Saturday, March 19, 2005

Special Achievement

My girlfriend bought me The Incredibles yesterday. If you still haven't seen it because you're afraid it's too much of a kiddie movie, you must overcome this. It's the most adult thing I've ever seen from Disney. And Brad Bird knows how to tell a superhero story so well he should be the one writing and directing The Fantastic Four.

The story revolves around Bob Parr, better known as Mr. Incredible, a svelte, handsome hero with super strength. His wife, Helen, is Elastigirl, who has the powers to stretch and collapse herself into shapes, like Plastic Man. After personal injury lawsuits, superheroes stop appearing in public, and we meet Bob and Helen 15 years later in a relocation program, trying to live as normal people with their young kids, Dash, Violet, and Jack Jack.

Their powers are metaphors for the characters themselves. Bob needs to be strong to protect his loved ones. Helen has to stretch herself to try and keep everyone happy and the house running. Dash has super speed, because as a fourth grader he's bursting with undirected energy. And shy (shrinking) Violet has the power to make herself invisible.

But the are other metaphors going on here, too, which is surprising for a Disney film. The most obvious one is the idea of special people. We've gone from a culture which celebrated achievement to a culture that fears it; now, rather than reward accomplishments, we pretend that everyone has accomplished something in a bizarre deification of self-esteem. When kids play organized sports, they get awards just for participating to make them feel better about losing and to encourage them, apparently. But how is it encouraging to reward mere participation? Where is the drive to succeed if you get a pat on the head just for waking up in the morning? When Helen yells at Bob for not wanting to go to his son's graduation, he points out that it's merely a jump from fourth grade to fifth, and laments that "They keep finding new ways to celebrate mediocrity." He's reading my mind. Even Dash, who is not allowed to try out for the track team because he risks being exposed, retorts to Helen's assertion that everyone is special with, "That's another way of saying no one is."

The villain, Syndrome, is a fanboy who felt rejected as a kid. Growing up to become a super genius weapons inventor (like you do), he plans to establish himself as a hero, and then sell his tech to everyone. "And when everyone's special," he says, "no one will be." This self-pitying reaction is evident all over this country; we have a president who assuages college students by saying, "If you're grades aren't great, you can still grow up to be president." Not surprising from a trust fund idiot who ran in 2000 on the "It's my turn now" ticket.

Why are we so insecure? Why is it that we hate accomplishment so much and refuse to reward it? Do we make someone like Paris Hilton famous when she's done nothing to merit it. Is it because we all want to be famous, to feel special, that we'll give it to anyone else in the hopes that the karmic rubberband will snap back to us? And when it doesn't, we lash out at people who really work for it, like Ashlee Simpson, because she seems to have used connections. Like no one else uses connections--we're all so afraid that we're worthless that we've convinced ourselves we are. A fair fight? Americans are terrified of one, because they're so sure they can't win that they need insurance. But they never stop for a moment to think that if you can't win fairly, you don't deserve to.

Another metaphor in The Incredibles is the male fear of impotence. Bob is handsome and trim, but as soon as he is forced to stop using his powers, he becomes hugely fat and tired, barely paying any attention to his family. He has a low-paying job at an insurance company where he takes orders from a short, officious little boss. He sneaks out at night to listen to police scanners, dreaming of the glory days. His marriage is obviously falling apart. But when he's hired as Mr. Incredible and able to use his powers again, he starts working out more. In a montage that could double as an Enzyte commercial, he slims down, becomes an attentive father (and lover), buys a sleek new sports car, and even his back problems improve. He even dies his hair to take the grey out. Syndrome, meanwhile, has a lair with a huge, penile volcano (he launches a rocket from it) and is powerful. Can we see the back and forth here?

And finally, the dysfunctional family unit must be brought together to perform as well. The very things that keep them separate from society--their superpowers--bring them together as a family. Mr. Incredible tells Elastigirl, "You are my greatest adventure," and when he leaps into battle, he tells his family to stay behind because he doesn't want to lose them. "I'm not strong enough," he admits to his wife. "If we work together," she tells him, "you won't have to be." A family must shoulder the burden together; despite his strength, Mr. Incredible cannot protect his family all the time. He has to trust in their abilities to defeat the villains; families must appreciate what makes each member's character, and encourage them to use it. With this acceptance, the Parr family becomes a functional family, one that is strong enough on the inside to resist forces on the outside.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Where Have All the Titties Gone?

