Urgent Message: Please Don’t Bomb Agrabah!!

So, apparently 1/3 of Republican voters stated that they would be in support of bombing Agrabah in a recent poll. (If I ever needed a reason not to vote Republican …)

The analysts wanted to see how many people would have a knee-jerk response to a name that sounded Middle Eastern.

All I can say, is those people are monsters. What did Aladdin and Jasmine and the gang ever do to them?

We must speak out about this injustice.

Save Agrabah!!!

agrabah

Thousands of innocent cartoon characters will die!!!

Week 51: Winnie the Pooh

First Theatrical Release: April 15, 2011 (UK); and July 15, 2011 (US)

First Home Viewing Release:August 22, 2011 (UK); and October 25, 2011 (US)

My Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Kanga. That. Is. All.


Wait a minute, didn’t we already do this back in week 22? Apparently, much to my dismay, Disney was not yet done with Pooh in 1977, forcing me to sit through not one, but two feature-length Pooh movies for this project. Luckily, this one was only 63 minutes. (Which is one of the things the critics didn’t like about it.)

Although this movie was made 44 years after the original, it stayed fairly true to the first one in tone and style, even if some of the voices felt a little “off.” But this one did not skimp on the creepy, trippy forays into the characters’ imaginations, much as we all know and love/hate from the first one. (The Heffalumps and Woozels sequence has gotta be one of the scariest in the whole Disney canon.)

Nonetheless, Roger Ebert called THIS movie “a nightmare-proof experience for even the youngest viewers.” He must’ve been watching a different movie than me.

Also, as light-hearted as this movie seems, its two main through-line stories are pretty dark. I felt physically uncomfortable while watching this movie in a way I haven’t in most of the others. Here’s why.

Eeyore, Maimed

So, the movie starts out with Eeyore discovering that he is “incomplete” and that his tail has disappeared. He goes through the whole movie hoping to be reunited to his missing body part, and Christopher Robin bribes his friends with a promise of a honey pot to whoever finds a suitable tail replacement for Eeyore. This motivates them to attempt to affix all sorts of inappropriate objects to his ass, such as cuckoo clocks, balloons, scarves, etc.  Is it significant that Eeyore puts forth absolutely no effort on his own behalf? I mean, aside from the fact that he’s suffering from clinical depression.

WINNIE THE POOH

“WINNIE THE POOH” Film Frame Eeyore ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

tail doorbellIn the end, Pooh finds that Owl is using Eeyore’s tail as a handle for his doorbell, which is also kind of creepy. Also, it’s disturbing that Owl does not even recognize his friend’s body part. Pay more attention to your friends, Owl!

There’s one scene with Eeyore that is especially squirm-inducing. Tigger decides that he is going to transform Eeyore into “Tigger 2,” and he attaches a spring to Eeyore’s rump so that he can bounce with Tigger. He also paints stripes on him. All of this occurs without Eeyore’s consent, and he goes through the whole episode looking bewildered and a little violated. And as I was watching, I kept asking myself, Why is this making me so uncomfortable?

tigger 2

And near the end of the sequence, I was like, “I know what this is! This is an extrovert trying to force an introvert to live in his world and play by his rules.”

eeyore underwaterTigger is short-sighted or self-centered enough that he doesn’t pick up on any of Eeyore’s clues that he is not having a good time. He assumes that since he likes all the stimulation, Eeyore must like it, too. And Eeyore, in typical introvert fashion, takes longer to gather his thoughts (especially while being bombarded with an extrovert’s energy) and also does not enjoy confrontation, so he doesn’t speak up about how draining he finds the Tigger lifestyle to be. Eventually, he manages to escape it by hiding at the bottom of a river, and that’s when everything really “clicked” for me — as I have found myself hiding in many a bathroom rather than pretend to enjoy something I do not, or show that I’m NOT enjoying it and be branded as a poor sport, overly negative, etc.

So, yeah, Eeyore, I’m right down at the bottom of that river with ya.

Pooh, Starved

The other through-line that is even MORE disturbing because it is so visceral is Pooh’s hunger.

He awakes, as many of us do, with his tummy grumbling. But then he finds that his honey pots are all empty (been there), and he goes out into the world, letting his tummy lead the way, searching for something to eat. But he runs into Eeyore and gets involved in the whole tail debacle before he finds anything to eat, and because he is hungry, he becomes especially fixated on being the one to locate a new tail so he can win the honey pot prize and GET SOMETHING TO EAT.

pooh pitIt’s kind of a running gag throughout the movie that Pooh keeps coming into close contact with honey but never eating more than a little bit. He gets a honey pot given to him when he finds a substitute tail for Eeyore, only to have it taken away when the tail doesn’t work out. He tries to get a honey pot down from on top of a bookshelf at Owl’s house, but Owl pulls out the stack of books he is standing on so he can no longer reach it. He finds a honey pot left out for the “Backson” but remembers that it’s only bait and thus, empty. And through this all, the plot continues — the gang tries to hunt a creature that doesn’t actually exist, they fall into a hole, they do all sorts of silly things. AND POOH IS STILL HUNGRY.

At least a full day goes by in the course of this movie, and my stomach was aching with sympathy the longer it went on. Sure, none of the other characters ate much during the course of the movie, either, but they probably had breakfast. And all of them INSIST that Pooh just keep going along with the present adventures, absolutely indifferent to the fact that THEIR FRIEND IS WEAK WITH HUNGER.

Pooh, you’ve got some really bad friends.

