Decent Films Blog
Do we have a pope? Do we even have a movie?
The premise for Nanni Moretti’s lightweight comedy/drama Habemus Papam or We Have a Pope is an intriguing one: What if a newly elected pope had a panic attack after accepting his election, feeling overwhelmed and unable to lead, or even to appear at the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and give his first Urbi et Orbi blessing, and retreated into the depths of the Apostolic Palace?
I’m not talking about a momentary emotional breakdown. The election process provides for that: Adjacent to the Sistine Chapel is the Room of Tears, to which the the newly elected pope retreats after accepting his election in order to don the white papal robes for the first time, be alone with God, collect his thoughts, and freak out as necessary before composing himself and preparing for his first public appearance as pope.
I’m talking about an emotional paralysis lasting days, weeks or even longer. In the film, the newly elected pope, a surprise choice named Cardinal Melville, accepts his election in a momentary daze while his fellow cardinals regale him with spontaneous Gregorian chant, but then loses it completely just after the cardinal protodeacon (who introduces the new pope) has made the “Habemus papam” (“We have a pope”) proclamation, but before the new pope’s name has been announced.
What then? What indeed? The new pope says he needs “more time.” How much more? Hours become days become weeks. Clearly, the conclave chose the wrong man … but what happens as a result? How should fallout from the mistake be handled?
In my review I discuss some of the complications that follow in the film, as well as some of the things that ought to follow. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t explore the consequences of its premise with much imagination. As a result, I’m left feeling that the original question is more interesting than any of the movie’s half-baked riffing.
What ought to happen in a situation like this? A few obvious considerations from my review:
Obviously, the pope should pray — and his colleagues should pray, and urge him to pray — that God give him grace and guidance to do what he ought. If he believes he is called to the papacy, he should disregard his feelings and, well, pope up. Or, if he’s convinced beyond question that he can’t do it, he should resign — immediately and quietly — and let the conclave elect a new successor.
There are other potential considerations. First, was the pope’s acceptance of his election deliberate and free? Was he too stunned to know what he was saying? Or might he perhaps have felt somehow coerced by his fellow cardinals unexpectedly breaking out into Gregorian chant? If his acceptance was not deliberate and free, then he isn’t the pope.
On the other hand, the determination that the pope’s acceptance was not free cannot be made on the pope’s behalf by someone else. Either he must come to that conclusion himself, or he must be presumed to be the pope.
Likewise, the decision to resign would have to be the pope’s own decision. The Church has no mechanism for deposing a living pope unless such arrangements have been made in advance by that very pope himself. For example, Pope Pius XII provided that if he were ever unable to exercise his papal office -- for example, if he were captured by Nazis, as the Third Reich was later revealed to have actively considered, or if he descended into dementia -- he would be considered to have resigned, and a new pope could be elected.
However, popes cannot be bound by their predecessors in this regard, so any such arrangements must be made by each pope for his own reign. As long as a legitimately elected pope has made no such provision, he cannot be deposed. And if he also refuses to lead, as Melville does, then the Church would be in a painful situation.
The Church could continue to function in spite of the pope’s self-imposed inaction, more or less as it does in an interregnum period between papacies. Even in his impaired state, the bishop of Rome would continue to function as a visible sign of the Church’s unity, and Catholic churches around the world would include the pope in the prayers at Mass, especially the last part of the Te Igitur, as a crucial expression of their Catholic unity. (How crucial? Omission of this prayer is prima facie evidence of schism.)
Happily, the situation in the film doesn’t come to that extreme, though the resolution is very badly handled in a way guaranteed to cause maximum consternation and confusion to the faithful. As a result, the film ultimately feels like a waste of time.
We Have a Pope in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Kid with a Bike in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
21 Jump Street in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
Wrath of the Titans in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
Buy at Amazon.com
Titanic is like a stage where God says to you, “You have two hours to play out the rest of your life. What will you be? Will you be a hero? Will you be a coward?”
Those words, uttered by Titanic actor Bill Paxton in James Cameron’s other film about the Titanic, the undersea documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, are about as appropriate a prelude to one of my grievances with Cameron’s mega-hit as anything.
