[content warning: spoilers for Strange World (2022)]
ADAM Guys, we did it! We did it! We finally have a gay principal character in a Disney film, and it is… Ethan… and the epic story of his love with… Diazo? Was that his name?
BROOM That was his name, yeah.
BROOM How does it feel? Does it feel good? Does it feel like everything you’ve always wanted?
ADAM “I waited twenty-five years to get beyond these mountains, and it’s perfect.” Among the many things that irritated me about this movie was the way they deployed not just his being gay but the fact that they were a multi-racial family, in just the most trivial and pointless way. There was no engagement whatsoever with that, other than as just propagandist “Yeah! People can be different! Like that girl in the wheelchair who picked up the package of Pando! Everybody can like Pando!” The part that most annoyed me was when the super-macho grandfather, who’s been playing out this whole theme of masculine bravado and incomprehension of his kids, is like “You got a special someone?” and Ethan blushes, and the grandfather’s like “I knew it!,” and Ethan’s like, “Uh, his name’s Diazo…” and his grandfather’s like “Well, when you have a special fella, my advice is…” Nope! Nope! No engagement at all with the actual theme of the movie as it might have to do with human difference. It’s just decoration. Ugh.
BETH I saw it as a fantasy of what kids in their teens and twenties want the world to be like. “In our ideal world, grandpa would just accept that I have a crush on a boy!”
ADAM Or it’s just the general Disney thing that “This is gonna be good for you! We’re Disney and we’re putting our imprimatur on this thing, and that’s good for kids!” And I’m sure it is good for kids, but ugh.
BETH It just felt like there was nothing to this movie. It was like a sketch of a movie full of cliches. It didn’t have anything to say.
ADAM Yeah, it was like somebody watched Rick and Morty and was like “You know what people like about Rick and Morty? The bright colors! And the whimsical shapes!”
BROOM I feel like you guys aren’t being fair to it — you realize that ChatGPT wrote this movie, right?
ADAM Sorry, I had to get that off my chest because that was what was bothering me in the most personal way, but there’s a lot here for everyone, so go ahead.
BROOM It pained me. It hurt. I get so sad. I have these horrible anti-woke thoughts, and then I’m like “Ugh, so now I have to climb out of my own hole, that you pushed me into?” The anger is that it doesn’t resemble life in any way. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m among people. It doesn’t make me feel like I’m in the artistic company of people who are able to notice anything about people. So then the fact that it’s packed to the brim with this pre-emptively defensive demographic business… like “I don’t know anything about people, but what I do know is that people can be Asian or black or Indian, and they all have to be in the movie.” It just makes me so cynical that the impulse to be representative — to do their representation duty — is not actually a humanist impulse. It’s not a sincere impulse. And then I just start thinking all this stuff that I’m grossed out at myself for, for being put in this position… because I do want everyone to be represented! And I actually think that the utopian ideal of “yeah grandpa just rolls with it when he finds out that you have a boyfriend” is fine! I think it’s fine to want to depict that, so that the kids who imbibe this before they have any critical thoughts about society get to see it and think “oh, it could be that way,” because now they have this model of it being that way. But it has to be in the context of feeling that you’re among people!
ADAM Yeah, obviously I’m in favor of having gay characters in movies, but everybody was so… flat.
BETH There’s nothing to care about!
ADAM It was just an hour of “We’re climbing up this shape, and now we’re skating down that shape!” “Woo-hoo!” and then “Whoaaaaa!” and then…
BROOM I wish it had been that! I wish they hadn’t said any words! Because I can have a psychedelic experience of them skating up and down shapes. All of the surreality of it, all the very strange stuff — which I totally called in advance would be the inside of some living thing, because it was all designed to look like red blood cells and stuff — I could just watch that and zone into it and have a surrealist experience that would have some meaning to me. But as soon as they opened their mouths, and their stupid Cabbage Patch Kid eyes, and looked at each other with these blank stares and said quips, just bullshit quips out of the bag of quips… that’s why I said ChatGPT wrote it.
BETH It did feel like that.
BROOM In arguments about artificial intelligence recently, I have been defending it as not a threat to the human spirit and human artists, because we need more than just tropes. I’ve been saying maybe the fact that now computers can generate trope-churning stuff will put more of a premium on stuff that’s more than just trope-churning. And watching this made me feel sick to my stomach, to see that Disney Animation Studios, people who’ve been in the business a long time — Don Hall is not fifteen years old! He’s been there a long time. Though of course, this was directed by “Don Hall and Qui Nguyen”; I don’t know who that is, but it might all be his doing — anyway, it’s painful to me. And then when it’s this big allegory about how we’re gonna save the planet — “it’s our addiction to electricity that we need to slough off, and return to an agrarian lifestyle; it might be hard but we all gotta be in this together”… it makes me feel more hopeless about the planet, to see that the plan of working together to save ourselves is in the hands of people who can’t look another human being in the eye, and just repeat things they saw in anime that’s rotted their brains.
