Mailbag #18

How to Train Your Dragon, Alice in Wonderland, Green Zone, Avatar, Hayao Miyazaki, Up in the Air and more.

Re. How to Train Your Dragon

I always enjoy reading your reviews. Regarding How to Train Your Dragon, I have two sons (and one on the way). These days it’s hard to find strong male role models for young boys. It seems the scrawny and wimpy boy character is celebrated these days more than the strong, brave boy/man. It’s discouraging for a mom who wants to show her sons models of strong, brave men. Because of this, I’m not sure if I’m interested in having my son watch this movie.

I sympathize with your dissatisfaction with male role models in contemporary family films. Unfortunately, positive female role models are even rarer! Family films, like Hollywood fare generally, is pretty male-centric, even if the males aren’t necessarily much like the heroes of yesterday. (As a father of three boys and three girls, I’m equally sensitive to both sides!)

For what it’s worth, Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon may not be physically strong, but brave he certainly is — as well as smart and empathetic. No other Viking on Berk would have dared to approach a dragon unarmed, like Hiccup does. The shot in which, wincing and looking away, Hiccup actually reaches out and touches Toothless on the snout is pretty breathtaking. And there’s the fact that Hiccup initially has the dragon helpless, at his mercy — but instead of killing it decides to release it, even though he knows it might kill him. Finally, in the end, Hiccup and Toothless go toe to toe with the biggest, baddest dragon of them all.

That doesn’t make Hiccup a model of macho manliness, certainly. And Hiccup’s father Stoick is a regrettably overbearing caricature of paternal authoritarianism — although he does get a truly heroic redemptive moment at the end. As I noted in my review, Gobber is a more positive manly-man figure … and even Hiccup’s bullying peers are ultimately redeemed. All in all, it’s a pretty positive picture, I think.

P.S. Have your boys discovered “The Spectacular Spider-Man” and/or Disney’s “Zorro”? Just wondering.

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Re. Alice in Wonderland

So I haven’t seen Alice in Wonderland yet. I can neither agree nor disagree with your assessment. But reading the review — and keep in mind I always enjoy your reviews, and agree with you at least a healthy 80% of the time — I wonder if you have a particular beef against this film for two reasons: overtones of feminism, and literary revisionism.

Now I admit that both of those things are annoying, but I didn’t read anything else in your review that would result in such low ratings. Could you perhaps clarify in more detail? I have a hard time believing that a Corset Lament, a hamish Mr. Depp, and an errant “y” at the end of Jabberwock were the culprits.

Does it seem so un-Alice-ey for the now grown-up girl to maintain some anti-establishment sentiments? After all, would you want one of your daughters to marry this Hamish fellow? I wouldn’t want mine to, the way you describe him. Of course I wouldn’t want her to reject him with “womyns’ empowerment” and typical feminist derision — but that doesn’t seem to be what you describe this version of Alice doing.

Anyway, thanks for all the hard work and effort you put into your site. I’ve blind-bought many a DVD because of you (including your entire “Lenten Viewing” list). I plan to see the movie this weekend and judge for myself, but I would appreciate an expansion of your view on this one.

Overtones of feminism (of the aggrieved sort) and literary revisionism are indeed what got my dander up. Even without the aggrieved feminism, it would still be a leaden, inert movie in which not a scene or a character ever becomes emotionally engaging. I still would have panned it, but without as much feeling.

The Corset Lament is only a symptom of the larger Squelched Girl Syndrome narrative. I couldn’t detail all of the “how we women suffer” inflections of the narrative — how grown-up Alice is “not hardly Alice,” and then as she improves she becomes “almost Alice,” etc; Alice’s “I choose my own path” defiance; the way Carroll’s “six impossible things before breakfast” becomes a mantra of empowerment — but it’s crappy drama as well as ideologically annoying. The male-skewering Freudian force of the climactic image is quite intentional, I think.

Of course I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry Hamish. What bugs me is the gleeful send-up of a world so hell-bent on forcing the dewy Alices of the world to marry the insufferably privileged Hamishes. Every single person at the gala except for Alice knows it’s her engagement party. And while I didn’t get into the denouement, suffice to say the effort to give Alice fulfillment as a character on her own terms takes a turn that only the most ideological feminist could find satisfying.

