Disney’s Give a Day, Get Some Guilt

11 01 2010

I had an interesting experience this weekend. My daughter’s Sunday School class has gotten involved with Disney’s Give a Day, Get a Day program. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, the basic idea is that if you volunteer a day of service, you get rewarded with a one-day pass to the Disneyland theme park. The idea is that everyone in the class and their parents would volunteer to do some “tzedakeh” or charitable work and we would all go together to Disney with the kids as a class.

This is hardly the first charitable thing my family has been involved with both on our own or with the Temple, so we were quick to get involved. We ended up working down at an elementary school in East LA working to clean the place up, weeding and resoiling a garden that had been completely overgrown with weeds. It was a couple of hours of not tremendously difficult work that really needed to be done and will hopefully make a school in an area that really needs it a better place for education. And we get a day in Disneyland.

What I found interesting about the experience though, was the conversation I had with a woman who got out of a car loaded down with bumper stickers. You know the kinds I mean — they say things like “Coexist” and “War is unkind to children and other living things” and “Like your rights? Thank a liberal.” She carried her self-righteousness with her like a cloak and it trailed behind her when she walked. Her first words to me while we were waiting on the line for our assignments were “Oh, you must be here to get the free day in Disneyland.”

Not that it was any of her business, but I decided to be nice and admit that yes, that’s why we were there. Her response: “Typical. All these people couldn’t be bothered to come out to help others without some giant corporation figuring out a way to make money off of it.” Someone on line pointed out that Disney was hardly making money off of their charity since they would be giving away the tickets. She pointed out that by getting people into the park, they ensured that they would be spending money on food, drinks, parking, souvenirs and all sorts of other things so Disney was hardly being completely altruistic.

I realized that that this is the kind of galactically stupid misunderstanding of human nature that leads hard-core leftists to misunderstand the nature of capitalism and embrace idiotic ideas like socialism. They somehow believe in something that never has and never will exist — the completely selfless act the utterly other directed person. The bottom line is this — the exchange of commodities isn’t just a facet of life — it is life. There is nothing that anyone ever does with another person that doesn’t have some element of self-interest behind it. The secret to a healthy society is respect for that enlightened self-interest.

The heart of capitalism is the win-win. It’s the exchange of value for value. Why shouldn’t that work in a charitable situation? Why is it so bad for some people to do good by doing well? Disney gets people to the park when the economy is down. A bunch of people get a day of fun for free. And a school in East LA gets the help that it needs. Is our motivation somehow less “pure” than the woman who so looked down on us? Perhaps. But I would also point out that prior to Disney’s involvement, the school was struggling to find volunteers to do what needed to be done. Judging by the effect of my day of service, if Disney gets a few more buck in their coffers for it, I’d say that was money well spent. And I plan on enjoying my day in Disneyland with my kids with a clear conscience.

Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days – Nobody Knows Anything

30 09 2009

Bookmark and Share

Here’s a little story. Back when I was working at Interplay, my then boss Bob Picunko (who’s now a big muckity-muck over at MTV) came into my office to talk about a game that he had heard that Disney was working on with Square Enix. It was called Kingdom Hearts and it combined Disney characters with Final Fantasy characters which on the surface sounds like most ridiculous combination around. Both of us dismissed the idea as something that would never work. Well, we were wrong. Kingdom Hearts turned out to be a smash hit and easily one of my all-time favorite PS2 games. Sometimes the strangest combinations come out of left field to knock your socks off (if I may mix my metaphors there).

Now of course, Kingdom Hearts is a mega-successful franchise that’s treasured and no doubt championed by many inside Disney and Square. Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan and all that. On the release of the latest iteration of the franchise though, it’s worthwhile to remember that this was not an idea that most people would have initially championed. I have enormous respect for my former boss — Bob’s the kind of smart, savvy guy I’d follow off a cliff and nobody knows games better, but he totally missed this one. Without blowing my own horn, I know gaming pretty well too and I dismissed Kingdom Hearts at first. Everyone in this industry has that kind of story — the one they totally missed.

Conversely, there are opposite stories as well. Ray Kassar, the head of Atari who presided over the original company’s destruction in the late ’70s was also the guy who essentially invented the home console port with the Atari 2600 Space Invaders. It behooves us all then to show a little humility sometimes, realizing that nobody really knows anything. We can make our best guesses, apply our facts and figures and bring all our experience to bear and still miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes we just get lucky because there’s a person or a team out there that everyone laughs at with a vision. In the mean time, if you’ve never played Kingdom Hearts — go do so and thank me later. If you have, enjoy the new game. I know I will!

Ponyo and the Art of the Unsaid

23 08 2009

Warning: Spoilers ahead

I don’t particularly care for profanity from stand-up comics or explicit sexuality in movies. It’s not that I have any moral objections to four-letter words or people doing the nasty (particularly the latter), it’s more that I believe that great art comes as much from what is not shown as what is. The tighter the boundaries a piece of art must push against, the greater the breakthrough when something really works within a particular set of conventions. I think great art is found in the negative space where the audience is forced to dig in and work. It’s not for nothing that the term Anvilicious was coined to mock the heavy-handed “This is the message, people!” moments that pass for social commentary in movies and TV shows. I thought about this a lot today while watching the new Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo with the kids.

Ponyo of course, is the latest animated film from the genius behind Spirited Away (among others). It’s the light-hearted tale of a magical goldfish named Ponyo that falls in love with a five-year boy named Sosuke and wants to become human. There’s more to it, of course. There are a number of plots running though the piece including bits about Sosuke’s mother’s job at an old-age home, worries about his father who’s the captain of a ship that may be lost at sea and the cosmic rift that Ponyo has unwittingly opened that threatens to destroy the Earth. Of course the real reason to see it is absolutely spectacular imagery that Miyazaki created using the kind-of old-school animation techniques that would have been recognizable by Walt Disney himself.

