Reminds me of the time I saw a woven wallhanging in the home of a particularly well-to-do right-wing person I know. It was made in Pakistan and had the artist's signature on it, and I said I was glad to see that because it meant that it was unlikely to have been made by slave labor. The person's response? "Well at least they [enslaved children] get food, water, and a place to sleep." Apparently, sometimes even decrying slavery is too liberal.
In particular, I have long found myself in disagreement with her when it comes to animated films, where it seems she’ll praise anything CGI over anything handdrawn and glorify Pixar in the highest. Her panning of Lilo and Stitch focused on its drab drawings and trite plot, while I found its broad notion of family progressive and its attempt at a Hawaiian aesthetic charming if superficial. By contrast, she adored The Incredibles, finding both content and style original, glorious, magnificent. Never mind the glaring patriarchal, white, middle-class nuclear family-ness of it all.
Now I’m confronted with her reviews of two new Disney flicks, Cars and Pirates of the Caribbean II, and I’ll be damned if I can make the slightest bit of rational sense out of what drives her opinion, yet again. She labels Cars a “beguiling comedy adventure,” while Pirates II is merely “ostentatious extravagance,” an interminable theme-park ride, “a hellish contraption into which a ticket holder is strapped, overstimulated but unsatisfied, and unable to disengage until the operator releases the restraining harness.” Funny, my experience of the two films is pretty much the opposite, though I wouldn’t go to such extremes, and I could easily reverse her descriptions and find them apt. To me, Cars’ main characters were simply “whirling teacup figurines” rather than (or perhaps as well as) Will and Elizabeth of Pirates, and the focus on car racing (especially the races themselves) made me feel strapped in, “overstimulated but unsatisfied.” In fact, even my seven-year-old son was bored with Cars and more than ready to leave and forget his experiences (except the tractor-tipping, which he found troubling to his animal-rights loving spirit, though he has not quite been able to articulate why because they were tractors not cows, or were they?).
Honestly, I didn’t loathe Cars and I didn’t find Pirates II an unqualified piece of cinematic brilliance. Both were superficial flights of fancy, both were Disnified escapism. Cars did attempt to offer a message about how fast we speed past the “beauty” of little towns and out-of-the-way spaces because we’re always on interstates going 80 mph, but in the face of our guzzling imperialistic oil-dependence as a nation, I found the message nostalgic and trite. I much prefer the corporate critique of Monsters, Inc., if we’re championing Pixar.
And good heavens, Lisa Schwarzbaum does love her some Pixar. She gushes, “I [...] bet that any story the Pixarites came up with about dust and socks [...] is bound to be more rewarding than 90 percent of anything coming out of Hollywood Blockbusterville this summer.” While I’ll grant you that “Hollywood Blockbusterville” generally does suck (for artistic and political reasons Schwarzbaum is only occasionally willing and able to engage), glorifying Cars because it features a “bunch of computer-animated, anthropomorphized vehicles who express emotion with eyes made from windshields and smiles from metallic front grills” then slamming Pirates because it features human-portrayed characters without greater depth is to fail entirely to understand that making a CGI car come to life is a hell of a lot easier than turning a human being into an effective cartoon, as Depp does so joyously and with such fabulous effect with his Captain Jack Sparrow.
Moreover, to champion Cars by giving it an A- and to bash Pirates II with a D+ on the basis of plot is beyond inane. Cars offers a time-worn tale, the upstart who has to learn his lesson the hard way (“The Tortoise and the Hare” meets “City Mouse and Country Mouse”). I have no problem with this emphasis nor the choice of cars/racing as a focus. But let’s call it like it is: a film for NASCAR fans and Southerners. If you don’t like racing and you don’t like Blue Collar TV, you may find yourself more than a tad bored with the film’s trajectory. Now I’m the first to admit that Larry the Cable Guy provided fabulous white trash humor in the film; and it may be the fact that I’ve been living in middle Tennessee for 15 years that let me laugh with his bubba truck character, Mater. But, really, even George Carlin, Click and Clack, and Cheech Marin couldn’t keep me from yawning as the predictable plot unfolded.
