An Unsung Media Hero

An Unsung Media Hero

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 When you think of Christian filmmakers impacting the culture, who comes to mind? Is it the Kendrick brothers creating evangelistic indies out of their church in Albany, Ga.? Or maybe it's a Hollywood power couple like Mark Burnett and Roma Downey producing The Bibleas a miniseries for the History Channel? Both are great examples. But behind the scenes, and without much fanfare, many more Christian artists are shaping mainstream entertainment in subtle ways every day.

On a recent episode of The Official Plugged In Podcast, I spoke with former Disney animator Tony Bancroft about his first directing gig, the 1998 hit Mulan, which is based on a Chinese folktale. I asked Tony if he found it difficult, as a Christian, grappling with the story's cultural origins and Eastern religion. He said, "I was very blessed and fortunate that my co-director, Barry Cook, was also a believer. It was something I didn't know about him when I joined the film, but one of the first conversations we had was about our faith. We kind of made a pact up front about how far we would go with certain content and certain elements."

Of course, it wouldn't have been appropriate for these men to turn a $100 million Disney feature into a personal soapbox for their Christian faith with baptisms in the Yangtze. No four-point sermons. Rather, their calling involved softening some of the Eastern spirituality.

"Of course, Buddhism and ancestor worship was a big part of that original story, and very culturally relevant in that historical time period," Tony explained, "so Barry and I really struggled with how to represent that and be true to Mulan's story without becoming preachy about it. Because it wasn't something we believed in. It wasn't something we wanted to put out there in a big way, in a preachy way."

 Some Christians might argue that these artists shouldn't have been putting it out there at all. They'd argue that believers have no business devoting time and creativity to a project steeped in spiritual counterfeits. It's a no-win situation best left to others, they might say. But Tony and Barry realized that, left to others, the result could've been a Disney smash that, for generations, would proselytize children as much as entertain them. So they did what they could.

"We found different ways of handling tone. One of them was that the ancestors are kind of a raucous group [in] a crazy family reunion. So when the ghosts rise up out of the bays, it's a comic sequence. It's not reverential. That was one of the things we felt strongly about that we infused in there."

Subtle, but significant. You won't find encouraging stories like that among Mulan's newly released blu-ray bonus features. Yet it says a lot, and is probably more representative of Christians' impact on entertainment than we realize.

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  • What is with this obsession with spirituality that involves other religions? So what about Eastern spirituality? Why are you calling other religions ''spiritual counterfeits''? I think that is derogatory and wrong.

    I think it's wrong to question the faith of believers in other religions. Buddhists are no less faithful than Christians.  Mulan is Chinese and the dominant religion in her culture involves Eastern spirituality. Why should that be watered down to make Christians feel better? Not everyone is a christian and other religions are entitled to be represented on screen. Just because christianity is the dominant religion (in America) does not mean that is the case in every other part of the world.

  • Um, hello, other religions are spiritual counterfeits. Being a faithful Buddhist or Muslim won't get you to heaven. John14:6  "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. " That's truth, not being derogatory. I could believe that walking in front of a speeding truck wouldn't kill or seriously injure me after it hit me, but that doesn't make it true and right. Your last two statements are correct, but since this guy was a Christian it wouldn't be right for him to condone Easter spirituality as truth or make something that would lead others to accept Eastern spirituality as truth. (because it's false)

  • The "Easter spirituality" was a mistype in my last sentence. I meant "Eastern" : P

  • @syd

    I agree with Aerin17 syd. Other religions are counterfeits. And quite frankly, though people may hold devoutly to their religion, they still are clearly missing something in their lives; namely Jesus. I don't at all think that it's wrong to question the faith of believers in other religions. After all, if we do not, how do we witness to them? Or even not start believing the things that they do? I'm not saying that we should insult them or anything like that, so don't misunderstand me. I'm also not saying that other religions shouldn't be represented in films. I just think it is a very tricky situation. Congrats to Tony!! I think it's great how he handled being part of a film with possibly questionable elements.