ADAM The eco-fatalism/pastoralism thing, which was also the theme of Moana, although that was more…
BROOM Moana was better than this. Raya and the Last Dragon was better than this!
BETH It was.
ADAM That theme… I don’t know, I wonder sometimes. I’m a pretty anxious person about my daily life, but I’m not that anxious about the world in general. Obviously there are problems, but I think that the main thing that is distinctively problematic about life today is that all of the problems live on a rectangle in your pocket and can be accessed at any time for maximum emotional self-flagellation. The Neil Postman stuff. But you watch things like this and you get the sense that other people live with this profound anxiety about the world, which is just not how I feel. Obviously this had a happy ending, but the fact that this has been the animating current of so many of these movies, and the response to it is such a weirdly conservative “the way we’re gonna go back is by unplugging everything”… like you, it makes me feel like there’s something very different in the way I think about the world from the way somebody who wrote this movie thinks about the world.
BETH I know what you mean. I see that with younger people, they talk about the fact that they’re anxious all the time.
ADAM I think it’s as much a dispositional thing as much as an age thing. Most of the people I know don’t… I mean, [somewhat younger person] is the most anxious person I know in this vein.
BROOM Ecologically anxious, you’re saying?
ADAM Ecologically and politically and just sort of fatalistic about progress. Which seems to me to be a form of emotional damage.
BROOM I’m amazed it’s not me! But I can believe there are people who are even worse.
ADAM I actually didn’t think about where they were or what the strange world was. I was just like “okay, here we are.”
BETH I didn’t either.
ADAM I did think “maybe Callisto is gonna be a villain?” And she was for thirty seconds, and then they were like “eh, she’s fine.”
BROOM Was she one of the assistants in the prologue?
ADAM She was, she was the one who was like “actually, he’s got a point!”
BROOM I thought so.
ADAM But then when I realized at the end, like, “oh, it’s gonna be a wan ecological allegory,” that was just like uuuuuuugh. Ugh. I feel like we’ve been talking about the quip problem for a long time, but…
BROOM I know, it’s boring even to complain about it, but I have to. It packs me full of the complaint, and I have to spit some of it out.
ADAM A lot of them have had this problem. Was this actually worse about quips than, like, the second Wreck-It Ralph?
BETH I mean, I barely remember, but… I think the nature of the quips has changed. It’s an interesting way to track linguistic norms over the past twenty years, to see what quips Disney movies are using. I can’t even remember what any of them were.
ADAM They weren’t jokes, exactly. It was just discordantly modern turns of phrase. “You’re being really toxic right now.”
BETH The mom and son having a conversation and the mom is like “you might want to explore that.”
ADAM “Sorry, my dad’s being incredibly dad right now.”
BETH “You’re giving me a ‘Splat’ vibe.”
ADAM Which are not jokes, they’re just anachronisms for the pleasure of it.
BETH It’s “the way they talk now.”
ADAM I was thinking about Lilo and Stitch, and how that’s a movie that’s also representation in a groundbreaking way, and features characters that didn’t look like previous Disney characters, but did it in a warm and specifically-situated way that was actually grounded on the Earth.
BROOM Yes! It was representational of a real place and a real community in which the movie took place. It wasn’t representational in the sense that the bag of tokens was an even fuller bag of tokens.
ADAM I guess when you think about Encanto, which was also situated very lavishly and literally in a specific place… even with the hyper-breathlessness of the way it was like “ooh! we’re in Colombia!”, which was exhausting — it was still clearly better than this. This is like “we’re internet people of 2022 but we live in a kingdom called Avalonia??”
BROOM Which turns out to be a tortoise on an empty planet??
ADAM Yes, it’s turtles all the way down!
BROOM There was just one turtle. It was the only living being on that planet, in an empty universe.
ADAM I found that last image to be really chilling.
BROOM Yeah, frightening.
ADAM What was the short about the volcanoes? Lava Me?
BROOM Yeah, I think it was just called Lava?
ADAM That’s what the end made me think of. And it also made me think of that Calvin & Hobbes cartoon where they’re floating in space and then they zoom out and there’s galaxies and they zoom out and zoom out… and then you realize that you’re in the black perimeter line of a Ziggy cartoon saying “I WUV YOU!” It made me think of that.