It is a moral crime that Cameron’s film, which has sadly become the definitive retelling of the story for our generation, is so stunted in its depiction of the range of human moral behavior in times of crisis. Titanic highlights and indeed exaggerates the cowardice, the folly, the dereliction of duty, while ignoring the heroism, the nobility, the self-sacrifice which is also an integral part of the story. Yes, Cameron allows for the possibility of heroism in the name of romantic love, self-sacrifice for one’s best beloved — but not heroism for strangers, or in the name of duty.
Saving the Titanic, a docudrama airing this month on PBS, sheds light on an untold page from the heroic side of the ledger. Combining traditional documentary with speculative historical dramatization, it highlights the story of the engineering crew, firemen, electricians and stokers who labored below decks to keep power flowing to pumps and lifeboat winches, first hoping to save the ship and then striving to delay the inevitable as long as possible to save as many lives as possible.
Even if you’ve already seen a number of Titanic presentations, Saving the Titanic is likely to surprise you a few times. For example, I hadn’t known about the spontaneous coal fire, fueled by cheap coal purchased during a coal strike, which damaged the hull days prior to the iceberg collision, contributing to the disaster.
Saving the Titanic is certainly not a complete documentary look at the disaster as a whole. Its interests are with the crew below decks, not with the passengers or senior officers. Still, as a contribution to the screen record of Titanic material, it’s a valuable contribution and well worth catching. Worth noting are a couple of moments of matter-of-fact Christian spirituality, including a familiar grace before meals and a crew member praying a rosary during the disaster.
Saving the Titanic premieres on Sunday, April 1 at 10pm ET, with encore presentations scheduled for Friday, April 6, at 10:30pm, Tuesday, April 10, at 9:00pm ET and Saturday, April 14, at 9:00pm ET. Check local listings.
John Carter in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Lorax in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
The Secret World of Arrietty in 60 seconds: My “Reel Faith” video review.
Once a month Patrick Coffin of “Catholic Answers Live!” and I talk about movies for an hour that never seems quite long enough for all the films we want to talk about. So this month, we’re taking two hours! Friday on “Catholic Answers Live!” it’s all Decent Films, all the time, from 6pm–8pm EST (3pm–5pm PST).
On the agenda for this month’s show: Andrew Stanton’s John Carter and its influence on the world of science fiction and pulp adventure; Act of Valor; The Lorax; The Secret World of Arrietty and much more. Listen live!
Reader response to the lovely family film The Secret World of Arrietty, I’m delighted to say, has been almost entirely positive. However, I did receive one negative email from a reader who not only didn’t enjoy the film, but considered it downright immoral. Why? Because the Borrowers, tiny people who live in secret in big people’s homes, survive by “borrowing” (i.e., taking) the things they need from the big people. Here’s the complaint:
I heard you review The Secret World of Arrietty on the radio after taking my granddaughter to the movie. I was appalled that you rated it so highly. From the moment I started watching the film, I felt it went against Catholic values and teachings. Since when is it okay for someone to enter someone else’s home to “borrow” things and it not be called STEALING? When I was growing up that would have been called breaking the commandment “Thou shall not steal.” I’ve known many children whose attitude is “Finders keepers, losers weepers.” They see nothing wrong with stealing because they’ve had no moral instruction. Please consider reviewing this movie again. I would like a reply as I plan to contact the radio station on this matter.
Really? Are the Borrowers thieves? Let’s think it through. (Some Arrietty spoilers ahead.)
- To begin with, some perspective. The Borrowers were created in 1952 by British author Mary Norton. The Borrowers book series, like the similar Littles series, have been popular with generations of English and American children. They can be found in countless Catholic school libraries, and are recommended by orthodox Catholic resources such as Seton Home Study School, Adoremus Books and Good to Read. That doesn’t prove anything, but if you’re going to take issue with Catholic sources recommending stories based on the premise of the Borrower way of life (which is fundamentally the same in the book as in the movie), you’re going to have to write a lot more emails.
