Welcome to The Mouse House Movie Club. Each week (or whenever I get the chance), I dig out a Disney film (either animated or live action) from my shelf, pick a Disney short, and watch both together in one superb evening of Disneyfied goodness. I then write about it in a blog much like (well, exactly like) the one you’re about to read. So, without further ado, here’s this week’s edition of The Mouse House Movie Club.
Short Film: The Little Match Girl, in which Disney get depressing. Really, really, really depressing.
Feature Presentation: Meet the Robinsons, in which Disney starts down the road to recovery through retro futurism, Walt quotes, and The Goob. The poor, poor Goob.
The Little Matchgirl
You know how Disney often takes criticism for changing fairy tales to have happy endings? Like how The Little Mermaid ends with Ariel finally gaining happiness, rather than turning into a big ol’ puddle of foamy mess in the ocean like at the end of the Hans Christian Andersen story? (Some people seem to think this would have been a better ending! Because apparently that’s a totally fitting ending for a character who’s full of joy and optimism and in no way deserves such a nasty death.) Anyways, if you’re one of the people who want less happy Disney endings, say hello to The Little Matchgirl.
Like Little Mermaid, The Little Matchgirl is also based on an Andersen story, and it finds a young homeless girl trying to warm herself up on a cold and snowy night with a box of matches. She lights each match, feels its warmth, and sinks into a wonderful fantasy of a better life. Awwww, lovely.
She then runs out of matches and dies of hypothermia…
Yep, she dies. It’s dark territory for a Disney film (even a short) to move into and that’s reflective of the fact that The Little Matchgirl was originally produced for a scrapped third Fantasia film (Fantasia 2006). It was meant for slightly more adult Disney audiences, and I wonder if the film would have ended in the same way (or indeed, if it would have even been produced at all) were it intended to precede a feature film release.
Either way, the death is beautifully released, with the film cutting from one of the girl’s fantasies to the real world, where she sits, covered in snow, with the matches all burned out. Her grandmother wakens her and we think all is well. Until she and the little girl walk through the little girl’s body and into a wall, glowing with warming orange. The camera pans up to the sky as the snow swirls around. The End.
Andersen wrote the original tale to draw attention to child poverty. This film, and its devastating ending, reiterates that point with equal eloquence.
Meet the Robinsons
In my essay about modern Disney films, I made the argument that Meet the Robinsons kicked off the new era of Disney classics, and that idea will form the backbone of this edition of Mouse House Movie Club. Watching the film again only underlined how significant it is to Disney’s current themes and style, as well as its respectful approach to its history.
So yes, this will very much be about giving the sadly overlooked but entirely lovely Meet the Robinsons its due. But I’ll also talk about other stuff – mostly The Goob (poor, lovely, sad Goob) – so it’s fine. Chill everyone.
Keep moving forward…
These three words are repeated throughout Meet the Robinsons. It’s the Robinson family motto, and it gets a mention in the Walt quote that appears at the end of the film. If anything, these three words and the manifesto they push somewhat overshadow the emotional core of the film, which is a rather lovely tale of loneliness and what it does to children (more of that later). But that’s not necessarily a bad thing…
After an unsteady period, Meet the Robinsons needed to send a message, but it needed to be a balanced, considered one. You see, I’m not necessarily of the opinion that Disney was in crisis in the early part of the last decade. As a business, yes certainly, there was a lack of direction that was hurting all aspects of the company, but as producer of art (as Disney should always be viewed, first and foremost), I don’t subscribe to the idea that the company was down in the dumps.
Let’s look at the films…
Assuming the swansong of the Renaissance is Fantasia 2000, the first film of ‘the slump’ is Dinosaur, and fair enough, that’s pretty ropey. But then we get Emperor’s New Groove, a flawed film, but one brimming with life, wit, and Eartha Kitt being goddammed hilarious. Hardly a disaster, then. Atlantis: The Lost Empire followed, and with its Mike Mignola art and Indiana Jones-esque story it’s one of my favourite Disney films of recent times. Then came Lilo and Stitch, a pretty unusual film that’s nonetheless deservedly gone on to be seen as a classic. The mediocre Treasure Planet followed, with Brother Bear (lovely, under-rated), Home on the Range (not without its charms) and Chicken Little (ok, pretty awful) coming pre-Meet the Robinsons.
So, eight films there: one absolute classic, three overlooked gems, two that are just ok, and two (only two!) that are flat-out rubbish. These are not the stats of a slump, and that’s because when people talk about Disney’s post-Renaissance period as a disaster, they’re mostly reacting to the behind-the-scenes issues: Home on the Range bringing a temporary close to the studio’s traditionally animated output, the box office struggles of Atlantis and Treasure Planet, the behind-the- scenes shenanigans on Emperor’s New Groove, which began life as an epic called Kingdom of the Sun before being turned into the frenetic comedy it became.