[ed.: I cannot find this Calvin & Hobbes strip; please help]
BROOM The thought I kept having was: all this stuff, the trippy psychedelic stuff and the progressive wishlist stuff… it would work if in the foreground was people, having plausible interactions that made you feel normal human things. And then if in the subconscious background was this surreal dreamspace, or, hey, the fact that they’re very diverse, or hey, I guess he’s gay, it hardly even matters because we’re focused on the story… then all that stuff works. The horror is that at the center, in the foreground, is nothing, and all you can see is them worrying about the background. It’s like they have no present thought, they’re just trying to program their own subconscious background material… which is all desperate and stupid! Their best model for how we can save the planet is that they’ve played a lot of Settlers of Catan and “ugh, if only the older generation understood how to play Settlers of Catan, instead of playing some kind of old-school game where you, like, kill things! Why can’t they understand?” It’s so vapid!
ADAM To return to what I said at the beginning, even the background progressivism was itself deeply offensive. The idea of “oh, he’s gay but it hardly even matters” is a thing that only a straight person would write. I mean, maybe these writers are gay, but… to me it’s a deeply non-representative way to represent the thing that they’re representing. It’s so devoid of cultural context or actual meaning or the way actual people relate to each other as to make it just offensively, like I said, decorative.
BROOM I get so upset reading young people today, discoursing on Twitter or wherever, who are so proud to see everything in terms of demographics and are eager to really double down on it, instead of trying to take demographics as this kind of incidental thing that we need to bear societally with as much ease and grace as possible, rather than constantly naming and litigating it. And some of that mindset was in this.
ADAM Yeah, although, I mean… as a person who 95% of my social life is around gay men, I don’t think that demographic stuff is incidental at all. But the way this was rendered was like a chips commercial from the 90s where they have, like, a black friend who’s being used purely to signify “everyone’s a nice person,” and there’s no actual context from the real world. You notice they’ve moved beyond that kind of tokenism in commercials; they don’t do that anymore, the three white guys and a black guy on a couch eating chips. They try to situate commercials now in, like… you’ll see a black family on the couch eating chips. That’s more genuine to the way people group themselves and interact. It’s more authentic and thus feels more sensitive.
BROOM When you said demographics aren’t “incidental,” yes — I didn’t mean incidental to life, I meant, like: in the movie, it says “18 years later” and now here’s grown-up Searcher Clade — because some human sat down and said “I think the names of the people in this movie should be Jaeger Clade and Searcher Clade”…
ADAM …and Meridian Clade… and Ethan.
BROOM So: “Here’s Searcher Clade grown up, and here’s his wife. She’s black.” And I thought “oh, how did he meet her, what’s the community like, what does this mean? Are they saying that he’s become different from his dad? What are they saying? Are they saying anything?” And no, they aren’t saying anything because nothing could be said in this universe, because it doesn’t mean anything about where she’s from or who she is or how she sees the world, that she’s black. It doesn’t mean anything about him that he’s white! There’s no such thing here. And yet: this demographic information that’s been borrowed from our Earth and shoved in there to satisfy the people who might get angry about the movie — “don’t try to make it mean anything in the story, because it couldn’t possibly mean anything, how dare you” — and yet it’s the only thing the movie is doing!
ADAM Yes, now I agree with you. It clearly was very meaningful to them because it was so deliberate, but it was plucked out of all resonant context from Earth.
BROOM Why does anyone care about race other than everything it’s entangled with about what your life is like, about the culture around you? That’s why race is meaningful. If you suck all the meaning out of it but then also make it obviously the only thing you really care about… I’m just saying the healthy way is to tell a real story, and let it be in a context of these things. I shouldn’t have said “incidental,” I should have said “contextual.”
ADAM Nobody’s litigating against anyone here! I think we’re all agreeing.
BROOM BETH I know we always shout you down, and I’m getting myself all worked up. Say stuff about the movie, please.
BETH It just had no original ideas. There were all those Star Wars wipes, and the soundtrack kind of reminded me of Back to the Future. It did feel like ChatGPT! It didn’t feel like it came from a human being. Now I want to know who this guy is. Qui Nguyen, whoever that is, he did everything, right? He co-directed it, he wrote the script…
BROOM I’m gonna look him up.
ADAM I agree, it felt very pastiche-y. The farm scenes felt like the Zootopia farm scenes; as I said, the design of the strange world was sort of Rick and Morty-ish. Yeah, just… nothing.
