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Must every kids' movie reinforce the cult of self-esteem?
August 13, 2013 5:13 AM   Subscribe

"The restless protagonists of these films never have wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can't fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it's the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community." (Atlantic article)
posted by forza (145 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
Reminds me of how the trailer for We Bought A Zoo sent me into a rage when Matt Damon explained that "all you need is heart." No! What you need are business skills and a veterinary degree, or the money to hire people who have them! Believing in your special snowflake can-do-ness is not enough!
posted by Flannery Culp at 5:20 AM on August 13, 2013 [64 favorites]


Good article. Not being a votary of the self-esteem cult, it makes me wonder what the effect of watching the same movie or reading the same book with the same trope does to a kid. I had forgotten what a beat-down Charlie Brown was, but I guess that's just because it was a pretty realistic take on kids' interaction with the world around them.
posted by resurrexit at 5:21 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Fwiw, in Monsters University Mike fails dramatically at being a 'top notch scarer'. That movie had two, minor, subversive messages. You don't always achieve your dreams and you don't need college to survive.
posted by edgeways at 5:22 AM on August 13, 2013 [24 favorites]


And what do these movies teach us about people who actually persevere, not past a single failure but hundreds, who work hard to refine their skills? They're nothing but mooks for the dreamers to defeat through the wonder of their mills.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:23 AM on August 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


School of Rock was a clever exception to this rule.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:23 AM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Garfield comics prepared me for turning into Jon Arbuckle as an adult.
posted by orme at 5:27 AM on August 13, 2013 [25 favorites]


...never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community.

Yup. One of the positive points of American culture, responsible for most if not all American scientific and technical innovation for the past 200 years, and one of the few social forces standing in the way of a complete breakdown in class mobility.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:27 AM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Following one's dreams necessarily entails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he's "been flying day after day over these same fields for years." Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and Chet fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.


Compare and contrast to It's a Wonderful Life, whose protagonist never fulfills his dreams of building mighty bridges and traveling the world, instead realizing that his true happiness lies in his mundane existence with family and friends who love him.
posted by Gelatin at 5:28 AM on August 13, 2013 [26 favorites]


Another in-passing validation (heh) of Hayao Miyazaki's best movies. They're mostly about achieving (sometimes modest) goals by thinking things through and applying serious, ass-busting hard work. Innate gifts and self-esteem don't go far in his world; they're mostly the posessions of people who've inherited their status and are, if anything, petards to be hoisted by.
posted by ardgedee at 5:30 AM on August 13, 2013 [23 favorites]


Reminds me of how the trailer for We Bought A Zoo sent me into a rage when Matt Damon explained that "all you need is heart." No! What you need are business skills and a veterinary degree, or the money to hire people who have them! Believing in your special snowflake can-do-ness is not enough!

The best movie about how all you need is heart is Peter Weir's The Mosquito Coast.
posted by gauche at 5:31 AM on August 13, 2013 [35 favorites]


And what do these movies teach us about people who actually persevere, not past a single failure but hundreds, who work hard to refine their skills?

The movie is only an hour long. The training montage is the stand-in for the hundreds of failures.

Reminds me of how the trailer for We Bought A Zoo sent me into a rage when Matt Damon explained that "all you need is heart." No! What you need are business skills and a veterinary degree, or the money to hire people who have them! Believing in your special snowflake can-do-ness is not enough!

It's never enough - that's what makes the movie entertaining, discovering the practical setbacks and how they're overcome or integrated in the success through cleverness, hard won experience (gained through said montage scene) or through building interpersonal relationships. You know. Like in real life (only without a montage scene.)
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:32 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


what do these movies teach us about people who actually persevere, not past a single failure but hundreds, who work hard to refine their skills?

Nothing at all, but like the example of Charlie Brown given in the article the classic cartoons are far better.

My five year old has discovered Coyote and Roadrunner. His take, "Daddy, Coyote is really, really smart but he has the worst luck. That Roadrunner is pretty smart too."

I think that's a pretty good life lesson. Even a genius can be outdone by luck or outwitted by another smart person and all of your best-laid plans can end up in a puff of dust as they hit the ground. All you can do is go back to the Acme catalog and plan something new....

Never quitting is a better, more useful and more realistic example than unrealistic success.
posted by three blind mice at 5:33 AM on August 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


The Charlie Brown read in the second half of the article is worth a read on its own...

It took nearly 43 years before Schulz allowed Charlie Brown to slug a game-winning homerun...

Charlie Brown is posited as the more realistic representation of life that children should entertain. Struggle, hard work, resilience, hope, disappointment, friendship, loneliness, and all the other nuances of real life (as opposed to reel life I suppose).

I recall growing out of cartoon films at the same time as the 'cult of self-esteem' was developing. I watched with younger family members as complex situations were replaced with endless cheerleading. The entire film is about being the best, dominating all competitors simply based on desire and perceived ability. Then I found it rather boring, as the end result was always obvious, then it was just a matter of what barriers were thrown up – although those were relatively uninteresting as they would always be overcome.

And not to say there is not a distinctly attractive quality to infinite victory. To be inspired that anything is possible simply out of desire is an epic suggestion. How wonderful it would be if that was true! The greatest shift seems to be from the journey to the outcome. The journeys are just forgone conclusions to successful outcomes. We know the protagonist is going to be hero, it's just a matter of when. In the entertainment industry, this is known. Hence, why movies so often end on a high note. The audience wants the safety of knowing the result will be uplifting. All children now want to be heroes, because they think that's how the story always will end.

A writing professor once made the observation of pop media's relationship to work. Either work is the predominate driver of the story, or work is absent. When looking at The Grapes Of Wrath, it was about life, and work was part of that. Today, either work is glorified as something totally absorbing and amazing, or it is largely absent altogether. This is the logical extension of the hero story for children. Either work is magical and engrossing, or it's irrelevant. Is it any wonder we have a culture where half the adults work enormous numbers of hours, and the other half are part-time?

A friend always says that I make too much of pop culture. That these things don't matter. They're just stories. Nobody takes them seriously. But I think they do matter. Television is arguably as influential an instructor as proper teachers in many cases. The brain doesn't differentiate as to the source of lessons. A lesson is a lesson. Is it any wonder that the result is a nation full of people who categorically believe they are the best in the world, when in reality by all measures they are slipping? The hollow pride of belief so engrained, it banishes even the entertainment of a different reality, at a time when record numbers of Americans are giving up their passports. At a time where the middle class is completely collapsing and the real options of these children are much more limited than even the secondary characters in the hero story.

But with such an emphasis on the sanctity of childhood, and worship of the necessity of adolescence, it's probably not surprising. "Real life is hard," friends say, "they don't need to learn that now." Childhood media used to be about right and wrong. Good and evil, and the choices each side made. Granted, there is an absolutist agenda present there, but at least it was two-sided. Whilst it is probably unnecessary to expose children to the harsh realities of the world they will inevitably later discover, we're not doing them any favours by presenting a false road that for most isn't even an option...
posted by nickrussell at 5:39 AM on August 13, 2013 [23 favorites]


...and I'm also going to take a moment to remark on how badly Pixar has devolved since their sale to Disney. Before the aquisition, their less than best work has managed to be worthwhile wastes of time and better than the average blockbuster fare... But their features post-acquisition seem to show them slowly getting ground down by Disney's worst impulses: Sequelitis, ever-more-simplistic characters that are readily translatable into toys, and kids' movies that are blatantly kids' movies, rather than all-ages fare. They even had to make their own marketable princess character -- that Disneyesque merit-through-inheritance thing that they could have detourned but didn't. Every year I hope Pixar is churning out easy moneymakers to build up goodwill in-house for the go-ahead to make anything as adventurous as Wall-E or The Incredibles, and every spring the buildup to Cars V: Too Quick Too Cute arrives instead. Bummer.
posted by ardgedee at 5:42 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think there's something to the thesis of this article, but I disagree that Pixar's films (in particular) are shot through with a naive believe-in-yourself-and-you'll-conquer-everything message.

In Ratatouille, Remy the rat has always had a fascination with and talent for cooking. He has to overcome his status as a rat, as opposed to an initial lack of skill—and overcoming the prejudice of extant power structures certainly is something many newcomers to a field face.

Monsters U is even more critical of this narrative—Mike Wazowski clearly believes with hard work and dedication, he can become a great scarer. He gets to the program and finds himself outmatched by monsters with far more natural talent, but continues to believe that if he works harder and wants it more, he can become scary.

The film's lowest point comes as a direct result of his friend continuing to enable this delusion. It is brutal in its honesty about what happens when you tell someone what they want to hear instead of what you know to be true.

Given knowledge of the events in the first film, Monsters U even sets up a kind of hitchcockian suspense, because we the audience know both that Mike is never going to be a scary monster no matter how hard he tries or how badly he wants it, but also that he going to find his calling in life (that of being one of the greatest scare trainers of all time) and eventually, he's going to completely revolutionize monster society.

Truth be told, I got choked up several times watching Monsters U, a film I honestly don't believe has been given its critical due. Watching Mike struggle and knowing that he was never going to achieve the dream he'd held for his entire live is a deeply resonant and poignant narrative, made sweeter by the additional knowledge that eventually he is going to succeed in a profound way, through an almost Kuhnian paradigm shift that rendered the nature of that success necessarily beyond his comprehension as a student.

The message of Monsters U, if we care to extract one, is that the hard work is its own reward, regardless of its outcome. Mike Wazowski never became a great scarer. But in working so hard for so long—in spending all those years being bad at things, getting used to absolutely everything requiring long, hard effort—he made a lifelong friend, found his true calling, and put himself in the position that would later make him into a legend. And all of that happened because he learned how to work really fucking hard.

If I teach my hypothetical children anything, I want it to be that being good at being bad at things is more important than being good at anything else.
posted by Sokka shot first at 5:45 AM on August 13, 2013 [87 favorites]


One of my favorite animated Christmas specials subverts this message: the Bloom County-based A Wish for Wings that Work (YouTube). Opus doesn't end up flying—he ends up having to use his penguin swimming abilities to do something cool instead. The message is more that "everyone has talents that are useful, and not everyone has to fly" than "you can do anything." Opus can't fly, no matter how badly he wants to and how badly he keeps trying to.

Also, Bill the Cat is hilarious in cartoon form.
posted by epilnivek at 5:50 AM on August 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


ever-more-simplistic characters that are readily translatable into toys

My grandson spent the other morning reminding me, every 15 minutes, that the book for Planes is now available at WalMart, and that he really, really really wanted it. "But the movie isn't out yet!" I protested. "You can't buy merchandise until after you've seen the movie. What if the movie sucks? Then I'll have wasted my money on something you don't like."