I related to Pooh because I often feel acutely at the mercy of my body just as he is in this movie. Whereas my husband can eat lunch and then “forget” to eat again until nine at night, my body insists that I feed it at least every four hours, regardless of whether it’s convenient or not. And when my body makes such insistences, I cannot concentrate on work, I snap at friends and family, and pretty much just feel like life is a big pile of suck until I finally get my hands on a protein bar. Hopefully I haven’t developed a migraine in the meantime.

What’s interesting about Pooh’s hunger in this movie is that it’s the only time we see a Disney character who is totally driven by a corporal need. Usually our main characters have loftier end goals. Aladdin wants to live in the palace. Ariel wants to be human. Pongo and Perdita want to find their puppies. Lady wants to endear herself to Jim Dear and Darling after the baby’s birth. Belle wants adventure. The fact that all these characters must also have physical needs is glossed over as unseemly. But not with Pooh. Pooh JUST WANTS TO EAT. And really, that shouldn’t be too much to ask.

honey

So, to all Pooh’s friends: food does not need to be EARNED. It should not be given out as a “prize.” It’s a human right, and the next time your friend is hungry, invite him inside and give him a sandwich, for God’s sake, and have your adventures after.

 

 

 

 

Week 50: Tangled

First Theatrical Release: November 14, 2010

First Home Viewing Release: March 29, 2011

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Where I Found ItMy Big Box o’ Disney Love

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters are limited to Rapunzel, Mother Goethel, and the Queen. But within the first few minutes of the movie, Rapunzel and Mother Goethel talk about Rapunzel’s birthday and her desire to leave the tower.


 

Tangled was the movie I wanted to see ever since I realized that Disney wasn’t comin’ up with all these movie ideas on their own. Once I knew that Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty existed independently of Disney’s renditions, I started thinking of other fairy tales that I’d like to see get the Disney treatment. “Rapunzel” was at the top of my list.

I may have had to wait till I was 29, but Disney finally came through.

I’m not sure that it was everything I dreamed it would be, but it’s still a nice, feel-good movie, with just enough depth to keep it from feeling like total fluff.

Mother Knows Best

gothel and rapunzel

A couple years ago, I debated with one of my friends about whether Mother Goethel as presented in Tangled really loves Rapunzel or not. It had been a few years since I’d seen the movie (this week was only my second viewing of it), and I remembered getting the impression that Gothel did love Rapunzel. My friend argued that she didn’t, that she was just using Rapunzel and taking advantage of her innocence to make her think she loved her.

On this week’s watching, I was surprised and a little appalled by the way Mother Gothel treats Rapunzel. Out of all the snarky things she says to her and all the ways she belittles her, there is only one interaction that seems loving and not manipulative.

gothel and rapunzel hugStrangely, this was the only interaction from my first viewing of the movie that I remembered.

It is Mother Goethel’s agreement to take a three-day trip to bring Rapunzel back a certain white paint that she wants for her birthday.

Now, this trip is crucial to the plot, because it is during this time that Rapunzel first encounters Flynn and subsequently plots her escape with him. But what motivates Mother Gothel to leave? Traveling three days to get something that’s not important to you is much more taxing than empty words about how much you love your adopted daughter. If Gothel does not love Rapunzel, then does she make the trip simply to appease her and make her stop asking to leave? (Also, I wondered how Rapunzel even KNEW what day her birthday was — doesn’t this imply that Goethel must have taught her to mark the years, and done so in a celebratory enough manner that Rapunzel felt she could ask for something special?)

Determining whether Gothel loves Rapunzel or not mostly comes down to your definition of love. If you think love means putting the needs of the beloved before your own, then Gothel certainly does not love Rapunzel. But if love means not being able to imagine your life without a certain person in it, then I think one could argue that Gothel does love Rapunzel in her own way.

But this question becomes mostly irrelevant in the context of the movie, because whether she loves her adopted daughter or not, Gothel is an abuser.

Watching the Disney movies in such quick succession, I was struck by how similar Goethel’s treatment of Rapunzel is to Frollo’s treatment of Quasimodo. (Now I understand all the fan-art that shows Frollo and Goethel hooking up!) But more than The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is mostly about learning to see beyond assumptions about people, Tangled, for all its fun song-and-dance numbers and laugh-out-loud moments, is also a movie about healing from abuse.

Before Rapunzel leaves the tower, we see how nervously she petitions Goethel for indulgences, and how quickly she backpedals when Goethel refuses (and makes her feel guilty for asking in the first place.) Although the scene where Rapunzel vacillates between her joy at being free and her overwhelming guilt about disobeying her mother is mostly humorous, there is some real pain there, too. And although exaggerated, it also rings true to the complicated emotions of someone breaking free of abuse.


When Flynn and Rapunzel are later trapped in the flooding cave, Rapunzel breaks down and blames herself for the whole situation, even though they are being pursued because of Flynn’s thieving, NOT her decision to leave the tower. And just as she is beginning to regain her confidence after a day spent in the city and a romantic boat ride with Flynn, Gothel returns to undermine her once more, essentially telling her that she can’t ever come back home (“Don’t come crying”) if Flynn ends up betraying her.

Still, Rapunzel does exactly that, rushing into her mother’s arms in tears when she thinks Flynn has abandoned her and allowing herself to be led meekly back into captivity. Soon after, she will confront Gothel and call her on her lies in a scene that is incredibly reminiscent of Quasimodo’s final dressing down of Frollo.