I’m not sure I know what you mean about resistance to “acceptable” norms of behavior being part of Alice’s “thing.” Alice is a quite ordinary little girl; this, indeed is integral to the narrative strategy of this kind of fantastic tale, in which extremely odd things happen to a very ordinary character. The whole point is that Alice could be anybody. The attempt to turn her into an interesting character with her own back story and issues is fundamentally un-Carolinian, I think.

P.S. Wow, I hope you enjoy the Lenten selections! (Also, I hope you bought them through my links, which helps support Decent Films!)

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Re. Alice in Wonderland

I’ve been greatly bothered by the pervasiveness of the message of “parents bad and stupid, kids smart and funny and good” that is surrounding children today. From seemingly harmless “Hannah Montana” to movies like Alice in Wonderland, our children are presented with a constant message that they already know enough and don’t need to listen to anyone else.

From your review of Alice in Wonderland, it sounds like a movie that can cause great spiritual damage to our children. It gives a message that your parents or the Church or anyone, really, cannot tell you what is good for you. That you must reject out-of-hand people telling you that you must do something you might not like particularly (or not understand). And that your best interests are not what drives them to make decisions on your behalf.

To constantly bombard children — and especially girls — with the message that your parents are wrong if you don’t like what they tell you is a dangerous thing. It breeds mistrust and mindless rebellion. The message is “To thine own self be true,” but no one ever gives thought that Polonius is the very ruin of his children with his soundbite advice that he gives them. His sayings are full of pithiness and short on wisdom.

While the “parents bad and stupid, kids smart and funny and good” motif is certainly a live issue in family entertainment today, I don’t think that’s the dynamic in Alice in Wonderland, so much as “patriarchal society bad and oppressive to women.” Don’t forget, Alice is 19 years old for most of the film — and in the prologue, in which she appears as a girl, she has a loving and sympathetic father. Alice’s mother isn’t so sympathetic to the 19-year-old Alice, but that’s because she’s just another victim of the patriarchal machine.

However, “To thine own self be true” is certainly part of Alice brief of empowerment and self-actualization, especially for young women. The problem is not so much that it’s bad advice (certainly we don’t want our children being false to themselves!) as that it’s grossly inadequate apart from some larger standard to which the self is held and to which it should conform. First receive solid moral and intellectual formation; discover your strengths and weaknesses; learn what is worth living and dying for; find meaning in community, work, commitment, a higher purpose; and when at last you can truly say that you have fulfilled the philosopher’s exhortation to “know thyself,” then to thine own self be true. You won’t find anything like that in Alice, alas.

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Re. Alice in Wonderland

I took the kids to see Alice In Wonderland 3D and loved it. I won’t dispute your decision to give it only 1.5 stars, but I really cannot see how you could say Coraline was better and appropriate for a younger audience. I thought Coraline was incredibly creepy if not sick and I’m a bit aggravated with myself that I let the kids see the whole thing. As far as adding a y to Jabberwock, who cares — if one is really such a purist I doubt if one could approve of any movie based on a book.

Of course you are right about the feminist overtones, but again, if you judge Hollywood movies by that yardstick you could enjoy virtually nothing — sometimes you just have to ignore that nonsense. The funny thing is, I’m normally not a Burton fan — he’s usually doing something as creepy as Coraline. Anyway, I really enjoy your analysis on your website and hearing you on Al Kresta’s show — sorry you had to hear from me when I had a bone to pick with you. God bless you and keep up the good work.

I’m glad you enjoyed Alice. Clearly many more people agreed with you than with me. Even so, I’m not even slightly tempted to reconsider my review — although I have to admit that your juxtaposition of my age ratings for Alice vs. Coraline gives me pause.

In general, I make a point of not agonizing over ratings, which are only a quick index of the opinions that I hope are set forth more meaningfully in the reviews. This is especially the case with age appropriateness ratings, which are only the loosest of buckets since families and kids are so different from one another, and what frightens, say, my nine-year-old or even what bothers my fifteen-year-old may not be a problem for my six-year-old. If you tried to rationalize every rating in relation to every other rating, you’d go nuts.

