The Lion King and the Constraints of Realism

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6105098/)

With the outbreak and subsequent crackdowns due to the outbreak of COVID-19, I have finally had time to catch up on some of the numerous movies I didn’t see in 2019. Two of the most notable have been Toy Story 4 (a movie that’s pretty good despite not having a reason to exist) and the remake of The Lion King, two of Disney’s biggest smash hits in a year where the studio grossed a record $10 billion worldwide. While Toy Story 4 was a sequel to an established trilogy, the new Lion King was a live action remake of the 1994 animated classic, adapting and retelling the same story in a new aesthetic as part of Disney’s re-imagining of its extensive library of films

Directed by Jon Favreau, given the green light after the critical and commercial success of the 2016 adaptation of The Jungle Book, the remake of The Lion King echoes that of its cinematic predecessor in that both attempt to render their respective worlds realistically. While both The Lion King and The Jungle Book were originally hand drawn animated features, the former one of the best in the medium and the latter, um, not so much, their adaptations portray the animals and landscape through state of the art CGI, aiming for “what if Planet Earth but a Disney story” rather than cartoons stretched to cinematic length. Both films look stunning, the CGI is absolutely incredible, and the remake of the Jungle Book is arguably an improvement over the 1967 film. However, the 2019 Lion King fails to hold up to the 1994 move, largely because it is constrained rather than improved by its realistic style.

This piece is not simply a defense of the original and a condemnation of the new film, a defensive reflex fueled by the nostalgia blinders of a child born in the early 1990s that has watched the original Lion King more times than any other film. There are quite a few good elements in the remake. It does look very nice, the CGI depicting the world of The Lion King as realistically as possible with contemporary technology. Favreau and the creative team made greater efforts to bring in a diverse cast, bringing in Donald Glover, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Simba, Nala, and Scar respectively. Timon and Pumbaa are as great in this movie as they were in the original (if not even better), with voice actors Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner incorporating meta jokes and updating the humor to appeal to both adults and children in a tasteful manner (Eichner’s Timon is a stand out, the character an even sassier version than the one voiced by Nathan Lane). Despite these positives, however, the commitment to realism works to the detriment of the adaptation, with certain narrative beats restricted by aesthetics.

Circle of Life
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7ey9kr

The remake starts just as as the 1994 version begins, with all of the animals of the Pride Lands gathering to witness the birth of the future king Simba. The new film, in its opening scenes, is almost a shot for shot adaptation of the original, with the CGI rendered animals moving in almost the same way as their 2-D counterparts. Most of the scenes in the new version echo that of the original, appealing to the nostalgia of the older audiences bringing and indoctrinating their children into all things Disney or simply watching a retelling of a beloved classic.

However, “most” and “almost” does not mean a total copy, as there are subtle differences in the new film that work to its disadvantage. The vibrant colors throughout the 1994 movie, the crimson red sunrise to open the film, the color changes and fantastical imagery during “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” (the “be careful what you wish for song“), the increasingly demonic tenor of “Be Prepared” as the song goes from Shakespearean plotting to Hitler rally to hell on earth, are all absent in the new version in the name of realism, resulting in a film that is less pretty than its original incarnation. Realistically presenting the African landscape leads to a film that resembles what we can see and know rather than one we can imagine, appealing to the mind, but not necessarily our sense of wonder.

The realistic style affects how the story unfolds, the most notable example being the wildebeest stampede leading to Mufasa’s death. In the original version, the stampede is a dramatic set piece, a fast-paced scene in which Simba struggles to survive and Mufasa rescues his son before being killed by Scar. The scene, one that traumatized many young adults of my age range, remains memorable and impactful because of its technical greatness, the tension of the moment accentuated by the sound mixing and Hans Zimmer’s score. In the original film, the animators took liberties with the speed and the physical limits of the animals, focusing instead on the tension and the emotions of the scene rather than accuracy. In the remake, a film predicated on realism, the animals only move as fast as they can in real life and only behave as they would in the wild. This works to the detriment of the scene, the emotional crux of the movie, as the pace (and even the music) slow down from those in the original, resulting in a scene with less tension that in the 1994 version.