Disney is often criticized for bastardizing the symbolism in the original tales with their tweaks and sanitization, but despite the many changes made to the story of Rapunzel, the archetypal message of a girl struggling to attain independence from her mother remains remarkably intact. Indeed, Disney takes it a step further and allows Rapunzel to heal her mother-wound in a way not offered in the original.

baby rapunzel and motherIn the language of fairy tales, “wicked stepmothers” and “witches” are often symbolic of the dark side of the child’s real mother. These figures emerge in the story when the child has reached that age when she  begins to realize that the parents are not the perfect, godlike figures she believed them to be. Recasting the parent in the role of villain gives the child the courage to separate and become independent while preserving the memory of the “perfect parent” from childhood.

Rapunzel new familyThis happens in real families all the time as teenagers and mothers butt heads. But what the fairy tales often don’t acknowledge is that on the other side of these struggles is the opportunity for mother and daughter to come back together as adults to forge a new, different but just-as-enduring bond. In the Grimm version of the tale, Rapunzel is exiled from the tower by Gothel and wanders in the wilderness until she is eventually reunited with her prince. In Disney’s version, she is restored to the mother she lost as a child, soothed with the return of the “good mother” after she has completed her separation and attained independence from the “bad mother.” This approximates the mature relationship many daughters come to enjoy with their own mothers — but often only after leaving home.

Boyfriend Knows Best

I’ll be frank: I’m not a big fan of Flynn. I don’t go for the “cad” type, and I don’t like that his relationship with Rapunzel begins with him basically trying to dupe her out of the deal they made by first agreeing with her that it’s better if she just stays, and then bringing her to a tavern that he thinks will scare her off. In his own way, he’s as manipulative as Gothel is in the beginning.

Of course, he changes course rather quickly around the time that he realizes Rapunzel’s got this dope glowing hair and healing powers, and soon her innocence and enthusiasm win his heart. In a story that is about Rapunzel breaking free of her abusive mother and attaining autonomy, I don’t take issue with the fact that she finds some of her redemption in a man. After all, many people find that the first steps toward healing from abuse happen through a relationship with someone who sees them through new eyes.

But it does make me uncomfortable that, after Rapunzel finally confronts her mother near the end of the movie, just a few minutes later she is promising herself back into a life of confinement and virtual slavery just for the chance to heal Flynn (or Eugene, by this point.) After all those years of subjecting her needs to her mother’s, now she’s back to putting herself second. Not only that, but she doesn’t even know where she stands with Eugene when she agrees to make this sacrifice — even though he came back for her, she never got an explanation for why he seemingly abandoned her after getting the crown earlier in the movie.

haircutEugene, to his credit, is not willing to see Rapunzel returned to her role as a prisoner now that she’s tasted freedom. So even though he’s dying, with his last breaths he cuts off Rapunzel’s hair, effectively robbing Gothel of Rapunzel’s power and forcing her to rapidly age and die.

By cutting off her hair, Eugene frees Rapunzel from Gothel’s clutches, but he also robs her of her power — all without her consent. HE’s the one who sets her free, HE’s the one who saves her, even though the entire emotional journey of the movie rests on Rapunzel attaining her independence. This final rescue left me feeling dissatisfied, as if that much-needed independence still had not been achieved.

And sure, Rapunzel ends up saving Eugene’s life shortly thereafter — but while Eugene’s act of saving Rapunzel is fully intentional, Rapunzel’s subsequent saving of Eugene is almost accidental. She simply succumbs to emotion and weeps, and then — surprise! Her lover is brought back to life.

healing flynn

So after Eugene saves Rapunzel and Rapunzel saves Eugene we’re even-steven, right? Time to go off and enjoy an egalitarian relationship?

flynn wantedOne can hope. Except that Eugene is the one who gets to tell this story. Even though he admits up front that it’s not really “his story,” we see it through his lens nonetheless. He also gets the last word, and he uses it to assure viewers that gender roles remain intact — he proposed to Rapunzel, not the other way around.

There’s so much I like about Tangled. The fact that it’s based on one of my favorite fairy tales EVER. The gorgeous animation. The attention given to the complicated dynamics of Gothel’s and Rapunzel’s relationship. The musical numbers. A heroine that is both innocent and bold and not overly sexualized, who mostly looks and acts like an 18-year-old. But then there is Flynn/Eugene. And that, my friends, cost the movie a whole half star point. Sorry, Rapunzel.

rapunzel upset

Week 49: The Princess and the Frog

First Theatrical Release: November 25, 2009

First Home Viewing Release: March 16, 2010

My Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Tiana, Eudora, Charlotte, Mama Odie, and Stella. Tiana and her mother talk about Tiana’s dreams for her restaurant, and Charlotte and Tiana talk about Charlotte’s upcoming party and Tiana’s delicious beignets. However, both these conversations are borderline — Tiana’s mother slips in a comment about “wanting grandkids” someday, and Charlotte is conscripting Tiana to help with a party she is throwing for Prince Naveen.


I was crazy excited about the release of The Princess and the Frog. The same directors as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin! Traditional animation!! Songs!! A return to the Disney I had loved best of all!!

I was a little let down when I saw it. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t magic, either. I thought maybe I had just outgrown that feeling Disney movies used to give me (I was 28, after all) and not even traditional animation could bring it back.