- Even if the Borrowers’ lifestyle were sinful, which I will argue it is not, it would be at most a very slight sin due to what Catholic moral tradition and catechesis calls paucity of matter. Any well-instructed Catholic schoolboy or girl making their first confession knows that stealing something small enough (a nickel, say) is not serious sin. The Secret World of Arrietty is at pains to emphasize that the Borrowers limit their appropriations of human property to what they need and what will never be missed—indeed, their lives depend on it. For example, (Pod insists that they take nothing from the dollhouse.) This is a very clear-cut example of paucity of matter. Gravity is proportionate to harm, and since the harm Borrowers cause to humans is negligible, even if it were sinful, the sin would be vanishingly slight.
- You ask, “Since when is it okay for someone to enter someone else’s home to ‘borrow’ things and it not be called stealing?” Here is the answer, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “There is no theft” in cases of “obvious and urgent necessity when the only way to provide for immediate, essential needs (food, shelter, clothing…) is to put at one’s disposal and use the property of others” (CCC §2408). This is traditional Catholic moral theology going back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, who likewise teaches, “It is not theft, properly speaking, to take secretly and use another’s property in a case of extreme need: because that which he takes for the support of his life becomes his own property by reason of that need” (Sum II-II, 66, art 7). Many Catholics are not aware that this is Catholic teaching, but it is.
How does this apply to the Borrowers? Let’s consider their situation:
- The Borrowers are very small and therefore very vulnerable. They believe, reasonably, that their survival depends on their very existence being secret from humans.
- Because of this, it is not possible for Borrowers to live openly in the world, or to travel openly from place to place. They cannot farm or garden, or build houses, villages or cities of their own, as humans can. They cannot easily travel about in order to meet and have commerce with other Borrowers, nor can they communicate with other Borrowers who are even a short distance away. Even if there were remote locations far enough from humans where Borrowers could live openly without fear of discovery, there would be no way for Borrowers far from such places even to know where they were, let alone to find them.
- As the movie emphasizes, therefore, Borrowers necessarily live lives of profound isolation as well as secrecy. This would make it extremely difficult for them to be self-sufficient. Most human beings depend on human society and commerce to provide for our needs; if individual persons and individual families had to be entirely self-sufficient, we would find it much harder to keep body and soul together, to say nothing of raising children, etc. If, in addition to that, we found ourselves in a world densely populated by giant creatures who would capture and possibly kill us unless we hid from them at all times, it would become harder still.
- Think about what you would do in that situation. What would God expect of you? Would He demand that and your family wayfare in the wild, wandering through uncharted terrain, having no idea what dangers you will face, whether you will ever find safe berth, or even whether you will find food to stay alive? If there were no other alternative, you might be forced to do that, as the Borrowers are forced to set out at the end of the film (though happily by then they have help and additional information from Spiller). However, prior to Arrietty’s encounters with the boy and Pod’s encounter with Spiller, by far the safest and most certain way to provide for the family’s immediate needs (though still with great danger) was to live by “Borrowing.”
- In the world of this film, therefore, it can be argued that Catholic moral theology would conclude that God has made the race of the Borrowers essentially dependent upon human beings for their livelihood. The Borrower way of life is in keeping with what natural law and moral theology would prescribe for their condition.
It’s worth reflecting why Norton came up with the idea of a race of little people living under the floorboards and in the walls of people’s homes, and why children universally love the idea: because it’s fun to think about. It’s the same reason Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wanted to believe in fairies: It’s just a charming idea. It’s fun to look at human-sized architecture and furniture and so forth and think about it from the perspective of miniature mountain climbers, foresters, spelunkers. We naturally make legs with our first two fingers and walk them along tabletops and such. Also, of course, we all lose things from time to time, and sometimes we’re sure we left a thing where it isn’t now, and it’s fun to pretend that it was taken by imaginary beings like little people. (We certainly aren’t encouraged to think that the little people are stealing from us. It’s only cranky Hara who says that.)
At the end of the day, though, we are the big people and they are the little people. Their way of life is not ours. No child can live the life of a Borrower, and I’ve never known one to try. Moreover, while I didn’t read the Borrowers books growing up, I did read the similar Littles books, and it certainly never encouraged me to think that there was nothing wrong with stealing.