Finally, the remake’s commitment to realism prevents the characters from properly emoting, expressing how they are feeling at any particular point as they did in the original. Though we project emotions (i.e. when dogs smile or when cats seem to pout) as well as develop our own stories when viewing animals (whether it be our pets or those at the zoo) and recognize when animals are stressed or in peril, they don’t react and emote based on a preset narrative, that’s not how real life works. The characters in the original Lion King were animals rather than anthropomorphic, but expressed emotions as humans do in order to portray the story and illustrate how the animals felt at a given moment (the movie was geared toward children after all, the young audience needed to be able to understand what was going on). Thus, in the original film, the characters smiled when they were happy, furrowed their brows when upset, and, in the case of the wildebeest stampede, very clearly expressed shock and horror at the death of a parent.

Simba (1)
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.gizmodo.co.uk/2016/09/disneys-is-remaking-the-lion-king/

In the remake, rather than expressing emotion like humans, the animals make faces and act like realistic animals, preventing them from emoting as they did in the original. Throughout, the characters deliver lines from the original version and those familiar with the plot know how they are feeling, but the characters do not express the emotion they are feeling in a given scene. When Scar is plotting, his face remains blank, the character reenacting lines but not demonstrating the cunning and evil qualities very clearly expressing in the original. Simba, a character that runs the gamut of emotions in the 1994 film, is a lion cub depicted in realistic CGI, his reaction to the stampede and Mufasa’s death missing the horror and emotional weight. Rather than anguish, the new version simply looks like a cat “mewing,” undermining the emotional crux of the film, the adherence to realism working against the adaptation.

Simba No
Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://youtu.be/jy4UdBcyh3c

The new version of The Lion King isn’t a bad film, even if it isn’t a good or great one like its predecessor. The realistic CGI presents a beloved classic in a new style and for a new audience, allowing people my age to revisit the world of the Lion King while also bringing younger audiences closer to their parents.  The new version looks pretty and realistic, the animals ranging from impossibly cute to ferocious and the CGI state of the art, but this works against the emotional storytelling and making the animal characters relatable, especially for a younger audience. Ultimately, the film represents the difficulties in remaking animated classics as well as the complications involved in medium transfers. This is not to dismiss the remake project entirely (it is making too much money for Disney to say no), but to say that style and realism can be a constraint when retelling a story previously depicted in animation. In the pursuit of telling a story in a new way, The Lion King along with the other Disney remakes bring characters and worlds to “live action” if not necessarily “to life.”

Anachronism and Aristocats: A Case Study

(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios, https://www.dogalize.com/2018/06/everybody-wants-to-be-a-cat/)

The recent launch of Disney+ has led many people to revisit the entirety of the Disney catalog, ranging from animated classics like Beauty and the Beast to less than stellar hand drawn features like The Jungle Book along with recent Marvel fare and nostalgic trips through Disney Afternoon and Disney Channel programming (and yes, Baby Yoda). One of the many titles available is The Aristocats, a 1970 animated film centering on a female cat named Duchess and her three kittens, Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz, owned by a wealthy former opera singer, Madame Adelaide Bonfamille.

When Bonfamille reveals that she is leaving her entire inheritance to her cats, her butler, believing that the inheritance was to be his, resolves to get rid of the cats. Duchess and the kittens meet an alley cat named Thomas O’Malley and attempt to return to their mistress and their lavish home. And…that’s it, that’s the story. Oh, and there’s a mouse named Roquefort because France, one memorable jazz song toward the end, a racist caricature that would make Mickey Rooney blush, and likely the most notable exposure of the West African hub Timbuktu for many children.

The film is light on story, moves at a brisk pace, and contains a lot of reused animatics, owing to the ease of copying through xerography animation used by Disney since the early 1960s. It is a movie that is hardly a classic, but ultimately, it’s a serviceable film about cute cats and kittens being cute cats and kittens, one for children to enjoy and later demand toys.