What’s really amazing about Ponyo however, is how much of what the movie’s actually about is left unsaid. There’s only a single truly anvilicious moment in the film when Ponyo’s father (a formerly human sorcerer who now lives in the sea and struggles to maintain the “balance of nature”) mentiones that he really doesn’t like humans because of the way they mess up the ocean floor and get in the way of his work — and I’m not sure whether that’s actually the product of Myazaki or the translated English screenplay produced by E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison. Make no mistake about it though, environmental degradation and humanity’s responsibility for it are a big part of Ponyo’s story, but one has to dig deeply into what’s not said to find it.

The beginning of the film, for example, shows the viewer some absolutely spectacular imagery of the living seas — jellyfish, fish, diatoms and all kind of beautiful undersea lifeforms wheeling about in a spectacular dance. It’s a stunning “Circle of Life” moment. Ponyo then escapes from her controlling father and heads for the surface world. What follows is an absolutely brutal yet lovely sequence of Ponyo’s Dad struggling through the trash-strewn harbor waters around Sosuke’s home searching for Ponyo and Ponyo’s near death from a dredger and a discarded fruit jar. This is followed by what on the surface is a lighthearted comedic moment that’s actually bitterly ironic where Sosuke’s mother takes Ponyo’s father to task because she believe the spray pumper he uses to keep himself wet on land is some sort of weed-killer and “we don’t use weed-killer around here.”

It’s this kind of subtlety that’s at work throughout the entire film. Miyazaki never comes out and says that humans are evil for messing up the environment or that there’s a Captain Planet-like conspiracy to befoul our home. Indeed, this is a film notable for the fact that there are no villains. Everyone in the movie is doing what they do out of the best possible motives. The real villain of the movie is parochial self-interest — being so narrowly focused on one’s immediate concerns that one doesn’t take the time to revel in the world around oneself and appreciate the magic and wonders that lie right in front of our noses. At one point, Sosuke’s mother Lisa casually tosses off the practiced line “Life is full of wonders” — casually dismissing the miraculous appearence of a little girl who came to them running on a wave. Indeed, Ponyo herself is the greatest perpetrator of this — being so focused on her affection for Sosuke and her desire to become human that she nearly destroys the world.

This sort of parochialism is shown again and again throughout the film. After a storm has ravaged Sosuke’s tiny fishing community, Sosuke and Ponyo go on a quest in a tiny boat to find Sosuke’s mother. As they travel, the audience is treated to incredible undersea vistas showing the now-drowned landscape with Devonian fish swimming along underwater freeways and through submerged forests. Much of this is shown from the height of the children;s waists, looking down as their feet pass over these marvels while they look ahead, completely unaware. Yet when a fleet of brightly colored flag-bearing rescue boats evacuating villagers comes by, Sosuke says “It’s like a parade!” completely unaware of the potential human tragedy that these boats represent. When the residents of the nursing home where Lisa works are miraculously healed and saved from drowning by a jellyfish-like air bubble provided by Ponyo’s dad, their main concern is eavesdropping on Lisa’s conversation.

Indeed, it doesn’t seem to me that Miyazaki believes that humanity is evil for what it does to the Earth. The vibe I got from the film was more one of sadness that responsible stewardship of the planet seems to require two characteristics that are awfully hard to reconcile with each other. The first is the child-like capacity to accept, appreciate and utilize all the wondrous and magical things that the universe provides. The second is the adult-like capacity to be a responsible caretaker with the hard-headed practicality to get things done. Ponyo herself is forced to give up magic to become truly human and Sosuke is asked to make the grown-up choice to take responsibility for her and Ponyo does indeed, get her happy ending. The central conundrum of the movie, however, is left unresolved. Is it possible to have both sides in the same person? Ponyo’s father would seem to be a likely candidate, but his gaunt, haggard appearance and acknowledgment that he’s long since left his own humanity behind don’t bode well for those trying to split that balance.

Bookmark and Share

‘Up’ is not for children…

21 06 2009

So we took Lily and David to see “Up” today and my first reaction was that this is a beautiful, funny and wonderfully moving film about love, loss, our connections to other human beings and the true definition of “adventure.” My second reaction was that this may be the most “adult” film Pixar has ever made. To judge by the (admittedly small) sample size of my six and four-year old, there’s not really enough slapstick and humor to keep the kiddies entertained. True the bird is a typical wacky cartoon animal and they certainly appreciated the talking dogs, but most of this movie is emotionally centered around retired balloon salesman Carl Fredrickson and the love of his life, Ellie — a spunky would-be adventurer that Carl meets as a kid who eventually becomes his wife.

Carl’s pain at the loss of Ellie (beautifully portrayed in an opening montage of their life togather) is the real driving force behind all the action of the film and Ellie’s larger-than-life presence looms throughout the picture, her memory and their house are the (literal) anchor that’s keeping him from flying off to discover new adventures. The house itself becomes an almost hit-you-on-the-head symbol as Carl spends much of the film lashed to it. It’s a faded memory that he’s unable to let go of and move on. It’s a melancholy theme that hangs over the whole picture and while it’s beautifully handled in the script, it necessarily brings the entire picture down. For all the visual beauty of the house dangling from brightly colored balloons and the South American jungle and Kevin, the wrongly-named bird the main characters meet, the emotional pall that hangs over the picture seems to weigh it down in ways that not even the very funny script and physical comedy can alleviate.

My daughter didn’t like the picture at all. She said it was because of “the pack of evil dogs.” I wonder if in her own way she’s trying to explain the emotional miasma that permeated the movie. It’s the kind of thing that adults will love but I wonder how many kids will react like mine.