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Dr. Toon: For God's Sake

Dr. Toon recalls the diversity of God's depiction in animation -- from reverential to irreverent to blasphemous.

DreamWorks made its first foray into animation with a religious story, The Prince of Egypt. © DreamWorks Animation.

The Bible, Torah, Quran and Upanishads may or may not contain the wisdom of ages, but one thing is certain: None of them have anything to say about animated cartoons. This is likely because the above tomes appeared centuries before the crudest forms of animation were created. Besides, all four were probably concerned with matters a tad heavier than Daffy Duck or Humphrey Bear. Just kidding. In a more serious vein, animation has made definite approaches to depicting God, some of them widely at variance with traditional conceptions of a Supreme Deity. There is just as much diversity displayed in reverence expressed toward God: fundamentalist, irreverent and downright blasphemous versions of the Lord vie with each other on the large and small screen.

An interesting fact: every major religion on Earth has taken at least one shot at highlighting their Almighty God in animated form. Witness this cultural and religious rundown of heavenly starring roles and cameos:

The Judeo-Christian God

This version is by far the most flexible of all depictions. God has been portrayed as a disembodied burning bush or spectral voice who is definitely all business (Prince of Egypt, 1998, DreamWorks). Several Japanese Biblical productions such as The Flying House have depicted the Old Testament God in much the same way, as did Hanna-Barbera's "Moses: Let My People Go" segment of their Greatest Adventure Stories from the Bible series (1985-1993). Not all representations have been as reverent as Hanna and Barbera's. In "Homer the Heretic, God called Homer Simpson to account for his church attendance record. It turned out that the gray-bearded, long-haired deity enjoyed the Reverend Lovejoy's sermons even less then Homer did.

In the third season of South Park we meet Matt Stone and Tray Parker's interpretation of the Almighty, who presents Himself to the residents of South Park as a hippo-faced raccoon. No Flying Spaghetti Monster could approach such weirdness. In a later episode He is revealed to be a Buddhist. March 2000 saw the premier of the short-lived series God, the Devil, and Bob, which died after four episodes under the burden of poor ratings and the protests of Christian fundamentalists. Had God not resembled a beer-swilling caricature of Jerry Garcia, the Religious Right may have been less vocal. Or not.

The coolest animated depiction? The grouchy, demanding old God Behind the Sliding Door Clouds animated by Terry Gilliam in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). People of the Jewish faith may or may not accept these depictions: In more orthodox sects, the name of God cannot even be written, let alone have the Deity visualized. From the use of the unpronounceable consonants YHWH to the more modern scripting of "G-d," all but the most liberal of Jews have generally avoided personifying God. Not to worry: Christian sects in the West have done more than their share in animating conceptions of the God of Abraham.

The Islamic God

Allah is technically the same Supreme Being worshipped by the Jews and Christians, but He chose one prophet that they did not -- Muhammad. As is widely known, under Shari'a law Allah cannot be depicted under any circumstances, but then, neither can Muhammad. This was learned the hard way when a Danish newspaper published cartoons representing the prophet in September of 2005: the fatwas swirled like a sandstorm from the nations of Islam. One live-action attempt to film the life of Muhammad failed miserably in 1977: Moustapha Akkad's flick The Message tried to avoid the problem by depicting the whole movie from Muhammad's POV, and the results were laughable. That didn't stop Muslims from rioting in any case. Nor did it stop Richard Rich (possible the saddest of all ex-Disney directors) from repeating the exact same mistakes in the 2002 animated fiasco Muhammad -- the Last Prophet. It's a good bet that Rich's film will be the last attempt, animated or otherwise, to put the last prophet on the screen.

