This winter, Dr. Jennifer Porter will ask students to take a closer look at the magical kingdom and the belief systems implicit in its movies when she offers Religion & Disney: Not Just Another Mickey Mouse Course (RELS 3812).
The Religious Studies professor said she started thinking about the subject after showing the Disney version of The Chronicles of Narnia in her Religion in Popular Culture course. That second-year course examines how religion is treated in movies and series such as The Simpsons, Star Trek, Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
However, it wasn’t until she traveled to Disney World last May, ironically to research Star Wars fandom, that she twigged to the religious undercurrents in the theme park.
“During the nightly fireworks that Disney is famous for, cast members act out plays that are full of good versus evil,” she recalled. “There’s a faith component embedded in all of it Mickey has to believe in the power of good.”
Her interest solidified when she discovered Star Wars-Disney crossover fans discussing whether some toys should be considered canonical. “For someone to be so engaged that they would say Jedi Mickey should be canonical, well that got my attention.”
Students in her new course will learn about the life and faith of Walt Disney, who was raised in a conservative Christian home.
“We’ll study what went into his decision to avoid religious references, to make religion generic, to have his characters sing songs instead of offer prayers at crucial moments,” Dr. Porter explains. “Disney movies seem to deliberately avoid direct religious references, and favour supernatural intervention rather than divine intervention.”
She notes that while The Hunchback of Notre Dame has an implicit religious theme, most of the films think Pocahantas and its nature spirituality convey what some scholars have called a liberal pluralistic approach to religion. Watching films, and exploring these concepts, will be part of the coursework.
The course will also examine the controversies and faith-led boycotts that have dogged Disney, and whether Disney fandom can be seen to have religious overtones.
Dr. Porter recently applied for SSHRC funding to conduct a study into whether there is an identifiable and consistent religion found in Disney, and whether Disney fandom can be considered an implicit religion.