Once we were discussing my Year in Disney Movies project at my book club meeting, and a few people wondered whether Disney would ever bring traditional animation back. One woman said, “They don’t plan to because they did it with The Princess and the Frog, and that movie didn’t go over very well, so they blamed it on traditional animation rather than accepting that it just wasn’t that good of a movie.”

Alas, I think that pretty much sums it up. It’s got all the right ingredients, but in the end, it just isn’t that good of a movie.

All the Right Ingredients

This movie makes me feel like a bunch of Disney writers got together and were all like, “OK, so what can we do to make this a fun movie that won’t piss off feminists?”

“Oh, I know, let’s make the princess BLACK. Yeah, that’s SO progressive! And let’s make a REALLY BIG DEAL about her being Black, too, and get lots of positive PR for it rather than acting like Black is just a normal thing to be.”

tiana waitress“Oh, and let’s make her have a JOB. Because it’s so progressive for women to have jobs. Yeah, let’s make her career her priority, let’s make her dream be to open a restaurant rather than to find a man. That sets a good example for little girls, right?”

little tianaOf course, there will still be a love story. It just won’t DOMINATE Tiana’s consciousness. In fact, let’s juxtapose her with a girly girl so we can show audiences/parents/etc. just how much we GET IT. And let’s make Tiana disinterested in romance even when she’s a little girl so viewers will know that she’s DIFFERENT (you know, besides being Black.)

As snarky as my tone is above, objectively speaking these ARE all really good things. An African American lead — 66 years is a little late to the progressive party, but better late than never. A girl who has to work to support herself presents a more realistic picture of what girls can expect out of life than all the princesses who busied themselves frollicking in the woods or staring into fountains or cleaning the house before her. And learning to balance career and relationships is certainly a worthy goal.

mansiontiana houseTiana is feisty enough to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant even in the face of Disney’s very passing nod to racial discrimination (when the real estate brokers tell her a restaurant would be a bit “much” for a girl of her “background.”) There is even the BAREST hint of racial tension when we see the long ride Tiana and her mother take away from the mansion lined streets where Eudora works to the cozy cluster of shacks where the Black community lives.

If Only It Wasn’t the Only …

Despite having all these checks in its favor, people sensitive to the portrayal of race still found plenty to criticize in The Princess and the Frog.

  • eudoraIt was “stereotypical” to portray Tiana and her mother as working for wealthy white folks. (In actuality, I think Disney was going for historical accuracy here. Perhaps the real danger is that children don’t pick up on the subtleties of era and may too easily transpose their experience of Disney’s one Black princess to all Black people. But this is why adults should watch and discuss Disney with kids.)
  • THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG

    “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG” © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

    Even though Tiana has typically Black features, she falls in love with a lighter-skinned man (some people say Naveen is white, but I don’t think he is.), therefore implying that Black girls should “marry up” by snagging a lighter-skinned man. (I don’t take issue with this, either. I think that Naveen IS also Black, just lighter skinned. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of ethnic ambiguity. It’s the way our whole world is heading, after all.)

  • Disney’s only Black princess spends the majority of her movie NOT EVEN BEING HUMAN and therefore eradicating the question of race, anyway. (This criticism holds some water, I think, especially with the pervasiveness in our history of comparing African Americans to animals.)

tiana as frogNone of these things are very egregious on their own, nor even together. The problem, of course, is that Tiana is asked to bear such a heavy weight as Disney’s (still) one and only African American leading character. It’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of one character, or of one movie. Which is why Disney and other studios should stop treating diversity as a marketing stunt and just incorporate it into the way they do business. It wouldn’t matter that Tiana spends most of her movie as a frog if we had other Disney movies featuring Black characters that remained human throughout.

It’s this weight of responsibility that cripples the movie, I think. It tries so hard to get everything right that it loses some heart in the process.

So, the moral of the story? DISNEY NEEDS MORE DIVERSITY.

The Messaging Is Great, Except …

frog weddingSo even though this movie didn’t give me all the Disney feels I dreamed about when I learned about the return to traditional animation, on my rewatch this week there was one thing that resonated with me.

I really liked that Tiana and Naveen didn’t return to their human forms until after they had accepted the possibility of living their lives as frogs.

There’s something very zen about it, you know? Like being able to find true happiness only when you’ve let go of expectation, or falling in love only when you’ve stopped looking for it.

But then I started to think about it a little more.

And then I wasn’t so sure.

mincedSee, the whole idea is that through their relationship (developed as frogs) Tiana and Naveen both learn to be more “balanced” people. Tiana learns to relax and let loose a bit, while Naveen learns to, you know, act like a grownup and maybe do some work? (btw, I’d need MORE evidence than a few chopped vegetables before I was ready to commit to a guy who had spent his whole life as a freeloader, especially if I had a strong a work ethic as Tiana.) But the whole movie has been about how Tiana’s big dream is to open a restaurant — NOT to find a man. That’s so clearly what is supposed to appease all the feminist mommies in the audience.

But what is the ULTIMATE lesson that Tiana must learn?

That being with Naveen is more important than her dream of opening a restaurant.

That a man is more important than her dream of opening a restaurant.

That the thing about her that MOST needs to change is her single-minded ambition — and only when she gives THAT up can she attain true happiness.

She still gets her restaurant in the end, so, yay, minority girls really CAN have it all.

Prince-Naveen-and-Tiana-at-Own-Restaurant-Princess-and-the-Frog.jpg

But not until they make peace with giving the greater part of it up.