Of course there are children whose attitude is “Finders keepers, losers weepers,” especially if, as you note, they’ve had no moral instruction. But in the first place, when I speak on Catholic radio, I’m addressing parents whom I presume are instructing their children, and a movie like this is not going to harm a child who is well instructed. As for children who have had no moral instructions, well, they have much bigger problems than a cartoon like this.
- On the contrary, there is so much moral goodness in this film that will do young viewers good that I can’t imagine stumbling over worries that they will somehow learn that stealing is okay. This movie is wise and humane and decent in a way that utterly transcends virtually all American family entertainment. It is gentle, compassionate and thoughtful. There are so many things to love, morally, about the film:
- Arrietty respects and admires her father, and he is proud and encouraging of her even when she makes a serious mistake. He looks out for her safety, and insists that she follow the rules. Unlike so many family films, coming of age doesn’t mean adolescent rebellion or defiance.
- Likewise, Arrietty is responsible and contributes to the family—and when her mother credits her for it, Arrietty credits her mother for having taught her.
- On the other hand, Shawn’s own family life isn’t nearly as rosy—but he’s clearly unhappy about it, and neglected by his busy parents, so the movie is honest about the negative effects of divorce and of parents’ careers taking precedence of family.
- Shawn’s curiosity about Arrietty is unselfish and generous, and each of them expresses solicitude and concern for the other’s well-being, and each helps the other. The movie expresses acceptance of mortality, but also the value of life.
- Spiller, like a Good Samaritan, comes to the aid of a stranger, Pod, when he finds him hurt in the yard. Homily overcomes her native alarm at the stranger’s wild appearance to be courteous and hospitable to him.
- There’s even a fleeting prayer to God offered by Homily for Pod and Arrietty’s safety.
A family film so beautiful and wise and good is a rare thing. To ignore all that and focus on the issue of stealing, which as I’ve argued is just not an issue here, strikes me as missing the forest for the trees.
If you missed the various broadcasts of the “Reel Faith” one-hour Oscar special over the last few weeks, you’ve still got time to catch online before Sunday’s Oscar ceremony … and see how wrong we were three weeks ago! David and I talk about the nominees, call out snubs, give our favorites and give our predictions, some of which have aged better than others. Watch online now!
With the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday more or less officially ending the awards season, this is pretty much my last chance to blog on some notable best film lists of 2011 worth highlighting.
Every year, in addition to putting together my own best-of list, I cast my votes for the two top 10 lists produced by ChristianityToday.com’s film critics, Most Redeeming and Critics’ Choice.
The ChristianityToday.com Critics’ Choice winners for 2011 are:
- The Tree of Life
- The Artist
- Win Win
- Of Gods and Men
- Midnight in Paris
- Super 8
- The Mill & the Cross
Since seven of those films are in my top 20, I’m pretty happy with this list. Of those seven overlapping titles, five also appear on the ChristianityToday.com Most Redeeming list:
- Of Gods and Men
- The Tree of Life
- Win Win
- The Way
- Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
- Soul Surfer
- The Mill & the Cross
- War Horse
- Certified Copy
- The Tree of Life
- The Mill & the Cross
- Of Gods and Men
- Martha Marcy May Marlene
- Nostalgia for the Light
- Meek’s Cutoff
- War Horse
- (tie) Winnie the Pooh and The Muppets
Jeff’s favorite film of 2011, Certified Copy, made my runner-up list, and I think it’s a very deserving film. Someone else who agrees is M. Leary, whose top 9 (with one slot reserved) appears at the film blog Filmwell:
- Certified Copy
- Le Quattro Volte
- Of Gods and Men
- Film Socialisme
- The Arbor
- The Tree of Life
- Attack the Blog
- Pruitt-Igoe Myth
Finally, one more list from 1More Film Blog, where Kenneth R. Morefield holds forth:
- Win Win
- A Kid with a Bike
- A Separation
- Hot Coffee
- Mysteries of Lisbon
- Le Havre
- Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey
- A Dangerous Method
Spotlighted for your Lenten benefit: my 2011 blog post “Into the Desert: Lent and Film,” including some general thoughts on fasting and ascesis and some recommendations for appropriate Lenten viewing. Appended is a response to a reader asking for Lenten viewing suggestions without subtitles for pre-reading children especially.
