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August 21, 2003

Disney Dads


I recently saw two children’s movies, “Finding Nemo,” (at the local cineplex) and “Lilo & Stitch” (on DVD.) This double-dose of animation got me thinking about the nature of “fatherhood” as described in animated film land (Disney division), and—I think—helped me to understand some of my own reactions to these two films.

As I remember, fathers don’t come off too well in classic Disney animation. In “Snow White,” the father is absent (dead, presumably) but in any event has effectively abandoned his daughter to the tender mercies of her wicked stepmother. Threatened by the heroine’s beauty and virtue, this aging sorceress—entirely unrestrained by out-to-lunch Dad—plots Snow White’s demise. While step-mom fails to actually do in Snow White, she does succeed in putting the heroine’s sexuality into deep freeze until an impossibly perfect male suitor shows up. (Gee, how well do you think that marriage went after she thawed out? Can you say "trust issues"?).

The father in Disney’s “Cinderella” is pretty much in the same position—AWOL on protecting his daughter from the hazards of an evil (step) mom. One must also infer that classic Disney dads were thinking with their johnsons when picking potential marriage partners as well as having a thing for “bad-to-the-bone” chicks. “Cinderella” goes beyond the formula of “Snow White” by introducing a second father in the form of Prince Charming’s dad, the King. This pint-sized monarch isn’t trying to squelch his son’s sexuality, exactly (he’s desperate for grandchildren) but he is trying to bully the boy about his choice of marriage partners. In short, he’s not exactly a model parent, either.

In contrast, from the post-Walt era of Disney animation, we have “The Lion King.” This movie offers a perfect father figure: Mustafa, the Lion King. Even though his bratty son Simba is clearly a bit over-eager to inherit the mantle of kingship (implying an inappropriate enthusiasm for seeing Daddy go bye-bye), daddy Mustafa is willing to lose his life rescuing the little guy from imminent death. Growing up in exile full of guilt for his father’s death, Simba has a hard time feeling entitled to the kingship or even enthusiastic body language (his mane droops). This problem is miraculously overcome by a mystical reappearance of Dad from the spirit world (what a guy!). Dad urges Simba to return from exile and claim the "crown" of the lion pride...along with all the lionesses. Simba thus gets exactly what he wanted all along sans guilt. Meanwhile, the negative aspects of real world fathers and sons are all conveniently displaced onto a rotten uncle, who’s so peerlessly morally tainted that he somehow manages to degrade the local countryside from a thriving savanna into a slough of despond. (Despite having a load of presumably fertile lionesses around, the rotten Uncle mysteriously hasn't produced any offspring while Simba's been growing up, leading to inevitable if not very P.C. questions about this villian's "unnatural" sexual orientation. Where's the ACLU when you need them?) Given the competition, who could doubt that little Simba has the mandate of heaven?

In short, for all the tendency of people to dismiss old Walt’s movies as anodyne fantasies, their treatment of fathers was far less sparing--if understated--than in Disney’s more modern fare. (This may reflect the apparently significant real-world tensions between Walt and his own father.)

My problem with “Finding Nemo” is that, like “The Lion King,” it portrays a father who is a perfect, or at least perfectible, being. (Given the financial success of "The Lion King" this may not have been an accidental point of resemblance.) Granted, Marlin the clownfish starts out as a rather conventional and other-directed zhlub at the start of the movie, trying to wheedle approval out of his wife for his success at buying a particularly desirable and prestigious home, one that a lot of other fish had their eyes on. But after the very location of his dream house leads to the death of his wife and hundreds of his offspring, he turns inward, focusing his care obsessively on protecting his one remaining son, Nemo. When his over-protectiveness goads Nemo into a display of pointless risk taking that gets the young boy kidnapped by spear fishermen, the father proceeds to grow beyond his small, neurotic persona, taking risk after risk and daring death repeatedly to rescue his son.

