Popular culture in the United States is like that mythical worm that eats its own tail.
An Ouroboros it’s called, a self-devouring beast that could eat itself right out of existence. That last foot or so, where the mouth swallows the head, must be a bear.
U.S. pop culture, though, likely won’t have that problem because it’ll just keep finding new stuff to devour over and over again to eternity.
What brought all this talk about ouroboroses (ouroborosi?) was two movies both animated and both based on child-like nostalgia. Childhood, you mean, don’t you? Not necessarily. Child-like is a better description, in my view.
The first is The Lego Movie, and at least the creators didn’t insult anyone’s intelligence by pretending it’s not a long commercial. (Yes, it is. If it’s not, then where are the other toys? In the Pixar Toy Story series, toys from different manufacturers appear in speaking roles. In this movie, it’s Legos and only Legos.) Generations of children around the world have grown up with Legos, so the marketing is already three-quarters done. Through the years, the company hasn’t sat on its laurels, it’s adapted its product for whatever popular culture meme is in force at any given time. A long way from the humble carved-wood toys it started out with, and if you don’t believe it, look at the CGI movie the company made about itself and how its founders took Mr. McGuire’s advice and went into plastics.
I don’t remember playing with Legos when I was a kid. I did have some plastic brick-like things with the holes and tabs, but they were all red with some longer white pieces. They might have been Legos, but it’s more likely they were some off-brand. My main construction set was the wooden Tinkertoys. A couple of my friends had Erector Sets, made of metal and you had screws and bolts to piece the thing together. So when are the Tinkertoy and/or Erector Set movies coming out? Not soon, evidently; a Lego sequel already has been approved. Money talks, and Lego is there to collect.
The movie itself has been a big seller, and deservedly so because it’s actually good. It’s flashy and humorous for the kids and satirical and metaphorical for the adults. It suffers from the same thing that nearly every American animated film suffers from: action crammed in for the sake of action. Afraid of losing their younger audience, the makers put in speedy chases and complicated fight scenes while the adults are forced to sit through it until the next plot development. Fortunately, it has voice actors such as Morgan Freeman, who seems to be having a ball sending up the Wise Old Man cliché.
The movie also has an interesting take on what Legos actually are for. On one hand, you’ve got those who build under strict real-world rules, erecting buildings and skyscrapers, regular cities with streets and traffic. On the other hand are those who are more free-form in their creations. This idea sifts through the entire movie as the Lord Business tries to lock down everything and everyone in its place. An adult who wants a nice, tidy, realistic city. The less strict, a child, say, has the Millennium Falcon come out of nowhere to help the good guys. Why not? To him, there’s nothing wrong with mashing pop culture together.
The movie also wants to suggest that conformity is a dead end and life needs spontaneity to advance. This is illustrated by the reluctant (and, admittedly, clueless) hero, a construction worker who spends his days following the rules and going to work as a member of as team and who must leave it all behind to fulfill his destiny. But he can’t do that alone; he needs help. So he trades one team for another. Granted, the methods of the second team are unorthodox, but he still is a cog in a larger wheel. So, has the lone hero really turned his back on conformity?
The Lego Movie, despite its name, wasn’t made with actual Lego pieces being manipulated frame-by-frame. A daunting task, that would be, but man, think of what it would look like! Instead, it’s CGI, a cop-out. Computers make everything too easy any more.
The other nostalgic movie uses the old Rocky and Bullwinkle Show of the ’60s as its source. This I do remember; coming home from school and turning on the TV to cartoon shows on the local stations (before the time was taken over by network talk shows, infomercials and soaps). Rocky and Bullwinkle was done in what’s called limited animation. That form was popular because it was cheap and the channels were filled with Quick-Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound and Yogi Bear, all execrable examples. Rocky and Bullwinkle had style, though, more imagination and great writing with wit and intelligence.
Besides the adventures of the titular characters, the show also had various short segments, such as “Fractured Fairy Tales” that pretty much destroyed the fairy tales we’d learned when we were younger. “Peabody’s Improbable History” featured a dog who had a time machine he’d use to teach his boy, Sherman, a lesson in history. They’d find things weren’t happening they way they were supposed to, so Peabody would have to take action to set things aright. And to set up the show-ending pun.