For Further Reading:

Week 48: Bolt

First Theatrical Release: November 21, 2008

First Home Viewing Release: March 22, 2009

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Penny, Penny’s mom, and Mittens. The only conversation between two females that’s not about a male (mostly Bolt) occurs at the end of the movie, when Penny is in a fire and her mother inquires about her condition.


Bolt — yet another movie from the post-traditional animation era that I had not seen before this project. But unlike Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, this one was not for lack of interest. I just never got around to it.

bolt puppyAs the movie opened, I couldn’t help but think of other dog-centric Disney movies, such as Lady & the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Changing sensibilities about pet adoption were clear right from the beginning — I noted that we see Bolt adopted from an “animal rescue” as opposed to the type of pristine pet shop Lady most likely came from. In addition, while pet shelters were still portrayed as places of fear and possible despair, they did not approach the death-row atmosphere of Lady & the Tramp‘s pound.

bolt-styrofaom

Bolt initially believes styrofoam packing peanuts have sapped him of his “superpowers.”

This movie also tackles one of my favorite themes in fiction, which is a character’s coming to terms with the real world vs. what he previously believed or wished to be true, as Bolt truly believes he has all the superpowers of the character he portrays until about halfway into the film when he learns that he is just an ordinary dog. Then he must begin the process of rebuilding his identity and finding worth and beauty in being ordinary — a message that can be especially comforting to children who are beginning to grapple with leaving their own worlds of imagination and pretend behind to schlep along with the rest of us in the adult world.

Still, I didn’t find myself feeling inspired to write about any of these aspects of the movie. Instead, I got hung up on, and wanted to write about … the cat.

So, Let’s Talk About Mittens

I’ve always been a “cat person.” Even when I was young, I felt resentful of Disney’s portrayal of cats — Lucifer from Cinderella and the Siamese from Lady & the Tramp made a much bigger impression on me than the more benign kitty portrayals in Pinocchio and Alice in Wonderland. After watching the entire Disney canon, I’ve come to the conclusion that Disney may not have it out for cats after all — although their cat-centric films (The Aristocats, Oliver & Company) are consistently less beloved than the dog-centric ones, and dogs are almost universally portrayed as good even in minor roles, whereas Disney seems to feel a lot more ambivalent about cats.

In Bolt, Disney fully wrestles with that ambivalence onscreen, and perhaps even takes its first steps toward resolving it once and for all.

We first meet Mittens, the movie’s primary cat character, when some pigeons send Bolt after her because she has been extorting food from them for “protection” (and also to placate her so that she won’t decide to eat them instead.) At first, I was a bit annoyed — after all, not only did it seem Disney’s “type-casting” of cats as villains was at play again, but this shady character was also one of the only females in the story. Double whammy when it comes to malicious media portrayals.

mittens and pigeon

As the movie unfolds, though, we see that Mittens is a more complicated character than she at first appears. We get hints that she has some sort of “past” as a pet — she is far more traumatized by the thought of going to the animal shelter than the naive Bolt is, and she claims she’s “done time” in a human home before she attained freedom. The truth comes out about 3/4 through the movie, when she tells Bolt that she once had a family — who moved away and abandoned her, declawed and defenseless.

Suddenly, Mittens’ past as an “extortionist” takes on a different hue. Not only was she physically incapable of carrying out her threats against the pigeons, but she was physically incapable of effectively hunting, period. Sure, she could have scavenged on her own — but that likely would have entailed confronting other cats with claws intact, as well as aggressive rats (which cats often won’t challenge.) So her scheme of capitalizing on threats may well have been her most viable option after her former family literally crippled and then abandoned her.

Although I was initially nauseated by Mittens’ confession to Bolt that cats hate dogs because the want to BE them, she has a point when it comes to the fate of domesticated cats versus dogs. While epidemic amounts of adoptable pets remain homeless, every shelter I’ve ever visited has an overflow of cats, often refusing to accept any more for certain periods of times. When I went through training to volunteer at a shelter, I was the only one there specifically interested in working with and socializing the cats; our coordinator also referred to them as an afterthought, essentially conceding that spending time with them “wasn’t that bad.” Despite their popularity on the Internet and the fact that there are more pet cats in the U.S. than pet dogs (although there are more DOG OWNERS than cat owners, probably due to some people’s propensity to have a lot of cats …), they are still very much second-class citizens in the pet world.

In addition to being something of an afterthought in animal rescue organizations, cats are more likely to be given up or put down due to behavior issues than dogs, and families are less likely to spend money to treat a sick cat than an ailing dog. (At a Thanksgiving gathering last week, one attendee complained about a friend who had spent $2,000 to “save” their cat — while I was not ashamed to add that I spent $2,000 on a cat I COULDN’T save — meaning she died in spite of that $2,000 — and that I did not regret a penny.)

Several years ago, one of my good friends sent me an article linking the portrayal of cats in the media to the statistics about cats’ lower status as pets and/or family members. It pointed out the types of things I had begun noticing even as a child — that cats were more likely to be portrayed as lazy or evil than dogs, and that our culture lacks the sort of beloved “cat icon” characters that we have for dogs, such as Lassie or Old Yeller.  Think of the sweet and fun-loving Snoopie versus the lazy and manipulative Garfield. This could theoretically translate into people being less invested in their own cats or in cats as a species.