He stared at me, cloaked in all of his 6-year-old certainty. "The movie is NOT going to suck," he said. "I've seen the previews."
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 5:51 AM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Does an on-point observation about the sameness of movie plots have to be co-opted into a crotchety rant that the kids these days dare think too highly of themselves and don't know to sit down and shut up and take what they're given?
posted by edheil at 5:52 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


@ Sokka - "It is brutal in its honesty about what happens when you tell someone what they want to hear instead of what you know to be true."

This. Definitely this. And it applies in ALL aspects of life. "You can afford the easy payments!" on that Ferrari on a barrista's pay.

Reality just sucks when it steps on your dreams - but sometimes that's the best thing that can happen to you because it jolts you out of your dream and forces you to make your life work in a reality that's much more complex and satisfying.
posted by JB71 at 5:57 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm not certain I'd call Ralph and Monsters University as examples of the theme because both films involve succeeding by playing to the characters' strengths, not denying their weaknesses. Neither Mike nor Ralph get what they initially want, instead, they end up partners in something arguably better.

I also suspect that "magic feather syndrome" is possibly a bit of an exaggeration.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:58 AM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Kung Fu Panda irritated me to no small degree on that front. Forgive me for reading too much into this.

The panda is fat, and likes the good life, and has virtually no skills. He has courage. His evil-fighting colleagues - the mantis and the tigress etc - are not fat and are somewhat ascetic. They have trained for an unspecified, but long time, in their chosen martial arts.

Despite this, the panda is quickly established both as the natural leader and the last thing left standing between good and evil. I don't think it is too much of a stretch to describe the panda as an 'American' character and the mantis, tigress etc as more 'Asian'.

The messages from that movie are just so wrong. From the Americancentric racism to the message that a special kind of dumb, naive bravery is enough to triumph where determined, brave and expert practitioners are unable to do so.

Unlike most movies where plucky upstart prevails against the odds, Kung Fu Panda seemed to be particularly obnoxious in its underlying message.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:00 AM on August 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


...and I'm also going to take a moment to remark on how badly Pixar has devolved since their sale to Disney.

PLANES is not a Pixar movie. It is a movie made by Disney animation, with no input from Pixar.

Since 2006, the year it was sold to Disney, Pixar has made:
RATATOUILLE, WALL-E, UP, TOY STORY 3, CARS 2, BRAVE, MONSTERS U.

Four originals, three sequels, and while yes yes we all hate CARS, that's the head of the company's pride and joy, so it's hard to discount him wanting to make it. I challenge you to find a better run of three movies from a studio than WALL-E, UP, and TOY STORY 3, all movies that had broad, wide-ranging appeal and dealt with a variety of more complex and adult issues than most live-action movies. I still don't understand why people have such a stick in their craw about BRAVE or MONSTERS U, both strong movies with interesting things to say. Anyway.

The idea that Disney poisoned Pixar is foolishness.
posted by incessant at 6:02 AM on August 13, 2013 [38 favorites]


When my wife and I went to see Monsters, Inc., we caught a trailer for Turbo. At some point someone utters the line "Snails shouldn't race with cars" or something like that. In response, my wife turns to me and whispers in utter seriousness "He makes a good point." I made (and make) a great deal of fun of her for taking the movie's premise so seriously, but I don't really disagree with the article. We spend a lot of time telling kids to dream big, which is fine enough, but the concomitant message to shun the mundane aspects of life or to be unsatisfied with merely being average is pretty poisonous to the 99% of people who don't achieve "big" things with their lives and who have to find other ways to be happy.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:03 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


The article points to some interesting stuff. I think, though, that painting these movies as a response to an entitled generation is pretty silly (and the essay does skew towards blaming a bunch of little kids).

If anything, I notice that as real possibilities for good jobs, financial security and general fulfillment decline, we're getting these movies that assure us that anyone who wants enough can be, basically, a rock star or some kind of creative-class CEO. Isn't the moral of the story not "kids, you are all super-special" but "when you grow up, you'll be lucky if you're a cubicle drone, and that's because you didn't believe in yourself"?
posted by Frowner at 6:05 AM on August 13, 2013 [16 favorites]


Does an on-point observation about the sameness of movie plots have to be co-opted into a crotchety rant that the kids these days dare think too highly of themselves and don't know to sit down and shut up and take what they're given?

Well yes, it's The Atlantic's website. Picking low hanging fruit and then twisting it to match or meet an already perceived point of view in order to get page views is the exact point. Heck, we'll even throw in a viewpoint from an author who already clearly agrees with the thesis of the article. This'll help repeat common themes, which re-enforces them, just like political points regurgitated for slack jawed masses. Throw in a dose of "Look how better things were back in my day" and you've got winning formula, just like the films the author is complaining about!

Kids need heart. It's what is going to sustain them while they're slogging through the boring and hard phases. It's that little something inside that'll make them realize that no, they don't have to do what everyone else is doing, that it's ok to think of and dream the impossible. That people are cheering on Charlie Brown, the relentless loser and sour puss who is constantly mocked, instead of the wide eye misfits and dreamers is not something I would have expected to see on Metafilter.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:09 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't think it is too much of a stretch to describe the panda as an 'American' character and the mantis, tigress etc as more 'Asian'

I'd call that a radical interpretation of the text.
posted by kmz at 6:11 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Cars was a truly awful film. I can't imagine why anyone would bother with sequels to it. The Little Cars: The great Race is a superior film, though it's not clear who ripped-off whom, since they were released the same year. Little Cars also suffers from the plot where completely unrealistic expectations are fulfilled - a taxicab becomes a winning stock-car racer - but it doesn't have the insufferable Lightning McQueen.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:12 AM on August 13, 2013


a crotchety rant that the kids these days dare think too highly of themselves and don't know to sit down and shut up and take what they're given?

The rant is not so much "take what you're given," but that these "attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good."

That's a challenge to libertarians and social progressives alike.
posted by three blind mice at 6:12 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


“If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you'll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren't so lazy.”
― Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men
posted by drnick at 6:14 AM on August 13, 2013 [69 favorites]


I think this trend started with Malle's Murmur of the Heart. Kids, don't follow your dreams.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:16 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a major children's entertainment complaint of mine, second only to the "let's show kids behaving badly so they can Learn a Lesson," which only succeeds in teaching my kid new and exciting ways to misbehave. Which is why my kids are growing up watching only cat videos on YouTube.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:21 AM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


... and now spend their free time licking their own bums, chasing flies and falling awkwardly off the top of sofas.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:24 AM on August 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


One of the things I love about Adventure Time is the fact that Finn and Jake both suck at things, but not the things they practice all the time. Finn works hard at being a champion of justice and agonizes when he doesn't get it right. Jake has innate magical powers but gets it wrong just as much as Finn.

My favorite quote from the show is from Jake to Finn. "Dude, suckin’ at something is the first step to being sorta good at something." It's a great, great lesson and one I wish I had learned as a kid.
posted by infinitewindow at 6:27 AM on August 13, 2013 [33 favorites]


It's probably because my jaw is still hanging from the Season 5.2 premiere, but I can't help but see Breaking Bad's Walter White as the ultimate outcome of a life lived through this lens.
posted by Shepherd at 6:29 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Reminds me of how the trailer for We Bought A Zoo sent me into a rage when Matt Damon explained that "all you need is heart." No! What you need are business skills and a veterinary Sdegree, or the money to hire people who have them! Believing in your special snowflake can-do-ness is not enough!

Boy, that'd be a great kid's movie. "No, we can't do this. It is too hard and complicated." Curtains close, the end, roll credits.

Call me crazy, but I think that telling kids that they'll be surprised what they can accomplish if they really put their hearts into it is not all that terrible a lesson. They're not adult movies, cranky adults!
posted by mhoye at 6:30 AM on August 13, 2013


Yeah I mean I do think that hard work is somewhat undervalued in film and popular media, but this is an inevitable part of the form. The montage exists to demonstrate our hero actually putting the effort in (such as in Kung Fu Panda), but it can skim over it. When you get down to it, true accomplishment does indeed come from hard work, but it does also stem from self belief. One needs self belief precisely because hard work is hard. Precisely because the first time you try to do something you won't be very good at it, but the thousandth time you might be better. I love the Peanuts books, and there is a place for the person who has tried something a thousand times and still fails, but I also don't think its necessarily always going to be the case. Charlie Brown did get that home run, after all....
posted by Cannon Fodder at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Back in my day, we walked uphill both ways through snow to go to school to read Jude the Obscure and Light in August and we liked it, damnit.
posted by kmz at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Call me crazy, but I think that telling kids that they'll be surprised what they can accomplish if they really put their hearts into it is not all that terrible a lesson. They're not adult movies, cranky adults!

Well, kids generally tuns into adults, barring tragedies.

The problem is, sometimes you try and fail and THAT'S OK and you can still learn things from that. That's probably more common, but also probably more valuable to know.
posted by showbiz_liz at 6:36 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Boy, that'd be a great kid's movie. "No, we can't do this. It is too hard and complicated." Curtains close, the end, roll credits.

I think there are two conversations happening here.

One is the "it's good to tell children to dream big and chase their dreams" conversation.

The other is the "it's not so good to tell children that the mundane business of life is bullshit and they don't need hard work or perseverance if they just believe" conversation.

"Let's start a zoo!" "No, too complicated!" would indeed be a crap movie. But "Let's start a zoo!" "Great idea! Here's what we need to do..." followed by a movie about the actual hard and often shitty business of starting a zoo would be potentially a great movie.

Nobody is saying bah dreams here. Many people are saying that "you can be exceptional at anything, and leave the boring work for the chumps" is The Secret-level bullcrap that we don't need to transfer to another generation.
posted by Shepherd at 6:39 AM on August 13, 2013 [20 favorites]


When you're a kid, media directed at you never sucks. What sucks is growing up and realizing that those things you thought we're awesome are really just dreck.
posted by Brocktoon at 6:39 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


But their features post-acquisition seem to show them slowly getting ground down by Disney's worst impulses: Sequelitis,

Pixar's 2nd movie was a sequel!!

The first three Disney fims after the buyout were Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up.

Toy Story 3 was a sequel - again, of their second film, but given the reviews and accolades, who cares? It was a great movie, and it deserved the Best Motion Picture nomination. All I can say is "more sequels like that, please!!"

Yeah, Cars 2 sucked, and Planes was promoted from video release. But that was followed by Brave, which is a good movie, and MU, which has gotten very good reviews.

Yes, Finding Dory might well be a sequel, but I love the possibilities, and The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out are both original films.

So, you know, the thesis doesn't hold water. Yes, Cars 2, but that's the outlier in a series of very good to outstanding films from Pixar.
posted by eriko at 6:41 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Oh, and a cow orker corrects me. Planes is not a Pixar movie, it's from DisneyToon studios.
posted by eriko at 6:43 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Charlie Brown is posited as the more realistic representation of life that children should entertain. Struggle, hard work, resilience, hope, disappointment, friendship, loneliness, and all the other nuances of real life (as opposed to reel life I suppose).

