We Interrupt This Message…

Christians of my ilk like to bash Disney as the world’s guiltiest hawker of the Gospel of Self. Uncle Walt sold us the toxic message, “Believe in yourself,” which has caused generations of children to despise tradition and their parents.

Disney was certainly an optimist who believed in the inherent innocence of people—the childhood within—that can be counted on to keep us walking straight. Disneyland, the “World of Tomorrow,” and 90% of Disney products dish out this message liberally, so I understand my friends’ disdain. But, please, don’t throw Disney movies out with the bathwater.

The full-length, animated, theatrically released Disney movies are peerless examples of American cinema. In some ways, they’re more classic than classic films because most of them are based on folk tales and fables. And, far from promulgating a “Believe in Yourself” message, these films have a variety of messages, which I’ve summarized below. (Some of these I haven’t seen in years, so I either skipped them or had to rely on memory.)

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Classic fairy tale. Other than silly animals and bumbling dwarfs, nothing untoward about this. Even C. S. Lewis liked it.
  • Pinocchio: A puppet wants to become a human, but must first prove himself worthy. He is granted humanity only after he acts like a human. Patently not existentialist.
  • Dumbo: A little bit of “Believe in yourself” here. You don’t need a magic feather to fly. The power was within you all along.
  • Bambi: The whole point is Bambi growing up into his responsibility as Prince of the Forest.
  • Cinderella: Another example of a lowly person of good character exalted to her rightful, royal position. And what an ending! “I have the other slipper.” A eucatastrophe to make Tolkien proud.
  • Alice in Wonderland: Too weird to even have a message other than “Don’t fall asleep while your sister is reading to you.”
  • Peter Pan: Tempted by a boy who never wants to grow up, the children eventually turn their backs on him and decide that, actually, they need to grow up.
  • Lady and the Tramp: Tramp yanked from his lazy, irresponsible life and made into a loving husband and father.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Classic fairy tale. Prince kills dragon. More silly animals and fairies. Beautiful sets, though.
  • One Hundred and One Dalmatians: An evil heiress defeated by her own vanity and a horde of dogs. Parental courage and responsibility highlighted.
  • The Sword in the Stone: Wart doesn’t want to become King Arthur, but has to. A silly wizard, but other than that, classic.
  • The Jungle Book: Mowgli is told he must live in the man village. He spends most of the movie running away, until he sees a pretty human girl and suddenly the idea of being a man doesn’t seem so bad after all.
  • The Aristocats: Similar to Lady and the Tramp. A happy-go-lucky wanderer accepts parental and marital responsibility.
  • Robin Hood: A pox on that phony king of England! Oo-de-lally!
  • The Rescuers: Secret agent mice! The only people who think they can be whoever they want to be are the villains.
  • The Fox and the Hound: Nothing can change who you are, but you can choose to be the best version of who you are.
  • The Black Cauldron (1985): Never seen this one. Bizarre.
  • The Great Mouse Detective: An intelligent stuck-up detective is humbled by caring for a little girl.
  • Oliver & Company: Ok, we’re kind of getting into “Be whoever you want” territory here. But from what I can remember, Oliver stays a cat.
  • The Little Mermaid: Follow your dreams. Be who you want to be. But, as my wife pointed out, Ariel’s actions almost cause her father to be trapped forever by a sea witch, so following your dreams comes with a risk.
  • The Rescuers Down Under: You’re small. The mission is big. Better get started.
  • Beauty and the Beast: A prince is transformed into a beast so that his appearance matches his cruel and shallow soul. Like Pinocchio, he has to learn to act human before he is allowed to be one again.
  • Aladdin: Aladdin tries to be whoever he wants and it utterly fails! But, on the other hand, he does get to be the Sultan’s son-in-law in the end…
  • The Lion King: You can’t run away from your responsibilities without causing a massive famine.
  • Pocahontas: Been so long since I’ve seen this one that I don’t know. But I’m sure it’s quite pantheistic.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Same. No memory.
  • Hercules: Pride goes before a fall.
  • Mulan: I get why Christians don’t like this one. A woman wearing the costumes of war, etc. But, in the end, Mulan reverts to the natural state of things and becomes a woman again.
  • Tarzan: This is a weird one. Tarzan does not become a man (which he absolutely should do), but neither does he get to be whoever he wants to be. He prefers the status quo (plus Jane in a jungle bikini).
  • The Emperor’s New Groove: Another selfish prince transformed. He can only become human again after he’s changed.
  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire: A weird one. Man’s reach exceeds his grasp, or something like that.
  • Lilo & Stitch: I don’t know what to say about this one. It’s a cartoon. Family is whomever you love.
  • Treasure Planet: I really don’t know what to say about this one.
  • Brother Bear: Selfish person transformed into animal to learn a valuable lesson. I can’t even remember what happens at the end.
  • Home on the Range: Never seen it. Never will.
  • Meet the Robinsons: Keep moving forward.
  • Bolt: Get in touch with the real world.
  • The Princess and the Frog: Humans-turned-animals learn a lesson.
  • Tangled: Selfish thief comes to care about something other than himself. Also, like Samson’s strength, Rapunzel’s power was never really tied to her hair.
  • Frozen: Elsa is cursed with ice powers and condemned for her thoughtlessness, but of course, all anyone remembers is “Let It Go.”
  • Moana: Kids should accept their ancestry and pursue their assigned tasks, whether their dumb parents like it or not. Still going back and forth on this one.