However, two scenes from this film stand out, not because they are particularly bad or particularly good, but because of their odd presence within the narrative. The very beginning  establishes (very prominently) that the movie is set in Paris, 1910, still within the zenith of aristocratic values before the trauma and bloodshed of World War I. Yet, two elements within Aristocats are utterly anachronistic, deviating not only from the temporal setting but the mentalité of the era that they are worthy of discussion.

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Abstract? More like, abs-cat…(Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios)

The first moment occurs within the first act of the film devoted to illustrating the lavish lives of the “aristocats” and how they go about their day. As youngest kitten Berlioz practices piano and middle kitten Marie engages in a dramatic struggle with trying to stay in tune, the oldest kitten, Toulouse, works on his painting. The purpose of this scene is to convey a sense of refinement within the daily lives of the aristocats, highlighting art as the pinnacle of proper living.

Yet, Toulouse, a cat in 1910 Paris, does not paint within the style of the era, certainly not borrowing from the impressionist tradition of his namesake, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Instead, he approaches paint and canvas in a manner akin to Jackson Pollack, producing an abstract work of art that would certainly be familiar to the 1970 viewing audience but absolutely at odds with Belle Époque Paris. The abstract forms of art popular after World War II and the surrealist and Dadaist aesthetic tradition that inspired them emerged within a specific context, one that would tonally be at odds with the values of the aristocats.

Dadaism and surrealism began as a response and critique of the ideology and logic driving World War I, artists looking at the destructive capacity of the war and critiquing and lambasting all of the discourses that led to that point. “Civility,” a theme heavily implied in the film (though not in its racial or Social Darwinist context), drove European powers to war and violence, leading Dadaists to redefine and quite literally turn the meaning of art upside down in protest. Surrealist and abstract art, essentially a middle finger to convention and pre-World War I aristocratic values, being readily accepted by the aristocats, especially before the war, is a decision informed by misinformation about history.

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Image Credit: Walt Disney Studios

The second of anachronism occurs during the song “Ev’rybody Wants to be a Cat,” quite easily the best scene in the movie due to it’s psychedelic imagery (and being the only memorable part of the film, stereotypes and all). The song and the performance invoke jazz and swing, a dramatic shift from “scales and arpeggios” and the classical fare that would more likely be enjoyed by aristocats. Unlike abstract art, jazz was at least developing by 1910, but it was still largely confined to New Orleans, a fusion of ragtime and blues, European melodies and African percussion patterns, performed by African American musicians like Jelly Roll Morton. Jazz became wildly popular in Europe, the representation of “American music” before rock n’roll of the 1960s, but it was very, very unlikely that anyone in 1910 Paris was familiar with or a fan off American jazz. Moreover, those consisting the aristocracy would be even less likely to widely accept jazz due to the need to maintain “proper civility” and appreciate “true art.” Thus, Duchess and the kittens dancing and enjoying the jazz performance is at odds temporally and with the mentalité of the time.

For those that would argue, “this is a movie for children, one focused on cute cats not concerned with history, it doesn’t have to be historically true,” well, you’re right. The Aristocats never claims to be a documentary of the the period or an accurate encapsulation of the era, it’s light entertainment aimed at children. But, I believe that the anachronism in this film is particularly interesting and revealing, not so much for the narrative of the feature but the broader meta-narrative of Disney.

While The Jungle Book was released in 1967, one year after Walt Disney’s death, it was still a film with significant input from the man in charge. The Aristocats, the next feature released, was the first of a new era, one in which Walt was no longer at the creative helm. The incorporation of anachronistic elements, I argue, are not an attempt to blur history intentionally. Instead, latching on to popular elements of the 1960s and 1970s represents an attempt to chart a new course, to reach and maintain an audience, or as many other outlets would put it, “Disney trying to be cool.” With one man so central to the creative process within the animation studio no longer present, anything produced after is bound to be dramatically different, with some contending that The Aristocats serves as the beginning of “a dark age.” This is too much doom and gloom (many of the golden age Disney films really don’t hold up, and that’s without accounting for the numerous racist elements), but the Disney films of the 1970s and 1980s are certainly different from those that came before. The anachronism of The Aristocats exemplifies the new methods used by the animators and new thinking within the studio, one that certainly differed from “Walt’s vision.”

