Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Morals for children in Cars and Happy Feet

lead elder: Harmless? It is this kind of backsliding that has brought the scarcity upon us!
a foreign penguin: Excuse me smiley, could you speak plain penguin please?
Mumble: He thinks the food shortage has something to do with me.
lead elder: Do you not understand that we can only survive here when we are in harmony? And when you and your foreign friends lead us into your easy ways you offend the Great Guin -- you invite Him to withhold His bounty!
an elder: He rules the seasons.
an elder: He giveth and He can taketh away.
Mumble: Wait a minute -- happy feet can't cause a famine.
an elder: If that kind of pagan display didn't cause it, then what did?
Mumble: I think it comes from outside -- from way beyond the ice. There are things out there we don't understand.
foreign penguins: Mysteries! Mind-boggling mysteries! Mystic beings!
Mumble: Yeah, aliens. I've heard they're smart.
an elder: He's insane!
Mumble: No, they might be smarter than all of us -- who knows?

an elder: He drove the fish away, and now he's ranting this rubbish.
a foreign penguin: Let me tell something to you.
an elder: Don't touch me, you filthy varmint! [smacks him]
Mumble: Watch it!
lead elder: So it follows: dissent leads to division and division leads us to doom! You Mumble "Happy Feet" must go.
Mom: Don't you take one step, Sweetheart. You have as much right to be here as any of these daffy old fools.
all: [shocked gasps]
Dad: Norma Jean, I'll deal with this.
Mumble: Pa?
Dad: Mumble, you must renounce your so-called friends, your peculiar thoughts, and your strange ways. If we are devout and sincere in our praise, the fish will return.
Mumble: But Pa...
Dad: Listen boy, I was a backslider myself. I was careless, and now we're paying the price.
Mom: What's this got to do with Mumble?
Dad: That's why he is the way he is.
Mom: There's nothing wrong with him!
Dad: Face it, Norma Jean! Our son's all messed-up!
Mom: He is not messed-up, you hear me?
Dad: Believe me, I know he is!
Mom: How can you say that?
Dad: Because when he was just an egg, I dropped him.
all: [shocked gasps]
Mom: Mumble! Oh, my poor little Mumble!
Mumble: Ma, I'm perfectly fine.
Dad: No you're not, boy. For all our sakes you must stop this freakiness with the feet.
lead elder: Your father speaks wisely. Heed his suffering heart and repent.
Mumble: But it just doesn't make any sense!
lead elder: Then your arrogance leaves us no choice!
Dad: No, wait! [to Mumble] Son, you can do this. It ain't so hard.
Mumble: Don't ask me to change, Pa. Because I can't.

Why was I surprised to see this scene in a big-budget animated feature for kids? The answer leads me to another favorite film at our house: Disney/Pixar's Cars:

Cars and Happy Feet are both charming films with a lot to recommend them -- not just in terms of stunning visuals (both are excellent on that count), but also in terms of storytelling. Regardless of what the Disney-phobes say, sometimes kids' blockbusters aren't too bad. And it matters for my sake as well as my kids' sake since any film they love I end up having to watch a million times myself.

For the moment I'm not doing an overall movie review, though, I'd just like to talk about each film's message. (For this topic I'm only covering films that are worth analyzing, which is why I'm skipping Thomas and the Magic Railroad, a film whose story and dialog are so formulaic that I swear the screenplay was written by a computerized script-generating program and whose moral is "if you need to cut corners on your medium-budget film, skimping on writers isn't the place to do it...")

Cars is very much a sports film, so its primary moral is standard sports film fare: learning that there are more important things than winning. The secondary moral deals with the charming little town of Radiator Springs and how it became run-down and forgotten.

Radiator Springs was a jewel strung along the necklace of Route 66: a lively and bustling town back when people used to travel a whole different way ("to have a great time, not to make great time"). It deteriorated to the point of being nearly deserted after it was bypassed by the interstate highway that cut through the land instead of following its contours.

The thing that impressed me most about the heart-string-tugging emotional center of the piece (the song Our Town), was the way they took a political issue (the deterioration of small-town America) and presented it in such a way that it would appeal to both liberals and conservatives. I don't think anyone out there is seriously arguing that we should eliminate the interstate highway system. So presenting the interstate as the culprit is a safe choice: Republicans see the characters pining for the nineteen-fifties -- back when everything was simple and innocent -- and Democrats can read "the interstate" as a metaphor for "Wall-Mart."

Naturally I saw Cars as another example of the law that no big-budget kids' film can be made without passing the generic-moral no-parent-offended committee. That's why I was so surprised by Happy Feet. Skeptical/secular parents: this film is for you.

