When you’re still as excited about the classic Disney Animated Features at 28 as you were when you were a toddler, you tend to want to qualify it. Otherwise, people start to wonder.
The newly opened Franklin Theatre will be showing Mary Poppins this weekend. My favorite. Naturally, I’ve been blasting the soundtrack throughout the office this week while Micah, Julian and Joseph roll their eyes, and sometimes, involuntarily begin singing along.
After about the third time through, Julian turned to Micah and asked a very good question about me: “What’s with this guy?”
Julian was kidding, but it’s a serious and interesting question. Why does the magic of Disney still compel me and other adults I know? Here are a few of my desperate qualifiers in my attempt to justify myself and maybe even you.
1. The Art of it all!
This argument sort of works and there’s plenty to say. The animation was all hand-drawn and untouched by digital effects, of course. Even the non-cartoonish London backdrop in Mary Poppins is crafted by hand and tactfully integrated. There is a classic charm to all of it, not to mention a lost technique.
We could riff on this a while, but it still doesn’t justify the kind of affection I’m talking about.
2. The music of it all!
This hardly needs explaining. If I found myself at a table of hip, Nashville musicians, I could argue that the effect Disney music has had on the world is as powerful as the music of the Beatles and could even outlast it.
That’s an essay for another time, but the music argument, while convincing, can’t really stand alone without the other elements of visual and story.
3. The theme of it all!
Here we go. Disney offers the quality I look for most in film: Escapism. Films that were larger than life. Looking way back, film found it’s great awakening in wartime as a distraction from the chaos and a shelter from the storm of bloodshed, rationing and economic unrest. The song-and-dance men and women of WWII come to mind or Lucas and Spielberg on the heels of Vietnam. “Critically acclaimed” film nowadays has strayed from it’s first calling, valuing a “realism” or “disasterism” that is often depressing, self-loathing and fatalistic. We may find a certain sad hope in some of these movies to cling to, but nothing like the pure, epic fun we found in the Disney classics like Peter Pan, Robin Hood etc.
To be fair, these movies didn’t ignore what was going on in history, they actually latched on to current events in most cases, using them as a springboard to tell a bigger narrative of magic, friendship, love and adventure. Think Robin Hood over the backdrop of the Crusades, Peter Pan and its inherent theatrical appeal to the stuffy aristocracy of London’s “grown-up” population. Mary Poppins even tried to tackle feminism at the turn of the century — a back-seat theme to the “real” story of a magic nanny, children growing up and parents growing down to meet them.
This option is the most fun and allows us to deconstruct these stories to fit whatever psychological or socio-political interpretation we like. No doubt these themes are actually there to deal with, but we almost have to go behind the children’s story to find these adult themes and separate them out from the whole narrative. In the end we have a kids fairy tail and an adult reality, cleverly coexisting in one film to please two separate demographics at the same time.
Film should always be picked apart and talked about for its uses of art, music and theme, but it should also be allowed to be what it is as a whole. Each piece we examine needs to be placed back in the larger puzzle when we’re done with it, if it’s to be fully appreciated.
Many of us get excited about what we like and want to put it in words (like I am doing now). But as much as we ramble, we usually fail to get to the bottom of anything and only end up making a few bonus points on a rabbit trail — far away from the main point. Why? The real answer is simple and frustrating. The things we find beautiful are always the things we find mysterious. I know sometimes why I like a certain song, and could describe it in essay form, but you would never get the full effect from my descriptions as you would by simply listening for yourself and engaging with the beauty and mystery.
This may sound obvious, but it’s something I and many others wrestle with, especially when we’re still hung up on the kids movies of our childhood. I guess I see it like this: We always talk about what we learned in our teen years, college years, young adult years etc. No one really talks about what they learned in their childhood years — only what they saw or experienced. As kids, we were all too young to process everything and could only stare in the face of the things that compelled or petrified us and marvel at them. As an adult, I find that I always have to relearn this technique over and over. Maybe Disney helps me do that. And maybe Mary Poppins was right. There are certain feeling we can’t put into words and what comes out instead is something you’d be more likely to find at a pentecostal revival than in a lecture hall. If you say it loud enough you’ll always sound precocious…
(For further reading, enjoy this feminist take on Mary Poppins)