Only if you think children should consign themselves to an inescapably fatalistic life that's completely rigged against them ever achieving any measure of happiness. Charlie Brown is The Woobie after all.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 6:43 AM on August 13, 2013


The whole build kids self esteem so that they can achieve is based on a false premise. Kids with high self esteem were repeatedly noted to perform well at school. This led to the industry of building high self esteem to create better performance. However, subsequent research has shown this to be a miserable failure: increasing self esteem has no affect on performance. Turns out the kids with high self esteem had high self esteem because they performed well and not the other way around. In fact constantly telling your kid they are smart can be damaging as they may fear to try in case they fail and disappoint. A much better strategy is to praise with comments like 'your hard work paid off' when appropriate. This has been shown to improve outcomes.
posted by drnick at 6:46 AM on August 13, 2013 [16 favorites]


Kids need heart. It's what is going to sustain them while they're slogging through the boring and hard phases. It's that little something inside that'll make them realize that no, they don't have to do what everyone else is doing, that it's ok to think of and dream the impossible.

This is true, and I think the extent to which films like Planes and Turbo rankle more than others is predicated on how fable-y you like your fables.

Comparing Planes to (say) Ratatouille, while both are films about plucky misfits trying to pursue their dream, the difference is that Remy the rat, while being a mere rate, is still naturally talented at cooking, while Dusty the crop-duster is literally, actually, just a crop-duster with dreams.

Both are sort of positioned as films about working hard and overcoming the prejudice of the establishment, but the problem with Planes is that said prejudice is not only repeated by various characters, it is also built right into the world of the film, because Dusty IS NOT A RACING PLANE.

When Dusty wins despite, you know, not being the fast kind of plane, it flies in the face of the SFnal conceit of the film, which is that these are all, you know, airplanes. In effect, it says: Hey, if you believe in yourself enough, your belief will warp the laws of reality. This is a very different message than Ratatouille's, where the obstacle Remy has to overcome is the (albeit maybe understandable) bigotry of the human culinary world, not the physics of the universe around him.

But that's where the dispute lies, because if you're willing to read the whole talking-planes fable more loosely, with "crop-duster" meant to be a stand in for "underprivileged" or "unpedigreed" or whatever, then sure, Dusty's belief in himself is credible fuel for his triumph.

Meanwhile, the SF nerd in me can't help but take goofy settings pretty literally, so this kind of thing bothers me. I'm not necessarily on board with the kids-these-daysing of the Atlantic piece, but I'll generally prefer more complicated and realistic portrayals of effort and reward to easier, simpler ones.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:48 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I saw Cars this weekend and it actually reinforced the opposite of this. The main character is spoiled and selfish and must be taught to respect community and his elders. His final triumphant act is coming in last on purpose. It's cheesy, but as far as messaging goes, exactly what I'd want my kid to take it.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:50 AM on August 13, 2013 [16 favorites]


I saw Wall-E mentioned in passing, but I can't stress enough how much I love it as a gentle counter-example. We need more films with a character who, like Camus' Sisyphus, takes joy in a difficult task and does it well and who, unlike Charlie Brown, is able to do great things and succeed through perseverance. Is everything "ok" in the end? Absolutely not! It's implied that generations upon generations of work is needed to fix what we've broken, which is not only realistic but a great lesson in long-long-term thinking.
posted by Mooseli at 6:58 AM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


The panda is fat, and likes the good life, and has virtually no skills. He has courage. His evil-fighting colleagues - the mantis and the tigress etc - are not fat and are somewhat ascetic. They have trained for an unspecified, but long time, in their chosen martial arts.

This misses the point - Po is valuable because he has innate talent, unusual physical gifts, and an outsider's perspective that provides a good counterbalance to the villain's insider understanding of his enemies.

Both Po and Shifu learning this, and learning to work together to overcome differences and both of their bad habits is the point of the film. Shifu cannot defeat the menace without embracing Po's individuality, and Po can't defeat the menace without learning self control and discipline from Shifu and his peers.

Tolerance, empathy and self-improvement through co-operation are pretty good messages.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:59 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Another good series of counter-examples are the Tinkerbell movies Disney has been putting out. In the first movie, Tinkerbell is naturally skilled as a tinker, but wants to be good at something else more glamorous. There is a montage in the middle of the film of her trying and failing to be good at something else, and the end result is that she managed to ruin everything. Only by embracing her natural talent and working hard does she manage to fix what she broke and save the day.

In one of the sequels, Tinkerbell breaks a magic moonstone she needs to make a scepter, but she hears of a legend of a magic mirror which will grant her a wish. She builds a bunch of contraptions to get to the mirror to wish away her mistake, but due to a plot contrivance wastes her wish on something else. Then she applies some Fairy Science to the broken moonstone, and by working hard, manages to fix her mistake.

The Tinkerbell movies are great kids movies in a lot of other ways, as well. Much better than they had any right to be (Thanks, John Lasseter!)
posted by Elementary Penguin at 7:07 AM on August 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


Nobody is saying bah dreams here. Many people are saying that "you can be exceptional at anything, and leave the boring work for the chumps" is The Secret-level bullcrap that we don't need to transfer to another generation.

The essay doesn't help this by being dead wrong about half of the movies it cites in a single paragraph, and possibly wrong about a third. I've not seen Kung-Fu Panda or Ratatouille to have an informed opinion there.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 7:10 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is why Shaw Brothers kung fu films make the best kids' movies. Not only will you get your ass kicked right off the bat and probably see your father killed as a direct result of your braggadocio, you'll also discover that studying and practicing and becoming the best puncher and kicker may be enough to kill the hundred thugs who iced your pop, but if you think that makes you tough enough to beat the white-bearded villain who sent them, go ahead and try it. You'll end up with a compress of healing powders stuck to your forehead or a poisonous handprint on your chest: you need more than just skills and practice. You need hidden techniques best learned from puzzling books or secret sages to master the intricate sequence of punches that will trigger your final victorious freeze-frame.

Just like real life.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 7:12 AM on August 13, 2013 [40 favorites]


Boy, that'd be a great kid's movie. "No, we can't do this. It is too hard and complicated." Curtains close, the end, roll credits.

"Hey Yankees . . . You can take your apology and your trophy and shove 'em straight up your ass!" A simpler kid's movie, from a simpler time.
posted by The Bellman at 7:16 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


> It's probably because my jaw is still hanging from the Season 5.2 premiere, but I can't help but see Breaking Bad's Walter White as the ultimate outcome of a life lived through this lens.

This is a great insight. I'd also suggest Michael Scott as a comedy version of the same thing.
posted by officer_fred at 7:17 AM on August 13, 2013


Slap*Happy I don't think it does miss the point even though your reading of the plot is correct.

It's a charitable reading, or rather an American-centric artifice, that Po has unique talent and gifts that make him valuable. It also questionable what Shifu really has to learn from Po.

In both cases the answer appears less to be 'tolerate difference and accept different viewpoints or ways of doing things' and feels more like 'those Asians need to loosen up and let an American open his special can of whoop ass and show them how it's done.'

In the same way villains in movies are often arrogant, intellectual Europeans against homespun all Americans. The underlying racism is dressed up as human flaws but as a non American you tend to notice, amazingly, how the virtues of the hero align closely with the same repeated Americanised view of 'the hero' - generally dumb, brave and gutsy but able to draw on expedient flashes of inspiration to defeat better qualified or equipped opponents.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:18 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a charitable reading, or rather an American-centric artifice, that Po has unique talent and gifts that make him valuable.

I don't agree with the ethnic interpretation - the movie is basically a Sammo Hung flick in cartoon form, where all of the "American" traits you identify are present in Sammo's hero characters.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:24 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Monsters University was not that bad on the rah-rah-dream front. Mike (the one-eyed green round guy) dreamed of being a great scarer, but he got kicked out of school. He sucked at scaring and when Sully rigged it for him to score well, it hurt him pretty badly. His buddy Sully (the large turquoise guy), who had great natural scaring talent and came from a family of great scarers, also got kicked out of school... because having great natural talent and a famous family name is *not* enough to coast on, either. You still have to follow the rules and do the work, no matter how awesome your talent is or how famous your family name is.

Both of them became, like, janitors at the scare factory. They were college dropouts and they started at the ground floor and worked their way up in the business, from cleaning the floors. Slowly. Yeah, it's covered in a montage, but it's absolutely years of work, gradually working "scut" jobs and doing well at them -- the montage showed janitor awards and stuff -- and then being promoted and so forth, until that day (at the end of the montage) when Mike finally gets to cross the line and go scare someone for real. Not sure what movie everybody else saw, but that was the takeway I got out of it. Mike never was a top scarer -- he was a hard worker and he succeeded (eventually, and NOT by being a "top scarer" in the traditional sense) because he worked his ass off, patiently and consistently, for years.
posted by which_chick at 7:24 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yes, Cars is one of the weaker Pixar offerings, but I wanted to point out how it actually inverts this trope. Potomac Avenue beat me to it:
The main character is spoiled and selfish and must be taught to respect community and his elders. His final triumphant act is coming in last on purpose.

Yes, exactly.
posted by Gelatin at 7:38 AM on August 13, 2013


I don't think this problem extends only to children's movies. Take the Star Trek reboot films, for instance: Nu-Kirk displays stunning levels of incompetence and unfitness for command throughout both movies, but the screenwriters still have all of the other characters bend over backwards to let Nu-Kirk be captain BECAUSE DESTINY.
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:51 AM on August 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


The article is contrarian silliness. Other people have made this point piecemeal, but look at the imdb list of top-grossing US family titles (I assume not adjusted for inflation).
  1. Shrek 2 - An inversion of the standard "prince charming marries the princess" trope that reinforces the importance of honesty between family members, sacrifice for others, and true love over superficial beauty. The protagonist suceeds because of the relationships he has forged with friends and his williness to sacrifice.
  2. The Lion King - You can't run away from your responsibilities. The protagonist suceeds in the climactic fight because he learned responsibility, loyalty, and a sweet flip move from his friends.
  3. Toy Story 3 - Childhood is fleeting, sometimes even if you are kind others will not be kind in return, but you should still be kind anyway, trust in your friends, embrace change. Protagonists must adapt to changes they cannot control but do not sacrifice their agency, instead conspiring to improve their situation and bring happiness to a new child.
  4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - Even the chosen one can't defeat evil without his friends. Don't abandon your friends. Protagonist suceeds because of hard work, natural talent, willingness of friends to sacrifice for him and willingness to sacrifice himself.
  5. Finding Nemo - Parents will go to extreme lengths to protect their children, and this is good, but they also shouldn't smother them. Nemo learns to be a little less reckless, Marlin learns to let go. Protagonist suceeds because he learns to adapt, braves danger to rescue his son, and learns from those whom he encounters on the journey.
  6. Despicable Me 2 - importance of honesty, skepticism (of superficial too-easy solutions). Protagonist suceeds because of combination of luck, loyalty of old friends, and learning to be honest.
  7. Alice in Wonderland - The heroine rejects the stifling conformity of her society in order to seek out a life of useful fulfilling work. Bonus points for being the only one on the list with a female protagonist.
  8. Shrek the Third - haven't seen this one but it broadly follows the other Shrek movies in theme and moral lessons.
  9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - See 4, with slightly less work and slightly more luck on Harry's part.
  10. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 - See 4
None of these movies serve the cult of self esteem, though obviously "believe in yourself" is a message in all of them.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:52 AM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think Gattaca is a very nice test case for this way of reading movies.