Note that among the last year’s crop of films are a number that would make excellent Lenten viewing (for older viewers, not children, alas). Above all, Of Gods and Men will join Into Great Silence on my short list of films I will never fail to watch at this time of year.
The Mill & the Cross, with its reenactment of the passion of Christ, would make excellent Lenten viewing for receptive adults.
It's also worth noting that The Way, named after and structured around the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James, was appropriately released on home video just this week, and would make worthwhile Lenten viewing.
On Sunday afternoon I was at the theater with my entire family to see the lovely new family film The Secret World of Arrietty, along with another family from our church. Each of our families has six kids, and my cousin was also with us, making 17 in all.
While I was standing on line to buy tickets, there was an announcement that a screening had sold out: Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, a nominal sequel to the action-adventure family flick Journey to the Center of the Earth, with a pec-popping Dwayne Johnson replacing Brendan Frasier. No one thinks Journey 2 is a masterpiece, probably not even The Rock, and yet it’s selling out theaters in its second weekend.
Two box-office windows away, I heard a father with young kids in tow impatiently asking a ticket seller, “Well, do you have anything else for kids playing here?”
Film critics live for such moments.
Turning, I called out the name of the movie we were there to see. He looked over at me quizzically, and I said confidently, “Trust me.” Shrugging, he bought tickets for his kids. I didn’t see him again, but odds are they enjoyed The Secret World of Arrietty, which audiences nationwide awarded a CinemaScore of A-minus (the same letter grade I gave it).
Gratifyingly, Arrietty enjoyed easily the strongest American opening of any Studio Ghibli film, more than doubling Ponyo’s opening box office and even doing better per-screen business than recent Ghibli releases, despite opening wider than any previous Ghibli film.
Yet for all that Arrietty opened in 8th place, far behind forgettable fare like Journey 2 and This Means War, both of which audiences also rated A-minus—not to mention films that even audiences agreed were nothing special, including The Vow and the universally panned Ghost Rider sequel (or requel, or whatever).
At the Arrietty screening, we sat through a string of trailers, mostly for lame-looking Hollywood films that will probably make a lot more money than Arrietty will. It’s like they wanted to hit us over the head with the disease before offering the antidote.
At least three were computer-animated family films. The dreadful-looking Madagascar threequel. What looks to be the latest Dr. Seuss atrocity, The Lorax. And Pixar’s Brave, which of course I’m hoping will be their post–Cars 2 comeback, though the trailer is screaming “DreamWorks” at me. (To be fair, the previews for The Incredibles and Toy Story 3 did nothing for me either.)
What else? A trailer for Mirror, Mirror, the first of this year’s two dueling live-action Snow White projects (possibly literally dueling, at least in the case of Snow White and the Huntsman, which transforms Snow into an armor-clad warrior princess à la Burton’s Alice in Wonderland).
Finally, a couple of trailers that didn’t necessarily fill me with dread—neither typical Hollywood family entertainment. One was British Aardman Animation’s stop-motion swashbuckling comedy The Pirates! Band of Misfits, which doesn’t look particularly inspired, but seems like it might be a jolly exercise in absurdism. The other was DisneyNature’s latest bio-documentary, Chimpanzee.
Did anyone get really enthused watching the trailer for Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, even DreamWorks employees? For that matter, is anyone genuinely fond of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa? I don’t expect many people disliked it as cordially as I did, but would any of its fans say to visiting friends, “Oh, here’s a movie you ought to see,” and press the DVD into their hands?
Checking Metacritic.com, I see at least one critic gave Madagascar 2 a rating above 75 percent, Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun. Okay, but how often has he watched it since then? 2008 was the year we got Wall-E, Horton Hears a Who, Bolt and Kung Fu Panda, all of which I’ve seen with my kids a number of times, and any of which I would gladly watch again tomorrow.