Hey Arnold!: The Good, the Bad, and the Chocolate Boy

(Image Credit: Nickelodeon)

*Disclaimer: The following article on the Hey Arnold! episode “Chocolate Boy” deals with the theme and representation of addiction, specifically drug addiction. While this is certainly a topic that must not be shied away from, it is not something I have had to witness first hand or on a day to day basis in my own life. It is not my intention to appear insensitive nor ignorant of the issue at hand, a vital talking point in the contemporary sociocultural climate. Nevertheless, I apologize in advance for any potential and/or unintentional mishandling of the subject matter.*

As discussed in a previous article on this siteHey Arnold! was one of the the original “Nicktoons” airing on Nickelodeon in the late 90s and early 00s, and was the most successful program on the network with regard to balance of content for younger children, older children, and adults. While some shows became beloved entertainment for young kids in the 90s and others were geared toward older childrenHey Arnold! struck a balance between charm, lessons and morals, and mature themes and storylines.

One particular episode that stands out with regard to heavy subject matter is the third episode of season 5, “Chocolate Boy.” Many episodes in the later seasons of Hey Arnold focused on the eponymous Arnold’s interactions with secondary and side characters in Hillwood, serving as a moral conscience and helping the city’s residents with their problems. Arnold taught Oskar Kokoshka to read, managed Mr. Green’s campaign to run for office, and helped classmate Harold recognize he was happy at his previous size and lose weight. But, his greatest challenge, according to his friends, would be to help Chocolate Boy “get off chocolate.”

“You can never get Chocolate Boy off chocolate,” Arnold’s friend Gerald explains (minute 12:06). His classmates concur, believing “It would be easier to push a two-thousand pound boulder up an icy mountain,” “Or teach a goldfish how to play a clarinet.” Nevertheless, in his desire to help everyone he can, Arnold decides to help Chocolate Boy to quit eating chocolate once and for all .

Unbeknownst to younger children, Chocolate Boy’s inability to stop eating chocolate is a kid-friendly portrayal of drug addiction, with Chocolate Boy physically unable to stop ingesting the substance. Though played for laughs in is earlier appearances, the Tyrone Biggums of the Hey Arnold! universe, this episode centers on the struggles of overcoming addiction for both the addict and their support network, the fits and starts, the breakthroughs and setbacks. Parallel to efforts to get clean in real life, Arnold makes Chocolate Boy clean out his room of any chocolate, while Chocolate Boy himself goes through the symptoms of withdrawal, shaking, fatigue, even licking ants in a delirious state due to their resemblance to chocolate. Despite the struggles, Chocolate Boy is able to stay away from chocolate for two weeks, prompting Arnold to declare him “a changed kid.”

Chocolate_Boy_(character)
Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnold.wikia.com/wiki/Chocolate_Boy_(character)

But, little does Arnold know Chocolate Boy’s true motivations for wanting to get clean. Rather than looking to truly make a life change, Chocolate Boy manipulates Arnold’s good nature to win a bet with school bully Wolfgang, in which he gets ten pounds of chocolate for being clean for two weeks. Arnold walks away disheartened by the experience, while Chocolate Boy quickly consumes the entire bag of chocolate.

Wolfgang and Chocolate Boy
Image Credit: Nickelodeon
Chocolate Boy Two
Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Eager for more chocolate despite Wolfgang calling him “pathetic,” Chocolate Boy dances for malted milk balls, becoming “a chocolate clown” much to the delight of the fifth grade bullies. He flees their derision and makes his way to a dumpster, again looking for more chocolate, before seeing himself in the mirror, experiencing a “moment of clarity.”

