About Popular Culture

Some years ago, a workplace acquaintance, deciding he'd had enough of my obliviousness to pop culture phenomena, coined a phrase that soon became a team-wide refrain: "Don't worry, Matt. It's just a disco song." Such was the reply anytime I made clear my ignorance of some element of popular culture, whether it be a song, a movie, a TV show, or an internet meme.

I'll admit to a certain level of disgust with large swaths of popular culture, especially concerning books. Two very popular series in particular stand out to me as both stylistically and thematically abhorrent, and yet they are bestsellers.

And I am absolutely guilty of a thing all humans do. If I see a book that is like one of my abhorred series, say Divergent, and if I read the blurb and look at its cover, it's very easy for me to jump to the conclusion, "this is trying to be like Hunger Games." After analyzing a certain number of its attributes, I make inferences about the intent of Divergent's creators based on my experience with other similar media. With enough experience, I can count on these assumptions to be right about any given piece of media and across a large number of aesthetic contexts. The problem with this strategy, which is employed widely by all humans about most all art, is that it only works most of the time.

True diamonds in the rough will often function by drawing you into the familiar (even the trite and the hackneyed) only to upend all your preconceptions by utilizing the familiar elements to unique ends. If I allowed myself to fall blithely into thought patterns such as "all teen post-apocalypses are crap" or "all feudal, fantasy political intrigues are crap," I would miss the gem when it did arrive, having dismissed it out of hand. For example, I read Red Rising in 2014 even though I was pretty certain I would find nothing of value there, and I did not find anything of value there, but there was a small chance that I would. Everyone has to decide how much energy it's worth expending on such endeavors.

I found myself wondering if I was guilty of letting associations override analysis with regard to my recent assessment of Stranger Things. I decided that, in this case, I hadn't. I had indeed watched the entire season, I had paid attention the whole time, and by my personality, I am inclined toward (rather than away from) its subject matter. So, I stand by analysis.

However, I also came away wanting to prove that I am capable of demonstrating my "diamond in the rough" stance by identifying actual diamonds in the rough. I wanted to be able to point to something (or things) and say, "I know you think I hate popular culture, but..."

So, without further ado, I present here for your perusal, all in one single blog post, reviews of three popular animated movies for children, two of them by that mega-corporation of mega-corporations, Disney Entertainment. If I am truly biased against popular culture, I should have no business either searching out or finding sophistication in any such works. And yet...

Ratatouille (Disney, 2007)

I came to this movie very late, just about a week ago. It passed by my radar upon its release because I was in the middle of moving from Japan to Hawaii to start graduate school. However, I read Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott earlier this year, which piqued my curiosity with regards to Ratatouille (there's a protracted discussion of the film toward the book's conclusion).

The film did not in any way disappoint.

We begin with Remy, a rat living with his family in the French countryside. Unlike the rest of his family, who are content to eat garbage, Remy has a sensitive nose and soon develops a very refined palette. Unsurprisingly, country garbage does contain enough variety to satiate his aesthetic tastes, and the only use his family has for his talent is as a rat poison detector.

It is not long before Remy's countryside life is disrupted and he finds himself in Paris. It is there that, one night, he witnesses a culinary disaster take place in the kitchen of the famous restaurant Gusteau's–the garbage boy knocks over a large pot of soup, and in attempting to remake the dish utterly botches it. Remy dives to the rescue and saves the soup, but the garbage boy, Alfredo, gets the credit. It is here that the narrative's fundamental tension is formed: Alfredo is hopelessly incompetent when it comes to culinary art, but Remy, as a rat, will cause customers (not to mention health officials) to revolt were they to discover that vermin had prepared their food.

This speaks droves to the theme with which I began this post. As an audience it is necessary to compare new works to those that we have experienced before. Sharing a historical artistic framework with the work's creator can be a source of great aesthetic joy for the audience (for all its flaws, this is one of Stranger Things great strengths). But the critical audience must remain critical not just of new works, but the assumptions they themselves bring to those works–perhaps it is possible for a rat to cook a delicious meal.

Ratatouille's depth does not begin and end along this single aesthetic vector. I could write a much larger essay concerning: the tension Remy's love of cooking causes between him and his father; Remy's assertion that "nature is change" (a response to his father's assertion that human-rat animosity and revulsion is built into their very nature); the willingness of Gusteau's sous-chef to corrupt his art and cheapen his restaurant's brand hawking a line of frozen foods; the corrupting nature of public attention both on art and on relationships; Anton Ego's lack of self-criticism at the story's inception and his development throughout; and so on.

