Mailbag #22

Frozen, God’s Not Dead, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Monsters, Inc., The Mill & the Cross and more.

Re. Frozen

I read with interest your recent articles on the movie Frozen. I found your article on gay themes in Frozen after Googling something like “the movie frozen and gay themes.”

As a father, clergyman, and culture junkie, I had noted some of the same things you did when watching that movie, and wondered if I were alone. I guess I’m not. Your introduction, in which you stated that you were torn and frustrated over the movie, expressed my exact thoughts. I wanted to like it; I love the artistry and setting (I am Scandinavian in descent), and especially the Christian elements to which you referred.

You referred in your article on the question of Christian themes in Frozen to the Christian, “indeed Catholic,” elements of the movie, citing the rustic church and bishop at Elsa’s coronation. I should offer the gentle reminder that the elements you saw are as Lutheran as they are Catholic — better, they are simply “catholic.”

To further underscore this (minor) point: given the period dress of the movie’s characters (nineteenth century), I think it fair to say the setting was post-Reformation Scandinavia, and therefore, Lutheran. The painting of St. Joan of Arc does not vitiate this thought at all, as Lutherans worldwide continue commemorating saints and have many pictures of saints in their churches and homes.

Mostly: thank you for speaking up on Frozen. What we see at work there is but a prelude to more troubling things, and I’m glad you wrote about it. God bless you and your family. The peace of Christ be with you.

I’ve probably taken more flak for that blog post on gay themes in Frozen than for anything else I’ve ever written, including my essay on The Magdalene Sisters — despite the fact that the observations I made about gay themes in Frozen were all supported by other critics and observers.

I was smeared and misrepresented in the media, in outlets including The Daily Beast, Newsmax and, most viciously, the UK Catholic website The Tablet, ironically. (I was also fairly represented by some writers, e.g., Sam Adams of IndieWire. It’s a sad commentary when one is treated more fairly by secular journalists than one’s fellow Catholics.) It’s nice to hear from a non-hysterical person of faith who sees the same things I do without calling for a fatwa on Disney.

As a former Anglican, I certainly would not have added “indeed Catholic” had the only tokens been the church and the mitered bishop. And I cheerfully agree that the painting of Joan of Arc does not establish Anna and Elsa’s family as Catholic.

However, Joan of Arc herself was (and is!) Roman Catholic — and that was my rationale. Even if Elsa and Anna and their cultural milieu is (by inference and stipulation) Lutheran, a depiction of Joan of Arc brings Catholicism into the world of the film.

One could say the fifteenth-century world depicted in the painting is Catholic, even if the nineteenth-century world outside the painting is Lutheran!

So, quod scripsi, scripsi!

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Re. God’s Not Dead [video]

I’ve read your reviews for several years now, and appreciate your analysis of contemporary film. Regarding your recent video review of God’s Not Dead, which I have not seen, I’m wondering why the film seems to have earned your deep antipathy, which appears almost visceral.

I think I understand your general disappointment based on your comments, which I found instructive. But given that the film attempts to bring real Christian apologetics onto the big screen, in a context that (even if poorly executed and unrealistic in your opinion) does relate to the very real world of the modern American university experience, it is difficult for me to fathom why you would give such a film a “D” rating.

My uneasiness with your review was crystallized in your last sentence, in which you took visible pain (offense?) at the fact that the filmmakers neglected to mentioned that a key Big Bang scientist was a Catholic priest, instead referring to him as a “deist.” Isn’t this a rather trivial criticism? The term “deist” is used in multiple ways, and might have been used sloppily, but it conveys to the general public at least a belief in a Supreme Being.

If and when I do see the film, I hope to appreciate your perspective better, but this film review, given the seriousness of the film’s subject and the important role general Christian apologetics, was unsatisfying and smacked of ungraciousness.

Thanks for your thoughtful cross-examination.