One way to read the ending is that Ethan Hawke overcomes the naysayers and becomes an astronaut even though his inherited characteristics are supposed to make that impossible.

But I think a much better read is that Hawke does in fact have a heart attack and drop dead in the capsule immediately after the movie stops. That way, the movie ends up honoring the Charlie Brown ideal of trying very, very hard, not because you think this leads to certain success, but rather despite the fact that you are very likely to fail.
posted by escabeche at 7:54 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


When Dusty wins despite, you know, not being the fast kind of plane, it flies in the face of the SFnal conceit of the film, which is that these are all, you know, airplanes. In effect, it says: Hey, if you believe in yourself enough, your belief will warp the laws of reality. This is a very different message than Ratatouille's, where the obstacle Remy has to overcome is the (albeit maybe understandable) bigotry of the human culinary world, not the physics of the universe around him.

I wish to learn more about the physics that forbids a crop duster from flying faster than a racing plane, but allows a rat to cook food in a restaurant.
posted by escabeche at 7:55 AM on August 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


A Boy Named Charlie Brown might come across now as harsh and unforgiving—especially to audiences that aren't familiar with the comic strip's cruel undercurrents—but its lessons are more enduring than those from movies where characters fulfill their impossible dreams. Charlie Brown learns through Linus's tough-love speech that failure, no matter how painful, is not permanent, and that the best means of withstanding it is simply to show up the next day to school with the fortitude to try again. Losing also forces Charlie Brown to come to terms with his own limitations. He can't rely on a miraculous victory to rescue him from his tormented childhood. He followed his dream, it didn't pan out, and he ends up more or less where he started, only a little more experienced and presumably with a little more respect from his peers.
This reminded me of an article posted on MeFi recently about a baseball player who didn't make it in the majors, who simply keeps playing in the minor leagues, even though he knows he's "failed" to achieve his dreams. My google-foo is failing me, but if I recall, he wasn't mopey about his ho-hum fate, but rather gracious that he'd had a chance to play a game he loved for as long as he had. Even though he never became a superstar, he was respected by his teammates and seemed perfectly content with where he ended up. We could all stand to hear more stories like that to counter the influence of our celebrity-obsessed culture.
posted by deathpanels at 8:00 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


but allows a rat to cook food in a restaurant.

I see you've never eaten in parts of Manhattan.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:09 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America's supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations "simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams."
I... buh. This is bad?

I mean obviously those aren't complete statements, and following one's dreams is going to require a lot of hard work and sacrifice, and maybe even then it won't pay off. But to say that apparently we shouldn't even try and I guess we should just lie around and... what? Do nothing?

Realizing your dream certainly requires more than a strong will to that end, but at the same time that will and the belief in that you can achieve it are necessary. And frankly, the idea that the kids these days don't have enough despair, shame, and doubt is ludicrous on its face.

Ugh.
posted by kavasa at 8:15 AM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I wish to learn more about the physics that forbids a crop duster from flying faster than a racing plane, but allows a rat to cook food in a restaurant.

I'm going to assume you meant that in good faith.

Both universes are fantastical ones, but the boundaries of that fantasy are really important.

In Ratatouille, the fantasy is that there's this rat who's really good at smelling and tasting, and he loves great food and wants to be a chef. That's the conceit, and that's the only conceit. The entire film proceeds from there, and if we're on board for the idea that a rat can cook, then the rest of the film will basically make sense.

In the universe of Planes, the fantasy is that airplanes and cars and trucks are also people. But they're basically still airplanes and cars, and they basically have to obey the rules of airplanes and cars as we understand them. Cars drive, airplanes fly, race cars are faster than jalopies, and jets are faster than everything. Given this conceit, there's no reason to think that Dusty should be able to beat another, faster airplane in a race simply because he wants to. If he can, then what is the point of differentiating one vehicle from another, when apparently all it takes to go faster is to really really want to? The plot of Planes is in direct conflict with what we would conclude from the premise of its setting. Even the Cars movies did not make this error.

In short: Magic systems matter.
posted by Sokka shot first at 8:38 AM on August 13, 2013 [20 favorites]


As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America's supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations "simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams."

There has been a bit of work done on this in relation to marketing, especially with the rise of helicopter parents. One of the surprising (to me) revelations was that this came long with suburbia, when parents moved from cities rich in exposure and experience, to bland suburbs, where experienced had to be continually manufactured and purchased. Rather than seeing the real-world outside of their houses, the parents and their children saw endless rows of similar houses. Perfect lawns tended by invisible gardeners. Identity and success being hinged on material accumulation, and photographs from packaged vacations.

Real-world conflicts replaced by the trials and tribulations of soccer practice. In the desire to remove any and all threats from the environment, the suburbs created spaces that were in essence too safe. The only connection to the outside world was through television and media, which stopped represented the real-world and started representing sanitised realities.

There was an interesting comment made once about the stock market, and the importance of short-selling. Short-selling is the realisation that something is wrong with a company or a market, and therefore people are betting it will fall. Without short-selling, there is just appreciation. If prices cannot be forced lower, they can only go up. Those prices then do not accurately represent the state of the market. This is a gross oversimplification, but it's also what these films do.

They may reflect the sanitised, safe culture of the suburbs, but that's just not the way the world works. Without the short-sale recognising defeat and bad decision-making, the market continues to appreciate without a logical appreciation of the assets below it. Without self-esteem based on actual successes, it becomes based on perceived capabilities.

I've always thought this was why there are so many drugs in the suburbs. Kids are told they can do anything. They watch movies saying they can do anything. They are surrounded by other people who also believe this. Yet, deep down, they know they aren't capable of anything. They see others run faster and jump higher. Yet, everything tells them to believe in the power of themselves. That if they are not achieving, it's because they do not believe in themselves enough. Thus, the culture becomes about believing in one's self, rather than enhancing one's capabilities. The drugs come to numb the pain that comes from the expectations that are set up in this process. They know they can't meet the expectations, but they have to. Hence the escapist numbing to a place where those voices are temporarily gone.

Because the problem with telling kids that they can do anything is that it gives them unspecific targets. Be the best. Follow your dreams. Be special. Be amazing. How does a kid be amazing? What speed is that per mile? What grade is that? What college is that? What career is it? Vague adjectives are not a substitute for structured guidance toward real goals. "Being the best you that you can be" is meaningless without what is "bad", "good", and "better". Without short-selling, the market will appreciate irrationally. Without the ability to be in the middle, there is only the best. And if one is not the best, then they are irrelevant.

What a shit situation to be in.
posted by nickrussell at 8:44 AM on August 13, 2013 [18 favorites]


But they're basically still airplanes and cars, and they basically have to obey the rules of airplanes and cars as we understand them

I don't see why that is so in an animated film about talking planes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:48 AM on August 13, 2013


I'm adding Sokka shot first's "magic systems matter" to my movie criticism tool belt, right next to the Bechdel Test.
posted by mikewebkist at 8:50 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


If anything, I notice that as real possibilities for good jobs, financial security and general fulfillment decline, we're getting these movies that assure us that anyone who wants enough can be, basically, a rock star or some kind of creative-class CEO. Isn't the moral of the story not "kids, you are all super-special" but "when you grow up, you'll be lucky if you're a cubicle drone, and that's because you didn't believe in yourself"?
I think that's the author's point about Charley Brown. He works hard, but he blows it right at the end. Charley Brown's failure isn't a result of being an entitled milquetoast, it is a random event occurring in a callous, uncaring social universe where a singular mistake can mean ruin. Schulz does seem "negative" by modern standards, but that's because the moral isn't "if you don't believe in yourself and work really hard, you'll fail", it is "even if you believe in yourself and work really hard, you might fail." Schulz is concerned with the possibility of failure, not with its inevitability. Charley Brown is a tragic character, doomed to misery because he cannot accept that his failures are the result of accident or malice on the part of others (i.e., Lucy).

The modern libertarian-esque response would be that Charley Brown's failure is a sign of some internal failure, therefore justifying the other kids' callous treatment of him after his fall from grace.
posted by deathpanels at 8:53 AM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I say never give up on your dreams ESPECIALLY if they are "disruptive to the larger community."
posted by ErikaB at 8:59 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Tortoises are also much slower than hares.
posted by kmz at 9:03 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Boy, that'd be a great kid's movie. "No, we can't do this. It is too hard and complicated." Curtains close, the end, roll credits.

As The Bellman alludes to, there's a scene in "The Bad News Bears" where an entire baseball team of kids basically says "We want to quit. We can't do this. It is too hard and complicated," but instead of ending the movie there, their coach basically says "Screw you, you're not allowed to quit" and starts teaching them how to play baseball.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:04 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Am I alone in thinking it's a little bit pernicious that kids constantly have this message crammed into their eyeballs that you have to have a DREAM? The implicit message is that if you don't have a DREAM, a huge, overriding passion for something, anything, then there is probably something wrong with you.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:08 AM on August 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


I don't see why that is so in an animated film about talking planes.

Because otherwise why have them bother being planes, if what children know about planes (i.e., that some of them are just faster than others) isn't going to hold true?

Tortoises are also much slower than hares.

The whole point of that fable is that steady effort beats lazy complacency, not that really wanting to win will grant a tortoise the ability to outsprint a hare. Even Aesop knew better than to break his own magic system just to make a point.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:09 AM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think the movies and stories with the "follow your dreams, even if others say you can't do it!" narratives appeal to kids so much, because children are constantly being told they can't do things.

They have almost no control over their own lives, what they learn in school, what they eat for dinner, where they live. And let's face it, adults are better than you at pretty much everything, even the things you think you're good at.
posted by inertia at 9:09 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


let's face it, adults are better than you at pretty much everything

Except video games!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:11 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know what was a great kids' movie? Coraline. The lesson is simple: You think I'm so awful, why don't you go live with a giant spider who wants to eat your eyes?
posted by Mister_A at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2013 [23 favorites]


The whole point of that fable is that steady effort beats lazy complacency, not that really wanting to win will grant a tortoise the ability to outsprint a hare. Even Aesop knew better than to break his own magic system just to make a point.

