Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Disney Re-encountered

            About two years ago, we instituted regular movie nights in our household. Ava and I decided that every two weeks or so we’d select a movie that the entire family could enjoy and spend an evening watching it. This was a big deal for both the kids and us. While we do have a television, we keep it closed up in a cabinet while the kids are awake. Until we started movie nights, we had never sat and watched a television show with Polly and Pip, much less a full-length movie.
            Our decision to break the seal on the television was driven by two major factors. First, Pip was getting exposed to learning through audio-visual presentations at school, and we wanted an opportunity to shape how he and Polly managed this. There’s often so much going on in a television clip that it can be difficult to quickly process all that stimuli if you haven’t learned how. Second, we thought it would be nice to have a break every once in a while where we didn’t have to figure out what we were all going to do together on a dull winter evening.
            We dipped our toes in carefully, starting with Mary Poppins and leaning heavily on the Pixar staples ever since – Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, A Bug’s Life, the Cars and Toy Story franchises. This has largely kept us happy. The stories are imaginative and well-conceived. The violence is pretty tame. What few romantic moments they have are subtle and handled with discretion. Pixar movies create worlds that work for us.
            Two weekends ago, however, we strayed from this a touch. A couple of weeks back, some of Ava’s students brought up the Disney film Frozen during a class discussion and insisted that she had to see it. Ava has a soft spot for Disney. She grew up surrounded by Tigger, Pooh, Mickey, and others. Her family also spent over a decade making twice annual trips to Walt Disney World in Florida. To have her college students excited about a Disney film – particularly after the company’s miserable productions of the late 1990s and beyond - piqued her curiosity. So, we checked out a copy of Frozen from the library and put it on the schedule for movie night.

In many respects the film is a classic Disney production. It’s got princesses, castles, magic, romantic entanglements, and big musical numbers. It feels like an amalgam of the classic princess films like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella overlaid with the musical sensibilities of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and the Lion King. The kids liked it for all the reasons kids like animated films – the characters bounce quickly from place to place, they sing and dance in fun ways, they make strange faces and funny sounds. Even in the scariest scene - when a big snow monster rises from the drifts to chase the heroes - there is an element of slapstick involved that makes the whole thing feel silly and relatively safe.
And they liked the songs.
So, a couple days after watching the movie, Ava brought home a copy of the soundtrack from the library. Polly and Pip have been playing it ever since. They have sat together with the liner notes and learned all the lyrics. They have squabbled over which song to play next. They have developed their own set of shorthand codes around the track numbers.
I remember my sister doing a similar thing with the Little Mermaid. For what seemed like two years, whenever she had the opportunity to watch something on TV, she would pop in that movie. She must have watched it fifty or sixty times, learning all the dialogue and the songs in the process. I never really understood why she was obsessed with this movie, and this lack of understanding made me wary of the whole thing. It seemed crazy to be that enthralled with a cartoon.
Of course, this kind of obsessive attachment to a film or its characters is Disney’s bread and butter. Once people make that connection, they will buy just about anything Disney can put the characters on. They could put have put the Little Mermaid on toilet paper and my sister would have been thrilled to wipe herself with it.
The power of all this had made me incredibly cautious about exposing my children to the Disney machine, and as the Frozen soundtrack spun its way through its twentieth iteration over the weekend, I cursed my slippage. Disney had gotten in under my shields, and now my children were singing the songs and talking about the characters and re-enacting this scene or the other. I felt like I’d failed a fundamental test.
But then, once I settled down and watched Pip and Polly work, I began to see something else. Their minds were working. First they got familiar with the rhythms and how the music flowed. Then they started learning the lyrics in earnest, slowly building an understanding of not only what the words were but what they were trying to say. Later, Pip started trying to identify different instruments and categorize the kinds of sounds they make. They were undertaking a deep archaeology of the songs.
This archaeology has taken them far beyond just liking the music or the characters. They know the music now and with that knowledge they are able to ask interesting questions about how it works and what it is trying to do. They talk about the emotional intent of different passages and how the music communicates ideas that can’t be put into words. They are thinking about how the music works in the film itself, how it augments the scenes and supports the emotional foundation of the visual story.
All this analysis hasn’t come systematically. It has emerged through constant repetition and the very human impulse to keep digging at something until its well of interest has been exhausted. The result of this is that Polly and Pip are not droning out in some drug-like daze as the songs circle over and over around them. They have been undertaking a project of deep listening that I would never have appreciated had I not lived through the constant cycling of the last few days.
So, obsessing over a Disney film is not the end of the world. With time and a little direction, it can even be something that helps kids come to understand some parts of the many ways the world is put together. The kids are even getting a copy of the movie for Christmas. I look forward to seeing how they break that down as it becomes part of our regular movie night rotation.


  1. I can't feel quite so friendly toward Frozen. I finally saw it after the hype - and there has been a LOT of hype - and wished I hadn't wasted my time. A friend said "it's just so pretty" and I suppose that's the biggest draw, beyond the usual animation formulae we've come to expect. All that aside, it just seems insultingly simple-minded. The plot makes very little sense to me, the girls both seem to make bad decisions and learn few lessons but the whole thing is coated in sparkling frost and sprinkled with sugar so it gets swallowed with gusto. :( That's not to say the music is poorly done. Good music attached to questionable values and poor plot is probably what drives the majority of Broadway. It's just flimsy sustenance for children who would be equally happy with more wholesome fare. My opinion, of course.

  2. Thanks Tara for the thoughts. I agree with you both in that the movie is visually incredible and that there are several holes and unanswered questions within the plot that makes the story feel empty and a touch weird. The question of values is interesting in that there is a tremendous amount of tinkering with the idea of what an act of 'true love' is. There is still the usual Disney romance line but then it gets undercut when the 'love at first sight' turns into a horrible mistake. My kids didn't really get the import of that, but I thought it was an interesting play on what we've come to expect from Disney.