In this case, I may have given Coraline rather than Alice the benefit of the doubt age-wise because Coraline impressed me as a darkly meaningful film about actual childhood issues, while Alice struck me as a film with subversively adult sensibilities. I would rather show Coraline to my 11-year-old than show Alice to any of my kids. In terms of sheer age appropriateness, though, it’s possible that I was too tough on Alice, and perhaps not tough enough on Coraline. I wonder what other readers think?

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Re. Green Zone

Thanks for your fascinating review of Green Zone! At what point do you feel a politically-driven and motivated film like this becomes propagandistic when dealing dishonestly with the verifiable facts upon which it’s based? I assume this depends on how the film deals with those facts within the context of the film. That can be a very fine line. For example, can it be said that the changing of affiliation of the reporter in Green Zone from The New York Times, known as a liberal paper, to a recognizably conservative one like the Wall Street Journal is an example of the undermining of fact (in order to support the political bent or agenda behind the film) that is indicative of propaganda or is it just part of the overall dishonesty?

I don’t at all mean to hoodwink you into a political discussion! I’m far more interested in how art is compromised and how we, as a society, allow it to happen in the name of entertainment. In the hands of proficient craftsmen, art can be very persuasive, even subversive, and they know that. Obviously, Green Zone ain’t Triumph of the Will. But it is being sold as Bourne 4, which seems to be a sort of bait-and-switch tactic.

One critic put the problem with Green Zone this way: “Imagine an ultra-realistic World War II movie about America’s Supreme Commander in the Pacific, only his name is Shmouglas ShmacArthur and he turns out to be Japanese. Now you know how confusing the blurred lines separating fact from fantasy in this film can be.”

I think it’s useful to compare Green Zone to a film like In the Loop (major caution: extremely offensive language) that also offers a fictional scenario of the case for war, but one that fictionalizes and generalizes to the point that it is unambiguously fiction and not historical revisionism. In the Loop doesn’t offer major characters who are clear stand-ins for real persons and are involved in a fictionalized account of a clearly-identified real historical context. It doesn’t even name the country to be invaded. It is a (satiric) movie about the kinds of things that happen in politics and warfare, not a wish-fulfillment rewrite of a particular event.

Having a character clearly based on Judith Miller, but changing her character to suit the movie’s smoking-gun sensibilities, is bad enough. Disassociating her from The New York Times is in my opinion a cowardly choice, but I’m not sure I would say it was ideologically motivated. However, the choice of the Wall Street Journal as the alternative paper seems plausibly reflective of ideological bias.

The Bourne 4 bait and switch is of course more a marketing strategy than any fundamental dishonesty in the film itself. Marketers are utterly pragmatic and are only interested in the angle likely to sell the most tickets. In general, it’s not fair to hold the film itself responsible for the marketing. In the case of Green Zone, there’s more than enough to criticize the film itself about.

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Re. <i>Avatar</i> and the Meaning of Life

I read your review of Avatar and the mail you have received on the subject. I have seen the movie several times now and each time I come away with something new. I am a very devout Catholic with a love for history and mythology. I see Avatar as a fairytale for today. I didn’t have a problem with the Na’vi’s religious beliefs. It is set in a different world, etc. What struck me was the differences between the humans and the Na’vi. Apparently, the humans are very secular in outlook, either greedy or very scientific. They don’t “see” that there is something more to the planet than the “unobtainium.”

I thought it was a refreshing movie. How many sci-fi movies acknowledge anything other than science and technology? It is one of the few movies that shows a deity saving the day. Am I the only Catholic out there that sees this stuff? I feel kinda lonesome since I actually like the movie (seen it now seven times) and almost every Catholic I see on the Internet, etc., doesn’t like it.

Also, about the whole post-Avatar depression thing. I can guarantee you that there are very few that are experiencing it. It is mostly because those people were depressed already. I have seen an opposite reaction. There are very good and intensive discussions about what is means to live in this society on the Avatar boards. I frequent them. I believe that that story about depression was taken out of context because some silly reporter couldn’t find a real story. Anyway, this is just my two cents. Let me know what you think.