Not to overly defend a dumb Disney movie, but from reading a plot synopsis it seems like the duster is able to win by first using a risky shortcut and then overtaking the rival plane when it slows down to show off.
posted by kmz at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


>But they're basically still airplanes and cars, and they basically have to obey the rules of airplanes and cars as we understand them

>>I don't see why that is so in an animated film about talking planes.


Why do people constantly do this? Just because a movie has fantastical elements, that doesn't mean that every single aspect of the movie is utterly divorced from any form of logic whatsoever. Every story has SOME made-up elements to it; but you'd never say "those two people in this romcom don't really exist, so why get mad at the incredibly glaring continuity error?" Well, because it violates the established rules of the universe in which the movie takes place. You'd never be like, well, they never established this in any way whatsoever, but I guess in the universe of this movie, clocks just run all weird, so it can't be an error!
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:15 AM on August 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Counterpoint: innumerable AskMeFi question borne out of someone's total lack of self-esteem and great fear of standing up for themselves.

Maybe we're not doing enough to give people a little backbone and self-confidence...
posted by wrok at 9:22 AM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Why do people constantly do this? Just because a movie has fantastical elements, that doesn't mean that every single aspect of the movie is utterly divorced from any form of logic whatsoever.

Quite so, but it also doesn't mean that every single aspect has to be welded to physics. Not even a particular point has to be welded to it.

The hero of planes is a crop duster. He's clearly not meant to do other things, there are jets for those things. That reeks of classism and everyone having their proper place and duty and not having the ability to change.

That the crop-duster so blithely ignore that dynamic (I'm guessing here, haven't and probably won't see the movie) and asserts his right as individual to beat back any attack on his goal, even one ingrained upon everyone by society, is a great thematic message. To argue that this animated talking plane can't do what that talking animated plane does is silly. Reality isn't the point here.

Well, because it violates the established rules of the universe in which the movie takes place. You'd never be like, well, they never established this in any way whatsoever, but I guess in the universe of this movie, clocks just run all weird, so it can't be an error!

I've argued that Prometheus is decent film, not because of the number of huge plot holes and dumb errors, but because it works on a thematic level. Sooooo, yeah I just might say that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:34 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Another way of looking at things:

Watching a movie like Planes can help the kid who doesn't have the fanciest cleats, the newest socks, the expensive brand name shorts, etc. realize that he or she can still play ball with the fancy shiny kids. This is a real consideration; some kids will be intimidated and shun activities because other kids have fancier stuff, right down to the basics like housing.

So, while I understand the criticism being leveled, I think there may be a bit more to it, more than one way of looking at things. Also, as mentioned upthread, the 'bad guy,' who is usually brash and arrogant and entitled, more often than not makes a critical error because of that sense of entitlement or arrogance. And kids get that, they internalize it. They are smarter than we think. They know that they can't just show up and have a dream and that will make them better than everyone, and they know that movies are fantasy.
posted by Mister_A at 9:36 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


We (and the article) conflate the various meanings of self-esteem and narcissism. If you have a dollar and a dream, you can buy a lottery ticket, but you should probably not feel so good about your math skills. There's money to be made off the persistence of gamblers with a dream. However, Carl Rogers (in the wikipedia page for "self-esteem") is quoted as saying, "Every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else; he deserves to esteem himself and to be esteemed." This isn't based on achievement or potential to achieve, and yet is so often lacking in certain segments of society. Nor is it competitive --achievable by beating someone else. The seeking of cultural success is often compensation for a lack of self esteem.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:00 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Self-efficacy is a concept with a strong theoretical and research basis.
posted by idb at 10:01 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'll just leave this here. I stumbled on it a few minutes ago while looking for something related to a different thread: TV watching correlates to increased self-esteem in white boys and decreased self-esteem in girls and black boys.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:09 AM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


You know, I'm 28, and I do feel like up until around the end of high school I really thought that if I just dreamed big, believed hard enough and did my best, things would probably turn out as I wanted them to. I majored in a subject that was very difficult for me, and over the course of the next couple of years, I learned that sometimes dreams and self-confidence weren't enough and my best wasn't always adequate to the task at hand. I know plenty of people who left college without having learned those lessons and have had their asses handed to them in the working world.

In other words, I don't think this is a recent development. I think this is a fundamental part of American culture. I have a daughter now and it's going to be one of our most crucial tasks to raise her to understand that hard, hard work is required for success and your best might not be enough - that overnight successes and getting rich quick are great fantasies, but they are exceptions. I know training montages are meant to abstract away the dull parts of practice and hard work, but it does feel like we do children a disservice in fast forwarding through the going getting tough. Pretty much all learning and growth happens in those training montages.
posted by town of cats at 10:17 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


"You can be anything you want to be" is pretty much total bullshit.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:41 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The hero of planes is a crop duster. He's clearly not meant to do other things, there are jets for those things. That reeks of classism and everyone having their proper place and duty and not having the ability to change.

That the crop-duster so blithely ignore that dynamic (I'm guessing here, haven't and probably won't see the movie) and asserts his right as individual to beat back any attack on his goal, even one ingrained upon everyone by society, is a great thematic message. To argue that this animated talking plane can't do what that talking animated plane does is silly. Reality isn't the point here.


But if these were humans and not airplanes, the equivalent here is more like "a man with no legs somehow manages to win a foot race by believing in himself." That's not uplifting, it's nonsensical. An ending where the hero's special skills as a crop duster came into play- say, he put a fire out with water or something- would be more meaningful to me.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:41 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


But if these were humans and not airplanes, the equivalent here is more like "a man with no legs somehow manages to win a foot race by believing in himself."

Similar stories happen in real life: Life without limb-its: The astonishing story of the man born without arms or legs... who plays golf, surfs, and swims
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:59 AM on August 13, 2013


As a kid who didn't have much positive parental input, I always loved the dreamy, feel-good (and so often, unrealistic) movies where everyone got to pursue their passions and achieve their goals, because I had plenty of bleakness in real life to instruct me in the true ways of things.
posted by averageamateur at 11:02 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


When Dusty wins despite, you know, not being the fast kind of plane, it flies in the face of the SFnal conceit of the film, which is that these are all, you know, airplanes.

Dude, these are magic, intelligent airplanes whose minds have such complete control of the matter composing their bodies that they constantly warp the shape of their metal frames to communicate with gestures and express their emotions.

Of course they can go faster by just wanting it hard enough.
posted by straight at 11:08 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm still stuck on the fact that Mike, Sully, and Ralph not only don't get what they want, they can't. Mike just isn't scary (which should be the first item of the drinking game). The big reveal is that Sully can't do it alone either, because he's overcompensating for his fears.

For Ralph, the solution is a separation between his on-screen vocation and his off-screen relationships. He's bad, and that’s good. He will never be good and that’s not bad. There’s no one we'd rather he be, than him.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:13 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


I tried to levitate as a kid, after reading a book about mysticism. It did not work but I tried really hard! And now I have an amusing story to show for it.
posted by Mister_A at 11:14 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


In Ratatouille, the fantasy is that there's this rat who's really good at smelling and tasting, and he loves great food and wants to be a chef. That's the conceit, and that's the only conceit.

Well, that and the "you can control a person's movements by pulling their hair just right" thing. Which is necessary for the plot but makes no sense.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 11:16 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


As an aside, both Monsters U. and Wreck-It Ralph abuse Gaiman's maxim: "The price of getting what you want is getting what you previously wanted." In both movies, the protagonists are forced to confront the problem that they're wanting the wrong things, and need to adjust their expectations.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:20 AM on August 13, 2013


"You can be anything you want to be" is pretty much total bullshit.

You can do whatever you want in life.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:21 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


"You can be anything you want to be" is pretty much total bullshit.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:41 PM on August 13 [+] [!]


Your username refers to John Aaron, a NASA engineer and flight controller, who was instrumental in saving missions and lives on Apollo 12 and 13. The dichotomy between his life and that statement is astonishing.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:25 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


You can eat whatever you want in life, too.
posted by Mister_A at 11:25 AM on August 13, 2013


Your username refers to John Aaron, a NASA engineer and flight controller, who was instrumental in saving missions and lives on Apollo 12 and 13. The dichotomy between his life and that statement is astonishing.

I don't understand this statement at all. No one is disputing that some people can be some things they want to be. It's just that not every kid is going to grow up to live their wildest dreams and that's fine. You can be happy without achieving everything you want, and you can be happy without being successful; that's a message kids need, too.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:35 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


"You can be anything you want to be" if you're capable of identifying a way to achieve it and are willing to do what it takes. But you probably want to be reasonable about it. If you grew up in and are still residing in a refugee camp in the Disputed Territories of Wheresthatagain, "Space Shuttle Pilot" is gonna be a tricky one.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:40 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


In Ratatouille, the fantasy is that there's this rat who's really good at smelling and tasting, and he loves great food and wants to be a chef. That's the conceit, and that's the only conceit.

There's also the way that Remy the rat could control the garbage-boy Linguini by pulling on his hair well enough to be the Best Cook in France. (On preview: We had a deal, We had a deal, Kyle!) That felt pretty reality-bending. My response at the time was, "Pfft really, this is how the story is going to go?" It wasn't worth the payoff for going along with it. From there, the story became about the lies and the risk of discovery. I think the result was that Remy, Linguini, and Colette all became an unlikable trio: the manipulator, the fraud, and the fool. (Worse. Cyrano varation. Ever.) The ending where the rat just gets to be a chef didn't feel believable or earned to me, tbh, after all that silly random stuff where the main characters didn't behave well, got lucky, and don't really have any reason to hang around each other. Maybe it could have worked if it hadn't been in every other way a mainstream kids movie. Maybe they should have just axed Linguini and Colette and done more with Remy.

There's also the coincidence that Linguini turns out to be the heir of the franchise, which borrowed a few pennies from the suspension of disbelief jar and then squandered them.
posted by bleep-blop at 11:42 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That the crop-duster so blithely ignore that dynamic (I'm guessing here, haven't and probably won't see the movie) and asserts his right as individual to beat back any attack on his goal, even one ingrained upon everyone by society, is a great thematic message.

I'm not really convinced of that. This plot is the classic American cliché—immigrants escape the rigid social hierarchies and corrupt class system of Europe and come to America, where they are supposedly free to use their own initiative and try to be successful. Yes, it has its moment of truth: it sucks to be told "You're just a lowly crop duster, it's not your place to compete in races." But I think there's something pretty evil in the way that these films try to address that by reframing and misrepresenting the source of the problem.