Not only is Ratatouille a brilliant study of what it means to love an art, it is also entertaining and accessible. This is one of those rare films that is at the same time simple and complex. It is hands down the best Disney movie I have ever seen.

Big Hero 6 (Disney, 2014)

Two years ago I found myself on a twenty-hour plane ride, a situation in which my aesthetic discrimination defers rapidly to my desire to fill time with something other than staring blankly at a seat back and not sleeping.

Suffice it to say, I came to Big Hero 6 with low expectations, but I came away pleasantly surprised.

My biggest critique of popular entertainment these days is that its moral universe seems to have flattened significantly since the 1980's. When I look at the range of complex moral and ethical concerns raised by Star Trek: The Next Generation and then set that alongside the series' most recent incarnations, the magnitude of the moral flattening is astounding.

In my opinion, it is rare to see a work present anything like complex villains and complex heroes nowadays, and for that alone, Big Hero 6 deserves to be called out.

The story begins with the main character, Hiro, a fourteen-year-old programmer and robotics engineer, winning an illegal robot death match. His robot is deceptively small and simplistic, utilizing its ability to disassemble and reassemble itself to its advantage. While that ability presages the metaphor of humans rebuilding their lives in the wake of disaster, the introductory scene gets deeper still. Hiro has the ability to flip his robot from its standard mode, indicated by a yellow smiley face, to a kind of "kill mode" indicated by a red demon face. At this point, it is only mindless robots being destroyed, but the scene effectively foreshadows all the ethical complexity the film will explore, as Hiro demonstrates himself capable of both inspiring awe and wreaking destruction with his creations. (Spoilers ahead.)

Hiro lost his parents as an infant. At the start of the movie, his guardians include his aunt and his older brother, Tadashi, a robotics engineer himself, currently studying at the local Institute of Technology. Tadashi gets Hiro interested in applying to the Institute (Hiro has graduated high school early) only for Tadashi to promptly die in an explosion at the Institute's technology expo.

Hiro is cast into grief and successfully isolates himself from all of his friends and family but one. Baymax, the robot his brother was working on at the Institute, activates and proves socially naive enough to break through Hiro's emotional walls. Baymax is a medical robot, capable of analyzing humans for illnesses and equipped with an array of medical instruments for treatment. Through his literal interpretation of Hiro's requests, Baymax inadvertently draws Hiro into discovering that his invention for the expo, nanobots, have been stolen and are being illegally produced en mass. The explosion and fire begin to look like a cover for stealing Hiro's invention.

Hiro wastes no time upgrading Baymax with defensive and offensive equipment and sets out to apprehend the individual who stole his invention, figuring that, just as the narrative structure has led the audience to conclude, the culprit is Alastair Krei, a businessman who Hiro turned down at the expo. However, when finally unmasked, the nanobot thief indirectly responsible for Tadashi's death turns out to be Professor Callaghan, Tadashi's advisor.

In what is certainly the film's best narrative move, Hiro, overcome with rage, rips the chip containing Tadashi's healthcare protocols out of Baymax and orders him to kill the professor. It would still be a poignant scene if the metaphor consisted only of the human/robot ethics level and the moralizing against revenge. However, since Baymax was programmed by Tadashi, Baymax acts as a stand-in for Tadashi. Removing Tadashi's programming from Baymax has the metaphorical effect of killing Tadashi all over again. The symbolism is further strengthened when Baymax later convinces Hiro not to delete his healthcare protocols, and we see what Baymax has meant by his refrain of "Tadashi is here" throughout the film–Baymax possesses video records of his construction at Tadashi's hands, which he shows Hiro, and once again robotic assemblage is paralleled with Hiro's struggle to assemble an identity for himself in the wake of Tadashi's death.

The Tadashi videos are also remarkable for their depiction of the engineering process. While ostensibly simplistic and more than a bit silly, they do accurately convey for a younger audience the time-consuming trial and error that must be invested in order to arrive at working solutions. In addition, the videos capture the malaise and weariness that accompany repeated failure, in addition to the elation of finding the solution that makes the entire enterprise seem worthwhile.

For all that is superbly executed about Big Hero 6, I also feel that, of the three films discussed in this blog post, it contains the most significant flaws. The narrative does a good job of keeping its action sequences relevant to major themes, and they are certainly not ethically flat, but it is a fight-sequence heavy film all the same. I am not a fan of the visual style of the art, although I will admit it fits the comic book/graphic novel style that the entire film is shooting for.

