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Jim on Film: Great Expectations
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by Jim Miles (archives)
May 16, 2006
Jim explains why Disney animation could've and should've moved beyond the realm of children's movies.

Great Expectations

Perception is a powerful thing. Jim Carrey can make a comedy that gets universally panned by critics, with every negative adjective hurled at him, and yet people seem to flock to his movies like lemmings over a cliff; however, let him make one earnest drama and you can hear crickets chirping in the theater. Remember The Majestic? No one perceives Jim Carrey as a serious actor, so he never gets a shot. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the perception of animation in America. To most Americans, animation is a children’s medium. You take your children to the theater, mortgage your house to get some snacks, and once in the theater, you’re reading the latest Newsweek by the third scene.

This has had a tremendous impact on the perception of several beloved contemporary releases from Walt Disney Feature Animation, many of which I have written about in detail in my column. This bothers me because as an adult, I find traditional animation a most satisfying medium, capable of so much more than pigs burping or personality-less lions.

One of the grossest injustices to be thrust upon an animated film in recent years was Brother Bear, which I can’t seem to get enough of. There’s the typical things you used to expect in a Walt Disney Feature Animation release—great animation, great songs, compelling characters, comedy, and heart. But it was perception that threw off most critics when looking at the film. In fact, I still can’t believe the harsh reception critics gave Brother Bear, particularly in looking at the warm regards given to such recent animated attempts like Home of the Range and Madagascar. Critics walked into Brother Bear expecting a neatly told fairy tale story with animals; however, what they were presented with was one of Disney’s most literary animated features that required thought upon the part of discerning audiences. The over-arching theme of the movie is that you need to look through someone else’s eyes, a theme which is cleanly and skillfully developed through not only the main characters but the ancillary characters as well. The ending—which baffled so many—is the culmination of this rich structure. In short, Kenai’s decision to remain a bear results from his ability to look through another creature’s eyes. As established early in the film, his totem is the bear of love, and when he lives up to his totem, Tanana says that he will place his print on the wall of honor meant for those who fulfill their totem. His decision to remain a bear for Koda’s sake is the manifestation of this totem, and upon his decision, he has then earned his place on that wall.

The problem was that critics expected the neat ending suited to a kids’ movie, in which Koda’s mother gets brought back to life and/or where Kenai remains a human to live forever with his remaining brother. Because that’s not what they got, they dismissed it. Similarly, Rutt and Tuke became “the comedic, marketable characters? instead of being seen for what they are, integral elements to the plot and theme of the movie.

When teaching foreshadowing and symbolism to students, I like to show them a scene from another great Disney film, the ending of Just Around the Riverbend from Pochaontas, which is a great example of both foreshadowing and symbolism as Pocahontas chooses the difficult path, symbolizing John Smith and foreshadowing her choice of John Smith over Kocoum. Usually the response I get is a group of kids wanting to watch the rest of the movie since it is a dearly beloved film from their childhoods. A question posed by one student this year, however, is relevant here. Skeptical of my interpretation of Pocahontas’s choice, he asked, “Yeah, but isn’t this just a kids’ movie?? My response?

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