Chocolate Boy Three
Image Credit: Nickelodeon
Chocolate Boy Four
Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Reaching his lowest moment, Chocolate Boy once again approaches Arnold to help him get clean of chocolate, where Arnold expresses his doubt due to previously falling victim to manipulative addict behavior. Chocolate Boy sincerely pleads to Arnold, leading the latter to agree to help once again, paralleling the lack of linear progression all too common in attempting to beat  addiction. Arnold uses scare tactics, showing Chocolate Boy the physical detriments of eating too much chocolate, as well as trying to replace chocolate with carob and various vegetables, similar to weaning off of substances through smaller doses or nicotine patches. None of the aforementioned strategies work, making Arnold resort to hypnosis to get to the psychological root of Chocolate Boy’s addiction.

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Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnold.wikia.com/wiki/Chocolate_Boy_(episode)#WikiaArticleComments

Arnold’s hypnotherapy leads to the revelation that Chocolate Boy consumes chocolate because he misses his nanny who raised him for much of his early childhood, she gave him chocolate and only wanted him to be happy. Arnold reminds Chocolate Boy that eating chocolate won’t bring the nanny back nor is his addictive behavior making him happy. Recognizing that he can not only be happy without chocolate, but that he will only be happy by eliminating his addiction, Chocolate Boy resolves to never eat chocolate, overcoming his obstacle and completing the character journey for the episode.

“Chocolate Boy” may likely have been the first depiction of drug addiction many children from the 90s and 00s saw on television, a reference point for understanding addictive behavior and leaving enough of an impact that I just spent a significant amount of time writing about a children’s cartoon (again). The episode shows the highs and lows of trying to beat addiction along with the psychological origins for dependence, in this show chocolate as opposed to drugs, alcohol, or other stimuli. Working with Arnold as a support system, Chocolate Boy is able to beat his habit, the episode serving as an effective demonstration of the struggles of addiction for a young audience.

But, like the episode “Rhonda Goes Broke,” the episode continues past the resolution of the central conflict. When Chocolate Boy thanks Arnold for his help, Arnold can’t help but notice that Chocolate Boy seems to really like radishes, one of the vegetables he tolerated when trying to gradually replace chocolate (minute 20:26). Arnold asks for the radishes, prompting Chocolate Boy to declare that he “needs them,” thus perpetuating addictive behavior despite the completion of the character arc mere seconds earlier. As with the botched message in “Rhonda Goes Broke,” the moral of “Chocolate Boy” is undone by a lame joke, undermining the entirety of the character’s journey.

“Chocolate Boy” represents both the very best and very worst of Hey Arnold! The episode tackles a very mature theme, that of addiction, and presents it to a young audience in an accessible and memorable manner. It demonstrates that the path to overcoming addiction is never a linear one, with setbacks all too common before finally achieving a breakthrough. Yet, in what seems to be a reoccurring problem with the series upon review, the end of the episode contradicts the broader narrative, with Chocolate Boy not truly beating his addiction despite the fact that the arc of the story naturally ends with the decision to completely give up chocolate. One could argue that this is darker commentary, that addiction is never truly overcome, but nothing in the progression of the story suggests that this was the intention of the writers. Instead, Chocolate Boy’s addiction to chocolate is substituted for a dependence on radishes, an unnecessary joke botching the narrative as well as the important lessons intended for impressionable children.

Hey Arnold, Class, and Inequality: A Tale of Two Rhondas

(Images Credit: Nickelodeon)

Hey Arnold! was one of the original cartoons (“Nicktoons”) airing on Nickelodeon in the late 90s and the early 00s, running from 1996 to 2004. The series centered on the life and experiences of Arnold Shortman*, a nine-year-old boy with a football-shaped head living with his grandparents in a boarding house located in Hillwood, an urban amalgamation of New York City, Seattle, and Portland. Many episodes focused on Arnold navigating life in the city, dealing with the rigors of school, urban legends, or childhood adventures with his friends and local denizens. While early on Hey Arnold! concentrated on Arnold as the central character, over time the series turned attention to secondary characters, with Arnold nearly becoming a superhero to help them deal with their problems.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting the series, which airs on TeenNick’s “NickSplat” block from 11pm-midnight in an effort to capitalize on nostalgia for childhood cartoons. Compared to other Nickelodeon cartoons, Hey Arnold! holds up fairly well, with surprisingly adult story lines and a setting and characters that are not too dated to enjoy today. Two episodes in particular stand out, possessing eerily similar plots and themes but reaching vastly different conclusions. These two episodes, “Rhonda’s Glasses” and “Rhonda Goes Broke” deal with class and inequality, with one episode handling these issues well and the other botching the message so poorly that it stuck with me, motivating me to take time and critically analyze a children’s show from almost twenty years ago (and now I feel old).