These films are fundamentally about class, and about the protagonist's desire to escape from some kind of lowly, menial existence. But what's the cause of their suffering? It's never the elite—the protagonist identifies with them, even worships them (although there is almost always one morally corrupt member of the elite who cheats to temporarily defeat the protagonist). Usually it's the parents, and others who share their condition. In other words, other members of the working class—they are the enemy. They've convinced you that there's no hope of escaping the class system. But there is! If only you dream big enough and believe in yourself. Or so the movie tell us. So the second source of the problem is you. This moral universe is one where the social order is just, and rewards you if you're truly virtuous — if you have self-confidence, initiative, big dreams and a positive, can-do attitude. The obverse must also be true: if you're suffering under the social order, it's because you lack the proper virtues. You probably need to work harder at believing in yourself.

What's disturbing to me is that the parents or whomever else tells the protagonist that the situation is hopeless — they are usually right. Social mobility is a lie. Passing through despair and hopelessness is a much more politically useful message. If we can't escape from the system by playing within the rules, the only option is to destroy it and replace it with something else.

Some newer movies have tried to play with these conventions by having heroes who don't end up victorious in the end. Monsters University has Mike realize that his dream is delusional, but he still gets something for his trouble, he discovers his true talent as Sully's coach. The lesson is that the system works if you have appropriate expectations. Wreck-it Ralph is so much worse. Ralph never achieves any changes to the social order and simply returns to living in the garbage dump. His compensation is the satisfaction of restoring Princess Vanellope as the rightful ruler of Sugar Rush by defeating Turbo, who is the working class villain of the film. He is evil because he wanted to reprogram the games – the ultimate horror is that he wanted radical changes in the social order.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


The appeal of Ratatouille was well summed up by my wife whose single line reaction to the movie was "I just love his little expressions."
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:45 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The dichotomy between his life and that statement is astonishing.

I will probably regret asking, but how so? It's not like he was mentally handicapped and decided at a young age that he was going to work in NASA mission control at all costs and dedicated his every waking moment to the achievement of THE DREAM. I mean, "he had intended to teach math and science after graduating from college, [but] he applied for a job at NASA on the recommendation of a friend." So what? He was obviously curious and good at problem solving, but that's hardly relevant to the discussion at hand.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:47 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a parent of boys, I find myself spending much more time talking to my kids about how to fail than how to succeed.

Succeeding is easy: you succeed. It's fun, and you win, and things turn out the way you want. Not much to teach, there, except how to win with grace.

But failing, that's hard. And necessary. And complicated, and messy. Contemporary society doesn't have much room in it if you want to publically not be good at something the first time.

So one of the things I try to teach my boys is that you have to make that space for yourself. There are a lot of things you're not going to be good at until you do them a lot, and many of those things will involve you publically not being good at something. And one of the prevailing features of contemporary American society is that it's become acceptable to loudly critique anyone who is attempting something in the public eye.

Put another way, there's a strong strain of "if you're not going to be the best at something, why even try?" Coupled with an almost-as-strong strain of "if you can't win, cheat". Taken together, they're toxic.

It's not like I'm going to change American society. All I can do is try to build strong boys who will be strong men. Stronger, at least, than their old man: I let the sideline voices get to me, and spent a lot of my life veering between corrosive self-loathing and suicidal depression.

So how do you teach kids to fail? No clue. All I know is what I try.

I teach them that very few things are life-and-death, and that performing a thing and understanding a thing are different. If you're having trouble with the performance, work on your understanding while you're improving performance.

I teach them that a strong internal moral compass is essential, and that you develop a strong internal moral compass by watching what people actually do.

I teach them that you never punch down, and that today you, tomorrow me.

And I try to teach them that movies are just stories about people. Often those people are trying to succeed, but almost every movie has someone in it who's failing. And one of the ways to figure out if it's a good movie or not is whether it treats the people who are failing with contempt or kindness.
posted by scrump at 11:48 AM on August 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


I mean, "he had intended to teach math and science after graduating from college, [but] he applied for a job at NASA on the recommendation of a friend." So what? He was obviously curious and good at problem solving, but that's hardly relevant to the discussion at hand.

Had he been told, as a child, that ""You can be anything you want to be" is pretty much total bullshit" it's doubtful that he would ended up where he did.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:54 AM on August 13, 2013


You have absolutely no idea what he was told as a child. Regardless, I don't recall advocating that that specific message be communicated to children in that specific way. I am advocating that "you can be whatever you want to be" stop being communicated to children in that specific way, however, because I think it just leads to disillusionment and disappointment later on, for most people, anyway.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 11:57 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, if we just want to go by raw numbers, the number of kids who are told they can totally be astronaunts when they grow up if they want to be vs. the number of actual astronaut gigs available sort of establishes that it's a choice between tons of kids having their dreams actively dashed by reality or tons of kids being distracted from their astronautical dreams by circumstance or self-aware pragmatism or changing interests as they grow. Any given kid could in theory grow up to be an astronaut, but the idea that every kid who might want to grow up to be an astronaut can actually do so is self-evidently bullshit.

Maybe a good compromise peptalk between "you can do anything" and "'you can do anything' is bullshit" (and I don't think the latter was being pitched as a pep talk to a kid so much as guidance to an advising adult on how to construct a pep talk, anyway) would be "you can do anything if you try hard and have enough luck, but for god's sake at least work out the odds and plan accordingly".
posted by cortex at 12:02 PM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think part of the problem is that we've become a montage society, in which the presentation of the end result often elides the brutally hard, long-duration work of getting to that result.
posted by scrump at 12:12 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


You have absolutely no idea what he was told as a child.

Considering that he was thinking of being a cattle rancher and teaching was just a way to raise money to do the former, then NASA was a really great way of raising money, I'm ok with hazarding a guess. Aaaron is clear that things were expected of him and he clearly had a sort of plan to get what he wanted.

I am advocating that "you can be whatever you want to be" stop being communicated to children in that specific way, however, because I think it just leads to disillusionment and disappointment later on, for most people, anyway.

I suspect we're arguing semantics, based on viewing what looks like a not very good movie and using it as a single data point.

Few parents would teach their kids that just dreaming for something is all it takes. Most would rightly point out that if you want to do X, you have to put in the work. Believing is important and you can be whatever you want to be, but you have to put in the work. That's like Parenting 101. Possibly 099 for some .
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:18 PM on August 13, 2013


I think the problem is not suggesting unreasonable possibilities, but rather in presenting the achievement as something innately deserved, rather than something that's going to be fucking hard to achieve and is going to require self-discipline and effort and a lot of learning about how to really work with people.

Also I'm a bit tired of the protagonist being pure of heart all the time. I mean sure a lot of kids are. But some of them are assholes and need to learn not to be if they're going to be anything but the villain of the piece.

That's why I've decided that Ratatouille is about the personal journey of Anton Ego. Everything else is eye candy.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:19 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


SeMM: I am advocating that "you can be whatever you want to be" stop being communicated to children in that specific way, however, because I think it just leads to disillusionment and disappointment later on, for most people, anyway.

Well sure, and maybe that's a good argument to make about Turbo and Planes. I'm not certain the argument extends much further to children's media in general, or that it's some sort of evil social trend given that the only other unambiguous example of the theme given by the essay is the 1941 Dumbo.

cortex: Maybe a good compromise peptalk between "you can do anything" and "'you can do anything' is bullshit" (and I don't think the latter was being pitched as a pep talk to a kid so much as guidance to an advising adult on how to construct a pep talk, anyway) would be "you can do anything if you try hand and have enough luck, but for god's sake at least work out the odds and plan accordingly".

Well, granted I read at a bit higher of a reading level than Turbo, but it seems to me that juvenile and YA fiction is certainly aware of the tensions surrounding individual achievement and social class structures. Perhaps more aware of that than adult comedy these days, which is all about escaping the tedium of life through the manic pixie dream girl. I'm exaggerating a bit there for effect, but no more so than a rhetorical slugging match between Turbo and Charlie Brown as generational symbols.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:24 PM on August 13, 2013


(To its minimal credit, Cars is in the lesser category of "assholes who grow a little", but he's still innately better at his thing than anyone else, and he's the movie's center of attention mainly by birthright. You don't get the impression that he had to do much besides exercise the traits he was born/built with to get where he was)
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:24 PM on August 13, 2013


Can anyone name a dreams-can-happen movie in which the young aspirant is both not innately superior, and is a bit of a dick to start out with? And as a bonus, does not have a magic friend? Now that would be a message film.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:30 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


But if these were humans and not airplanes, the equivalent here is more like "a man with no legs somehow manages to win a foot race by believing in himself."

Similar stories happen in real life: Life without limb-its: The astonishing story of the man born without arms or legs... who plays golf, surfs, and swims.


You're kidding me, right? When that guy beats Usain Bolt in the 100m dash, THEN you'll have a similar story.
posted by nushustu at 12:39 PM on August 13, 2013


I cannot name specific examples off the top of my head, but I have been a kid at some point in the last 30 years, and I can tell you that the message "you can be whatever you want to be" was positively pervasive among the children's media I was exposed to.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:42 PM on August 13, 2013


April: Why are you here eating alone?

Chris: I'm not. I'm surrounded by friends. Friends I don't know yet. And I'm engrossed in this book. It's the true story of a woman born with no arms and no legs who attempted to swim the English Channel.

April: That's impossible.

Chris: Oh, she drowned immediately. It's kind of a sad story.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:42 PM on August 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


SeMM: I cannot name specific examples off the top of my head,...

Then I'm not certain why we should give your attempt to indict entire genres any credibility.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:53 PM on August 13, 2013


I'm fine with children's movies imparting the message that there is value in continuing to pursue your dreams, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I'm fine with telling children they can be anything they want to be in life, as long as they understand that we're telling them that they can, not that they necessarily will.

And we should also teach kids that they need to work for their dreams or they'll never live them out, and they should understand that work is no guarantee of anything.

I believe it's our job to light the flame of perpetual, foolhardy optimism and positivity in our kids and hope that it finds something inside them to nourish it, because chances are, they will spend the rest of their lives having every tiny scrap of aspiration beaten out of them and replaced with a desire for a mortgage and an admiration of the next-door neighbor's lawnmower. If I had kids, I'd want them to dream for as long as they know how to. I'd want to instill that in them early enough that it becomes ingrained, early enough that they never fully lose it.