The biggest aesthetic problem for me is the reversal in which Callaghan rather than Krei turns out to be the villain. Callaghan is a professor at a robotics institute, while Krei is an executive for a private sector business. This is a very troubling reversal. In an age in which the academies of the world are being eroded and perverted by laissez-faire capitalism, I find it extremely problematic to present children with a vision in which the professor is the selfish out-of-control megalomaniac, and the businessman is the harmless bystander. If one were to counter with the supposition that we are to presume that professor and businessman are equal and interchangeable categories (which the film's structure would support), we arrive at other incredibly unhealthy assumptions, such as, are both beholden to capitalism's bottom line? In this writer's opinion, professors should not be. The Callaghan-Krei juxtaposition is inappropriate in the extreme.

Yet, for its flaws, Big Hero 6 was the first Disney movie in a long time that impressed me in any way at all. Its commentary on engineering, and its well-articulated narrative dialogue around revenge, especially in the context of a child losing the last member of his immediate family, is so well done that its other failings appear minor by comparison.

Kubo and the Two Strings (Laika, 2016)

This movie is without a doubt the most visually appealing animated film I have ever beheld. Film studio Laika specializes in stop-motion animation, but enhances the technique with modern computer graphics. The result is nothing short of stunning, and Dario Marianelli's score deftly adds accents and contours to the visual feast.

All of that was readily apparent from the film's trailer. What remained uncertain was whether or not the narrative experience would complete the visual-aural-narrative artistic trifecta.

I'm happy to report that I was not disappointed.

Eleven-year-old Kubo lives with his mother Sariatu in a cliffside cave on the outskirts of a Japanese village. His mother suffers from a memory affliction akin to Alzheimer's, and it is up to Kubo to keep them fed. To make money, he entertains the villagers with stories told using a menagerie of origami creations animated by his magical shamisen (Japanese string instrument).

Kubo's infant years, as related by his mother, provide a complex background. Kubo has only one eye, the other apparently "taken" by Kubo's grandfather shortly after this birth. Grandpa is also responsible for killing Kubo's father, Hanzo, and Kubo only survived because mom stole him away. The two of them remain safe by making sure never to stray out beneath the nighttime sky.

Naturally, before too long Kubo finds himself on the run from forces of evil, who appear in the form of ghostly aunts desirous of stealing Kubo away to his grandfather. What ensues is a fairly typical hero's journey–Kubo must gather up a sword, a helmet, and a suit of armor in order to become capable of standing up to his grandfather. And if that was all there was to the story, there would be nothing more to say here.

But there is so much more.

The most notable thematic quality of the story on first blush is the preponderance of memory and identity. Sariatu is not the only character who suffers memory issues. As Kubo starts his hero's journey, he's joined by a giant, talking monkey guardian and a half-human half-beetle samurai, both of whom possess secret identities, which they are not entirely aware of because of, you guessed it–memory problems. Even the story's conclusion is dependent on memory. The eventual resolution of the conflict between Kubo and his grandfather involves memory and identity reassignment (just how much are other people responsible for our identity formation?). (Spoilers ahead.)

As I noted at the very beginning of this post, successful art often functions by setting you up with the familiar only to subvert all expectations. That is exactly what Kubo and the Two Strings achieves. About halfway through the film, we finally learn how it was that Kubo's parents met. Kubo's father was tasked with the same hero's journey we see his son engage in. At the conclusion of Hanzo's journey, it was Kubo's mother who the grandfather tasked with destroying Hanzo. Hanzo secures her love not with the trite aphorism of "I love you," but with, "You are my quest."

A parallel structure can be found at the film's conclusion, in which Kubo defeats his grandfather, using neither sword, helmet, nor armor, in fact Kubo throws those prizes away. Instead he turns to the strands of hair he retains from his mother and father and uses them to restring his broken shamisen, along with one hair of his own (promised titular metaphor realized: "Kubo and the Two Strings"). Kubo's final and most powerful magic, the ability to render foes into friends, is possible only by metaphorically uniting the family trio that has been either broken or disjuncted by lost memory throughout the story up until that point.

In throwing away the magical artifacts of the hero's journey, the narrative subverts the hero's journey archetype and restructures its value hierarchy to place people and relationships above possessions and power. Just as Hanzo was successful in turning Sariatu away from domination and toward humanity, Kubo is similarly successful with his grandfather.

Any remaining narrative problems haranguing my mind at this point are minuscule when set aside these achievements. Some bits of dialogue struck me as contrived, and Kubo's shamisen magic had a touch of convenience, at times having the effect of doing whatever the plot needed it to. These are minor quibbles.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, and although I think it might not quite reach the narrative aesthetic achievement of Ratatouille, it is certainly the most visually appealing of the three films reviewed here with a poignant and philosophically powerful story easily accessible to children and adults both.