To allay fears about the Disney treatment of a Bible story, Disney executives have been giving interviews to selected members of the press, and I was lucky enough to have five minutes with Ralph J. Kleinmut, who is Chief Disney Jesus Story Co-ordinator, Europe.
Here they are. (The five minutes.) Me: Doesn't it seem a strange idea to retell the Bible story, when it has already been quite well told? Disney: Has it? By whom? Me: In the Bible. Disney: Oh, right! Well, in a sense, that helps our case, because there are at least four versions of the Jesus story in the Bible, done by Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. So doing different versions is not a new idea.
Me: So this will be the gospel according to Disney? Disney: Right! Don't forget that many other people have retold the story, too. Norman Mailer, most recently, and your very own Lloyd Webber and Rice. Me: They are not my very own. Disney: Well, they're somebody's. Maybe ours. Yes, I think Rice is ours.
Me: In all modern Disney films, the hero has been impossibly chunky, with vacant Hollywood beefcake looks. Will this apply to Jesus too? Disney: We are still auditioning for the part of Jesus. Me: You have to audition for an animated part? Disney: For the voice, yes.
Me: But how will you draw him? And will there be a love interest? And will there be a happy ending...? After all, you totally changed the end of the Hunchback of Notre Dame ...
Disney: Wait, wait! Steady on. We're still formulating the beginning of the film. We've established Jesus as a baby in the manger ... Me: Gurgling and chuckling, like Mowgli in The Jungle Book? Already doing miracles in the crib? With the animals making googoo eyes over the edge of the cot? And the baby donkeys and oxen playing games, tossing the gold, myrrh and frankincense back and forth? And a few birds singing gospel songs in black voices? Disney: Why, yes! How did you know?
Me: I have seen Disney films before, you know. How are you visualising the twelve disciples ? Disney: As of right now, we are envisaging only seven disciples. They will be called Happy, Saintly, Holy, Moly, Goodly, Godly, and Doubtful. Me: Doubtful? Disney: Yes. He is based loosely on Doubting Thomas, and he will be the cute, comic one. Me: How do you have a cute, comic disciple ? Disney: Because whenever he prays he gets the wrong answer to his prayers.
Me: Hmmm. Will the disciples be dwarves ? Disney: No. That would not be dignified. But Pontius Pilate will probably be a dwarf. Me: Why? Disney: So that people do not feel sorry for him when he gets zapped. Me: Pardon? Disney: We have been rethinking the end to the New Testament story. Me: Hold on. Do you mean that Jesus doesn't get crucified ? Disney: Disney has never been pro-violence. We are very sensitive to any accusations that children might be corrupted by on-screen violence.
Me: Do you mean that Jesus doesn't get crucified? Disney: The whole message of the New Testament is that Jesus is alive at the end. He doesn't die in the long run. The important thing is to affirm that Jesus is living.
Me: Do you mean that Jesus doesn't get crucified ? Disney: Well, we don't say that he isn't crucified. But it all takes place a little off-screen. The point we are emphasising is that Pontius Pilate will get his come- uppance. That's what people are going to cheer for. Me: When he gets zapped? Disney: By a thunder-bolt. Pow! Me: And he dies? Disney: No. He gets changed into a fish. Me: A fish? Disney: And gets chased by the shark. Me: What shark? Disney: The shark that helps Jesus walk on the water. Me: But what ...? Aide: I'm sorry. Five minutes is up.