Because one day, they will understand that the house always wins. In the face of that knowledge, I hope they continue striving, continue trying, because somewhere at their core, they don't know how not to.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:57 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Several months ago, there was a profile of Michelle Obama's parenting philosophy (I can't recall where; maybe in NY Mag?). One of her points was that her daughters each do two sports in school: one that they choose, and one that she chooses for them. The latter is so that the girls will know what it's like to have to work hard at something they don't necessarily like or are gifted at. I think that's fantastic. It's absolutely important to teach kids to dream. But it's also really, really important to teach them that 1)failure isn't the worst thing in the world; 2)hard work can reap great rewards (just maybe not the one you expected).

Like a lot of us, I'm sure, It was a huge relevation for me when I realized that I wasn't going to reach Olympic-caliber levels of my chosen sport, and after some soul-searching (and yes, more than a few tears) I realized that I still loved the sport and actually had more fun when I relaxed on the competitive angle. I'd love stories that made that the endpoint for kids, rather than, "and then Two Stride won an Olympic gold, against all odds! Because dreams!" So yeah: I wish that more stories celebrated protagonists who dreamed big... and yet, had realistic results that were also awesome.

I'm in higher ed, where we talk a lot about helicopter parenting and the effects of the "everyone gets a trophy!" child-rearing that our students are, increasingly, coming in with. And I see this playing out in students who are either probably unrealistic dreamers (you might become a surgeon with a 1.7 GPA, but it's not going to happen in the traditional timespan) or who are terrified of risk-taking because they've never dealt with failure and, as someone upthread mentioned, are maybe worried that they're failures for not having dreamed it hard enough.
posted by TwoStride at 1:13 PM on August 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm always surprised by how many people seem to get the wrong end of the stick with Ratatouille. There was an episode of The Incomparable podcast where they complained that its message was 'critics suck, you should ignore them'. I guess they must have stopped watched ten minutes before the end, during which Anton Ego steals the movie with a wonderful speech about the importance of good criticism.

Anyway, the other not-so-subtle message of the movie is all about talent. The recently-deceased Auguste Gusteau's motto (and books) were all about how 'Anyone Can Cook', a message that inspired a number of characters but also came under justifiable fire by Anton Ego, who noted that clearly not everyone can cook, particularly if they don't work at it.

In the end, after seeing a rat cook(!), Ego doesn't abandon his belief — he simply qualifies it by adding that 'not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.' i.e. talent matters, hard work matters, but you can't assume that someone's looks or background will define their success as an artist.
posted by adrianhon at 1:16 PM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I think it just leads to disillusionment and disappointment later on, for most people, anyway.

Everything in the universe leads to disillusionment and disappointment. Bitter and cynical family entertainment isn't going to protect them from it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can anyone name a dreams-can-happen movie in which the young aspirant is both not innately superior, and is a bit of a dick to start out with?

i'm sure there'll be a movie biography of george w bush eventually
posted by pyramid termite at 1:40 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Next you guys'll be telling me that if I run off a cliff, I'll immediately fall and die, not pedal furiously in mid-air for a minute, and get right back up again after I fall.
posted by Fnarf at 1:52 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


And I'm engrossed in this book. It's the true story of a woman born with no arms and no legs who attempted to swim the English Channel.

I once met a man with no arms or legs who swam the Channel. He was called Bob.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:53 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


You can do whatever you want in life.

There is such a thing as missing a bus. If I decide, at 46, that my dream is to be a Navy SEAL, it does not matter how badly I want it; it will never happen. What would be possible would be to become very fit, learn to scuba dive, learn how to kill a guy with a toothpick, or whatever other kinds of things appealed to me about that way of life. It's so unlikely that I could become conductor of the New York Philharmonic that I have no problem with calling it impossible. But I could become conductor of a community orchestra or youth orchestra, and live a life that is more like that aspirational life than is the one I lead now.

I'll buy the idea that we often give up far too early, that we often sell ourselves short, that we often fail to find the courage to take chances and pursue our dreams. But sheer human will is not the only component of the world, and, sadly, it seems to be just not true that literally anything is possible.
posted by thelonius at 1:57 PM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am fond of sports anime because so often achieving your dreams is something that happens not over the course of 90 minutes, but over the course of 50 or more episodes -- where achieving your dreams is a thing that happens, but not achieving your dreams is also a thing that happens. There is a lot of hard work that goes into winning, that isn't just elided into montages. Losing because of lack of preparation, or bad luck, or because the other person was more talented, or because you're just not there yet, those are all things that happen -- and sure, the main character succeeds in the end simply because they're the main character, but you also see the rivals or teammates whose destiny lies elsewhere and that's all right.

(My current favorite manga -- Ohana Holoholo -- has a character who used to be a very ambitious high school soccer player, who hurt his knee and now works at a job he likes in sports marketing. You don't see a lot of stories like that in manga because so often the main characters are in middle school or high school and haven't yet had their dreams dashed by reality, but it's nice to see it once in a while.)
posted by Jeanne at 2:04 PM on August 13, 2013


i'm sure there'll be a movie biography of george w bush eventually

You missed it?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:08 PM on August 13, 2013


Say what you will about The Fast & the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but that was a movie with an excellent training montage that gave a real sense of the amount of time, effort, and failure it takes to become good at a skill like that. It's especially good in contrast to the first movie, where Paul Walker learns to drag race by having Vin Diesel yell some mumbo-jumbo about double-clutching at him.
posted by Copronymus at 2:14 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


nickrussell - Without the ability to be in the middle, there is only the best. And if one is not the best, then they are irrelevant.

My mom used to say that! "If you can't be the best at something, what's the point of doing it?"

She was probably not the best mom. Then again, pretty sure I was not the best kid, either.
posted by hap_hazard at 2:20 PM on August 13, 2013


It's fun to read this thread from the perspective of bottomless self-hatred resulting from years of failure, mediocrity and sloth.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:39 PM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


If we're going back a decade in our discussion of children's animated films. Here are the ones I've seen:

Miyazaki: Howl, Ponyo, and Arrietty.

I suppose that Ponyo might have the magic-feather treatment, but that's a bit of a stretch since the movie is about becoming human, not about becoming exceptionally human. Howl and Arrietty are adventure stories. Sophie's apparent aspiration is to be a shop-owner. Arrietty wants to step into her father's shoes.

Pixar: Incredibles, Nemo, Cars, Up!, Toy Story 3, Brave, and Monsters University.

Adults are the protagonists of Incredibles, Nemo, Up!, and Cars. Carl's house gets the magic-feather treatment but that gets Carl into trouble, not out of it, and ultimately he rejects the magic feather in favor of an ersatz grandfatherhood. The moral messages of Monsters U, Brave, and Cars center on compromise. None of these three are movies in which the protagonist entirely gets what he or she wants. Toy Story 3 is a caper in which the toys are always toys, and just want to be played with in a more loving setting.

Disney: Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, Princess and the Frog, and Meet the Robinsons.

Tangled has a fair bit of complex dynamics regarding abusive family. Ralph ends up returning to his bad-guy role, transformed into a collaborative performance with Felix and the residents. Princess and the Frog might be a magic-feather film, although the film gives a fair bit of time to the fact that Tiana is building on a multi-generational entrepreneurial dream. Robinsons is all about geeks being fabulous Willy Wonka style geeks.

Dreamworks: Puss in Boots, Monsters vs. Aliens, How to Train Your Dragon.

I don't know if talking cat and talking egg really qualify for the magic feather. Monsters vs. Aliens has an adult protagonist. How to Train Your Dragon falls under Gaiman's maxim where the would-be dragonslayer becomes a dragontrainer instead. I didn't see a fair number of movies from this studio because, well, CIRCUS! AFRO! CIRCUS! AFRO!.

Sony: Open Season, Surf's Up, The Pirates! in an Adventure With Scientists, Hotel Transylvania.

I think Open Season was just pure screwball comedy. Surf's Up concludes with the protagonist choosing play-for-play over play-to-win. Surf's Up likely is a poor candidate for magic feather since the protagonist is a penguin. Pirates! centers on grown adults squabbling over a maguffin. Hotel Transylvania is romcom with movie monsters.

FOX: Robots and Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wow, an even bigger gap for me. I don't remember much of anything about Robots at all except that it was brightly colored. Mr. Fox has a bit of an ambiguous message as I recall.

Other: Paranorman, Monster House, Coraline, Book of Kells

Just a grab-bag of other works. There are probably more I've seen that I'm just not thinking about. None of these stick out as magic feather movies. I think Kirikou falls out of the time span, but that wouldn't be an example of the magic feather either.

--

More frequently, I'm seeing the message "If chasing your dreams results in the suffering of others, perhaps it's not worth it." (Incredibles, Cars, Up!, Brave, Monsters U, Ralph, Dragon, Surf's Up, Pirates!). In many cases, the villain's dreams are parallel to those of the protagonist, just more obsessive and pursued without regard for the consequences. Many of those movies involve an implicit or explicit reassessment of values. Frankly, I'm just not seeing narcissism as the thematic rigidity of those films. Again, I've not seen Turbo or Planes, but given the hack interpretation of Ralph and Monsters U, I'm not terribly willing to trust him on Turbo.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:10 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Tinkerbell movies are great kids movies in a lot of other ways, as well. Much better than they had any right to be (Thanks, John Lasseter!)

Just coming in here to +1 this.

There's a nice thread over in SA (apologies in advance if you get paywalled, not sure if it's up or not) where someone walks through the first one.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:02 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Usually it's the parents, and others who share their condition. In other words, other members of the working class—they are the enemy.

I know your actual point is that there should be no class system at all, but being raised with low expectations of yourself is a real thing and, while the responsibility doesn't really fall on one's particular set of parents, part of what enforces the class system. You don't have to believe the world is fair to learn to resist participating in your own subjugation to the extent that is possible.
posted by atoxyl at 4:06 PM on August 13, 2013


I worked for several years with people who probably told their kids this kind of crap. You know what happened a lot of times? The child becomes an adult, gets her ass kicked by real life, and moves back home where things are easy.

Our society is becoming too kid-centered. Everything needs to be "kid friendly" and dumbed down. Why wouldn't kids think they're capable of anything if the world is laid out to them like a red carpet?
posted by reenum at 6:47 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


What a awfully, dumb article.

What's a bit striking though, particularly in light of recent events, is the continued faith in nonsense. In an America that's wholly ruled by bankers aided at every turn by an all-seeing, lawless government, who can seriously believe that the path to success lies in hard work and humility? Nobody but a hopelessly naive idiot like the author.

What's unfortunate is that today's movies and media don't go far enough. It's far worse than it appears. Even lip service to any outdated concept like the "common good" is a disservice to today's young citizens. You know what you call people who put the common good before their own selfish desires? Tax payers.
posted by nixerman at 7:30 PM on August 13, 2013


Cracked took up the same subject from a different perspective - If Characters Knew They Were in a '90s Kids Movie
posted by nooneyouknow at 8:35 PM on August 13, 2013


Well, there are some things I do that I am just terrible at. For example, I have taken umpteen dance classes even though I have zero flexibility. Most people can touch their toes, but I can barely touch my knees. So I am inevitably the WORST dancer in anything other than clubbing and zumba by default. I don't know why I plug along with that sort of thing even though I feel terrible/stupid/lame, etc. at least for a portion of every class when I can't do the moves. I've given up plugging away at some things I am bad at, like trying to learn languages. Yet the dance thing continues. I don't know what that means for working hard, exactly.