In the show, Rhonda is the rich, popular girl in Arnold’s class, wearing only the latest fashion and flaunting her wealth and status as a demonstration of superiority, much to the dismay of her fellow classmates. Rhonda-centric episodes of Hey Arnold! often focus on the drawbacks of Rhonda’s wealth and her behavior, with “Cool Party,” in which Rhonda invites only “cool kids,” and “Polishing Rhonda,” where Rhonda goes to finishing school, showing the limitations of wealth and the detriments of snobbish and condescending behavior. The lesson in episodes centered on Rhonda largely offer the message, “don’t act like Rhonda,” with Rhonda’s “cool party” ending up being anything but and Rhonda only succeeding at finishing school by completely changing her attitude to be humble.

Likewise, “Rhonda’s Glasses” and “Rhonda Goes Broke” fixate on Rhonda’s behavior, aiming to teach kids once again that conceited behavior and treating people as lesser simply because of differences in wealth or status is mean-spirited and wrong. The former episode begins with Rhonda sending a new kid, coded as a “nerd” due to glasses, quiet demeanor, and lack of confidence, to the “geek seats” in the back of the bus, where the “geeks” experience motion sickness and inferior treatment simply because of their status as geeks.

Rhonda Bus
Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnoldreviewed.blogspot.com/2016/05/s2-e33-eating-contest-rhondas-glasses.html

Eventually, Rhonda takes and fails a vision exam, requiring glasses in order to see. However, wearing glasses defines Rhonda as “a geek” and she is also banished to the back of the bus with the rest of the “geeks,” experiencing the same humiliation and substandard treatment she inflicted on them.

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Enter a Image Credit: Nickelodeon, http://heyarnoldreviewed.blogspot.com/2016/05/s2-e33-eating-contest-rhondas-glasses.html

Rhonda suffers further humiliation and sub par treatment, sitting with the other geeks at a broken lunch table and playing with a flat ball at recess, until she decides she’s mad as hell and won’t take it anymore. She urges her fellow geeks to rebel, inspiring them to proclaim her “queen of the geeks” and resist the unwritten rules of “geek seats” on the bus. The episode ends with Rhonda inviting the previously shunned new kid to sit with her at the front of the bus, learning her lesson and becoming a better person.

“Rhonda’s Glasses” features a “want vs. need” character arc involving Rhonda as well as lessons for children regarding class and inequality. At the beginning of the episode Rhonda acts like a jerk, believing herself to be superior based on an artificial class system based on popularity, largely informed by wealth. Upon receiving glasses, she initially “wants” her life to go back to normal, to be rid of her new spectacles and retain her place at the top of the social hierarchy. But, after experiencing life as a geek, she recognizes the unfairness of the entire system and rebels; she “needs” to treat people better and do away with an unfair system, even if she benefited from said system. The broader lesson in this episode, particularly important for a children’s program, is to treat people fairly; one should not act condescending based on status, in this case social class within the school system. Rhonda and the intended audience of children both learn that differences are often artificial, with discrimination based on perceived differences being immoral and violating the golden rule of “treating others is you would want to be treated.”

