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Live-Action Animation & Transcendence

In Disney & the Moral Imagination (the 2nd volume in the Disney & Apologetics duology), Joel Paulus explores the power of live-action animated musicals to speak to our desire for an encounter with transcendence. The layering of aesthetic modalities communicates most potently the incarnational meaningfulness of which Ordway wrote, while a coalescing of live action with animation appeals to our desire to know this world transformed and to experience heaven on earth. Examining four classic Disney films, he investigates the extent to which the live-action animated musical is able to speak uniquely and profoundly to our intuitions of, and longing for, the reality of a universal transcendent moral goodness, and he explores this desire in light of the explanatory power of a Christian worldview. He describes this collision of live action with musical animation as a hyper-reality which affects change within characters and requires a mediator [such as Mary Poppins, e.g.] in order to facilitate this transformative experience of the transcendent.

The whimsical nature of these scenes, while entertaining on their own, are depictions of two distinct worlds combining without apparent conflict. A similar phenomenon occurs in scripture where the earthly and the heavenly—two distinct worlds—temporarily adjoin, blending in space and time without apparent conflict. Examining musical animated pieces in four Disney films offers an analogous glimpse of transcendence and morality between the real world and a hyper-real world which the character in question cannot reach on their own but must be taken there by faith through a mediator. Disney’s blended musical numbers resonate with the human condition of longing for more than the world presently offers by presenting a vision of something beyond the audience’s present reality….

Disney’s animated musicals employ the elements of musical theatre effectively in cinema. Animation allows for greater range of possibilities than live performance since animated characters are not bound to laws that govern the real-world. The animated worlds Disney produces are fictional, yet not completely un-real. They share the reality that people inhabit and know. Reality is represented in the animation, but the freedom of the animator exceeds the realm of possibilities—the freedom possible in the real world. Physical laws and properties such as gravity, color, and proportion are not bound in the animated worlds, yet resemble the actual world. Through animation, one can fly or breathe underwater without assistance. Within the world of animation, physical laws find suspension from real world behavior. In animation characters and objects naturally bound by gravity can fly, animals can talk or even sing and dance. Morality, however, does not change between the worlds. Interactions between the characters, whether live-action or animated, operate within an objective moral standard. [We see this, e.g., in Paul's appeal (Bedknobs & Broomsticks) to the law, and the animals' awareness of moral obligation]. This shared element makes crossing between live-action and animation workable. An ethical standard makes sense of character and plot continuity in a radically different environment. Disney’s crossing of live-action and animation in musical numbers demonstrate ethical transcendence and continuity between two worlds.


This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.


Joel Paulus holds a PhD in Theology/Philosophy of Religion from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also holds an MA in Christian Apologetics and a BFA in Musical Theater. He has spoken on issues of worldview and religion both nationally and internationally. He has served in ministry roles, performed with regional dance companies and theater productions, and worked with the Metropolitan Opera. He has taught ballet classes in the greater Houston, Charlotte, and New York City areas. Currently, Dr. Paulus serves as Director of Library and Research Services for the Jamison Library at Southern Evangelical Seminary where he is an adjunct faculty member.

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