Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Maintaining the Nature/Culture Binary in Disney’s Pocahontas (1995)

Maintaining the Nature/Culture Binary in Disney’s Pocahontas (1995)

Although early 1980s Disney films like The Fox and the Hound highlight the need to control human intervention and nurture the natural world in order to strengthen their interdependence, animated Disney features from the late 1980s and 1990s typically show us the power of nature and the supernatural over the human world, in a move that harks back to a more traditional vision of nature that rests on a powerful representation of nature and culture as binary oppositions. With the exception of Pocahontas (1995), these films sustain the conflict between humans and the natural world without critiquing the destructive force of humans’ exploitation of the natural world or encouraging interdependent relationships between the human and natural worlds. 

The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast (1992), Aladdin (1992), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), Dinosaur (2000),  Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Lilo and Stitch (2002) all highlight and maintain the opposition between nature and culture. By asserting the power of nature and/or the supernatural, these features minimize the costs of human exploitation and, in fact, suggest that, because they lack supernatural (or natural) force, humans bear no threat toward nature. Only Pocahontas illustrates the possible destructive force humans may wield against nature, but it too perpetuates the opposition between humanity and the natural world when John Smith leaves Pocahontas, her people, and, perhaps wild untamed nature behind. Although Captain Planet had a television presence in the 1990s, and Ted Turner further promoted the show’s environmental themes with the creation of an advocacy group, in films from the period, Disney perpetuates the nature/culture binary begun with Snow White and cemented with Bambi. Disney’s 1990s’ perspectives merely maintain the binary while accommodating contemporary audiences.

Although it perpetuates racism, Pocahontas is a blatantly environmental film that contrasts British invaders with Native Americans who nurture the earth. John Smith works for Ratcliffe, a British imperialist, but immediately befriends Pocahontas, who chooses not to marry Kocoum, a brave Native American warrior, after talking to Grandmother Willow. John Smith’s friend, Thomas, kills Kocoum by accident to protect Smith, and a war seems inevitable, but Smith speaks with Pocahontas’s father, and Pocahontas falls on Smith’s body before they can kill him, telling them to choose life instead of death. Ratcliffe goes away in chains when his men decide to live in peace and take Smith home for medical help. Pocahontas stays behind in this version, and the ship turns into an illustration for a book as the film ends.

The film’s songs point out the environmental message of the film. In one song, Pocahontas sings, “You can own the earth and still / All you'll own is earth until / You can paint with all the colours of the wind.” The song suggests that it is as impossible to own the earth as it is to paint with the wind, a message that argues against exploiting the natural world. And in a song at the film’s climax, Native Americans sing in chorus,  “You think I'm an ignorant "savage" and you've been so many places; I guess it must be so, but still I cannot see if the savage one is me,” while the film shows the brutality of the British Imperialist Ratcliffe and his need to own and control Native Americans and their natural home.

But the film fails to resolve the conflict between Nature—as represented by Pocahontas, her people, and their world—and culture, as represented by Ratcliffe and the British soldiers sent to support his mission. In fact, the gap between the binary oppositions widens when Ratcliffe’s ship leaves with John Smith and his men aboard while Pocahontas watches from the shore. In Pocahontas, nature and culture clash so powerfully that they must remain separate, even though nature is idealized in the pristine state in which it is presented. This innocent nature proves so strong that it “chases” humans representing “culture” away. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Bifurcating Nature and Culture in Over the Hedge

In both a perpetuation and critique of economic approaches to ecology, Over the Hedge argues that nonhuman nature must separate from humans and their suburban sprawl in order to survive, avoiding consequences of economic approaches to ecology. Over the Hedge is drawn from Michael Fry and T. Lewis’s comic strip of the same name. The comic strip explores suburbia from the perspective of the animals who lived there before the land was developed, attempt to save their forest from encroaching developers, but get distracted by the comforts of suburban life, from junk food to big screen televisions. Whereas the comic strip maintains the conflict between suburbia and woodland, highlighting the ambivalence woodland animals might have toward the wonders they find there, the film confronts the conflict between suburban luxury and wilderness life, offering a resolution that validates nonhuman nature over the artificiality of humans and their suburbs, again from the perspective of the forest animals.

Over the Hedge highlights the conflict between forest and suburb from its opening forward. The film’s protagonist, RJ (Bruce Willis), a junk food-eating raccoon, steals Vincent’s (Nick Nolte), a hibernating bear’s, wagon full of junk food, awakening the bear when he opens of can of potato chips. In the altercation that follows, the wagon falls off the cliff and is hit by a car, so Vincent is angry. He has lost his food because of RJ’s carelessness, so he gives him a week to collect the food and restore his stash.