BROOM “He is best known for his plays She Kills Monsters and Vietgone. He is also known for writing Raya and the Last Dragon and Strange World.”
ADAM There was no Lin-Manuel Miranda in this, was there.
BROOM Interesting what you said about the music. It was weird that this movie about a trippy “strange world” and all of this cool-kid “we see the world in a fresh new way” stuff … that it had a very old-fashioned orchestral score that wanted to sound like it was, yeah, in a Star Wars or Back to the Future tradition. This is a case where I would have been very comfortable with a synthesizer Trent Reznor score! It was part of what felt wrong about the movie, that it was trying so hard to say that all of this business was classic. Because it wasn’t classic! If it had been a little slicker in the musical presentation, maybe I would have felt like “yeah we’ve all gone down this video-game tube, and yup, here’s some video-game stuff.” But it was really fighting hard to say no, that it was big and full of heart. And that just didn’t feel true.
ADAM I did like that I thought for the first two-thirds of the movie that the mom was dead, but actually she’s not dead, she’s just married to Sheldon.
BROOM And it was supposed to be that he was astounded that Sheldon was a big guy? Or that Sheldon had gotten big? Or he was just standing in for our surprise that Sheldon was a big guy?
ADAM I think the joke is that the name “Sheldon” is nerdy but Sheldon himself is large. That was the whole joke.
BROOM But it was implied that Jaeger knew Sheldon, so why was he astounded by that?
ADAM No, remember, he was like, “You’ve never even met Sheldon!”
BROOM Oh! I forgot that he said that.
ADAM I thought the mom looked weirdly like Sarah Jessica Parker.
BETH She did!
BROOM She was played by Sarah Jessica Parker. [n.b. the character appears for only a second and does not speak]
ADAM The voice-acting did not lean into the strengths of those actors at all. It was weirdly archetypal.
BETH The script is to blame for most of everything. But yeah, Jake Gyllenhaal sounded really nerdy.
BROOM After you told me it was Jake Gyllenhaal and Dennis Quaid, I actually started feeling embarrassed. Because they’re, like, famous. And in the parts when they had been compelled by Qui Nguyen to say, “I’m sorry I made you feel bad that you weren’t a farmer,” or whatever, I started to feel a little bit of, yeah, embarrassment, that they had put these lines in front of Jake Gyllenhaal. I’d be embarrassed to put that in front of Jake Gyllenhaal. They said “farmer” so many times in this movie! I think it’s also worth mentioning something I’m seeing on Wikipedia: Qui Nguyen is forty-seven years old. He is older than we.
BETH Well, maybe he’s just trying to… get with the kids.
ADAM I’m picturing a gay theater nerd. Do we think that’s right?
BROOM There’s pictures of him, and he looks more nerdy than theater. He just looks like a dorky guy.
BETH My theory, once we started talking about this more, is that he’s neurodivergent in some way.
BROOM I did think the word “Asperger’s” a couple times during the movie.
BROOM But I also thought — and this is horrible so I may not put this in the transcript that only my mother reads so who even cares, and yet… — I thought: I have felt this about anime since I was a kid and first encountered it, that I can’t get into it because it doesn’t really have real people in it. Like, they have giant eyes but they don’t have souls, so why would you watch that? And people who are really into anime, it always feels a little weird to me. And I did have thoughts during this, and during Raya and the Last Dragon, like, “oh, American animation has gotten this Asian influx, where now they care more about certain kinds of schematic relationships than about a real human presence.” It feels like it maybe comes from Asian movie culture. I don’t know if I’m allowed to think that, but it’s an impression I have.
ADAM I have not watched, but I read a review and a plot summary of the most recent episode of The Last Of Us, are you familiar with that?
BETH Yeah —
BROOM I know what it is, and I’ve seen a lot of praise, but I haven’t been watching it.
ADAM I won’t give anything away. So it’s an adaptation of a video game, but in this episode, it follows one of the characters, who turns out to be gay, and it was described by someone I know on social media as being like “a mix of Brokeback Mountain and Up,” and I can see why they think that. It makes me think of this because — again, I didn’t watch it, I just read the plot summary, but from what I gleaned from that — it’s taking a character who wasn’t gay in the original source material, but making them gay in a way that is profoundly connected to the theme of the story, and deeply moving, and specifically situated. Like, it can be done. I think maybe the problem is just Disney. Disney is just, like, a dirigible that’s floating out into space and can’t be saved.