I think you may have misunderstood my closing remark. Josh (accurately) describes Père Georges Lemaître, father of the Big Bang theory, as a “theist” (not a deist!). It’s true that using this generic term rather than acknowledging Lemaître as a Catholic and a priest is a trivial, fleeting thing — hardly worth citing in itself in a two-minute review. I cite it, not so much as a substantial criticism in itself, but as a straw in the wind, an indication of a much larger problem: not a problem with accuracy, but with honesty.

This was startlingly confirmed for me after recording this video review when I learned that the Protestant filmmakers deliberately removed a reference to Lemaître being a Catholic priest originally written into the screenplay by the Catholic screenwriters! To the filmmakers, this was an awkward fact to be omitted.

The intentionality of the omission — obvious to me in the viewing, even without that back story — speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ overriding wish to avoid anything in any way challenging to the intended message to their intended audience, i.e., American Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants. It was this that set off my dishonesty detector. He who is faithless in small things will be faithless also in much.

More broadly, my feeling is that a movie like this in some ways actually does more harm than good. It conveys a message that is, in fact, not true: that science and reason are so clearly on our side that atheists really know it deep down, but they choose to deny God for emotional reasons.

It also portrays a picture of the Christian life that I find off-puttingly triumphalistic: one defined primarily by outspokenness and glibness, rather than by such things as charity, community, sacrifice, growth, repentance, forgiveness or humility. And it ends on a queasily celebratory note, with all the Christians joyously partying at the Newsboys concert while (spoiler warning!) the mean atheist dies, on the street, in the rain, after being hit by a car — but not before praying the sinner’s prayer.

I think I grade indie Christian films on a pretty generous curve. God’s Not Dead makes movies like Courageous, October Baby, For Greater Glory and There Be Dragons look like spiritual masterpieces. At least all those films challenge their protagonists to grow and change, or at least grapple with their flaws and weaknesses.

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Re. God’s Not Dead [video]

I heard your criticism of God’s Not Dead on the radio, and have to disagree with your point that the film portrays all the believers as perfect people who don’t have anything in their lives that needs to change, and that they don’t have to sacrifice anything for their faith.

You will no doubt recall that the decision to defend his faith cost Josh his long-time girlfriend who he intended to marry. The girl from the Muslim family was assaulted by her father and rejected by her family for her faith in Christ. The professor’s girlfriend had to choose between God and her relationship with the professor, and chose God. I would put those examples in the “sacrifice” category.

As far as the believers being perfect, the professor’s girlfriend struggled with where she sought her value, Josh’s girlfriend (a believer) put her own desires before God and anyone else, and the pastor hosting the missionary also seemed to have difficulty realizing that God was at work throughout the events of the film, at least until the end.

I will grant you, it is no cinematic masterpiece, but your criticism, oversimplification and near dismissal of this film come across as prejudice toward an evangelical film, rather than an honest review.

Oversimplification is impossible to avoid in the highly condensed format of a live call-in show, but I certainly have thought through all the examples you cite. In a written review I would do better justice to these points.

Certainly Josh loses nothing of value, and has no need of change. On the contrary, he dodged a bullet. Clearly the filmmakers believe Josh’s girlfriend has to go, given her domineering, selfish, unspiritual attitude. She was a shallow, manipulative control freak who had no respect for Josh’s conscience and equated her own life plans with what God wanted. When Josh declined to be bullied, she walked away without even a hint of conflict or regret. (You call her a believer, but does the film offer any evidence of real faith on her part, or of goodness, etc.?)

There was no growth or change on Josh’s part. A new situation brought out who he always was, and she didn’t like it, and left. If it was a sacrifice, it wasn’t one Josh was very broken up or conflicted over. The parting zinger, “My mother was right about you,” is proof positive: The engagement was a trap.

The professor’s girlfriend loses nothing but the shackles of being unequally yoked to an unbelieving bully. While she has no moral flaws, it is true that she has an arc, at least theoretically, of getting over her “Cinderella complex,” but since there’s no actual character development supporting that concept, I think my critique still applies. We don’t actually see her weakness or dependence on him, or her process of growing past that. All that happens is a guy says to her, “Get over it,” and she gets over it.