This suburban scene contrasts with the first view of the forest where another hibernating animal awakens, a turtle named Verne who senses the melting snow and awakens other hibernating animals. The sleeping host of animals has eaten all the stored food during the winter and now must gather more to survive. Verne the turtle shows them the rest of the berries and gives one to each. Instead of living off a stashed load of junk food they must fill the log to the top with food in order to survive another winter, so they begin gathering food in their forest.

The overdevelopment of suburbia, however, begins to penetrate their forest Mecca, first because RJ has overheard Verne’s goal to fill the log and will offer an alternative survival plan that will ultimately repay the bear and save his life. Verne is surprised not only by the excess but also by its implications: half of their forest has been destroyed to build this new human neighborhood.
RJ is there to counteract Verne’s dismay, however, offering an alternative survival strategy that will lead them to “the good life” of nacho cheese and sugar. In the human suburb of over-consumption, they can gather their food in a week instead of the typical 237 days. Once they have tasted the junk food RJ offers, the other animals willingly join him, leaving Verne and his antiquated but more natural plan behind.

Suburbia, however, wants nothing to do with wild creatures. Gladys Sherp (Allison Janney), the president of the homeowners’ association, is especially dedicated to keeping the suburbs free of all nonhuman life. A montage sequence shows the animals stealing human food, but when they take a vanload of  pizza from Gladys, she calls a “verminator” (Thomas Haden Church), but since they all escape, the animals appoint RJ their new leader.

Verne, however, yearns for a more natural and safe life and returns the junk food, so the family can return to its normal healthy lifestyle in the forest. RJ and the other animals abandon Verne. RJ and his new family now embrace the suburban lifestyle. RJ must now replenish the bear’s stash in record time, however, so he coerces the family into a dangerous plan to gather a wagon full of junk food at a party thrown by their worst enemy, Gladys. RJ’s plan is ingenious and takes all of Gladys’s traps into account, but Gladys awakens and calls the verminator who captures all but RJ. RJ rolls away with the food, nearly condemning his forest family to death, but Vincent the bear tells RJ he has done a vicious thing: “you take the food and they take the fall,” so RJ is transformed and rescues the animals from the verminator and, with their help, fends off the bear.

Over the Hedge resolves with nature and culture bifurcated. Forest animals are better off in their forest, away from the dangers of suburbia. Glady’s verminator and the animals engage in a comic action scene that includes the capture of most of the woodland animals and their escape from both verminator and bear and ends in group harmony in a forest world separate from humans. That separation is best when animals form a community, a family that works together to fill a log, not with junk food but with nuts and berries. Unlike the comic strip, then, the film version of Over the Hedge erases ambiguity, leaving no room for interaction between suburbia and the forest beyond its hedgerow.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reaching Toward Interdependence in The Fox and the Hound

The narrative of The Fox and the Hound reinforces the power of wild nature, even suggesting the limitations of domestic orthodoxy without, as in Bambi, condemning it as only a vicious enemy to the natural world. A hunting scene that opens the film suggests the need for a clear bifurcation between humans and nature, but the interactions between a fox cub and both a human and a domesticated hunting dog call that binary into question. Although contemporary and more recent reviews of the film seem ambivalent about the film’s valorization of nurture over nature and its revisions of domesticated and wild nature, we see the film as complicating Bambi’s message that wild nature and domesticated culture of humans must remain separate in order to survive.

Vincent Canby of The New York Times argues, for example, that The Fox and the Hound “breaks no ground whatsoever” (“Old Style Disney”). Roger Ebert agrees that The Fox and the Hound “looks like a traditional production from Walt Disney animators” (“The Fox”). Yet, according to Ebert, “for all of its familiar qualities, this movie marks something of a departure for the Disney studio…. It’s not just cute animals and frightening adventures and a happy ending; it’s also a rather thoughtful meditation on how society determines our behavior.” The mixed feelings Ebert asserts are reinforced by a later reading by Leonard Maltin, but they all marvel at the hyper-realistic vision of nature like that highlighted in Bambi opening The Fox and the Hound

The conflict between human and nonhuman nature is established when a dog’s bark enters the scene, and gunshots explode. A fox is hit, but its cub survives to help blur the boundaries between human and nonhuman nature with help from a friendly widow who adopts him. The binary between wild and domesticated nature, however, is also reinforced in the same scene, since as the widow rescues the fox pup, a hunter who lives next door brings a hunting dog pup named Copper to Chief the elder hound dog, so he can teach him his hunting strategies. Ultimately they force the widow to release Tod in a nearby nature preserve.