BROOM That may be right. It has to do with the management. The last few of these, we’ve found ourselves asking, “so wait, who is Jennifer Lee? Who are these people?” I really don’t want to have to think about the individuals and their personalities, but you’re right, there’s a sense that they’ve drifted into this weird cul-de-sac, or yeah, out into space, and I don’t know if they can be reached anymore. But yes, of course it can be done! If the creative team behind Lilo and Stitch had decided that the older sister, instead of having that surfer boyfriend, had a surfer girlfriend, I would have believed it, because I believed in everyone in that movie. I believed in their world, and you can do any kind of representation you want once you believe in it.
ADAM As an aside — imagine you were writing a story about George Santos, and you were like, “all right, we’re gonna make this guy Brazilian and gay.” I’ve been thinking about George Santos as a character in a ridiculous political fiction, and it’s almost too much. It’s not believable as a character! This isn’t necessarily connected to what we’re talking about.
BROOM Well, that would be the opposite problem. If there was a character with just too many quirks and too many character traits. These characters had no real traits!
BETH I hated the dance sequence in the kitchen, between the parents. That felt…
BETH Yeah! Like someone’s observing: “oh, people do this when they like each other. They dance, and hit their butts together.”
BROOM “And there’s dance music. And they’re making food food food. And there’s a dog, and it’s cute. And the dog has three legs: representation!” I mean, there’s countless kids online writing that kind of crap. And sure, I can get annoyed about how online is a wasteland of weird nerds, but it’s still just online. Whereas Disney actually hired this guy and supported it. A couple times during the movie I had this thought: what happened to the Sam Goldwyns of this business, who would sit behind a big desk and shout, like, “the people don’t wanna see that stuff! You gotta make ’em cry! You gotta make ’em cheer!” Where was Louis B. Mayer? Why wasn’t there anyone at the company saying “What people need is someone they can love, someone they can worry about!” What happened to that? That used to be the movie business! You can scoff at it but it’s part of what made the movies work. This movie is the biggest Disney flop in years. It’s losing money; it didn’t work. So we don’t have to worry that we’re old and out of touch to be saying “this isn’t how you do things,” because in fact this is not how you do things, because it doesn’t work. Why was there no-one there to step up and say so?
ADAM Right, anyone who knew anything about movies or why people watch movies. It’s not even explicable as a pander to international audiences; this wouldn’t be attractive anywhere in the world.
BETH I don’t think the studios are run by moguls with visions anymore.
ADAM I think Pixar was.
BETH Pixar was, but is it still?
ADAM I don’t know. It’s interesting, right? because — I didn’t see a lot of movies this year, but I read a lot of articles about movies, as is my wont — a great many movies released this year that were either self-serious about the movie business or, you know, “brave,” and then flopped, for reasons that studios seemed totally surprised by. Because they seemed completely disconnected from what a person would actually want to do with their entertainment budget. Like can you imagine voluntarily going to see Empire of Light? When we were in LA, it was the two weeks when every billboard was a “For Your Consideration” billboard, so I spent a lot of time thinking about all these movies.
[conversation digresses, by way of passing mentions of Tár, Avatar: The Way of Water, Top Gun: Maverick, and Knock at the Cabin, much further afield to “so what have you been reading lately” and beyond. Finally the question of reading a review is brought up:]
BROOM We can read the New York Times review, but as far as things that are drifting off into space, I think the New York Times also counts as an institution that has become unmoored from the authority that it once had. Who knows or cares what the New York Times thinks? But there’s no other “paper of record” so that’s the one we’ll read.
ADAM Wesley Morris I think is as good as anybody who writes anything. And A.O. Scott I still think is really great.
BETH I also trust A.O. Scott. Manohla Dargis a little less.
ADAM But they get weird third-stringers to review the Disney movies.
BROOM Yeah, I doubt it’ll be A.O. Scott. But we’ll see.
[the New York Times review by Beatrice Loayza is read, which summarizes the movie but expresses essentially no opinions about it]
BROOM Review TK! That’s it! There’s no review.
ADAM I don’t think that’s the New York Times’s fault necessarily. That’s just because they didn’t spend a lot of money on that review.
BROOM There’s money, and then there’s “what’s even in it for us if we engage with the question of whether this movie is any good? There’s no point in saying that it’s bad.” Everyone’s trying to save the movie business.
BETH I don’t know about that. I think they just don’t really care.
[Rotten Tomatoes is checked (Critics 72%, Audience 66%) and then the New York Magazine / Vulture review is read]
BROOM Okay, that wasn’t bad. Who was the writer there?
ADAM Allison Willmore.
BROOM I give credit to her. That was well put together.
[finally, as is customary, the List of Walt Disney Animation Studios films is consulted: Wish is scheduled for release on November 22, 2023.]