Like most kids in America I grew up with some form of Disney. We couldn’t afford to see many movies, but those we could often originated from the acknowledged master of childhood viewing. When I became a parent I naturally turned to Disney as one of the components of constructing a happy environment for my own child. Who doesn’t want better for their children then they had themselves? This was, however, in the days of VHS tapes. Disney frustrated more than one attempt to see a movie that was currently “locked in the vault”—a marketing tool used to glut the already overflowing coffers on demand. The heart wants what the heart wants, as the saying goes, and you knew that if you didn’t purchase the movie when it was available you might never see it again. Regardless, Disney does produce memorable work.
One movie that we missed until the vault unlocked was the animated Beauty and the Beast. We didn’t want to send the message that girls should be the captives of men, but Belle is a strong character, and we eventually realized that withholding much of childhood culture would isolate our daughter from what everyone else knew. Old habits die hard, as Disney knows. Our daughter is now grown, but a new Beauty and the Beast is in theaters and what was once vault material has softened into nostalgia. Recently I’ve begun to notice differences between original films and remakes when it comes to religion. In the new Beauty and the Beast there are only a couple of such instances, but they did make me wonder. In the opening sequence, as Belle is returning her book to Père Robert, a large crucifix stands in the background. Indeed, the camera keeps Belle off-center so as to make the cross obvious in the scene. Clergy and books make sense, and, of course, Belle offers to sacrifice herself for her father—a biblical trope.
When Gaston riles up the angry villagers, Père Robert is once more shown, objecting to the growing violence. Then, unexpectedly, as the castle transforms at the end, a gold finial of Michael the archangel slaying the dragon appears atop one of the towers. Again the symbolism is clear as the beast has allowed Gaston to escape, but the 45-inspired antagonist, unwilling to let grudges go, shoots the beast anyway. As the movie opens the famous Disney castle shows itself topped with that same finial. Is there a deeper message here? It’s just a children’s movie after all. Yet Père Robert is black and there are two interracial couples in the film. We should be, if I’m viewing this correctly, entering into a more tolerant and accepting world. Prejudice has no place in fantasy. Or reality. There are dragons to be slain here. If there is a deeper conscience at play it’s likely only to be found locked away in a vault.
Back in 1996 an angel was on the big screen. In a manner of speaking. Michael, starring John Travolta as the archangel Michael, may not have been an instant classic but it did have a memorable line or two. The image of a smoking angel had been contrived by Van Halen over a decade earlier, but the idea of the prince of the army of Yahweh being a guy just like the rest of us was strangely refreshing. No Park Avenue deity this. When the reporters first meet Michael and wonder if he’s the real thing, one suggests tugging on his wings to see if they’re real. Michael responds by asking if he should pull the reporter’s privates to see if they’re really attached. His companion comments, “An angel that says ‘pecker.’” While the very idea of “bad words” is an unusual one, it is well-nigh a universal. In just about every culture there are words or phrases that just aren’t uttered in polite company. Those who can’t control their mouths, suggests the book of James, can’t control their lives. So it is with a kind of perverse wonder that I read about the bullying bravado that issues from the lips of New Jersey’s governor.
Don’t get me wrong. I never fault anyone for speaking like they were taught. I was raised in a blue collar family and at times the talk could get pretty blue as well. I would, however, point out that you’ll not find a student I taught over my two decades in the classroom that every heard me cuss in class. It is a matter of standards. Emotions, those great clawing monsters inside us, rage to escape. The building blocks of society—restraint and control, and dare we even wish? subtlety and refinement—are signs of civilization. Some of us were taught to leave name-calling on the playground. I am profoundly saddened when politicians believe they are the best America has to offer when in reality they reveal themselves coarse, vulgar bullies. Enter Chris Christie.
In a public venue on Wednesday New Jersey’s governor called the chief budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services, “idiot,” “jerk,” and “numbnuts.” Here’s where we see Tea Party values incarnate. Belittling others, especially in a public forum, reveals a nature that should make all civilized civilians hang their heads in a surfeit of collective shame. America has come to this? Admiring bullies and slashing and burning services for those who need a little communal support? And he has been posturing for a vice presidential nomination. And angels will be smoking cigarettes in the wings. A President/Vice-President who says “numbnuts?” America deserves far better than this. Where is Michael when we need him?