Here's the story in a nutshell:

Mumble is different from the other penguins from the moment he hatches from the egg. Emperor penguins are supposed to sing and not dance, yet Mumble is the opposite. There's a shortage of fish and none of the penguins know why. The religious leaders make up an explanation and they're wrong. Mumble doesn't accept their explanation and instead is curious and starts piecing together bits of evidence to find that the fish shortage is caused by "aliens" (humans overfishing). His travels lead him to a preacher/guru penguin who has apparently had some contact with the "aliens" (evidenced by a man-made object attached to him), but he doesn't want to help Mumble at first because he's too wrapped up in the wealth and status he gets from pretending that he has the power to contact mystic beings. Eventually he comes around and sets off with Mumble and friends to find the aliens. The happy ending is that Mumble finds the aliens and makes contact with them through dance, persuading them of the importance of protecting the area around Antarctica from over-fishing.

On the surface this looks like a retelling of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: the misfit is rejected until his unusual trait saves the day. But Happy Feet also has a strong theme of reason and evidence trumping the closed-minded shackles of religion. The one twist that may superficially look like a jab at skeptics is the fact that tales of "alien abduction" turn out to be true. The difference is that in our human universe the tales one hears of alien abductions don't have evidence to back them up. This film correctly illustrates the fact that the skeptic will take an outlandish tale seriously as soon as the evidence warrants it.

The scene I quoted above is probably the most daring part of the film. The religious elders claim that God's wrath for Mumble's deviance is the cause of an unrelated disaster. Mumble's father blames himself for Mumble's deviance, and tries to persuade him to repent and try to be like everyone else. Even though Mumble (like all of the characters in the film) is clearly straight (and he has a rather generic straight love story in the film to back it up), I can't avoid seeing Mumble's situation as a transparent metaphor for being gay; illustrating how religion can inspire injustice.

(Actually, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the writers of this film were gay men. There's the mom and the love-interest who are framed entirely by their relation to Mumble, and aside from that it's male-male buddies all the way...)

Mumble's situation could also be taken as a metaphor for being an atheist since everyone knows that atheist is the new gay. ;^)

The point that stands out, however, is that -- unlike practically every children's story I've seen in my entire life -- Happy Feet presents the conflict of reason versus faith and doesn't give a single nod towards faith being the better choice.

The ending message of environmentalism and cross-cultural understanding is the icing on the cake of this bold film with courageously modern morals to guide our kids as they prepare to take the reins of our globally-interdependent world.


hm-uk said...

What degree of cool am I for being both atheist AND gay? Actually, I'm probably not since I have to ask, eh?

It's interesting that Disney/Pixar is into doling out morals in their movies these days. I don't remember any morals being dispensed in any of the animation features I watched as a kid - oh, maybe 'It isn't good to be a wicked old witch/stepmother because you'll end up falling over a cliff/being eaten alive...' Perhaps, the writers of those films had some serious misogynistic bones in their bodies...I say, bring on the gay writers!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hm-Uk!!!

Being gay and atheist make you pretty cool, but to be uber-cool, you actually need to be left-handed as well...

Happy Feet isn't Disney/Pixar, Cars is the Disney/Pixar one. Happy Feet is by some other producer, I don't recall which.

hm-uk said...

Let's hear it for uber-coolness, then! I have the tell-tale smudges on the side of my left hand from smearing the ink across the page when I write. What other criteria might propel me upward into the realm of outer-coolness?

Anonymous said...

Actually, I can't remember any Disney film that didn't have a moral message. From Sleeping Beauty to Dumbo to Ariel and Hercules - all Disneys push the correct American, family/moral standards.

Pixar is a slightly different case. It used to be a completely different company until last year. Disney only bought the distribution rights. I've always thought Pixar was more about good movies than good morals.

As far as Cars goes, the first time I watched the film, I got flashbacks to the Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood. I thought the small town message was more powerful than the 'sports' message. Being a good winner/loser is a metaphor for the rich successful life; you give that up for friendship and family. The sports part is only for the smaller kids. (Sorry CL ;-)

I am a devoted Car's fan. The visuals! Like the "car plateaus" surrounding the town, great! My absolute favorite scene is the "race" up the canyon where Lightning sees the waterfall for the first time.

I haven't seen Happy Feet. But yes, all the previews I saw indicated it was a blatently transparent metaphor for the religion and gay conflict.

Which is also why Focus on the Family condemned the film. *sigh* When is one of that group going to be found out to be gay? After all they are located in Colorado Springs - home of Ted Haggard.

hm-uk said...

You're absolutely right, ben. I guess what I really meant was the delivery of the morals in the Disney movies has changed -- from a Brothers Grimm approach to more of a Teletubbies approach. By the way, I had a look at your blog - brilliant site.

AnnM said...

I keep begging my youngest to pick Flushed Away instead of Thomas and the Magic Railroad, which I "watched" at least 500 times with my middle child. What does that say about me?

It's your standard bumbling hero saves the town, gets the girl and finds a family -- except of course the girl doesn't need rescuing.

But I really just want to see Le Frog and his mime again.