I think much the same as you on several points. You make a good point that the human conquistadors are very secular in outlook; this is one of the things that saves the film from being anti-religious. Too many noble-savage movies pit enlightened native “spirituality” against corrupt organized/Western/institutional religion, i.e., Christianity and especially Catholicism. Avatar doesn’t do this. Instead, it pits the worst kind of utilitarian, secular self-interest against a quasi-Edenic ideal of harmony with other selves, with the world, with the divine.

The nature of that divine remains a sticking point, I think. I can’t entirely embrace the idea of “a deity saving the day” when that deity is a planetary goddess-spirit somehow comprising all living creatures on her planet. The example of Lewis’s planetary guardian spirits (oyeresu), a class of angels, gets me part of the way there, but the relationship between Eywa and her planet’s creatures has overtones of pantheism, or heno-pantheism, or something.

That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. In the first place, it’s a sci-fi fantasy; in the second place, I can’t say that God couldn’t create a world like Pandora if he wanted to. Still, the resonances with real-life sub-Christian religion remain an issue that Christians should be aware of.

Hm, is it that uncommon for sci-fi movies to have a spiritual side? 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Contact and Serenity come to mind. But since all of my examples come from different decades you may be right. Of course, many sci-fi films are overtly moralistic. And on the small screen there’s been “Battlestar Galactica” and “Babylon 5,” among other things.

And yeah, I also suspect that “post-Avatar blues” is a fringe phenomenon that makes for an eye-grabbing headline, but doesn’t describe the vast majority of people who saw the film. Like I said, it’s a big obvious thing for people to hitch their wagons to. Without Avatar, those people would probably still be just as unhappy, but we wouldn’t have read about them on

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Re. The worlds of Hayao Miyazaki

I definitely applaud the declaration of a Miyazaki week at Decent Films, and the Catholic World Report appreciation is long overdue (as are the remaining Miyazaki reviews, which I can’t wait to read!) but what about the other Studio Ghibli directors? I guess Takahata is represented with your Grave of the Fireflies review but what about his sublimely ridiculous (though not universally accessible) My Neighbors the Yamadas? And, while maybe not on a par with the best Miyazaki has to offer, we really enjoyed the concrete/fantasy aspects of the two “cat” films (Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns). And all three movies have Disney dubs rivaling any of the performances in the Miyazaki dubs. How about showing those films some love?

I share the love on Whisper of the Heart (though so far I’ve only managed a one-sentence blurb in my 2006 DVD write-up) — which you aren’t the first person to ask about, so I guess I’ll be looking to review it soon, especially since I wasn’t able to finish the other review(s) I was hoping to during “Miyazaki Week” (more coming soon!).

I enjoyed My Neighbors the Yamadas, though I don’t remember much about it now. And I’ve seen only part of The Cat Returns. I’m also interested in catching Pom Poko one of these days. That said, I don’t know that I’ll get to these before putting in some time on other projects. For example, I’d like to do a Bollywood week one of these months…

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Re. Up in the Air (2009)

Regarding Up in the Air, I must disagree with the statement by the reader who writes:

It would seem that Ryan and Alex both need to move beyond the shallowness of their lives to find each other. The sudden introduction of her being married seems to me an arty contrivance merely to shock the audience.

It seems to me that the fact of her being married was not designed to be so much a shock to the viewer, as a shock to Ryan, a wake-up call of sorts. Neither I nor the other people I saw it with were shocked by this. We all knew something was up with Alex, even if we didn’t quite know what it was going to be. From Ryan’s perspective, she was simply too good to be true. When she says to Ryan “Think of me as yourself, but with [different anatomy],” the audience should see what Ryan misses: He should take that not as a reassurance, but as a warning.

I don’t think the movie is so much “wanting to affirm the good of marriage,” but is instead offering a critique of modern disconnected relationships, sexual and otherwise. Note that this, and Reitman’s two previous films as well, have a strong moral dimension, that, while perhaps not rising to the level that we as Christians would view as ideal, offers a subtle but strong alternative to the moral zeitgeist.

Once again, I agree for the most part, though I suspect the conflict between you and my previous correspondent is more a matter of perspective than of material contradiction.