Hey, as an audience pleaser, this character works like a charm. Similarly, I assume, to the vast majority of humanity, I was not completely satisfied with the parenting I got growing up. No question, a part of me desperately wants to be Nemo of “Finding Nemo.” Heck, I’d even be willing to go through life as a little orange fish if it would get me parented by Marlin.

But the film also sets off my bull detector. Marlin’s over-protectiveness would have (in any real scenario) resulted in Nemo’s exile and eventual death. And over-protectiveness is something that Marlin indulges in for his own emotional reasons, not really out of concern for Nemo. But the film goes out of its way to show Marlin’s horrific back-story so that his over protectiveness won’t seem so damn self-centered, and that’s where the story goes wrong. Let’s face it; these sorts of conflicts of interest go on all the time in real world families. While, fortunately, these conflicts rarely have such final consequences, they do often leave lasting emotional scars. (I’ve got my share.) So while characters like Marlin are appealing as all get out, it’s dirty pool to put dads—or anyone else—on such a pedestal, especially by emotionally manipulative strategies such as are employed in “Finding Nemo.”

On the other hand, we have Lilo & Stitch, in which fatherhood is a chosen rather than a strictly natural state. The “father” in question is an artificial life form from outer space named Stitch, who was bioengineered to be a sort of 2-foot-tall, six-limbed Godzilla. His “daughter,” Lilo, is a stumpy little fireplug of a girl, who is—charmingly if not entirely believably—both fearless and highly precocious, confronting the world with a deadpan wit. Lilo has recently lost her parents in a car accident; the gaping hole in her emotions has transformed her from an ordinary little girl into something of an un-childlike freak. Her tendency to act out is a bit more than her older sister-cum-guardian Nani can handle.

Lilo and Stitch Meet Cute

When Nani decides Lilo should get a pet to help her emotional convalescence, Lilo runs into Stitch pretending (ludicrously) to be a “cute doggy” at an animal shelter. Lilo immediately wants to adopt him: his inability to be a credibly puppy matches her inability to be a normal little girl.

Put out by Disney’s Florida animation department, which seems to be spitballing its own style of animated stories, the movie is a goofball pop culture pastiche. The basic plot idea of an ultra-powerful alien coming to Earth to be the companion/father figure to a fatherless child seems ripped off from “The Iron Giant” and “E.T.” Not stopping there, however, we get characters like the social worker Cobra Bubbles (voiced by Ving Rhames) who seem to have been simultaneously looted from both “Pulp Fiction” and “Men In Black”; a gaggle of trigger-happy space aliens who seem to have drifted in from “Star Wars,” and, last but not least, Elvis Presley. (Lilo sees in Elvis a sort of fantasy father whose “Heartbreak Hotel” emotional darkness would allow him to understand her own anguish.)

Lilo Instructing Stitch in the Tao of Elvis

While most of these pop-culture rip-offs are just entertaining champagne fizz (either pure comic relief or to move the rather creaky vehicle of the plot along) Elvis’ presence is actually substantive—his sad biography lends the story bass notes as well as laughs.

Anyway, Stitch is thankfully far from being a neo-Disney “perfect” father. His pre-programmed responses all tend pretty much in the direction of death and destruction. However, given the lack of a major city on the Hawaiian island he’s crash-landed on and his inability to swim (he sinks like a lead weight), Stitch is balked in fulfilling his city-destroying destiny. Unable to achieve his “main purpose,” but compelled to continue acting out the role of family dog to avoid being captured by alien bag men, Stitch’s hyperactive brain starts noticing that Lilo and her older sister have a relationship that’s intriguing. Being himself the ultimate orphan—he is, of course, artificial—he begins to grok that the emotion and mutual commitment the girls display towards one another and towards him just might fill the gaping void in his own life. And when Lilo gets entangled in the alien maneuvers designed to recapture Stitch, he utilizes his outsized alien physical and mental powers to play the role of protector/daddy to the little girl.