This morning, I caught the 1984 film Private School on Encore. Does anyone remember Private School? It was a Porky's rip-off with Matthew Modine about a couple who are desperate to lost their virginity. More than that, of course, it's a sex comedy, or what we used to call when I was a kid, a titty movie. Nothing but oafs trying to sneak peeks of tits, or trying to get some, or getting drunk and high, with fun eighties music and some sexy young ingenues (in this case, Betsy Russell and the gorgeous Phoebe Cates).

Now, this is a very stupid movie, of course. But as I was watching it, all I could think was, "Where are today's titty movies? Why don't kids have a good dirty movie these days with topless starlets? Whither Revenge of the Nerds?" Some movies come close--American Pie has one (1) classic nude scene, and Euro Trip was a funny attempt (boy, Michelle Trachtenberg is pretty). But they're never quite the same, always trying too hard to be ironic and innovative. Why not a good, honest sex comedy anymore with a ton of nudity and embarrassing situations? These are necessary rites of passage for young guys enterting our oversexed media.

I could also ask if the media is really as oversexed as people think it is. Into the second reign of Bush II, things are more conservative than ever. We quake in fear of Janet Jackson's boob, but the casualness and graphic quality of violence, even on TV, seems to be no cause for alarm. When I worked at Hollywood Video, there was a man who would always ask me if the R-rating for a movie was because of sex, or violence, and seemed offended when I didn't know the answer. I was offended, too, because this guy absolutely refused to let his 14 year-old son see any naked women, but violence was fine--the man's justification was, "violence isn't real." It's a real head-scratcher, isn't it?

When I worked at Barnes & Noble there were complaints, too. Some woman once screeched because her 15 year-old son was looking at FHM or Maxim or something. She should have been thrilled that her kid was developing an interest in sexuality, and not drugs or guns or shitty pop music. Why don't people want their children to develop normally? America (which, after all, was founded by religious pilgrims who thought Anglican England wasn't restricted enough) is returning to its Puritanical roots faster than a WB actress agreeing to pose in lingerie to give her career a little edge. Playboy magazine, as tame and tasteful as nudity gets, is actually called pornography these days. But all of the nudity in movies is being replaced with violence, and people don't care if their children see it or not. What the fuck is going on?

I have two little half-sisters, one 12 and one 9. Call me crazy, but I'd rather they saw people express their love than express their hate. I'd rather they saw people getting laid than people getting killed. I'd like them to grow up without feeling that the one thing everyone has--their bodies--are sinful, shameful, and terrible. Are we really such children that we even have to be afraid of our own bodies? No wonder we're thinking so backwards these days.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Evaluating Disney: 1928-1929

The first Mickey Mouse cartoon premiered almost exactly 77 years ago, on 15 May 1928. Since then, the Walt Disney Company has become an unstoppable media juggernaut seemingly bent on world domination. Thanks to a rather demonic media profile, the early cartoons are forgotten by all but serious animation buffs – a club of which I am a member. Therefore let’s journey through the story of American animation, starting back in 1928 with the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

5/15: Plane Crazy
Capitalizing on the public craze for flying, Mickey Mouse first appears as a Charles Lindbergh fan who builds his own airplane in the barnyard. Mickey is much more randy than he usually appears to be, terrorizing Minnie Mouse in the air in order to coerce her into giving him a kiss. She actually jumps out of the plane to avoid it! Mickey is much more mischevious than we will see him in later years, not so much cruel as just careless, doing whatever he wants and laughing when the other barnyard animals get upset. He's very much influenced by Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse. Ub Iwerks broke the record for most amount of drawings in a day (700); the film contains 8500 drawings, including the first trucking shot in animation history. It still holds up as a funny cartoon. Originally, this was a silent film, but sound was later added. There are also a disturbing number of jokes involving the rear ends of animals...