Yet with the exception of the strange and beautiful Wall-E, none of those American cartoons touches the artistry of The Secret World of Arrietty, a movie I know from experience my kids and I will watch again and again on Blu-ray. If you were visiting my house and had never seen a Ghibli film, it might be the movie we would press into your hands.
In Japan, The Secret World of Arrietty was the #1 film of 2010. The Japanese watch lousy Hollywood films too, but it seems not to have ruined their taste for finer things. Why is that?
What possesses parents to take their kids to a third Chipmunks movie? Did the first two really instill such confidence?
I guess if kids are begging to see it, I can imagine parents relenting and resignedly heading to the theater (with iPods in their pockets). But wouldn’t it be better to raise kids who wouldn’t want to see a Chipmunks threequel in the first place? It’s doable—and you don’t have to avoid movies entirely.
Don’t settle for a mysterious island when there’s a whole secret world to be discovered.
As background, the March 2012 issue of Catholic Digest magazine marks a complete reinvention of the magazine under the direction of its new editor-in-chief, Danielle Bean, formerly of Faith & Family magazine.
Catholic Digest is the oldest and probably the most widely read Catholic periodical in America, and the relaunch is an exciting thing.
As part of the relaunch, I’ll be contributing a monthly column called “Worth Watching.” This month’s column is on the 2012 Academy Award nominees; it’s online now at the Catholic Digest website, and will eventually be available here at Decent Films as well.
The Oscars are just a week away now. If you missed the first two airings of our one-hour “Reel Faith” Oscar Special, you have one more chance to catch it on Thursday, February 23 at 9:00pm. Note: This is a change from the date and time originally reported. Hope you enjoy it. (Watch NET live.)
This Friday, February 10 I'll be appearing on the first hour of “Catholic Answers Live” (6pm–7pm EDT).
Patrick Coffin and I will be discussing Oscar nominees and recent and upcoming films including The Secret World of Arrietty, Big Miracle, The Grey and The Woman in Black. Listen live!
In reality, the list isn’t as sweeping as the title might suggest. Rather than a Top 10 list of Catholic web resources generally (a list that might include EWTN.com, NCRegister.com, Catholic.com and OSV.com itself — not to mention the most august Catholic website of all, Vatican.va), Mark has put together a list highlighting ten websites representing the personal apostolates of individual Catholics.
Suffice to say, it’s good company to be in. Rather than name-dropping any of my fellow honorees, and risking slighting others, I’ll simply say, in one of Mark’s characteristic phrases: Check thou it out!
Prince Philip battles Maleficent in dragon form in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. Transforming into a dragon is really evil.
An intriguing question posed to me in another forum:
Who is the worst Disney villain? Mother Gothel in Tangled is bad (kidnapping, brainwashing). The evil Queen from Snow White?
For me, I think it’s Scar in The Lion King. He kills his brother and sets it all up for Simba to be screwed up for life. His minions are also pretty bad.
Most people overlook Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, but he is pure evil. Frollo in Hunchback has no redeeming qualities either. Just thinking out loud (obviously).
Hm. Some thoughts:
To start with, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty not only declares herself to be the “mistress of all evil,” but transforms into a dragon embodying “the powers of hell”—and the Prince battles her bearing a shield with a cross on it. That puts her a league worse than the Queen in Snow White, I think. (Incidentally, for what it’s worth, the Evil Overlord List includes the resolution, “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps.” It may not help, but it doesn’t stop them from trying.)
Going a step further, for sheer iconic evil, probably the ultimate is the demon Chernabog from Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence. On a similar, much lesser note, Hercules transformed the Greek god Hades into a kind of Satan stand-in. I don’t remember that movie well enough to comment on his overall evilness, though.
If it weren’t such a dreadful movie and such an utter insult to books I love, I might footnote the Horned King from The Black Cauldron, on the grounds that anyone who commands an army of living dead is pretty definitively evil.
Oh, and Doctor Facilier, the “Shadow Man” from The Princess and the Frog, is in league with demons who ultimately drag him to hell. So, that’s bad.