(Side note: The movie leaves her in the end euphoric and happy at the Newsboys concert — while her newly dumped lover dies outside in the rain. Presumably she’s going to leave the concert and be told that he was killed. How will she feel? That’s a complex, challenging question of the sort this film has no interest in.)

The one real exception is the Muslim girl, who has no flaws, but does pay a real price in getting thrown out of her home. Even there, I don’t recall that the reality of that cost is ever brought home or made concrete, in the sense that we don’t see what her circumstances are after this event (how she deals with being kicked out, where she goes, etc.). All we see of her is that in the end she too is happy at the concert.

I have a cheeky theory that the Newsboys concert, coming as it does at the climax, can be seen as an immanentization of Heaven, the culmination of the Christian life in symbolic form. If so, Josh’s on-stage shout-out from the Newsboys can be seen as a this-worldly stand-in for “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

And notice how Josh is rewarded here for his faithfulness in resisting and losing his girlfriend with a new love interest — the Muslim convert girl, who reconnects with him at the concert! From the very beginning in the cafeteria scene, when Josh and the Muslim girl smiled at each other after his first skirmish with the girlfriend, I was sure the Muslim girl was really Josh’s True Love, and his current girlfriend was the False Love.

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Re. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire [video]

I really like your approach to films so I’m hoping for some wisdom! My two oldest girls, 10 and 12, are keen on seeing Catching Fire. I did not allow The Hunger Games, but I know they have seen some scenes. They can read the books, but don’t seem so interested. What’s your opinion? If yes, can you suggest a video review or commentary to watch beforehand with them? Or have them read and then rent it?

It is the idea of a rebellious, pouting, effortlessly beautiful, super-powered heroine that doesn’t know she’s stringing along two guys…and the guys accepting that. Let alone the violence and the incompetent mother. How can I teach their minds to see past the glitz, at least a little?

I love the insight and perspective of your one-sentence summary in your second paragraph! I suspect your girls are already learning to see past the glitz, at least a little.

I’m not sure I would describe Katniss as “rebellious,” though. If she is, it’s against the horrific injustices of her society. I don’t think one incompetent mother is a problem; a bigger problem to my mind is recurring patterns in film after film. It’s the cumulative effect of the steady diet, rather than one individual film, that I’m concerned about. If we raise our kids on a healthy diet, they’ll learn to react critically to the taste of lesser fare.

I like Fr. Barron’s YouTube reflection on The Hunger Games, although I’m not sure your girls would benefit from watching it — check it out and decide for yourself. Beyond that, my friend Peter Chattaway’s review of Catching Fire has a lot of good insights. Hope that helps.

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Re. Monsters, Inc.

I enjoy watching Monsters, Inc. over and over, not just because it’s hilarious (especially Mike disinfecting his eye and many other bits), but because I think this film is ultimately about turning the tables on adults who call children “monsters.” This film is about our society’s fear of children.

I think that’s the real point of the CDA and all the other paranoia of the monster world regarding kids, but also the point of Sully’s scaring of Boo near the end of the film. Monsters, Inc. is about reminding us who the real monsters are. By portraying the adults as monsters externally, the filmakers did not need to make them act like monsters (at least not all of them).

Our world is frightened to death of children, especially if they act like children. That’s the main reason why Boo is so wonderful in this film. She’s a real kid, (so to speak) not a 50-year old comedian in a kid suit.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s right on target. Hopefully it will not be an epitaph for our culture.

I think your angle on Monsters, Inc. is brilliant, and I wish I’d thought of it myself. Obviously Mike and Sully exhibit the kind of nervous bachelor incompetence with children that’s been the butt of sitcom humor for ages — but the larger sociological context of Monstropolis does elevate their fear of Boo to the level of a cultural crisis, doesn’t it?

On the other hand, the monsters do have children of their own, don’t they? It may not actually be “Bring an Obscure Relative to Work Day” when Mike and Sully bring Boo to the Monsters, Inc. factory, but there really is a party of young monsters touring the plant.