This is a haphazard analysis, to be sure, but I hope it demonstrates that Disney movies aren’t always as villainous as they’re made out to be.

Story Recipe

One of the last assignments I gave my eighth grade composition class was writing a short story. I only had two class periods to work with, so I handed them O. Henry’s “A Retrieved Reformation,” along with a sheet of questions, and we created a outline based on that story. The students then wrote their own stories, following the outline as closely as possible.

Here’s roughly what I said:

First, you need a character, which is “a person with a goal.” The goal can be as small as scratching an itch or as enormous as getting married.

Person + goal = character

Next, you to describe the world this character lives in—not necessarily a physical world, just the circumstances that surround the character (a busy city, a big family, a dead-end job, a spaceship).

Once you have a person with a goal living in a world, you need to describe something that prevents the character from achieving his goal. The character’s attempt to overcome his obstacle is called “conflict.”

Character + obstacle = conflict

If the character’s goal is scratching an itch, the obstacle might be that the itch is hard to reach. If he wants to get married, his girlfriend doesn’t.

In his attempt to overcome the obstacle, your character should meet a new obstacle, which creates new conflict. (Again, we’re following O. Henry here.) The itchy character runs all over the city looking for a back-scratcher, but all the stores are sold out. The would-be groom plans a romantic dinner, but his girlfriend gets food poisoning.

We limited ourselves to two conflicts, but a story can have many more than that. The key is that each conflict should either sprout directly from one of the character’s main goal(s) or flow from his attempts to overcome the previous obstacle.

At some point, it should appear that the character has failed at both of his goals. He’s at the end of his rope and nothing is solved. The last mayor bans back-scratchers and the itch just gets worse. The girlfriend is so sick she gets sent to the hospital and vows never to see him again.

Finally, to his surprise, the character meets one or both of his goals. (This is called resolution.) The more unexpected the success is, the better. Enraged, the itchy character grabs a “sold out” sign to smash it, only to realize its the perfect length to scratch his back. The romantic meets a cute paramedic who’s smitten with him.

Note that the most important conflict to resolve is the original one. It’s not necessary for the character to buy a back-scratcher. He just needs to get rid of his itch. It’s not necessary for the date to go well, only for the main character to find love.

The full recipe looks like this:

  • Who is the main character (person + goal)?
  • What world does he live in?
  • What is stopping him from achieving his goal (conflict #1)?
  • How does the character try to solve conflict #1? (This is goal #2)
  • What is stopping him from achieving goal #2? (This is conflict #2)
  • How does the character seem to fail at both goals?
  • How does the character achieve one or both goals in the end?

The students that followed this structure closely ended up writing stories that, while not great, were compelling. We wanted to know what was going to happen next and we were satisfied by the ending. That’s more than we can say about most stories.

The funniest thing about this is that I tried to map this structure onto one of my own stories and realized I hadn’t given my main character a primary goal. As I’ve said before, teaching something is one of the best ways to learn.

Read-Alouds for Those Who Don’t Care

For about two weeks before the end of the school year, I put aside trying to teach one of my classes and read out loud to them instead. I wanted to revive whatever dormant interest they had in stories, or create one if it never existed.

The stories had to be engaging (gripping, funny, sad, scary), short enough to read aloud in one sitting, and relatively clean. I also wanted to pick stories that the students were unlikely to read in school, though I realized that other teachers tend to pick stories based on the criteria above, which means the pool is relatively small.

Most important, every story had to make an impact. I didn’t care whether the students hated the story or loved it as long as they cared.

Here are the ones we read, in order:

  • “The Veldt,” Ray Bradbury
  • “Through the Tunnel,” Doris Lessing
  • “To Build a Fire,” Jack London
  • “My First Deer, and Welcome to It,” Patrick F. McManus
  • “The Long Rain,” Ray Bradbury
  • “A Brilliant Idea and His Own,” Mark Helprin

Wound Down

Today I finished my last day of teaching. The schedule calls this a “exam review” day, but since my students don’t have an exam in my class, we didn’t have anything to review. Instead, we watched Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl. No prep. No discussion. Just hit play.

I didn’t really plan to end the year with this. I was just looking for an activity that wouldn’t completely waste 45 minutes of class time. Turns out, a documentary about words, art, life, rhetoric, and God summarized everything I’d been trying to say for nine months. Funny how things work out sometimes.

It has been, as they say, a year. Cheers to a long, hot summer.

Must Watch

1917 002

The best compliment I can pay to any movie is this: “You just have to see it.”

Like all great films, 1917 must be seen to be understood. Nothing I say can capture the experience of watching it. Once it was over, silence seemed the only appropriate response. Words fail. I just want to see it again.

Time’s Hiatus

If your life revolves around the academic calendar, like mine does, you’ll understand that the next month is going to be a whirlwind of planning, grading, meeting, cleaning, and wiping tears from students’ homework. I won’t have time for much else besides teaching – and I also have a writing deadline to meet. I’m taking a break from Time’s Corner until summer begins.

If I do write anything, I’ll post it here.