The boundaries between domestic and wild nature are blurred, however, when Tod and Copper interconnect and form an interdependent relationship that saves them both when a bear attacks Copper on a hunting trip. Now Copper and Tod may live in separate spaces, but they share an alliance. The next year the caterpillar has turned into a butterfly, demonstrating how any creature can change, including the violent and angry hunter. Because a fox named Tod saved him and his hunting dog, Copper, Amos rejects his former hatred of wild nature and builds an alliance with the widow, the bridge between domestic and wild nature. Copper sleeps and dreams of Tod, while Tod and Vixey, his fox mate, watch the house from their hill, separated in their nature preserve without the overwhelming fear of human nature reinforced in Bambi.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Goofy Gophers and the Lumberjerks: An Enviro-toon for Earth Day 2015

The 1955 Warner Bros.’ cartoon, Goofy Gophers in Lumber Jerks, ends with a line from one of the gophers that illustrates the 1950s lifestyle: “Isn’t our house much better than it was before?” he asks his partner as he looks up at a “tree” built of furniture sawed from what had once been their tree home. A television set tops off this house of furniture that stands alone among the stumps—what is left of a forest clear-cut for its lumber. The gophers seem happy with their new home—merely commenting “it will be better when we have electricity.” But after seeing the consequences of “progress” as depicted in the cartoon, devastation of our forests, are we meant to answer “yes” to the gopher’s question? Does the cartoon argue that “our house [is] much better than it was before?”

With this parting question, Goofy Gophers and the Lumber Jerks becomes a model enviro-toon. As Jaime Weinman explains, it “never preaches . . . . And instead of showing that only evil people harm the environment, it shows that trees are being chopped down in order to make the things we use every day—in other words, we are the ones harming the environment.” Lumber Jerks seems to emanate from an attitude in 1950s America that Klein calls “Consumer Cubism” (210), “an obsession with the efficient, angular plan.” The faster a consumer could gain access to goods, the better. Klein claims “individualism and democracy were being redefined in terms of consumer desire. The homogeneous surface, open and ‘free,’ came to stand in for America’s imperium” (210). These attitudes were reflected in both narrative and aesthetics of cartoons after 1954.

Lumber Jerks moves viewers gradually to this environmentalist, anti-consumerism message. It first focuses on saving one tree in a forest—but the conclusion differs dramatically. Two cheerful gophers scurry toward their home tree, but when they go up into the hollow of the tree, they find it has been cut down and carried away. The two gophers take steps to retrieve their tree—what they call their property—tracking it to a river and then picking it out of the hundreds of logs floating on the water. They climb on their tree and row away but cannot fight the current and nearly go over a waterfall. Once they escape, one gopher exclaims, “I’m bushed,” and the two fall asleep, waking up only after entering a lumber mill, surviving a saw blade cutting their tree trunk in two. 

After seeing the devastation around them, the gophers state the obvious about the repercussions of consumerism. One of the gophers explains, “It looks like they are bent on the destruction of our forests,” and the scene shifts to the mill’s workings. One “shot” shows trees ground into sawdust being made into artificial fireplace logs. Another shows an entire tree being “sharpened” to produce one toothpick. Then the gophers discover what had happened to their own tree: “They’re going to make furniture out of our tree,” states one. But the idea of ownership of consumer goods extends to the gophers and their tree home. They wish to reclaim their property, their own possession, so the other gopher exclaims, “That is definitely our property. We must think of a way to repossess it.” The gophers siphon the gas out of the furniture truck and, when it breaks down, “steal” their tree’s furniture from the truck. They build a tree house with the furniture, adding branches for good measure and topping the tree off with a television set. 

The cartoon ends with one of the gophers telling the other, “Isn’t our home much better than it was before ….[we have] Television… and just think how much better it will be with electricity!” Because the gophers view their tree home as a possession not unlike the furniture produced from its wood, they seem pleased with their “repossession.” But the enviro-toon leaves viewers feeling ambivalent about the price of progress.