No one else I’ve tried to explore this theory with seems to give it much weight — although the world is 71% “dog people” according to an AP Study, which means most of the people I’ve discussed this with were also most likely dog people prone to being dismissive of cats.

obnoxious catsHow does this all tie back to Bolt, aside from giving some real-world weight to Mittens’ plight? Well, whether intentional or not, Bolt manages to play out this relationship between the media portrayal of cats and the fates of real-life cats right within the confines of the movie. Bolt is a TV star who initially believes all cats are agents of evil because … surprise, surprise, cats are minions to the villain in his TV series. Even when the cats are “off set,” they are obnoxious and rude to Bolt, further cementing the idea that cats are so often cast as villains because it’s true to their real-life “natures.” In fact, Bolt first seeks out Mittens because he assumes she is an agent of evil — when she, in fact, ends up being his greatest ally, teaching him what he needs to know to live in “the real world,” and even how to be a dog. Yet despite all her good qualities and her tragic backstory, the movie also shows us the world’s general reaction to cats — while Bolt gets food showered on him each time he gives campers in an RV park his cute, begging face, Mittens gets things thrown at her.

What’s brilliant in this movie is that it manages both to perpetuate negative stereotypes about cats (the green-eyed man’s minions) and to then show how those very media portrayals ultimately harm cats. I don’t know if the movie set out to be so very meta — I’m actually guessing no, and that it’s just a happy coincidence that this movie somehow exemplifies the reality of the cat/media tension and the harm it can cause — but I sort of love it for it. (And thankfully, Mittens does get her happy ending. Seems Penny’s mom is a bit of a “cat person” — I knew I liked her!)

happy ending

Thanks to the Internet, I think cats are finally getting their proper due in the media and beginning to be seen for the silly, spontaneous, unique, and charming creatures that they are. Hopefully their treatment in the “real world” will catch up soon.

Week 47: Meet the Robinsons

First Theatrical Release: March 30, 2007

First Home Viewing Release: October 23, 2007

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Failed. This is really a pity, since this movie has a lot of women on its cast list: Lewis’s birth mother, Mildred, Lucille, Franny, Doris, Aunt Petunia, Aunt Billie, and Lizzy. Unfortunately, most of the women are mere background noise (literally) and none of them have direct conversations with each other. The only ones who get much character development at all are Franny and Lucille, both “mom” roles who are only important because of their relationship to Lewis.


 

goob and lewisThis is another movie I had not yet seen before this project. Its opening scenes really charmed me — I could see myself getting attached to the geeky, hopeful Lewis and his roommate Goob, whose opening monologue about baseball and Halloween costumes sounds the most like a real kid’s ramblings of anything I’ve ever seen in Disney. Unfortunately, this movie that is at times both warm and truly funny falters in some ways that really matter, and not just in its unfortunate failure of the Bechdel Test.

Meet the Robinson’s: Baby’s First Time Travel Movie

I read A Day With Wilbur Robinson before seeing this movie, and even though I perhaps shouldn’t have such high expectations of picture books, I was disappointed that Grandpa’s missing teeth was its closest approximation of a plot. The rest is just a lot of interesting things happening, a walkthrough with the quirky Robinson family, with no real growth or change for our protagonist — and no explanation of who the Robinsons are or why they are so unusual. Yeah, so maybe a four-year-old wouldn’t care, but this 34-year-old did.

tallulah and laszloSo I was pleased by the way that Disney’s rendition both stayed true to the picture book (it basically runs through all 32 pages of it in Lewis’s first encounter with the family, and the characters bear a remarkable resemblance to their picture-book counterparts) AND infused it with plot and character development. All around, an improvement. Still, in many ways the book’s “picture-book” roots remain — there is an over-the-top zaniness to the Robinson family that is pure kid wish-fulfillment — the sort of thing that will make the eyes of anyone under the age of 10 go wide, and the eyes of anyone over that age roll a bit with a jaded thought of, “Yeah, right.”

future

Do we have this to look forward to in 2037?

But there’s nothing wrong with movies that allow kids to see onscreen the sorts of things they lie in bed fantasizing about. What’s strange about this movie is that it also involves time travel, which, because it requires abstract reasoning, is less likely to “make sense” to younger viewers. I spent a lot of the movie distractedly trying to remember my first exposure to time travel. I think I was fairly young and was able to follow the concept, but only if presented with an absence of paradoxes. I STILL have trouble with the paradoxes! [In THIS movie I had trouble believing technology would advance THAT MUCH in like, what, 30 years? But that probably wouldn’t bother kids.]

So because Meet the Robinsons is basically “time-travel lite” with only the most oblique references to paradoxes (i.e., the idea that Wilbur would never be born if he screwed something up with Lewis), I think its intended demographic would mostly be able to follow it. But when it comes to considering the character of Goob, that might not be totally beneficial.

The Problem with Goob

creepy goobI felt distinctly uncomfortable with “the bowler man” the moment he appeared on the scene. He treads that uncomfortable line between truly scary and totally pathetic, and odd bits of comic relief such as his possession of a unicorn binder and his emotional dependence on his hat struck me more as sad than funny. I figured out who he was “in the past” fairly early on in the film, and that’s when I started to feel even more squeamish. Because he was somewhat redeemed by movie’s end, for a while I was baffled by my own discomfort and wasn’t sure I’d be able to articulate it enough to manage this blog post.

But I think I’ve got a handle on it now, and it goes back to my first reaction to Goob. Because <SPOILER ALERT> Lewis’s roommate Goob grows up to be “the bowler man,” the movie’s primary villain.

