by Josh Shepherd
Particularly since the dawn of the 20th century, Judeo-Christian archetypes and imagery have stirred the American imagination, as reflected in these 10 films on Disney Plus.
One can only speculate what British author C.S. Lewis, who spent his boyhood in rural Ireland a century ago, would think of today’s WiFi-enabled home entertainment revolution. Doubtless, the Christian apologist would be curious to see movie versions of “The Chronicles of Narnia” — his best-selling mythic allegories grounded in virtues and sacraments — on Disney Plus. The streaming service has two big-budget Narnia adaptations listed right between modern updates on Winnie the Pooh and “Cinderella,” with its “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” soundtrack. Staunchly religious American families have long had a complicated relationship with The Walt Disney Company, as VidAngel founder Neal Harmon shared in a recent interview. After his company developed filtering technology to allow subscribers to sanitize streaming films and shows, Disney and other Hollywood studios promptly sued them. Litigation is ongoing. Still, when asked what films sparked his creativity as a child, Harmon did not hesitate to name two titles featured on Disney Plus.
“Entertainment shaped the way we saw the world,” he said, having grown up on an Idaho farm with his three brothers. “I remember watching ‘Swiss Family Robinson,’ then building treehouses in the trees behind our house. After watching ‘Star Wars,’ we’d jump in the canals during a big snowstorm and pretend the Empire was coming to attack.”
Others are less enthused by the Magic Kingdom and its wares. Due to religious or other values, they ardently avoid all things Disney, concerned about consumerism, undertones of a progressive agenda, or corporate values that conflict with their own. Biblically engaged believers freely admit that “the gospel according to Disney” has always been animated more by pixie dust and wishing stars than a loving God come to seek and save humanity. Disney filmography has for decades provided many fascinating, imperfect reflections of American civil religion. On-screen stories of faith are rarely told with doctrinal orthodoxy or austere respect, which is also true of how most of the nation treats religion. Now with hundreds of past films one click away, it provides a window into the evolution of faith on-screen. Particularly since the dawn of the 20th century, Judeo-Christian archetypes and imagery have stirred the American imagination, as reflected in the following 10 films on Disney Plus. This list concludes with five faith-conscious titles not yet released on the rising streaming service.
Stories of Faith and Courage
1. “The Sound of Music” (1965)
When top Hollywood director Robert Wise (“West Side Story”) took on the hit musical by theater team Rogers and Hammerstein, it was destined for greatness. Winner of five Academy Awards, “The Sound of Music” took liberties with the true story yet portrays religious aspects of the Catholic teacher’s love story and later flight from the Nazi regime during World War II.
2. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (2005) Co-produced by Walden Media, the beloved fantasy classic came to life 15 years ago in this lavishly produced $180 million film. Disney’s answer to “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings,” it stars A-list talent including Tilda Swinton, James McAvoy, and Liam Neeson. Although it veers from the source material at times, the Lion overall captures its redemptive essence.
3. “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) Only two years following the sudden loss of Jim Henson at age 53, his son Brian Henson marshaled the Muppet performers and award-winning “Rainbow Connection” songwriter Paul Williams for a heartfelt comic adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” Highlighting the conversion of Scrooge with laughs and overtly religious lyrics, many regard it as the best version of Dickens’ novel.
Controversial and Unexpected Picks 4. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996)
Following last year’s devastating fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, many rewatched this animated reimagining of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel. Given unprecedented access, Disney artists captured its sacred beauty. Following the release of kid-friendly “The Lion King,” “Hunchback” is decidedly more mature, pitting an oppressive judge against outcasts and a kindhearted priest.
5. “Full-Court Miracle” (2003) While Disney Channel productions tend to avoid religion, this TV movie is a curious exception. Steeped in Jewish history and ending with the celebration of Hanukkah, it draws on the story of Judah Maccabee and his second-century BC revolt against Roman tyranny, using those events to inspire a current-day sports drama at a grade-school Hebrew academy in Philadelphia.
6. “Millions” (2004) Director Danny Boyle (“Yesterday”) explores a humanistic version of Christian theology in this Fox Searchlight dramedy. Having recently lost his mother, a 7-year-old boy is obsessed with Catholic saints, and thinks it providential when a duffel bag stuffed with cash shows up. Even as “Millions” inspires through themes of sacrifice, parents should be aware of its PG-13 content. Hidden Gems Released from the Disney Vault
7. “Ruby Bridges” (1998)
Recounting an important chapter in the civil rights movement, “Ruby Bridges” takes some inspiration from Norman Rockwell’s iconicpainting. In 1960, a 6-year-old African-American girl was among the first to attend a newly integrated public school in New Orleans. Bridges and her family rely on their Christian faith to persevere in a film that quotes scripture throughout.
8. “Pollyanna” (1960) Produced with great care and investment by Walt Disney himself, “Pollyanna” distills his vision of God and country in a narrative that draws on his childhood in small-town America. An orphaned girl who helps everyone around her see the bright side of life, Pollyanna influences even a local fire-and-brimstone preacher to shift his message to emphasize love and optimism.
9. “The Small One” (1978) Years before he left Disney animation, writer and director Don Bluth (“An American Tail”) honed his craft on this musical story that imagines events adjacent to the Gospels’ Nativity accounts. When a peasant boy in first-century Judea gives up his beloved donkey to a carpenter and his pregnant wife, it means more than he could’ve imagined.
10. “Miracle at Midnight” (1998) Only a few years after “Schindler’s List,” Disney partnered with mega-producer John Davis (“The Blacklist”) for a family-friendly dramatization of a little-known World War II story starring Sam Waterston (“Law & Order”). More than 7,000 Jews in Denmark are rescued in a courageous covert mission led by Christians and Jews acting in solidarity.
Bonus: 5 Faith Films Still Locked Away 1. “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (2010)
Due to diminishing box-office returns, only three of the seven “Chronicles” were produced, including this story of the temptations Narnian royalty face when confronting their fears.
2. “Selma, Lord, Selma” (1999) This biopic dramatizes the cataclysmic March 1965 events of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, featuring Clifton Powell (“Ray”) as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
3. “A Friendship in Vienna” (1988) During the late 1930s, two schoolgirls living in Vienna — one Jewish, one the daughter of a Nazi sympathizer — cannot make sense of how a changing society seeks to sunder their friendship.
4. “Father Noah’s Ark” (1933) While Disney Plus features more than 100 classic animated shorts, hundreds more remain unreleased, including this musical “Silly Symphony” adaptation based on the Genesis account.
5. “A Man Called Peter” (1955) Hollywood leading man Richard Todd (“The Sword and the Rose”) portrays the journey of Peter Marshall from his boyhood in Scotland to being appointed U.S. Senate chaplain. One can see moments depicting believers throughout the Disney canon — from the “Swiss Family Robinson” pausing for prayer when they reach shore, to a funeral scene in “Up,” to Friar Tuck defending the downtrodden in “Robin Hood.” Such scenes resonate with people of faith, especially as popular entertainment increasingly shuns religious themes portrayed with sincerity.
Correction: The last film summary was updated to correctly identify the lead actor.
Josh Shepherd covers culture, faith, and public policy for several media outlets including The Stream. His articles have appeared in The Daily Signal, The Christian Post, Boundless, Providence Magazine, and Christian Headlines. A graduate of the University of Colorado, he previously worked on staff at The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family. Josh and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area.