In terms of actual evil schemes … well, yes, Scar in The Lion King is really twisted and ruthless, and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, though partly a buffoon and a comic figure, is a monster of a petty, parochial sort.
If we consider evil in terms of magnitude or consequences, Scar and Gaston are both small potatoes compared to two villains who attempt to seize power on a planetary or even cosmic scale: The Little Mermaid’s Ursula the Sea Witch and, above all, Aladdin’s Jafar—for a while there the biggest threat to creation in any Disney movie. Even bigger, in a sense, than Chernabog, who may be more powerful and purely satanic, but succumbs at the first toll of a church bell and the coming of dawn.
Lots of people think of Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians as some sort of ultimate villain—but as flamboyant as she was, she was basically a spoiled, cranky lady who liked fur. She even legitimately owned most of the dogs she was going to make into coats. Stealing 15 puppies certainly isn’t a good thing, but in the annals of Disney villainy it’s hardly grand larceny. Soul sister Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove (an underrated gem) was a lot more evil. Really, the only reason people remember Cruella de Vil so vividly, other than that she shouted a lot, was that groovy song.
I’m not a big fan of Disney’s Peter Pan (I like other versions better), but I have a soft spot for Disney’s Captain Hook, who’s so nasty he shoots one of his own men for annoying him with an accordion.
Frollo in Hunchback may have no redeeming qualities, but isn’t he at least troubled by guilt about his sinful tendencies, or something? (It’s been a really long time since my lone viewing of Hunchback.) Dunno if that makes him better or worse than an unconflictedly evil villain.
If I try to come up with the single sickest, most twisted character, I think I might circle back to your original suggestion: Mother Gothel from Tangled, who’s so sociopathically narcissistic that she wraps a young girl’s heart around her little finger in order to keep herself perpetually young and beautiful. That may not be the greatest crime in the Disney canon, or the most dangerous, but I think it may be the most disgusting.
Readers, what do you think? What are your favorite villains? Least favorites? Which is the most evil? The most (dare I say) misunderstood? Comment at the Register combox.
The Ides of March: my “Reel Faith” review.
Friday, January 20, I’ll be on the first hour of Catholic Answers Live! (6pm–7pm EST). Patrick Coffin and I will be talking about the best and worst films of 2011 and much much more. Listen live!
At last, a horror film for disaffected Catholic traditionalists embittered against the Church for post-Vatican II changes; who see the Church itself, not just the larger culture, as compromised by modernism, and impeding orthodox clerics from carrying out true spiritual work.
Not, of course, that that particular demographic was clamoring for a horror movie to call their own. Other than Mel Gibson … and E. Michael Jones … I’m not sure how many disaffected traditionalist Catholic horror-movie fans there are out there, although as worldviews go radical traditionalism does seem eminently suited to the perverse paranoia and melancholy permeating the genre. At any rate, if I considered Pope Benedict XVI a tool of a Masonic plot against the Church, I imagine I might take some satisfaction in knowing that The Devil Inside was getting the message out, after a fashion.
Less encouraging, to be sure, would be the horrendous response to the film, which opened at the top of the box office on the strength of a canny marketing campaign—and the fact that it hadn’t been screened for critics. Lest anyone think that its impressive numbers betoken a previously untapped Lefebvrite horror audience, audiences hated it. Word of mouth has been atrocious, and the film tumbled after opening day. Audiences awarded it a CinemaScore rating of F, and critics, when they got around to seeing it, were no kinder: The Devil Inside is currently pulling a mere 6% at Rotten Tomatoes.
At the movie’s Wikipedia entry, an unreferenced claim notes, with a bit of hyperbole that might itself be further canny marketing: “It has been suggested that the ending in particular may be the worst in the history of cinema.” Admit it, you want to see it now, don’t you? Either way, thanks to the film’s low-budget “found footage” pseudo-documentary style, The Devil Inside was already profitable on opening day. There is actually discussion about a possible sequel.