Monsters University floored me. I didn't remember that Mike was just Sully's coach and NOT a scarer as well (it's been awhile), so I was kind of shocked that he never, ever made it (well, until laughter became a thing, anyway). That is a moral we just don't see much.

I think we tell the kids that they should have dreams and shoot for them because (a) why not, they're not old enough to have to deal with reality yet, and (b) they're not mentally equipped to figure that out yet. You want to be a princess ballerina astronaut veterinarian? Go for it, honey!, we say, figuring that once she hits double digits she'll figure out she'll be an office lackey or middle manager just like the rest of us. Once reality kicks in and life becomes all about figuring out how to put food on the table and get health insurance and pay the rent rather than following your heart and dreams. Most of us never make it, but nobody wants to tell the under-12 set that. For the sake of the kids, we indulge in these fantasies of the little guy becoming a big star and getting what he wants.

Really, It's A Wonderful Life is the adult fable for us all. The guy who wants to see the world, who is flat out never allowed to do anything he wants due to other people's drama, and he has to learn to settle for loving his family because that's all he can get and that's all that is supposed to be important to adults once you're over 30 anyway. Whee.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:16 PM on August 13, 2013


escabeche: "I think Gattaca is a very nice test case for this way of reading movies."

I was a little ticked off at Vincent by the end of Gattaca. Here's this guy who is the lead navigator on a year-long interplanetary space mission, almost solely responsible for safely guiding hundreds of people across the solar system and back, and he's hiding a major health issue that could have direct bearing on the safety and lives of everyone else onboard.

Though I'm sure when he dies halfway through the mission and strands everyone in space, the last thoughts going through their heads will be an appreciation of how he beat the odds and became a space navigator despite not being able to pass the required medical.

Overthinking is good for the spirit!
posted by barnacles at 12:38 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Really, It's A Wonderful Life is the adult fable for us all. The guy who wants to see the world, who is flat out never allowed to do anything he wants due to other people's drama, and he has to learn to settle for loving his family because that's all he can get and that's all that is supposed to be important to adults once you're over 30 anyway. Whee.

On the one hand, sure, it's easy to see it as the somehow feel-good version of "Fast Car" or "The River."

But it's not just about "Welp, ya gots yer family at least and that's all that matters." More about how lives that would seem boring to others have dignity and worth, because what they do matters. The payoff for George Bailey isn't that at least he has his family. It's that his life has made a difference. He didn't get to lead his brother to war or go to college with Hee Haw or travel the world or all those things he thought would matter, but he learns that by saving a few people he's indirectly saved the lives of thousands, and that by his own actions he has saved an entire town from turning into a slum. And he learns that people know this, and appreciate it, and care about it. More "Southern California Wants To Be Western New York" than "The River."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:30 AM on August 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's precious that the central thesis is every KIDS' movie reinforce the cult of self-esteem. Damn near the majority of "adult" movies do so as well. Movies are fundamentally about some variation of wish fulfillment*. And outside of sad-bastard art house endeavors/documentaries most movies are about being special or achieving your dream if-you-just-work-hard-enough (or) have-a-big-enough-heart/beleive-in-yourself. Hell, most fiction is the same and much of non fiction(biography) is a jumble of Horatio Alger bullshit with added "gritty realism"™.
I mean, that's what most movies do right? Even The Art of Killing (scary documentary) documents the kind of delusion movies are, and somehow kids' movies are worse?

*yes not all movies are actually like this, comment contains hyperbole™ to a limited extent, please use with caution and consult your doctor is symptoms persist.
posted by edgeways at 7:19 AM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The problem with "Just follow your dreams and you can be anything you want to" is the implicit idea that if you don't succeed, you are somehow broken. And I think that is a much bigger danger to kids than the idea that "hard work and a dream don't guarantee success" could ever be.

Look at Rudy in Rudy. He had heart! moxie! spirit! spunk! and a dream! And he had, as the fictional janitor said, "not a speck of athletic ability". He had to work twice as hard to be half as good. But in the end, the fact that he tried was, as it turned out, the whole damn point. Keep trying. It matters. Hard work and perseverance are often their own reward.
posted by grubi at 4:17 PM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


And, btw, it isn't cynicism to say to kids "Life can be hard and unfair". It's cynical to leave the message at just that. It's actually realistic and supportive to add "But do your best. Try hard. Put in the hours. And be as good a person as you can be. In the end, that's what matters." De-emphasizing the idea of achievement can be a wonderfully uplifting thing if you do it right.

And it is cynical do think that kids can't handle being exposed to pop cultural messages like that. It is cynical to assume children have to be constantly pampered in order for them to be capable, caring adults. It is supremely cynical to perpetuate the idea that "They just gotta believe in just believing" because you're too scared to let your kid experience any kind of failure.

Christ almighty, Internet, we're better than that.
posted by grubi at 4:24 PM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


“Perhaps the best counterpoint--and the best example of just how much things have changed--can be found in Charles M. Schulz's Peanuts.”
You know who else was popular in 1968?

And screw Lucy. There’s no reason she needs to yank the football away. Why does she even hold it in the first place? Sadistic little bastard. Beats her little brother, tries to burn his security blanket. Get that kid some counseling.

“Kung Fu Panda seemed to be particularly obnoxious in its underlying message.”

It seems to be a metamorphic rock of messages. Some of them quite good but used in odd ways.
Like the thesis here.
Po the Panda seeks to transform himself. Tai Lung, and the other creatures (in more positive ways), contend for the Dragon Scroll. Which is empty.
So the message is that contention is useless in self-transformation and the desire to change and the journey itself are what’s valuable. More valuable than the ends, which may be arbitrary and needlessly contentious and which ultimately reflect oneself in any case.
And yet this is shown as though that itself is an achievement. Which is sort of stupid.
The fight between Tai Lung and Po is good. Po is not contending there. He’s just trying to eat and Tai Lung defeats himself.
He’s more Zen Panda. Kung Fu translates more into merit by hard training or self-mastery over time (irony there).
But Zen too, is commodified here.
I mean, I like the movie, and I think that there are some important messages there. Po should leave the noodle shop and pursue his dream. But what is his dream?
The story around Oogway, Shifu and Tai Lung is much more poignant. Oogway teaches Zen. Living in the now. That wisdom has no fixed form, death is inevitable, change is eternal, accept life as it is or suffer.
Shifu exemplifies that suffering. He thinks Oogway was wrong. And perhaps, logically, he was. Certainly Oogway didn’t seek Po out. But then when Po fell from the sky, Oogway accepted that and rolled with it.
Shifu on the other hand tried to control and change it. It’s only when he accepted Po that he stopped breaking his own balls.
Tai Lung learned nothing from the Dragon Scroll. He was the greatest warrior, the strongest, most skillful, and yet because he expected some great reward beyond the path of doing these things he didn’t get any message from the scroll. Which sort of proved he didn’t deserve it anyway. He had all these things but couldn’t see himself.
Po sort of gets it. In that he stops trying to accomplish something outside himself and enjoys the being of it. This isn’t reflected well though because then everyone hails him as a hero and he appears to be rewarded. Which, really, is all Tai Lung seemed to have been looking for.

The ideas in Kung Fu Panda and these “heart” kinds of movies are important. But they treat them as though they’re ends. “The power is in you!” sort of thing. Well, no, it’s not. It’s in what you do. It is – that – you do.
The difference is in treating hard work, heart, those intangibles as something you can attain and then have forever like buying a car or house or having a lot of money.
As mentioned above, hard work as valuable in and of itself. Not as something you have some sort of inherent right to because you believe or something you can put in your hand and keep forever if you buy a happy meal.
The problem isn’t kids believing that greatness comes from within – because it fucking does. The problem is defining what greatness is. It isn’t winning one big race and then being champion forever. It’s a habit. It’s something you do every day.
You are supposed to do more than you were built for (to paraphrase Dusty) but the only person you have to prove it to (if one can be said to need to prove it) is yourself.

I liked the Disney film “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
One of the main themes in that film is the point of contention here: the pursuit of the extraordinary despite the demands of the mundane, dreamers vs. professionals, etc.
Ouimet is shown practicing ceaselessly, but the point is, it actually happened. The plucky amateur dreamer beat the pros despite his father’s demands to grind it out with a blue collar. And indeed, he eventually became a successful businessman.
The objective is not to create false self-esteem. But to allow kids to feel what it’s like when you perform well. That’s done by setting small goals.
That’s what bugs me about these kinds of films. The goals. Which has zero to do with this guys thesis.
The film “The Rookie” is another good counterpoint. Old guy pitcher tries out for the bigs. He doesn’t go on to be the greatest pitcher ever and fight off an alien invasion with his supernatural pitching arm. He just, y’know, makes it to the big leagues for a while and his family does a little better.
I think developing the right goals and the path to achieving them are alloy. When you work to do fulfill your dream you start to see what’s important and what isn’t and so what you dream changes to suit your more mature, thoughtful character.

"Being the best you that you can be" is meaningless without what is "bad", "good", and "better".

Meaningless too without knowing what the best thing to be is. The best spammer? Best cult leader? Best criminal?
Simply being a good person, or in this case a good plane, is one of the things. Is it ok to want to break the mold? I think that’s a good message. Leave the comfortable but paralyzing suburbs and find your own path. What you have been before now is not your destiny because you can make your own destiny.
In fact I think a large part of the problem is that so many kids – don’t. They stay crop dusters. They stay in the mold. And too, as you mention, we say yeah, “break the mold” but then we design the mold to be virtually indestructible.
A lot of that is artifice though. The thing in name only vs an actual achievement. Being a Chicago Bear vs. enjoying playing football.

“I'm still stuck on the fact that Mike, Sully, and Ralph not only don't get what they want, they can't.”
I think they should count themselves lucky Monster society hasn’t been discovered by humans and subjected to total genocide for sneaking into children’s rooms worldwide and terrifying them for years. I mean that’s a big suspension of disbelief right there.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:10 PM on August 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the villain's evil plan in Monsters Inc, to kidnap little children and keep them in a state of perpetual terror, is easily one of the most horrific evil threats I've seen in any movie.

I suppose it maybe helps Monsters U to know that eventually they're going to switch their society's power supply to children's laughter, but even so the whole thing seems pretty gross, like a Disney cartoon version of Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer.
posted by straight at 9:49 AM on August 15, 2013


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