Buddhist Versions

Siddhartha Gautama, a.k.a. Gautama Buddha, was animated on several occasions. Although Buddha is not actually God in the Western sense, he is certainly an immortal being of the highest enlightenment possible. In this form he is known as Sammasambuddha, or "Supreme Buddha." This made an appearance in the 1960 Japanese film Alakazam the Great. This animated feature is a loose translation of the famous novel Journey to the West. In that novel, the audacious Monkey King is wreaking havoc in Heaven, and Buddha faces the threat by taking up Monkey's challenge to a showdown for the throne of Heaven. No prizes for guessing who wins that contest. Buddha was misnamed "King Amo" by American translators in Alakazam the Great, although the contest with Monkey is faithfully reproduced. Buddha was given an animated biography in 2004 when Pentamedia Graphics Ltd. released The Legend of Buddha. The first fully animated film to come from India was directed by Shamboo Phalke and covered the Buddha's life from Childhood through his hour of enlightenment. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2005.

Krishna has been the star of several Indian productions.

Hare Krishna

The Hindu deity Krishna is recognized in some sects as another incarnation of Vishnu; other followers of the religion consider Krishna to be the sole Supreme Being. Krishna is the penultimate teacher of the Bhagavad Gita, the most sacred scripture of the Hindu faith. In the 2006 feature, Krishna, the first Hindi CGI-animated opus, the blue-skinned god is depicted as a playful young man whose prowess at fighting demons is matched only by his legendary proficiency with the flute. Aman Khan directed this animated musical. Cartoon Network fans no doubt remember the four-part animated series presenting the life of Krishna that ran in 2007: Krishna: The Birth, Krishna: Makhan Chor, Krishna: In Vrindavan and Krishna: Kansa Vadh earned high ratings for their entertaining stories and high-quality animation.

Did I mention that one can also purchase a 13-volume animated series that comprises The Animated Book of Mormon from a Utah-based company called Living Scriptures? There seems to be no dearth of God in animation, and whether this is due to the ubiquity of religious worship or the need to personalize an invisible deity is hard to determine; perhaps no art form created by humans can escape the shadow of a Being who is widely heralded as the greatest Creator of all. (There don't seem to be any atheist cartoons out there, but then again, what would they show?)

Why, however, are many animated efforts less than worshipful or reverent, especially in the West? One possible answer is that animation in the West has been largely viewed as playful entertainment. As the family Simpson proved, it is also easier to present pointed parody and satire in animated, rather than live-action form.

It is also noted that the power of the church and its proscriptions has declined steadily in the West since its heyday as king and policy-makers, and more modern forms of government (both palatable and dictatorial) have disempowered the Western religious empire. Religious moderation and tolerance is far more common in the West than fundamentalism. As atheist author Sam Harris puts it, "Moderates in every faith are to loosely interpret (or simply ignore) much of their canons in the interest of living in the modern world." As Harris also points out, fundamentalism can be economically inconvenient as well: "…societies tend to become less productive whenever large numbers of people stop making widgets and begin killing their customers and creditors for heresy."

Even the postmodern religious right in America has taken a step back, largely the result of its own political miscalculations. There are always those of a fundamentalist bent who will snarl, sulk and protest, but they can't stop Homer from bemoaning his inconvenient Sunday mornings in church to God's face, or kill his scriptwriters for daring to present Homer doing so. So, if God appears on the screen looking like the guitarist for the Grateful Dead, an accident in an animal DNA lab, or an ill-tempered grump who sends England's stupidest knights out after a non-existent holy grail, it simply reflects religious moderation in the minds of most Western audiences.

The reverence and worship seems to lie mostly in the Middle and Far East, but it should be recalled that there are significant differences that keep depictions of the holiest figures on a more respectful scale than in the West. Even if, as theorized in some circles, all religions and gods extant today grew out of a set of common ur-myths, interpretations and adaptations of those myths were filtered through unique regional and cultural lenses. Depicting Krishna or Buddha using the God of South Park would be, at the least, in very poor taste. Fundamentalist doctrines are far harsher: doing the same thing in Yemen would most likely lead to a death sentence.

In any case, it appears that animation will continue to bring forth conceptions of God, His Avatars, and His prophets, the difference being varying degrees of cultural latitude in doing so. Animation is, after all, a universal art form open to countless topics and interpretations of same. In the case of depicting God (or a god), we see that animation is filtered through a multicultural lens as well.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.