I think the earlier correspondent is right to feel that the revelation of Alex’s marriage is in some way a falsely contrived betrayal of the characterization of Alex up to that point, since as I said people rarely live with that level of compartmentalization and duality without showing signs of the strain. In that sense, I do think the film is trying to shock the viewer, even though you rightly expected some sort of revelation precisely because of the seeming absence of conflict in that relationship up to that point. I agree with you that the revelation is intended to function as a wake-up call to Ryan, and that the film offers a critique of modern disconnected relationships more than an affirmation of marriage per se. I find the critique unconvincing, though, much like Ryan’s attempt to reassure the jittery groom-to-be.

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Re. Decent Films

My gosh, do you have any idea how amazing I feel finding this site? As a Catholic rediscovering her faith and using the internet to reconnect with many Catholics, I’ve come across many people who are very intolerant of “frivolous” art. As an artist myself, I just love a good piece of fiction, and felt so torn at such comments. I thought for sure my enjoyment of a compelling film was going to send me to hell! But reading through your site has been a wonderful eye-opener!

I’ve been giving extra thought to what I view since coming back to the Church, and have trimmed several unruly branches from my film collection, and your reviews are good to use as a guideline, even if I’m somewhat surprised! (Happy Feet, for example. It makes me overbubbly with cuteness and joy to watch)

My question lies with movies given a minus-4 in morality. If labeled minus-4, does it make the film morally wrong to watch? Does it put it on the list of films that cross the line and shouldn’t be viewed? For example, I greatly enjoy the film V for Vendetta, despite its many flaws, because I found the characters very powerful and moving, and loved trying to get into their heads, find their motivation, feel what they were feeling. And I saw that on artistic merit, you rated it highly. But, does being given such a morally inept show make it morally wrong to have enjoyed it? Such as when the USCCBA gives a film an O rating? (I’ve been told that films rated O shouldn’t be seen because we’d be supporting the making of a corrupt film).

I’m gratified that you’ve found my work helpful, and doubly so that it’s been a part of your reappropriation of your faith.

The moral-spiritual ratings, like the other ratings, are only a quick index of my opinion, representing my response to the film in question. The ratings are less important than the point of view and the arguments presented in the review itself. Even then, the point of view and the arguments of the review represents my opinion and my response to the film. Other people may have different responses which may be equally valid.

That’s not to say that different responses are always equally good, or that none are more adequate or insightful than another. But I don’t automatically assume that my response is better than a reader’s response; the reverse may easily be the case. And it’s not always a matter of better or worse. Tastes differ from one person to another, and often vary with age, experience, state in life and other circumstances. My taste in movies today is different from ten years ago when I started Decent Films, and certainly from 20 years ago. I don’t necessarily decry my 20-year-old taste, but I write as the man I am, even if my experience of the man I was broadens my perspective. Of course, my perspective is necessarily limited by other experiences I haven’t had, if you follow me.

To take the example you gave, V for Vendetta, I don’t say you’re wrong to enjoy it. You’ve evidently seen the film a number of times, and I’ve only seen it once. I’m sure you see things in the film that I didn’t. I evidently saw some things in a different light than you do. I hope that you consider my response thoughtfully, and that my review highlights certain questions and issues for you as you watch it; but you’re free to come to your own conclusions about them, and in principle they may be as good as mine or better. I might be curious to know how your response to the film potentially changes over the next decade or two — but I don’t assume that you will necessarily feel more like I do about it, or that it would necessarily be better if you did. I don’t mean to invalidate your response to the film, or the attachment you feel to the characters.

The USCCB ratings are advisory, not authoritative. An O rating is certainly a good reason to be cautious about watching a given film. At the same time, it’s a factor informing your decision, not a dictate you are expected to follow. The USCCB review database is a useful resource with an enormous library of reviews — far more than I will ever cover — and it’s both appropriate and prudent that Catholics should make use of it, particularly regarding older films. But it’s a resource to be used, not a law to be followed.

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Re. Avatar

From your review of Avatar it seems you’re pretty thrilled with Cameron’s imaginary world of Pandora. I heard somewhere that another critic complained that Pandora isn’t a whole new world, that it’s just a “glorified South America.” What say you?

I say, who wouldn’t want to see a glorified South America?

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