So rather than being a sanitized figure whose even less than adroit parenting is supposed to derive from the best possible motives, Stitch is a sort of accidental daddy (with a seriously flawed disposition) who only gradually begins to understand how valuable a family can be and then chips in to “do his part” to protect it. Altogether, at least to this real-world dad, a more palatable notion of fatherhood.



P.S. Lilo & Stitch has another distinctly un-Disney-like element going for it: Lilo’s older sister (and surrogate mother) Nani. Despite being voiced by the glamorous Tia Carrere (described by Mike Myers in “Wayne’s World” as Babe-raham Lincoln), Nani is presented neither as a conventional Hollywood hottie nor as a typical Disney sidekick figure. She is, rather, a cute but nonetheless somewhat sturdily built young woman of action, first seen on the run, jumping over balconies, kicking car bumpers, and crawling through doggie doors.

Nani, Woman of Action

Committed to her sister but still a child herself in many ways, Nani has been thrust into the role of parent and adult by the deaths of her parents, and she is having a hard time making the gig work—as her rolling eyes, exaggerated body language and teenage physicality keep reminding us. A marvelous character, and congratulations to Ms. Carrrere, who does the best acting I’m aware of in her film career.

P.P.S. Coming at a time when traditional animation seems to be faltering in the face of competition from computer animation, L&S is a remarkably accomplished example of the traditional genre. The watercolor backgrounds—the first since Disney’s “classic” animation of the 1930s and 40s—are lush, intense, and almost psychedelically beautiful.

Check Out Those Clouds, Dude

After watching the movie conventionally I actually went back through the DVD to pause on the various watercolor background paintings that punctuate the film.

posted by Friedrich at August 21, 2003


"However, given the lack of a major city on the Hawaiian island he’s crash-landed on and his inability to swim (he sinks like a lead weight), Stitch is balked in fulfilling his city-destroying destiny. Unable to achieve his “main purpose,” but compelled to continue acting out the role of family dog to avoid being captured by alien bag men, Stitch’s hyperactive brain starts noticing that Lilo and her older sister have a relationship that’s intriguing. Being himself the ultimate orphan—he is, of course, artificial—he begins to grok that the emotion and mutual commitment the girls display towards one another and towards him just might fill the gaping void in his own life."

Well, yes. would be interesting to see what choice he made if he and the girls were magically transported to NYC and he did have a major city to destroy. You say he parents by choice. Or is it out of lack of choice? Would they still be interesting and important to him if his main function became available to him? It sounds like the movie doesn't quite answer that. And it would be interesting to know the answer. Would he still CHOOSE to include them, in circumstances when he has a viable choice?

But BRAVO to Disney for finally altering their standard female body type, and for illustrating that "families" are crafted many different ways, and are all to the good if needs are being met and joy is being shared. And I applaud anybody who protects a little girl, having been largely fed to the wolves as a child myself.

Posted by: annette on August 21, 2003 9:53 AM

Me, I get to see a lot of kid-vid these days, and Lilo and Stitch is pretty much the best thing to come down the pike in ages, for precisely all the reasons you mention. One point you missed, or at least didn't bring out--it's pretty clear, from Nani's comment to Lilo about leaving the Luau because the manager is a vampire and wanted her to join his legion of the Living Dead, that a) Nani's imagination is a lot like Lilo's, and b) Lilo probably got a lot of her strange ideas from her older sister. As a younger sibling, I can vouch for this.

Also, the hula sequences and accompanying music at the beginning of the film are simply breathtaking.
(Not a phrase I use very often.)

A minor niggle--Finding Nemo is distributed by Disney, but the creative control is all over at Pixar. It's a completely different shop than Disney's animation department.

Posted by: Will Duquette on August 21, 2003 11:10 AM

Annette: I'm a little vague on how Stitch would respond to your hypothetical, he being an animated character and all. However, to respond to the larger issue I think you're getting at: the movie makes the point that despite the fact that family often has a large "natural" component, it is by no means anywhere close to a wholly "natural" function. And the part that requires choices to be made and priorities to be set is probably the part that distinguishes "good" parenting from "so-so" parenting.