Against that backdrop, the quality of the films remained pretty high, and while Meet the Robinsons marked a return to quality after Chicken Little, it’s for behind-the-scenes reasons that the film, in my mind, marks the beginning of the New Renaissance (or whatever it is we’re calling it – I personally like The Bronze Age). That’s because halfway through the production, Disney bought Pixar and John Lasseter made the switch from the latter to the former, making an immediate impact by changing large swathes of Meet the Robinsons and – I would think considering how deep in Disney lore he is – adding the Walt quote at the film’s end.
It’s probably a stretch to claim that the film intentionally espouses the same themes of self-actualisation that the likes of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph would go on to explore, but in the binary it builds between Lewis and The Goob (poor, poor Good), it certainly has those ideas in its arsenal. And speaking of The Goob…
Poor, poor Goob
LOOK AT THAT GUY. How could you not love someone who always looks like he’s on the verge of falling asleep? This little dude is a hero, a valiant warrior in mankind’s constant struggle to not catch 40 winks at any given moment. He’s also a pretty perfect representation of the way Bronze Age Disney (yep, I’m running with that now) would present evil, because when The Goob becomes the villainous Bowler Hat Guy, he doesn’t really become a bad guy. He’s
a hero, a valiant warrior just someone who’s had bad stuff happen to him and deals with it in the wrong way.
After his failure to make a critical catch in a baseball game, The Goob is bullied and starts internalising all the resultant rage. While Lewis takes failure after failure with good grace and a desire to improve and eventually succeed, The Goob gets angry with his failure. ‘Keep Moving Forwards’ Lewis comes to realise to his benefit, but The Goob (poor, poor Goob) is always moving backwards, and eventually lets that frustration warp his personality from lovable and loyal dweeb into bitter and twisted (but still somewhat lovable) villain.
The Goob shares little in common with the likes of Gaston, Ursula, and Jafar – bad guys who generate little, if any sympathy – and a lot in common with King Candy, Hans, and Callaghan. Because in the Bronze Age, Disney hasn’t just realigned its vision of what it means to be a hero, but also what it means to be a villain. Bronze Age villains are – more often than not – victims who have lost something (their place in life, their place in their family, their relatives) and have been unable to deal with that loss. Rather than pushing forward, they’ve looked inward and found only darkness and a desire to put right the wrongs that have been inflicted upon them. By any means necessary.
There’s a whole other essay to be written on this subject, and I’ll get round to it some day, but for the time being, let’s all just say it together: poor, poor Goob.
God help the outcasts
Outsiders and outcasts are often the subject of Disney films, be they in the shape of the bullied Cinderella, the “funny girl” Belle, or the tormented Quasimodo. Those characters often lose parents, but we rarely seen the fallout from children being alone: a trip to the orphanage and repeated failed meetings with prospective adopters. Meet the Robinsons tackles these things head-on and its emotional core is built on them: early scenes in which Lewis and Goob prepare for meetings with adopters and the fallout when the meetings go wrong are terribly sad and add much to the characters and story.
Meet the Robinsons then is, on an emotional rather than thematic level, about what loneliness does to children. Both Lewis and the Goob (poor poor…) are lonely kids who don’t fit in. Lewis eventually finds people who accept him and love him for who he is, and that helps save him. Goob, on the other hand, only becomes more and more isolated, so much so that his only companion is a nefarious robot hat. And when the only thing stopping you from being utterly, 100% alone is a nefarious robot hat, is it any wonder you slip into the odd act of evil?
Loneliness recurs throughout Bronze Age Disney, in the distance between Elsa and Anna, the banishment of Vanellope from Sugar Rush, and the desperation of Rapunzel to escape her tower and chase her dream. As I’ve said, suggesting that Meet the Robinsons intentionally began all that is problematic because with the production changes that were going on I seriously doubt the film-makers sat down and discussed how they could make their movie fit thematically with unknown future output. But there’s no doubt the seed of the idea is there.
Meet the Robinsons may have been an unwitting template creator, but a template creator is what it is. If nothing else, it certainly pushes a lesson the studio itself has steadfastly stuck to. Because with each film since, Disney, Lasseter, and his creative team have always sought to do one thing with each and every movie: keep moving forwards.
Wrapping it up…
I have nothing more to say than (obviously) poor Goob. Poor poor Goob.
Next time, I’m going to war. Well, wartime. Disney had to cut costs during the Second World War and produced a bunch of package films (a handful of shorts in one anthology), and one of those is Make Mine Music. Inkeeping with the nostalgia, this will be preceded by the already-legendary short Paperman. SWOONY SWOON SWOON.