Disney’s new big-screen nature-doc spectacle, earth, is actually a condensation of the BBC/Discovery Channel small-screen nature-doc spectacle, Planet Earth. But hey, nothing wrong with that — Disney stays profitable, a bunch of British nature photographers get to move to slightly more comfortable London flats, and we all benefit from the gentle but clear lessons about disappearing ice floes and expanding deserts. But earth is peculiarly Walt Disneyesque — no, not because it features fluffy polar bear cubs and ducklings taking their first flight, but because everything gets eaten.
One of the first images we see in earth is that of a lonely, starving male polar bear slowly making its way across a sunless Arctic waste, migrating instinctively toward better hunting grounds. That image is everything one needs to know about the worldview of both Walt Disney and the studio he founded; as Edward Rothstein wrote in a review of Tarzan in the New York Times,
Disney films — from “Snow White” to “Mulan” — have almost always been about outsiders, like Tarzan, seeking a home in an inhospitable world. These figures are rejected, isolated, alien, the victims of jealousy, snobbery, banality and hatred.
Despite having somehow acquired a reputation as a cuddly optimist (this no doubt bolstered by the futurism of projects like the EPCOT Center in Florida), Disney was a thoroughgoing Darwinist, a man obsessed with hostile environments, both social and natural.
He was also a sucker for the orphan story, and for Disney’s characters the paramount concern was always securing a nuclear family of some kind. Many of the early features (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella) were about young women whose parents were either actually or functionally absent, and who had to adopt new guardians and protectors — dwarves, animals, fairies, or what-have-you. Of course, these faux-families are inevitably only transitional substitutes — the young women don’t find true security until they find love and get married.
It’s tempting to see these narratives, especially the latter halves about finding true love and getting married, as cheerful sex-role propaganda. But in the larger context of Disney’s overall film output — which includes such other notable orphans as Dumbo, Bambi, Peter Pan, Arthur, and Mowgli, not to mention children like Pinocchio and Alice who are separated from their parents and find themselves in dangerous, unfamiliar territory — it seems that the real lesson is that the world is hostile, weird, and perilous, and that only the bosom of a family unit constitutes even marginal safety. (The deadly mothers in the Grimm Brothers’ teen-girl fairy tales have all been turned into stepmothers in Disney’s versions, perhaps because for Disney biology was everything. A biological mother was a protector; a stepmother was not.) And if one navigated the smooth transition from the care of two biological parents to the sexual pair bond, all would be well — otherwise, the world was a hideously dangerous place.
Disney is sometimes seen as a right-wing icon, not least because he willingly and unhesitatingly named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. But in his somewhat confused answer to the question, “What is your personal opinion of the Communist Party… as to whether or not it is a political party?” Disney referred to protecting “all of the good, free causes in this country, all the liberalisms that really are American” from “the taint of Communism.” And indeed he seems to have been largely secular and constitutionalist in his views. Later in the interrogation, he adds that “I feel if the thing can be proven un-American that it ought to be outlawed. [But] it should be done without interfering with the rights of the people… American rights that we all have now, and we want to preserve.” (As I said, confused.) Moreover, Disney had a terrific belief in the power of government to do good — which explains not only why he made propaganda films in favor of income tax during the World War II (hard to imagine today’s right wing exhorting people to pay their share, even in time of war), but also, I imagine, why he serenely testified before HUAC, confident that justice would be served.
If Disney was conservative, he was that peculiar kind of conservative — call it, in the modern era, Cheney conservatism — that views the world as deadly and hostile and life as a constant struggle to protect one’s family from threat. If he hated Communism, I suspect it was because it seemed to put the “common” good above a man’s instinctive drive to provide for his own blood.
So this is the way in which earth turns out to carry on Disney’s legacy — not by being cute and fluffy, nor even by exhibiting an awe and wonder at the brilliant diversity of life, but by emphasizing, over and over again, that children separated from their parents are at horrible risk. As is, really, everyone else. The movie dispatches reindeer fawns, baby ibexes, seals, elephants, and worms with absolute ruthlessness, fetishizing the killing moves of sharks, wolves, leopards, and lionesses with magnificent, if heartless, slow-mo photography and sensational close-ups. Meanwhile, as we discover in the film’s final sequence, the predators who don’t kill effectively enough starve and die, unable to protect their young. It’s a grim, brutal outlook — and that’s without taking into account the merely tragicomic suffering of creatures like the male bird-of-paradise, who puts on a glorious display for a lady who, nonetheless, finds him dull and unmateable.
There’s plenty to be amazed by here, and the photography is never less than stunning, but despite the G rating you’d have to be a dispossessed German nihilist (or maybe this woman) to take small children to this film.
Neither the pilot of Parks and Recreation, the new Amy Poehler sitcom, nor that of Sit Down, Shut Up, an animated show from the creator of Arrested Development, is actually funny. But if you’re like me, you’ll probably give these shows a few episodes to find their legs out of sheer loyalty to the people involved.
Parks and Recreation is about small-scale city politics, and the main character, played by Poehler, is a bumbling but ambitious Parks Department employee who thinks she might have found a career break when a nurse played by Rashida Jones directs her attention to a dangerous vacant lot in need of renovation. Despite two such strong talents fronting the show, only Aziz Ansari, as Poehler’s slippery assistant, gets any real comic traction. I hope this gets better.
Sit Down, Shut Up is the bigger disappointment, because it has even more talent on board (Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Will Forte, Kristen Chenoweth, creator Mitchell Hurwitz), but the concept seems to have absolutely nowhere to go. It focuses on the faculty of a mediocre high school, to the complete exclusion of the students, but the teachers are all basically shopworn stereotypes — the tough black lady principal, the P.E. teacher who’d rather be doing something else, and one really unpleasant caricature of an Arab immigrant. There are a few “meta” gags about scenes that can’t be shown on the air, and these land solidly enough, but most of the character gags are just bland. Again, I hope for the best, because I’m an enormous Arrested Development fan and I’d like to see these guys make heaps of money. But so far the show seems muted and lacking in focus.