Will: As a younger sibling, I'm glad to know that my large store of nutty ideas can be blamed on my older brother. I can't wait to tell him. All kidding aside, I thought one of the best touches in "Lilo & Stitch" was the argument between the sisters which climaxes with both of them screaming into a pillow in separate rooms. Very sisterly.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 21, 2003 1:40 PM

Another bit I like about "Lilo and Stitch" is that Stitch, though genetically designed for destruction, takes personal responsibility for his life and changes his ways. He is not simply a product of his genes and his culture and his upbringing; he is an individual, with free will and determination, and he can choose to change his ways.

Posted by: Will Duquette on August 21, 2003 3:01 PM

Stitch isn't real??? See...due to the influence of two older brothers, I just can't keep this stuff straight...

Posted by: annette on August 21, 2003 3:33 PM

Haven't seen the movie, but...if Stitch is so hyper-intelligent, how come he couldn't figure his way onto a boat or plane to the mainland?

Looks like I'll have to rent it, take in those watercolor backgrounds, and find out!

Posted by: Nate on August 21, 2003 6:25 PM

Re: Jeremy Iron's effetely evil Uncle Scar in "The Lion King" -- Disney commonly uses older men of refinement (often with English accents) and implicitly questionable sexual orientation as villains: the Grand Vizier in Aladdin, the Governor in Pocohontas, the Cardinal in Hunchback, George Sanders great Shere Khan in Jungle Book, even Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Disney typically associates being English, upper class, and gay with being evil.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on August 21, 2003 10:07 PM

I'll throw my additional kudos into the ring for "Lilo and Stitch" - my whole family loves it. Make sure you check out the previews on the DVD - the ones where Stitch invades the previews of other Disney cartoons to the strains of AC/DC's "Back in Black" - surreal all unto itsownself.

And for everyone who liked "Lilo and Stitch", do yourself a favor, whether you have munchkins or not, and rent "The Emperor's New Groove". It's prolly the funniest of the Disney cartoons, and it's got an interesting take on fathers as well.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 22, 2003 11:31 AM

I may be off in my interpretation of this character in context, but Stitch didn't seem to me to exist in a father role. My feeling while watching was that he and Lilo operated more as siblings, with each having the opportunity to rescue and teach the other. He gave Lilo the chance to nurture another, as her sister was trying to find her way through the combined-parent role that was thrust upon her by the death of their true parents. The character who came closest to father-figure in my mind was Mr. Bubbles, who had the ability to appear when he was most needed, initially for Lilo's survival, then for Stitch, then the family as a whole.

How much of the plot structure and character design of Finding Nemo was Disney, and how much was Pixar? My impression was that Disney acted largely as a distributor, but that could be incorrect.


Posted by: Danny on August 22, 2003 3:00 PM

Do children like "Finding Nemo"? Was dragged to it by adult animation fans. Most of the actions follows the adult character and I'm not sure that this would appeal to kids - beyond the entertainmnt value of being a movie I mean.

Posted by: j.c. on August 22, 2003 7:39 PM

My daughter didn't like it at all, and she likes most of the Disney stuff. All of us, my wife, myself and daughter didn't really like Nemo.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on August 22, 2003 8:49 PM

It's not entirely true that creative control is entirely at Pixar, although de facto it is. The original contract Disney signed with Pixar in about 1994 gave Disney considerable ability to meddle, and Disney's influence on Toy Story was actually condsiderable. The present contract still gives Disney some ability to meddle in theory, but given that at this point Disney needs Pixar much more than the reverse, I can't imagine it has been exercised much lately. At the moment Disney and Pixar are trying to negotiate a new contract. Pixar will certainly have full creative control written into this one (if they even sign a deal at all - there have been some rumours lately that Pixar may go to 20th Century Fox).

Posted by: Michael Jennings on August 26, 2003 5:48 PM

Thanks for the update, Mr. Jennings. I suspected, but did not know, that Disney had more creative input than was generally described in the press.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on August 27, 2003 11:23 AM

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