So, let’s back up here. This is what we know about Goob before he goes villain:

  • He has trouble sleeping at night because Lewis is always working on his inventions in their room;
  • He dreams of being a star baseball player;
  • He gets beat up at school when he misses a catch playing outfield and his team loses;
  • He’s small for his age; and
  • He talks like a real kid.

doris and goobAs charming as Lewis is, Goob is the one who feels real to me — I want to pick him up and take him home and make a sandwich while he tells me about his horrible day. But then he grows up to be a horrible person because he blames Lewis for the fact that he fell asleep on the outfield and missed the winning catch. So his goal becomes to ruin Lewis’s life — but he lacks the confidence to really execute this plan, so he depends on Lewis’s “helping hat,” an invention gone horribly wrong, instead.

The movie does allow him to be redeemed. Lewis goes back in time and wakes him up so he makes that fateful catch and presumably goes on to live a life of greater confidence. The movie does not seem intent on “punishing” him, and I think it’s admirable when movies show how a villain became villainous — no one is the villain of his own story. I also liked the subtle message that even “good” people can bring evil into the world, as with Lewis’s invention of the “helping hat.” Still, in a lot of stories where we get villain backstory, we see the villain FIRST. We respond to the villain FIRST. And then we learn what makes them that way, and we maybe have a bit more sympathy or appreciation for their character.

goob icecreamIn this movie, we see a downtrodden orphan boy first, and we get attached to him. We hope he eventually hits is stride. But he doesn’t. He grows up to be creepy and evil and an object of perpetual scorn, from the Robinsons to the various “henchmen” he employs.

What message is this sending to all the real-life little Goobs out there? Kids who don’t quite fit in, who get beat up at school, who carry unicorn folders, who get forgotten and overlooked?

goob beat up

Not one that I can get behind, that’s for sure.

Interestingly, I read on Wikipedia that the release of Meet the Robinsons was delayed by a year because of a change in leadership with the Disney/Pixar merger, and the main criticism the new creative director had was that the villain wasn’t “scary” enough.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s where this movie that could have been so full of warmth and wonder went so terribly wrong.

Week 46: Chicken Little

First Theatrical Release: November 4, 2005

First Home Viewing Release: March 21, 2006

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection

Bechdel Test Score: Failed. Female characters include Abby Mallard (The Ugly Duckling) and Foxy Loxy, but they never talk to each other.


I don’t have a lot of regrets when it comes to my Life in Disney. I don’t regret working three jobs during the summer of 1999 so I could visit Disney World for one week in 2000. I don’t regret how many hours of my life were fueled into Aladdin. I don’t regret spending four years of writing energy primarily writing Disney fan-fiction, or that I was still spending my money (out of a very limited budget) on Disney dolls when I was 25. I don’t regret that I’ve purchased cereal boxes and bath towels just because they have Elsa on them.

What I do regret is that I paid to see Home on the Range in the theater, and totally let this hidden gem slip by the following year — and all the years since then.

This is one of the few movies in this project that I had never seen before because I had never been interested in it. Because I didn’t KNOW. I didn’t know that it would get high school SO RIGHT or that it would have some subversive things to say about beauty and about the movie industry or that it would strike just the right balance between anthropomorphic humor and animal humor (I mean, come on, dogs wearing cones when they get sports injuries? Priceless.)

But now I know the truth, and I am not afraid to claim it: Chicken Little is a damn good movie.

Homage Paid to the Original

chicken panicI was expecting this to be a movie where my panties would get in a bunch because of Disney’s decision to take a female lead and morph it into a male. But after reading “Henny Penny,” I couldn’t say that HP (aka Chicken Little) was a particularly flattering portrayal of the female sex. In some ways, creating a story around a  female character who no one takes seriously is not really anything new. When no one takes a male character seriously, especially when his father is a puffed-up former jock, well, that garners our attention and sympathy. Ultimately, though, there is so little of substance in the original “Henny Penny” that there isn’t much Disney could have done to “ruin it” — instead, I think it improved the story significantly. It takes as its jumping off point what is often the best starting place for a retelling: the question of “What if?” “What IF the sky was really falling, or, at least, someone had good reason to believe it was?” With that, Disney unspools the story of what might cause one to believe that a piece of the sky had fallen — it must be a bit more than an acorn or an apple, else it’s too quickly dismissed.

And she is SCARY.

And she is SCARY.

While greatly expanding on the story’s premise (no, there were no aliens in the original), the movie also pays it delightful homage — mostly in its characters’ names. Every animal mentioned in “Henny Penny” is called during roll at Chicken Little’s high school, with names like Goosey-Loosey and Foxy Loxy. They all live in a place that has as little creativity as its inhabitants: Oakey Oaks. In the original, Foxy Loxy is the villain who ends up eating all the other animals who are panicked about the falling sky. In Disney’s reboot, she is cast as the meanie popular girl. Works for me.

But Disney turns the “lesson” from the original fable completely on its head. While “Henny Penny” seems to be a story about the dangers of being gullible and silly, Chicken Little‘s ultimate message is about paying attention to the people you love — even when they sound crazy — because they just might be right.

(This is where I could get a little irritated at the gender switch of the main character: in a story about the dangers of gullibility, we have a female lead; when it becomes a story about the importance of listening to the underdog, it needs a male lead.)

But I’m willing to overlook that in favor of the many other things this movie does RIGHT.

Outcasts Redeemed (Except the Fat Ones)

It's that horrible dream everyone has had -- but it's REAL!!

