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.

Must Watch

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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.

A Man Failed to Predict Best Actor

Back when I wrote reviews for Film Fisher, I had to pick which actors to “tag” in any particular film. The first review I wrote was for Short Term 12. When I posted it, I mulled over who I should tag. As the star, Brie Larson was an obvious choice — her career since has justified that instinct. Keith Stanfield (a.k.a, Lakeith Stanfield) got some big moments in the movie, so I put him in there, too, as well as Kaitlyn Dever, who hasn’t gone on to do much of note.

If you scan the credits for Short Term 12, you’ll find one big name I left off my list. I say “big” because he just won the Oscar for Best Actor.

Yeah, it’s Rami Malek. Whups.

A Man Takes a Dive

Well, this is interesting. IMDb is owned by Amazon, which explains why you get IMDb trivia when you’re watching movies on Amazon and why IMDb tells you if a movie is Amazon-streamable. Although Amazon has their own streaming service, for some reason they have kicked off something called IMDb Freedive, where you can watch movies and TV shows for free (not sure where the “dive” comes in).

IMDb has hosted an assortment of videos for years, but most of them were trailers or acting reels uploaded by users. Now, they actually have some good stuff that’s not elsewhere (I mean, on Netflix): Memento, Big Fish, Gattaca, Run Lola Run, and the gloriously titled Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves.

A tip of the hat to you, IMDb.

A Man is Not Planning to Move to LA or NYC

My latest article for Frame.io went up on their blog on Monday. It’s about why aspiring TV and features editors should move to Los Angeles or New York (or London). Writing for a business is a tricky business, since you have to remain more or less objective, which means you may have to lean away from your own bias. My name is under the article’s title, but if you asked me my opinion on the same question in person, I’d have a much more qualified answer. Here’s part of that answer.

I aspire to write (yea, even direct) feature films. Yet I have no plans to move to New York or LA (or London). Where do I get off telling others that’s what they have to do? For one thing, the article I wrote is specifically directed at editors, not writers or directors. Editors are not high on the filmmaking totem pole. They bow to the needs of the production (despite the fact that the editor has more control over the finished film than anyone else involved except the director). Unlike writers, who also bend the knee, editors are almost always on-site with the director. No months of working in isolation for them. (Where the post-production is, there the editors will gather…) Some of the pros we interviewed for the article admitted that new tools are changing things (Frame.io!) and that sometimes a small-town editor gets to cut a big film (see John Gilbert). But, as a general rule (for now), editors need to be physically present with the rest of the team.

Writers have a better chance of working off-location than editors. A screenwriter can spend months working alone before he needs to meet with the director. And screenplays are easier to email than full-res video files. Since writing is my strong suit, I’m hoping I can make non-LA writing work for me. On their excellent podcast, Scriptnotes, screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin have urged their listeners countless times to move to LA if they want to pursue screenwriting. Their reasons make sense. And yet, the fact of it is that those reasons only apply to people who want to make screenwriting (and nothing else) their full-time job. There are lots of people who don’t live in LA who have written movies (novelists, journalists, playwrights, teachers, even filmmakers) and plenty of screenwriters who left LA after a while to pursue other interests. Writing travels well.

What about directing? Don’t you need to be LA-based to get that next directing gig? Yeah, probably. But who wants that? Frankly, most of the films coming out of the big-time movie studios these days bore me. They leave a sour taste in my mouth. Why would I want to make movies like that? The most interesting movies right now are labors of love from people outside the studio system, who then get courted and admitted into that inner circle. I would much rather make a small film on a shoestring budget and my own terms than spend a decade scratching my way to the top of the Hollywood heap and be rewarded with a job directing Avengers XIV.

Though I would love to write movies and direct them, it’s not my highest priority. People who live in LA admit that it sucks, especially if you don’t have a big income. The traffic is a nightmare. The industry is petty and immature. And it’s far away from most of my relatives (and my wife’s). I don’t want to raise a family in that environment. I’d rather raise them somewhere where we can live close to our church and school and get to know our neighbors. Somewhere that’s not covered by smog eighty percent of the time. I’d rather make an impact in a small, insignificant place than no impact at all. Raising a healthy, godly, mature family in a thriving church is a bigger priority for me than working as a full-time screenwriter (or editor, or director).

I believe that it’s possible to write and make films without living in LA/NYC/London. It’s hard, but possible, especially these days. If you want to edit big-budget features or mainstream TV shows, you should move to one of the Big Three. But if you’re willing to be a Hollywood outsider – and see a lot less money – you can live anywhere and still make movies. And your movies might be better for it.

A Man is Off-Kilter

I haven’t seen very many Stanley Kubrick movies, though I learned to my surprise a few years ago that he was responsible for one of my favorite childhood action movies, Spartacus. A few weeks ago, I watched his World War I film, Paths of Glory, starring Kirk Douglas (like Spartacus). The film is about a French general who accuses his troops of cowardice after a failed charge. Three soldiers are randomly selected to face a kangaroo court martial with the sentence of death hanging over their heads. Their colonel, played by Kirk Douglas, argues for the defense. So it’s a combination war film and courtroom drama (unlike Spartacus).

Though I haven’t seen many Kubrick films, I have read enough to know about his famous perfectionism. He often shot close to a hundred takes of a scene before he was satisfied. I also knew he was a photographer, so I expected Paths of Glory to be a visual delicatessen. I wasn’t disappointed. The film is beautiful, light and shadow playing off one another in every frame. Kubrick made good use of his locations, too, especially during the court martial and execution scenes, which were both shot at Schloss Schleissheim in Germany near Munich. I was surprised, though, that the cinematography wasn’t more… well, symmetrical, I guess. I noticed this most in the execution scene. Take a look at the screenshots below (thanks, film-grab.com — one of the best places out there for cinematographical references).

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Nudge the camera in any of these shots and you’d have a perfectly balanced frame. Especially that first one! Come on, why isn’t the accused in the center centered under the archway? It could be an aesthetic choice. As a photographer, Kubrick probably spent a lot of time looking through a lens. (The last screenshot above is practically balanced in its imbalance.) He may have chosen to frame the film like this for a greater sense of realism. War is messy, so is making movies. The rough-and-readiness of the shots do make you feel like you’re there, witnessing the events unfold. Or it could be that the production schedule was rushed, the crew were harried, and nobody could be bothered to make sure both sides of the building were in the frame. Not likely, given the director’s aforementioned perfectionism.

Thinking about that word, “imbalance,” I wonder if Kubrick is communicating something by intentionally framing the action in this slightly off-kilter way. In the story, high-ranking officers shoot three innocent soldiers rather than own up to their mistakes. The structure of responsibility fails. The world skews. Kubrick may have translated this sense of unreality into the pictures themselves. A balanced frame would imply that justice is being done and all is right with the world. The story insists that all is not right, and what better way to underscore this than through slight imperfections in the way the characters are presented?