    P.s. I took your advice and used the little "@" thx!! :)

  • I don't know that it's right to say that other religions are counterfeits. CS Lewis wrote that paganism is to Christianity what virginity is to ones wife. When Christianity ran into the writings of Aristotle and Plato, writings that were saved by Islam, the Christians declared the God had planted seeds of knowledge of himself throughout humanity. The worst thing that you can say about other religions is that they are fiction. They're not some sort of disease that will infect the children on contact and they might do some good. And if you can't be respectful about someone else's religion then you need to keep silent. Changing the content of someone else's religion to suit you is disrespectful.

    What's interesting is that Disney did something like that with Anderson's "The Little Mermaid". The original story was intentionally a Christian parable about sacrificial love but sacrificial love doesn't sit well with the type of Christianity that is popular in the United States. So Disney changed the story to water down the Christian message.

  • I am always so impressed when believers who work in the film industry are careful to consider what they are working on. I respect Bancroft for honoring the tradition of Mulan's Chinese heritage without glorifying what they believed. Very inspirational to someone who hopes to follow in their footsteps someday.

    Also, @phred, Disney did not change the story of The Little Mermaid to "water down the Christian message" They changed the story because in the end, the little mermaid dies and the prince marries someone else. Not exactly a Disney happy-ending.

  • @Lauren as Pocahontas shows that's not quite a surprise.

  • @phred

    I definitely agree with your 3'rd sentence. I personally enjoy reading the mythos of other religions, looking for the "grains of truth" left behind. However, saying that other religions are fiction and not counterfeit, may be true if you know the truth. If you don't know the truth, it's just something to replace the true God. Say a person made themselves a copy of a dollar bill, they would know it was a "fictitous" bill, but if they gave it to someone else as payment, it's a counterfeit; it replaces a real dollar. Other religions replace the knowledge of God the same way. The example isn't completely watertight, I know. But for those that don't have the light we been given, other religions can hamper, or permanently prevent the true knowledge of God. They can be horribly damaging to desperate people without Christ.

  • @Sparky: I'm not sure what you're referring to. I'm thinking that you're referring to the fact that Pocahontas basically tanked at the box office and didn't have a happy ending (which could have contributed to it's tanking). Or you could also be referring to the way Pocahontas dealt with the spirituality of the Native American culture but didn't exactly glorify what they believed.

    Either way, I agree with you (unless I'm completely off).

  • @Aerin17: well said.

  • I understand and agree with you phred. I'm sorry I came off wrong. I agree that you have to be respectful of other religions. I also think that calling other religions what they are namely fiction/counterfeits is not wrong. Though you may not say it to members of this religion, speaking the truth isn't wrong.

  • Even as Christians we don't fully know God, not yet. That's waiting for us on the other side of the Jordan. We can't really say to the other religions that we're right and that they're wrong. the best that we can do is that we're closer to the truth or perhaps less wrong. That said, there do exist what I would call counterfeit religions. religions that were made up by someone as a bad copy of some other religion. A couple in particular come to mind but I won't name names. But the ones that we think of as eastern ones, they grow out of a very long and authentic reaching and aching to know the divine.

    And please don't misunderstand me. what I find disrespectful is Christian filmmakers tweaking somebody else's religion to make it more palatable to themselves. If they couldn't present the story faithfully then they should have stepped back from the project. To do otherwise seems awfully close to telling untruths about what other people believe.

    @Lauren, changing the end like that is watering down the Christian message, at least as Anderson understands it. In the same way that Jesus died on the cross for us the mermaid sacrifices her happiness for the happiness of her beloved. And yes, that part of the story doesn't go over very well but then neither does Christianity,

  • My information comes directly from the animators. The original ending was the reason that the story was originally rejected. I'm wondering if you have any actual proof that the Christian message is the reason that the ending was changed?

  • @phred

    Perhaps I am not "right" and the other person wrong, but I have the truth (the Bible) which means I have the truth and they do not. Also my God (the only one) is right, but perhaps you can see how theirs would be wrong?

  • @ Lauren, a bit of both. I probably should have clarified. :)