Lynet said...

Left-handed and an atheist -- but I've never fallen in love with a girl. Ah, well. Two outta three.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Hm-Uk!!!

Wow, you are uber-cool!!! There are lots of other qualities that might make someone cool, but already that's pretty good... ;^)

Hey Ben!!!

That's wild that "Focus on the Family" condemned the pro-gay subtext in "Happy Feet." And there I thought I was outing the film... ;^)

To all you heathen parents out there: groups like that are why it's easy for Christian parents to find stuff like "Veggie Tales" but we of the reality-based community are hard pressed to find any quality fare for our kids that reflects our values. This is a clever and entertaining film, so let's step up to the plate and demonstrate that we're a "market". If you have kids, get them the DVD of "Happy Feet" (if you haven't already), and when religious friends and relatives give your kids "Veggie Tales" (or equivalent), be sure to send their kids a copy of this film as a return gift...

Hey Sam!!!

I've never seen "Flushed Away" -- I take it it's good?

Hey Lynet!!!

Well, you're one up on me -- I'm hopelessly in the mundane category in terms of handedness...

Anonymous said...

My two currently enjoy watching Curious George, which doesn't appear to have any sort of moral message that I can find. Except that some people are just naturally curious and it leads them into trouble but everything turns out in the end. I think it's because the monkey (George) doesn't talk at all throughout the film, and they can identify. My son loves saying "no, monkey, no no!" when George is doing something he's not supposed to.

I was also impressed with Cars and Happy Feet. (Impressed even though they were very predictable).

And as far as focus on the family - they are clearly searching for something in children's film and tv to criticize. It saddens me for many reasons.

celerman said...

I think the coolest thing is not being atheist and gay, but being atheist and having morals. For a very long time I was taught that a moral atheist was an oxymoron. Or even just a moron.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of animated films, but hadn't gotten around to seeing "Happy Feet." This is the writeup that made me add it to my netflix queue. Thanks.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

I think "Focus on the Family" is looking to impose their views on as many people as possible -- not just children.

Hey Celerman!!!

That's a common misconception, isn't it? But that's one of the reasons to be here on the Internet -- to show what kinds of people atheists really are.

Hey Holly!!!

No prob. :D

Anonymous said...

I found your site off of Trapped by The Mormons. I'm glad I found it, it's great to read your thoughts.

I liked the Happy Feet and Cars messages as well. I still remember people complaining about Disney's Little Mermaid when it first came out back in 1989. How they thought the story was encouraging kids to defy their parents and do whatever they wanted and things would work out ok.

My older kids were 2 & 3 back then, and they loved the show. The 3 yr old even had the entire film memorized at one point and could speak every line of dialogue. However, the supposed "moral" seemed to go right over both their heads. They were never rebellious children at all growing up. We're pretty liberal free thinkers though too, never had a ton of rules, just rules that cover basic common sense, good citizenship, and good manners.

Now they are adults and when the DVD was released last year, they were all excited to watch it with their then 3 yr old brother/my son. They commented that watching it as adults they thought Ariel was a kind of naughty, reckless, and dumb girl, but that as children that whole aspect of the story never occurred to them.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks INTJ Mom!!!

That's funny -- I hadn't heard about people getting upset about The Little Mermaid for encouraging kids to disobey, but it's true that's in there. A lot of bad stuff happens to her for rebelling too, though.

Anonymous said...

Don't feel too bad about having Focus on the Family beat you to the punch on figuring out that there might be homosexual undertones in "Happy Feet."

This was the same bunch that figured out that SpongeBob SquarePants might be pushing the acceptance of *gasp* homosexuals. (I’m sure Jerry Falwell would have weighted in if he wasn’t looking down (up?) at us right now.)

They see gays everywhere.

OTOH, if you interpret Happy Feet not in a sexual orientation but a racial context - the "dancing" thing makes even more sense - in a racist sort of way of course. You just have to think like a southerner.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ben!!!

True, interpreting it in a racial context gives some insights as well. Still the fact that he had to deal with being different (in a supposedly wrong/sinful way) from his own family creates an experience that strongly points at homosexuality.

Anonymous said...

Funny how Happy Feet showed the Adelie Penguins with their rockpile nests, but didn't mention the fact that sometimes the females will prostitute themselves in return for rocks from other males' nests (I can't find the article at the moment, otherwise I'd link to it).

But anyway, I agree with your assessment of both Cars and Happy Feet. I only just recently watched Happy Feet and I was astonished by the message--that may be a first for a children's film, and a rarity for any film!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

Hehe, I hadn't heard about that behavoir in the Adelie Penguins, but it would have been interesting to try to work that into the story...

Anonymous said...

Haha nice post about those movies, thanks. and since were keeping count, I'm also left handed, atheist and gay :)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Tommy!!!

Dang there are a lot of uber-cool folks out there in cyberspace... ;-)