It’s that horrible dream everyone has had — but it’s REAL!!

For a story that sells itself as being about an “alien invasion,” the movie is about halfway in before any aliens arrive on the scene at all. That time is spent building up how disheartening life is as an outcast — Chicken Little, a nerdy runt, is unable to live down his reputation of warning the town one year earlier that “the sky was falling” with nothing to come of it. As he’s late for school, gets his pants stuck in bubble gum and has to figure out how to cover his legs, and gets stuck in his own locker, anyone who remembers middle school (or has had a bad day) can empathize. (The movie makes reference to the characters being in “high school,” but it definitely comes across more as middle school, based on the clique-yness, the maturity level of the students, and the awkwardness of it all, some of which has been outgrown by high school.)

baseball chicken littleFirst we see Chicken Little and his friends utterly fail at dodge ball (for which their gym teacher has divided them into two teams: “popular” and “unpopular”). Then Chicken Little tries out for baseball in hopes of making his dad proud, only to find himself benched for the majority of every game and practice. During all this we see Foxy Loxy basking in her glory as the team’s star player. When Chicken Little gets up to bat, he ends up making a home run because the whole outfield is snoozing, never expecting him to get on base, let alone home.

And all I could keep thinking was, “Wow, this movie was clearly made by people who hated middle school.”

Disney’s canon is full of “outsiders” who are, well, smokin’ hot. Milo was the first outsider who actually LOOKED like a geek (although he was the hottest of all by my standards!). But it’s utterly believable that Chicken Little and his friends really ARE at the bottom of the food chain in their school because they look the parts. So while Aladdin’s deception gave me a metaphor for what it feels like to be in middle school, Chicken Little would have given me a movie about the suckiness of ACTUAL middle school. Too bad I was already 24 when it came out, and also that I waited an additional 10 years to see it.

Chicken LittleMy favorite part of the movie by far was its portrayal of Abby Mallard, aka, The Ugly Duckling. Unlike the Beast who is more intriguing and cuddly than ugly, Abby is not “pretend ugly.” She has just the characteristics that would characterize someone as “ugly” in middle school — buck teeth, unevenly spaced eyes, dull gray feathers, and stringy pigtails. But in an industry where “ugly” characters are almost universally relegated to the roles of villain or comic relief. this movie allows Abby to be more than that. She is Chicken Little’s best friend and the most emotionally intelligent character in the movie, thanks to her devoted reading of relationship articles in teen magazines. She is an incredibly supportive friend who is not afraid to list Chicken Little’s good qualities when he is feeling down. She likes to dance and sing to karaoke, and she is up for the adventure of uncovering the mystery of the falling sky and rescuing their friend Fish who gets inadvertently “abducted” by aliens. And perhaps best of all?

SHE NEVER GETS A MAKEOVER SCENE.

She’s allowed to stay her sweet, awkward, “ugly” self through the whole movie — but her inner beauty is so strong that she stops appearing ugly a couple scenes in. Chicken Little knows this, too, and works up the nerve to tell her during the movie’s climax scenes, “By the way, I’d like to say I’ve always found you extremely attractive.”

chicken little and duckling

My 34-year-old heart gave a very middle-school-like swoon.

THIS Disney movie should be required viewing for this scene alone. Chicken Little is a beau who has managed to figure out what really matters by the time he’s 14 years old, and a powerful counterpoint to the way we’ve seen the likes of Aladdin, Prince Phillip, and Prince Eric moon over their object-of-affection’s physical beauty.

Sorry, Runt. Disney isn't broad-minded enough for you yet.

Sorry, Runt. Disney isn’t broad-minded enough for you yet.

Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t go quite far enough. Another of Chicken Little’s friends is the morbidly obese “Runt” — and while the writers could see beyond Abby’s “ugliness,” they weren’t broad-minded enough to make Runt a similarly well-rounded (no pun intended) character. He’s an outcast like CL and Abby, and while he’s basically a good friend with one interest of his own (music), he’s also a coward and, predictably, a chronic overeater and set up as a character that it’s OK for the audience to ridicule (in fact, the movie invites it upon his first introduction, when his name “Runt” is called before we see him bulging out of a school desk that is far too small for him.)

It’s too bad Disney was ready for a nerdy kid to be more than the nerd, and ugly kid to be more than ugly, but not for a fat kid to be anything but, well, fat. (He does get a girl in the end, but only because she’s been brainwashed by the aliens.)

Subversion of Its Own Medium

People often cite Frozen as the first Disney movie to subvert its own tropes, which just proves that not enough people saw or remembered Chicken Little. At the end of the movie, Chicken Little and his friends go to see the premiere of a movie based on his exploits, which turns the scrawny CL into a brawny space captain and the homely Abby into a buxom beauty. In other words, a story that was essentially about ordinary people (animals) doing extraordinary things transforms into an epic film about gorgeous people and eye-popping special effects, any whiff of reality properly swept away.

As part of this project, I have also been reading the source materials that inspired various Disney movies, and I have seen Disney do this again and again: pick up nuanced or even troubling material and sanitize and/or beautify it to make it more palatable to the masses. The hideous beast becomes huggable. The lazy Aladdin becomes a poor but morally upstanding youth. The disfigured and dumb Quasimodo is given a gentle, kindly voice and an intelligent personality. So it’s especially gratifying to see the way Disney pokes fun at the “Hollywood-ization” of source stories.

If anyone knows something about this, it’s Disney.

And for at least one movie, it’s ‘fessing up.