7/29: The Gallopin' Gaucho
Mickey is still a rogue, a wanted criminal who drinks, smokes, and dances the tango with Minnie. This film introduces Pete, Mickey's foil (a cat, of course), who battles him for the hand of Minnie. Mickey rides an ostrich instead of a horse, but despite the Mexican cantina setting, this still has a rural "barnyard" feel to it. This was the second and last silent Mickey cartoon.

11/18: Steamboat Willie
This is really considered by Disney to be the first official Mickey Mouse short. This is the first animated film with synchronized sound, and the plot is really just an excuse for Mickey to run around making noise. A goat eats some sheet music, so Mickey cranks up his tale and plays Turkey in the Straw (gotta love cartoon logic). Then Mickey runs amok, playing the music on the bodies of animals, at one point even swinging a cat by its tail and playing the tune on the teats of a pig! Dali considered Disney a surrealist, and that vision is evident here. Also of historical interest: Carl W. Stalling did all the music to these early shorts, long before he went off to make films for Warner Brothers.

12/02: Barn Dance
Pete comes across in this one like Bluto to Mickey's Popeye, as the two of them vie to take Minnie to a dance. Mickey wins, but he's a terrible dancer, stepping all over Minnie's feet. And then it's time for Mickey and Pete to fight over her a little more (interestingly, Pete wins). A nice little short, but not as special as Steamboat Willie.

3/20: The Opry House
This is the first Mickey Mouse cartoon directed by Walt Disney, not Ub Iwerks. Otherwise, it's not really noteable, except for a nice gag where Mickey plays a piano too hard and it kicks him. Mickey Mouse cartoons at this point were incredibly surreal, with inanimate objects dancing and playing. The Disney cartoons, for a long time, will be about dancing and music, not plots and adventures.

5/3: When the Cat's Away
Walt Disney directed this next short, which featured a different perspective on Mickey. While Tom Cat goes hunting (after a whole bottle of liquor--fun but not recommended), Mickey and Minnie and an army of mice go into his house and have a party. In this short, Mickey and Minnie are the size of small mice, which is a noteable difference, and the only time this really happened. Mickey has been a bit of a pill since Plane Crazy, but this was a new one, just breaking into someone's home to play their piano and steal their cheese.

6/28: The Plow Boy
Mickey plows a field, while Minnie has him milk her cow and sings for him. Once again, Mickey steals a kiss from Minnie, and she slugs him. Minnie Mouse was designed as a bit of a flapper, and is certainly fickle about Mickey. It's really Minnie's cow that's interested in him here, licking him while he milks her (he must have very talented hands). Eventually, the horse would become Horace Horsecollar, while the cow would become Clarabelle Cow. At the end of the cartoon, Mickey breaks his plow and sadistically uses a pig instead. Directed by Walt Disney.

7/31: The Karnival Kid
Walt Disney goes all-out surreal here, as Mickey Mouse sells hot dogs at a carnival. The dogs bark and bite, and when one runs away from Minnie, Mickey chases it down and spanks it. Yes, Mickey spanks his wiener. And that's only a taste of the weirdness on display here, in probably the best short ever directed personally by Disney. A milestone here: this is the first time we hear Mickey talk, and the voice is provided by Carl Stalling. Also, Mickey lifts the top of his head off at one point, inspiring the mouse ears cap that is still a seller today.

8/22: The Skeleton Dance
This is the single best cartoon directed by Ub Iwerks, and the best of Disney in 1929. This marked the first entry in Disney's second cartoon series, Silly Symphonies, which was dedicated to musical representation of animation. The plot is simple--four skeletons dance in a graveyard to Grieg music. But the animation is sumptuous, as perfect as Iwerks ever got, and it still holds up in 2005. Iwerks was animating this for so long that Disney directed the last four cartoons himself, but it was totally worth it. A broad new future in musical animation was ahead.

8/28: Mickey's Follies
Another variety show, like The Opry House, only this one created the song "Minnie's Yoo Hoo" (written by Stalling & Disney) that was the original theme song for Mickey Mouse fans. It's also the first cartoon directed by Wilfred Jackson, one of Disney's best directors.

