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.