This weekend Disney’s latter-day classic Beauty and the Beast returns to theaters in a 3D converted version. I was looking forward to taking the whole family to last weekend’s 3D screening, but life got in the way. As for the film itself, I have nothing to add to my recent review; here it is.
Tuesday, 1/10: This afternoon I’ll be on Catholic radio twice in the 5 o’clock hour (EST) discussing a pair of movies with very Catholic themes (a comment that should not be taken as an endorsement!).
Then around 5:35pm I’ll be on Ave Maria Radio’s Kresta in the Afternoon talking about the home video release of There Be Dragons, starring Charlie Cox as St. Josemaria Escriva. (Al’s got copies to give away, so if you want to see the film, listen live.)
Recognition and praise are always appreciated, but this month’s shout-out from Image Journal naming me their Artist of the Month for January 2012 is especially gratifying. They have some thoughtful comments about my film writing, both with respect to craft and content, and the guy they’re describing sounds to me like the guy I try to be. Suz says they nailed me. What do you think?
The honor comes three months after a piece I wrote for Image Journal, “A House Divided,” about households and houses in crisis in family fantasy films. It’s a piece I’m particularly pleased with, bringing together my thoughts about broken family films in general and imaginative connections I’ve been thinking about for years in films ranging from The Wizard of Oz to E.T. to Pixar’s Up, which in some ways is a kind of pinnacle or climax for the themes in question. Check out the essay here at Decent Films or at Image Journal.
Olivia Hussey as the Virgin Mary in Franco Zeffirelli’s “Jesus of Nazareth”
Following up on my “Still Christmas” post on Advent and Christmas family traditions, Christmas movies are an important tradition in many households. For me, Christmas movies are an especially important way of marking the continuing Christmas season. In general, I would rather watch Christmas movies with my kids after Christmas day, rather than before, as a way of celebrating the Christmas season.
The one Christmas classic I’d really like to watch before Christmas is, alas, one that hasn’t been made yet. I mean a Christmas classic about the real meaning of Christmas, the birth of the Lord Jesus. There have been movies made about this, notably The Nativity Story, but nothing that rises to real classic status. (For more on The Nativity Story’s artistic and theological merits and limitations, see my various pieces at Decent Films.)
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing worth watching on the real meaning of Christmas. In particular, I like to watch the first hour or so of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth with my family around Christmastime. Praised by Pope Paul VI as “an example of a fine use that can be made of the new ways of communication that God is offering man,” Jesus of Nazareth honors both the Jewish context in which Jesus was born and the Catholic sensibility that has celebrated Him for 2000 years.
In particular, Olivia Hussey is an iconic Virgin Mary, and the numinous Annunciation scene is the best I’ve ever seen. Peter Ustinov as Herod the Great has a wonderful scene offering an outside perspective on Judaism and the phenomena of prophecy and Messianic hope. There are down sides, most annoyingly the Magi’s avoidance of Herod’s court, and Herod fretting about the same. And you have to be willing to deal with Mary suffering birth pangs (for more, see my essay on Catholic teaching and The Nativity Story, which raises the same issue). Overall, though, it’s the best we have so far.
All Advent long, observant Catholics and other Christians hold the line against premature Christmas, holding off on decking the halls and singing Christmas carols during what is meant to be a time of preparation.
Now, as the world is busily dismantling what’s left of its Christmas trappings, it’s time for Christians to double down on the continued celebration of the Christmas season, which continues through the Christmas Octave (to January 1, the eighth day after Christmas, and thus the day of Jesus’ circumcision, celebrated as the feast of Mary the Mother of God) until after Advent to the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. (This year that means that Christmas runs through January 9, and ordinary time returns on January 10.)
This is especially important for families with young children, I think, to instill in them a proper sense of liturgical time at an early age.
As far as the larger culture goes, the notion of the Christmas season would seem to be a lost battle. (Suz commented recently how depressing it was to get an “After Christmas Sale” catalog before Christmas actually arrived: “It’s like it’s never actually Christmas!”)
Within our families and churches, though, we can sustain a culture of resistance. How do we do this?
Here’s my 30-second take on War Horse.
Here’s my 30-second take on The Adventures of Tintin.