So while monsters may be fearful of human children, it’s not obvious that the whole notion of breeding and reproduction is regarded fearfully, or that a monster “culture of death” has taken root in monster society. So that’s a catch with the theory.

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Re. The Mill & the Cross

I’ve just read your review of The Mill & the Cross, and I have seen the film for myself here in the Netherlands. Last Friday I interviewed the director and am right now preparing a review for an evangelical Christian newspaper.

You begin by saying that there is one particular moment in the film that captures the eternal in ordinary life. From the rest of your review this became not immediately clear to me. I would be intrigued to know which moment you mean?

It’s good to hear from my family’s motherland.

I mean the climactic moment (I guess this is a spoiler) when time comes to a halt: Bruegel gestures to the Miller of the heavens, and, at the Miller’s command, the sails of the mill stop turning, the wheels of the heavens themselves grind to a halt, and the drama unfolding on earth pauses and is clearly seen for what it is.

This is what Jonghelinck doubted that Bruegel could achieve, but what art, especially sacred art, can do. Pay attention to Jonghelinck’s fretting and skeptical words to Bruegel, because they’re the key to that moment of stillness, which is the heart of the film.

This is what Bruegel’s painting gives us, both with respect to the Passion of Christ and the sorry state of Flanders. It’s also what Bazin meant about the mission of art to rescue the world from transience and corruption, and so bear witness to the hand of God in creation.

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Re. The Mill & the Cross

I read your review about The Mill & the Cross and it sounds like a very good movie, but I am apprehensive to watch it since you stated it shows nudity. Can you give the viewer any more warning about this issue? If I do not wish to view nudity would you say I should not watch this film? You could beef up your warning about this issue if you deem it necessary.

The brief nudity in The Mill & the Cross is quasi-classical, like the nudity in a Renaissance painting. We see a young mother take off her nightgown and start to get dressed. For a moment she is naked. We see her front and back.

I’m happy with the level of detail I provide in my content advisories. Other sites go into much more detail about movie content issues, but that’s not what I’m about. Hope that’s helpful.

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Re. Looney Tunes: An Appreciation

Enjoyed your article on Looney Tunes. You’ve probably already received notes on this point, so please forgive me if this is redundant: the song “We’re In The Money” is from the 1933 Warner Bros’ musical Gold Diggers of 1933. The song also enjoyed success as a popular hit on its own, covered by several recording artists of the day.

Right, but my point was precisely that the way that Carl Stalling quoted and deployed popular, classical and occasionally obscure music helped to perpetuate that music and familiarize later generations with it, extending its cultural cache to generations who might otherwise have been less familiar with it.

“We’re in the Money” may have been well-known to audiences in the 1930s—and that may be why Stalling used it—but would it have been as familiar to audiences in the 1950s, or the 1970s, or the 1990s, had Stalling not used it? (NPR’s “Marketplace” started in 1989; I don’t know when they began using “We’re in the Money” as the “happy music.”)

Incidentally, according to Chuck Jones, Stalling’s penchant for on-the-nose musical often led him to pick music that wasn’t widely familiar to audiences at the time, but which became familiar to them because of Stalling’s use of it. For instance, it’s possible that “The Lady in Red” is better known to Looney Tunes fans of my generation than it was to the original viewers in theaters when Stalling first started using it—because of Stalling!

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Re. 60 Second Reviews

I love your 60 second reviews but sometimes I just want to see a general rating. When I’m in a hurry to make sure a movie is okay for my kids it’s just too long. Can’t we have both?

I’m glad you find the 60 second reviews helpful.

Each 60 second review includes a recommendability rating and an age appropriateness rating at the end. Do you mean you can’t wait 45 seconds to get to the rating? Perhaps you’re in too much of a hurry!

Seriously, if you want to “make sure a movie is okay for your kids,” you need more than a rating. You need at least a little context. Kids are different, families are different, and ratings are not one size fits all.

I don’t think 60 seconds should ever be too much time to invest for the bare minimum of context to make a more informed decision about whether a movie is right for your kids.

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