Why a dog? Who knows, but we can imagine Ted Key, the show’s developer, saying to himself, “Well, every boy needs a dog, so why shouldn’t a dog have a boy?” Just a silly thing to make the segment that much more off-beat, to poke a finger in the eye of convention. (Ted Key, by the way, also drew and wrote the one-panel cartoon Hazel that appeared in a weekly magazine for many years. Talk about a broad field of interest.)
Now jump ahead fifty years or so to a conversation that begins with something like “Hey, you know what would be neat? A movie about Peabody the time-traveling dog and his kid, what’s-his-name, Grant, McClellan—what? Oh, yeah! Sherman!” So Mr. Peabody and Sherman, a big, CGI, 3-D animated movie is born. And, being a Hollywood movie, we must have a back story. In the Key cartoon, we didn’t care how a dog came to own a boy, it was the show’s set-up, it didn’t matter. But I suppose a 92-minute movie needs it all explained.
Well, not everything. Mr. Peabody doesn’t explain why Mr. Peabody is the only talking dog in the movie, but it does explain why he was forced to educate himself and make his own way in the world: nobody wants to own a smart-alec dog. Fair enough, but he knows so much he becomes insufferable. It would have been nice if just once he could step aside and say to his guests, “You know, I’ve studied many things, but I was never able to squeeze in bartending lessons. Perhaps you’d like to take a shot at mixing us drinks. ‘Take as shot,’ get it?”
And we now know how Sherman became his son: An abandoned baby found in a cardboard box in an alley, already wearing round glasses. Not such a stretch, actually (except for the glasses). And, of course, there are complications. A boy with a dog father isn’t exactly going to be popular at school. Enter Penny Peterson, bully, who goads Sherman into biting her. (At least she’s not the popular-girl-stereotype bully; she’s a bully because she thinks she’s the smartest girl in school. A smart girl, who wants to be smart. At least there’s some eye-poking going on here.) This brings the evil family services agent in to threaten to take Sherman away ’cause, you know, dogs aren’t fit to be fathers to human boys.
Mr. Peabody has Penny and her parents over for dinner in an attempt to fix things. He tells Sherman not to tell Penny about the WABAC machine, so of course he does. Hijinks ensue. The past is as a messed-up place as it was in the ’60s, and Mr. Peabody is hard-pressed to fix the things that Sherman and Penny have screwed up. We meet historical characters, and they all seem to be a gregarious lot. Da Vinci especially, who owes a great debt to Mr. Peabody for getting the Mona Lisa to smile. (See what I mean about Peabody? He can do no wrong, even when he’s the butt of the joke.) And then it all threatens to collapse as the past is crashing into the present and Mr. Peabody—and Sherman, who has by now gained confidence with the help of Penny—try to send everyone back to their respective whens and correct the time stream. Well, mostly. Touches of 21st century culture went back with each historical figure, suggesting that the present Sherman & Peabody tried to fix isn’t really. But perhaps that’s for a sequel.
Mr. Peabody and Sherman as a computer-animated movie looks generally fine, the backgrounds are lavish, the time-warp stuff is dazzling. However, it does suffer from crammed action (see above). And while it was nice the animators stayed with Key’s character designs, they went too far. Those kids would never be able to support those heads on those scrawny necks. Key could get away with it because his Sherman hardly moved, but a three-dimensional child running, jumping, falling and spinning needs muscles and bones in his neck.
Other parts of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show have been plucked out and turned into modern movies, but the less said about them the better. Fortunately, Mr. Peabody and Sherman rises well above those and is an entertaining movie. Still, though, the question of why arises. Both this movie and The Lego Movie suggest there are no new ideas in Hollywood, that the past, our childhoods, are going to be scraped clean and everything run through the technological improvements again and again. Look at comic superhero movies—icons from the past made into film after film, and then rebooted for a new generation before the old generation even has a chance to age much. The recent awful Lone Ranger movie is a sign of this self-devouring trend. Pixar is going to make a third Cars film, a second Incredibles film, and is working on a second Finding Nemo film. And now we hear of plans to make 3-D movie with the characters from the comic strip Peanuts. It just doesn’t stop.
Nostalgia is a nice thing, and remembering the past is important. But we also need to think about the future, we need to see new ideas, not constant rehashing of the old. It’s hard, really hard, to present something totally new; just look at what happened to The Iron Giant. But everything was new once; even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A hundred and fourteen years ago it was new, but you have to start somewhere.
Or, as Mr. Peabody might say, sometime.