Pirates II ain’t Shakespeare, but if the plot truly was “barely intelligible” to Ms. Schwarzbaum, then I don’t know whether she was simply not paying attention or is looking for random excuses to hate the film. I was delighted with the twists and turns and never bored. Perhaps Lisa was not allowed to play pirates as a kid or they always made her swab the deck.
Finally, to blast Pirates II because its ending makes plain there’ll be a Pirates III but fail to note that Cars has spawned a billion-dollar merchandising extravaganza before the film was even released (and I’d guess there will more than likely be a TV show on the Disney channel by 2007) is to be blind, ignorant, or just incapable of a good film review. You be the judge.
After a fabulous evening of escapism to see Pirates of the Caribbean II on its opening night in Bradford, Pennsylvania with my mother and her husband, we decided to risk deflation by going to see Superman Returns the following night. I did not expect to enjoy the film much, not being a fan of the Christopher Reeve’s films and not particularly liking this particular superhero overmuch, finding him too stiff, too patriotic, too uptight. I generally prefer more complex, angst-ridden superheroes, from X-Men to Xena. So I was much surprised by what I found in this new Superman.
First, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Brandon Routh’s easy, comfortable portrayal. I liked his quiet voice; I relaxed into his small gestures and controlled, compelling facial expressions; I enjoyed his combination of confidence and insecurity. And I grooved on the silent and smooth way Superman flew. With a risk of falling prey to reactionary white masculinity in superheroic form, I found a real allure in his mellowness. Unlike the excessive X-Men, I did not feel overwhelmed by constant slashing and crashing. Unlike the twitchy adolescent Spiderman, I was not nervous watching him. Unlike the dark Batman of recent memory, I did not have to worry that he would act unpredictably, jarring my senses every scene.
What was best of all for me in the film was the way it challenged conservatism that I entirely expected to see. I’m not arguing the film is radical. But, I like that the film makes Lois a single mom with mediocre parenting skills to say the least. She forgets to pick her son up, takes him to follow up a lead that takes her right into Lex Luther’s lair, and doesn’t worry overmuch that he might be traumatized for life by what he has been through. I also really like that the limits of the nuclear family are pushed in the film. Lois’s fiancé Richard keeps his machismo at bay, doing a lot of the parenting (and better than mom) and letting Lois call the shots in their relationship, from waiting around until she is ready for marriage to going back to save Superman at her command despite his jealousy and fear that he may lose his already skittish fiancée to him. While the film could use this depiction to make the character dismissible, a placeholder until Superman can come along and sweep her off her feet again, it does not. As we see in Jason’s drawing of the family, Superman, Richard, Lois, and Jason can all be a family together. Ok, we don’t get true polyamory (Lois and Superman do not even kiss in the film), but we do get a sense of alternatives that do not require traditional marriage as an endpoint.
This is capped off with a resistance to gratuitous nationalism and flagwaving—as Superman lets us know that he hears the voices of the suffering all over the globe and not just in the God-blessed U.S. of A. This is highlighted when Perry White—played with love by Frank Langella—actively resists completion of the Superman tagline “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” reflecting that truth and justice are the real concerns here and the “American Way” is outdated, predictable, perhaps irrelevant, and maybe even distasteful in today’s global economy.
Such delights let me ignore the poor casting for Lois, the glaring plot gap of no one noticing Clark Kent is missing for the entire time that Superman is in the hospital, and troubling awareness of ongoing American desire for escapism in superhero discourse (however cynical it usually is) rather than waking up and changing the way we live our lives and practice our version of democracy. With chin clefts and ultra-blue contacts like Routh’s, it’s so tempting to feel reassured when Superman says, “I’m always around.”