beethoven (not to mention the hippos and The Mouse), the final number on Fantasia’s program—the concert’s climax and conclusion—offers a deliberate echo of the first. This time, the offering is of two seemingly unrelated pieces of music—Modest Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”—presented in a single sequence.
But wait: Although musically and thematically dissimilar, both pieces have roots deep in the rich and varied faith life of European Christian culture. The narrator tells the audience they are about to hear and see “a picture of the struggle between the profane and the sacred”: first, a depiction of Walpurgis Night on Bald Mountain, “the gathering place of Satan and his followers,” where “the creatures of evil gather to worship their master,” and then the dispersal at dawn of the demonic horde, sent flying by the ringing of church bells and the singing of the “Ave Maria,” “with its message of the triumph of hope and light over the power of despair and death.”
As the sequence begins, night falls on the mountain and the village that nestles at its base. Moussorgsky’s music swells, and, at the mountain’s peak, Satan—horned, leering, and with gleaming slits for eyes—unfurls his batlike wings and raises his arms (a deliberate echo of Stokowski on the podium) to summon his minions. The devil’s shadow falls across the village, and skeletal figures rise from graves to join their dark lord and his demons in their fiery revels.
The demonic debauchery goes on all night, with increasing frenzy, until, suddenly, the sound of a single church bell stops Satan short. He winces and cowers as the bell continues to ring. His fires subside, his demons slither away, and the skeletal dead drift back to their graves through the predawn mist.
As Satan raises his fists to heaven and folds himself back into his wings, dawn begins to break. A choir is heard, singing “Ave Maria,” as a candlelit procession makes its way over a Gothic-arched bridge and through a landscape of trees whose soaring trunks and branches resemble the delicate tracery of a Gothic cathedral. As shafts of light illuminate the darkness, a soprano voice sings lyrics commissioned by Disney from poet and novelist Rachael Field specifically for Fantasia:
Ave Maria! Heaven’s bride
The bells ring out in solemn praise
For you the anguish and the pride,
The living glory of our nights and days.
The Prince of Peace your arms embrace
While hosts of darkness fade and cower—
Oh, save us, Mother full of Grace,
In life, and in our dying hour.
As the hymn rises, the image on the screen opens to a view outward, through the Gothic tracery of trees, to the sunrise.
As art historian Robin Allan notes, in his book Walt Disney and Europe, when someone asked Disney whether the planned “Ave Maria” sequence was, perhaps, “sectarian,” he replied: “The piece is non-sectarian. There’s still a lot of Christians in the world, in spite of Russia and some of the others, and it would be a hell of an appealing thing from that angle.” The Fantasia program synopsis issued by the studio in 1940 describes the “Ave Maria” as “a universal symbol of Hope and Good.” Amen, Walt.
Sleeping Beauty, released in 1959, was the last fairy tale–based feature made by the Disney studio during Disney’s lifetime (he died in 1966.
It was also the last animated feature from the studio to be filmed entirely from hand-inked cels. Like the 3-D Tangled, however, it also represented a leap forward in movie technology: It was the first Disney animated feature filmed in a super-wide, 70-millimeter format, with a soundtrack in six-channel stereo.
At the same time, the film harks back to Disney’s first-ever fairy-tale feature, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with its story of a princess in disguise living hidden in a forest; a villainess with access to supernatural powers; a supporting cast of lovable eccentrics; frolicking animal friends; and a handsome prince who awakens the heroine from a deathlike sleep with love’s first kiss.
Interestingly, as in Tangled, in Sleeping Beauty Disney’s artists strove to present their heroine as a recognizably modern teenager, all spunk and sparkle and with looks straight from the pages of Seventeen. She is not, however, devoid of a moral compass. She accepts her parents’ and fairy godmothers’ plans for her marriage, however those plans may break her heart (she has met a charming stranger in the forest).
The overall style of Sleeping Beauty is also more modern than that of the older Disney fairy tales; both figures and backgrounds are somewhat sharp edged and angular, in the manner of 1950s commercial art, rather than softly rounded as in the earlier films. Significantly, however, the look of the film also evokes the art of the High Gothic.
Walt Disney wanted to fill his panoramic screen with what he referred to as “a continuing illustration.” He found what he wanted in the art of stylist Eyvind Earle, who drew on such models as the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry (a sumptuously illustrated fifteenth-century book of hours). According to Robin Allan, Earle aimed for an overall look that would be that of “stylized, simplified Gothic, a medieval tapestry.”
The climax of Sleeping Beauty comes when the prince must face and conquer the evil fairy Maleficent (her name means “evildoer,” and she is one of Disney’s supreme villains) to rescue the sleeping princess. Allan calls this sequence “a tour-de-force of malignant terror,” and it is shot through with Christian symbolism. Before the prince heads forth to battle Maleficent and free the sleeping princess from her spell, the three good fairies arm him with what the film calls the Sword of Truth and the Shield of Virtue. The sword is a medieval broadsword, with a crosslike hilt; the shield has as its device a silver cross. Surely this is meant as an echo of Ephesians 6:
Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. . . . Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. . . . above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. . . . And take . . . the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Dressed in flowing black, Maleficent wears a cape and horned headdress that give her something of the look of Fantasia’s Satan. From her mountaintop lair, where she is served by demonlike minions, she conjures a dark cloud that spreads its shadow over the castle where the bespelled princess sleeps, much as Satan’s shadow spreads across the village at the foot of Bald Mountain. Maleficent’s shadow calls forth not an army of the dead, but a forest of thorns to strangle the castle and thwart the prince.
As the prince hacks his way through the thorns with the Sword of Truth, Maleficent swoops down to confront him. “Now shall you deal with me, O prince, and all the powers of hell,” she proclaims, as she rises in a mushroom cloud (the great symbol of unleashed evil in that Cold War era) to transform herself into an enormous horned and bat-winged dragon with Fantasia’s Satan’s gleaming, slitlike eyes.
Cornered on a precipice above the now-burning forest of thorns, the prince has his shield knocked from his hand by the dragon’s fiery breath. With prayerful support from the good fairies (“Now, Sword of Truth, fly swift and sure, that evil die and good endure”), he throws his sword at the dragon’s heart—and hits his target. The dragon falls into the fiery abyss, the demonic flames of which suddenly die. The dragon, with the hilt-cross of the sword protruding from its breast, shrivels, leaving only the cross and a black stain to mark the place of its death.
The hell-born spell is lifted, the rest of the thorn forest disappears, and, as dawn breaks, the prince proceeds to the castle to wake the sleeping princess. Thus, this film’s near-resurrection from a deathlike sleep, unlike the resurrection in Tangled, does, in Armond White’s words, “emanate from some divine provenance.” Moreover, Princess Aurora, who had been willing to marry the prince of her parents’ choice despite having fallen in love with the young man she met in the forest, now discovers, to her joy, that the prince who, armed with truth and virtue, faced the powers of hell to save her is that same chance-met charming stranger.
And so we come to a classic Disney happy ending, in a fairy-tale film that still calls on the “profundity” and “the persuasiveness and the confirmation of epiphany” that Armond White finds so sadly missing in Tangled. “As pop culture gets away from faith,” White notes, “it . . . abandons its most important social function, confusing rather than uniting our humanity. It will take faith to raise corrupted pop culture from the dead.”
Perhaps, as we work and pray for such a faith-guided cultural resurrection, we might show Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty to our children and shield them from the barren and looted moral landscape of Tangled. Even Walt Disney might approve.
Mary Ellen Kelly is associate editor of First Things.