Lumber Jerks combines a critique of consumerism with a statement about its source—natural wilderness—but seems to also endorse interdependence between humans and the natural world (and between progress and conservation), at least to the extent that furniture built from a tree trunk can return to the forest as the Goofy Gophers’ home. With its overt focus on consumerism, however, the ‘toon goes further than the other shorts we examined here. It leaves viewers questioning the Goofy Gopher’s conclusion stated in the opening: “Isn’t our house much better than it was before?”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Enviro-toons and Environmental History: Crossing Studios, Crossing Approaches to Ecology

Enviro-toons and Environmental History: Crossing Studios, Crossing Approaches to Ecology

The genre of animation (and animated shorts) gains power because it challenges expectations of art, film, and narrative. The best animated films “offer the greatest potential for expressing a variety of divergent points of view, while at the same time accommodating a dominant paradigm of established social meaning” (Wells Animation and America 13). Studios may resist or subvert the aesthetic and ideological orthodoxy associated with Disney, but they challenge aesthetic as well as ideological expectations through their negotiated resolutions between dominant and subversive views of social mores. The following brief analysis discusses representative animated shorts and demonstrates the often subtle but nonetheless powerful ecological messages conveyed within them from this period. Keeping in mind that the historical and cultural contexts in which these cartoons were produced vary, we argue that ultimately, beliefs about technology, consumerism, and the natural are reflected in, and sometimes critiqued by, enviro-toons. 

Of the enviro-toons we viewed, most demonstrate the power of nature over the human world. These more traditional cartoons seem to be a by-product of the ongoing conflict between “the machine and the natural” (Klein 79). Industrialization widened the gap between nature and culture, between humans and the natural world. Nature, then, was seen as either a resource to be exploited or an “enemy” to be controlled.  Some early Felix the Cat cartoons foreground this reemphasized nature/culture binary when they show how stormy weather can spoil a picnic (April Maze (1930). April Maze seems to anticipate New Deal programs that saw nature as a powerful force needing both respect and taming. Tennessee Valley Authority projects, for example, promoted a system of dams to control flooding on big rivers—and to bring electricity to the rural poor. Michael Barrier explains that Otto Messmer, the cartoon’s director, “never let his audience forget that Felix was as artificial as his environment” (Hollywood Cartoons 45), but in April Maze, nature is effectively portrayed as a powerful force that the more human-like Felix cannot conquer. 

Cartoons from the 1940s, too, reflected this conflict between humans and the natural world. Perhaps as a reaction to World War II, however, superheroes like Superman fought natural elements and won. Norman Klein concurs, suggesting that the world war had just as much of an impact on cartoons as did Hollywood movies like film noir and screwball comedies (183). The Superman series from this period seems to reflect this impact most visibly. They also exaggerate the machina versatilis, ”updat[ing] an old theme of theirs, the film screen as machine” (Klein 86). According to Klein, “The entire screen seems to be made of steel, like a machine housed in black, corrugated metal, with gray canyons beneath skyscrapers, and diabolical machines instead of ghouls” (86). In this mechanized context, the cartoons place Superman as superior to elements in the natural world. In the opening to most of the cartoons, Superman masters lightning and other elements like those in April Maze. And in Volcano (1942) Superman stops a volcanic eruption to save Lois Lane and the town below. Superman always comes out victorious, an argument in favor of the Allies’ own victory over the Germans. The war provided the industrial background of a Modernist world in which technologies (and humans) triumph over nature.

Several Walt Disney cartoons from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s highlight this sustained conflict between humans (or anthropomorphized animal figures) and the natural world, unsurprising coming from this more conservative studio. Flowers and Trees (1932) foregrounds idyllic nature’s triumph over an evil anthropomorphized tree stump. As the first color short from Disney, Flowers and Trees won an Academy Award with its Technicolor dancing trees and flowers, romantic tree love story, and jealousy. But the tree stump’s jealous rage is thwarted by birds, which literally put out his fire. The tree stump clearly represents the evil human world, since his tongue is a snake and his goal is to destroy the tree lovers and their forest. In the end, the stump destroys himself and reinforces his non-flora status, since vultures encircle his corpse.

Four Disney cartoons that feature Donald Duck and Chip an’ Dale highlight the power of nature over the human world—or at least the human-like world of Donald Duck, all in relation to the chipmunks saving their nuts: Chip an’ Dale (1947), Out on a Limb (1950), Out of Scale (1951), and Dragon Around (1954). This approach to ecology continues in feature length films from Disney and other studios, from Alice in Wonderland (1951) to The Daydreamer (1966), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Little Mermaid (1989), and Lilo and Stitch (2002). All of these cartoons emphasize the power of nature over the human (or anthropomorphized animal) world and suggest that economic approaches to ecology blossomed during this pre- and post-World War II industrial era and continued into the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.