9/7: El Terrible Toreador
The second Silly Symphonies cartoon, directed by Disney himself, but it's supposed to be what the title suggests: terrible. The Disney Company seems to be living it down, as it has not been released on DVD or video. I haven't seen it.

10/1: Mickey's Choo-Choo
Walt loved trains, so it was only a natural to make Mickey an engineer. There are some nice trucking shots here animated by Ben Sharpsteen, and the truck is kind of cute and fun with its human characteristics. It's nice, but the Mickey Mouse shorts are starting to become rehashes here.

10/10: The Barnyard Battle
Mickey joins the mouse army and has a trench battle with an army of cats in German helmets led by Pete (the cartoon used to be banned in Germany). This punchy short was directed by Bert Gillett, and has two great musical gags. The first is Mickey firing a machine gun, running out of bullets, and feeding piano keys through it instead. The second is Mickey hitting the cats in the head to the tune of "The Anvil Chorus" from the 1812 Overture. It's a fun one.

10/15: The Jazz Fool
Another variety show directed by Disney, which re-uses the piano gag from Mickey's Follies. It's pleasant, but not one of the best.

10/24: Springtime
The third Silly Symphonies cartoon, directed by Disney. These cartoons continue to follow the pattern of dancing objects, only this time with lots of animals eating other animals in a forest. It's actually a nice cartoon, though, using music like "Dance of the Hours." There's a wonderful frog that prefigures Iwerks's later creation, Flip the Frog, and he has the best moment in the whole cartoon: trying to run away while on the back of a turtle, with the turtle spinning like a log. He has this look on his face like "Dear God, why is this happening to me?!"

10/30: Hell's Bells
This Silly Symphonies cartoon has been locked deep in the Disney vault for many a year, never even shown on the Disney Channel. Here's a fascinating synopsis by Jerry Edwards from The Encyclopedia of Disney Animation Shorts (see the link below):

The hooded Grim Reaper enters and then departs. A huge spider swings back and forth towards the audience, then is consumed by flames. A snake-like dragon swallows a bat, then sprouts the bat's wings, and flies off. Satan's demons play instruments made from skeletons and skulls. Demons milk a "dragon-cow" and serve the flaming milk to Satan. Satan feeds one of the demons to Cerberus, the 3-headed dog. Satan chases the other demon, who refuses to be dog food. The demon kicks Satan off a ledge and Satan is consumed by the flames.

Now that Disney has actually released it on DVD, I can say it's not some of the best of Iwerks's animation, but it's definitely some of the weirdest. Not the treasure you might expect, but worth it just for the strangeness of the whole affair.

11/15: Jungle Rhythm
While this is the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to take Mickey out of the barnyard and into another setting (an African jungle, despite the appearance of tigers). But when he gets there, it's just dancing, singing, and playing objects like instruments. It's cheaply made filler, but I like the dancing apes.

12/2: The Haunted House
This is the first short where Walt does the voice of Mickey Mouse, but Disney (acting as director) merely re-hashes the superior The Skeleton Dance by having Mickey play for a bunch of dancing skeletons (some of the animation from the original short seems to be lifted and placed directly here). Cute, but it feels like Walt trying to show up Ub as not as great as people think, and is therefore mean-spirited. Good atmosphere, though.

12/16: The Merry Dwarfs
Another Silly Symphonies cartoon, directed by Disney, with lots of dancing. I think this wasn't shown widely in the last couple of decades because the dwarfs get drunk, but little else of interest happens.

By the end of 1929, Disney had established himself as the first name in animated entertainment, despite continued competition. At the time, animation was a wide and diverse field that yielded much fruit that is, sadly, forgotten today. But Walt directed many of the shorts (the fast-working Ub Iwerks was spending more and more time on individual Silly Symphonies, having lost interest in the Mickey Mouse series), and by the end of the year a lot of work was becoming second-rate. Still, the future looked bright enough, as Mickey Mouse had, within a year, become a household name.