“Rhonda’s Glasses” aired on December 7th, 1997, and offered a positive message for children as well as an accessible understanding of class difference and discrimination. A little over three years later (January 5th, 2001), Nickelodeon aired the episode “Rhonda Goes Broke.” On the surface, this episode appears to follow a similar formula and offer the lesson to not act like the conceited version of Rhonda. The episode begins with Rhonda flaunting her clothing, wealth, and impeccable sense of fashion, once again acting snobbish and superior to her classmates based on her status. Upon returning home, she learns that her parents lost all of their money and they are now poor, forced to move into the boarding house where Arnold lives. Initially, Rhonda pretends that everything is normal, claiming that she will soon receive new clothes and go on expensive vacations in Aspen, but it is finally revealed by another rich classmate that Rhonda’s family is poor, so poor that they cannot afford food or clothing.

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Image Credit: Nickelodeon

Rhonda cries and laments, wanting to go back home and “be rich again,” explaining to Arnold that being rich is the one thing she’s “really good at.” Arnold reprimands her, calling her pathetic and arguing that just because she is no longer rich doesn’t mean she is no longer Rhonda, “unless being rich is all she’s about.” Rhonda takes this advice to heart and makes her own clothes, keeping up her fashionista persona despite the fact that she can’t afford expensive clothes. Her classmates are impressed with the new Rhonda, and at this point, the “want vs. need” arc is complete, Rhonda learning once again that wealth and status are not what truly makes her identity and that putting people down because of their lack of wealth or status is not appropriate behavior.

But, the episode doesn’t end there. No, the episode ends with her family’s stock “bouncing right back” and the Lloyd’s being rich again (even the musical cue finds this ridiculous (minute 22:22)). Rhonda completely reverts back to old Rhonda, flaunting her wealth and offering Arnold a tip for his help and his advice, as “people in his position appreciate these things.” Rhonda is rich and back to her previous behavior, completely negating the story arc and her character development.

While “Rhonda’s Glasses” successfully handles the lesson of class and inequality, explaining to the audience that status distinctions are often artificial and should not be used to discriminate, “Rhonda Goes Broke” muddles its message, contradicting its story arc for a mean-spirited joke. The lesson in the former episode, “discrimination is wrong,” is a positive lesson for children, whereas the ending of the latter episode seems to argue, “be yourself, unless you can be rich. Then be rich.” Though both episodes follow a similar trajectory and focus on the same themes, one episode effectively handles the narrative and lesson with the other completely mishandling it. When looking to entertain and educate children, this becomes more important and negative lessons can be detrimental in the short and long-term.

*Though a running joke throughout the series was that Arnold did not have a last name, in the recent television movie, Hey Arnold: The Jungle Movie, it was revealed that his last name was indeed “Shortman,” a nickname used frequently by Arnold’s grandfather.

Nationalism for Children: How ‘Avatar the Last Airbender’ Explores Violence and National Identity

(Image Credit: Nickelodeon)

(This article was originally published October, 2017)

Avatar: The Last Airbender aired on Nickelodeon from 2005–2008, chronicling the adventures of Aang, a 12-year-old boy who is the most recent incarnation of the Avatar — the person who can bend Water, Earth, Fire and Air — and his companions Katara, Sokka, Toph, and eventually Prince Zuko. Aang and his cohort (calling themselves “Team Avatar”) must put an end to the war with the Fire Nation, led by Fire Lord Ozai.

Featuring complex characters, mature storylines, great animation, a celebration of Asian cultures and a successful balance of humor, tragedy and Eastern philosophy, many consider ATLA one of the best cartoons of all time, a show that adults and children can enjoy. ATLA treated its audience with respect and addressed adult themes and concepts despite being a children’s program.

In particular, ATLA tackles the concept of nationalism, an ideology involving national identity formation and acting in the name of protecting and promoting this identity, through its portrayal of the Fire Nation. Rather than simply a generic term to signify difference from the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes and Air Nomads, the Fire Nation embodies the development of national identity and horrifying results of hypernationalism. The Fire Nation represents the epitome of national identity formation, an “imagined community” defining “self” as opposed to “the other” and the ultimate extension of this logic.

In 1983, political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson published Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism to theorize how people tied identity formation to the idea of a nation, leading to nationalist ideology and political agitation to form a nation state. Rather than being a primordial identity, national identity formation only occurred through “imagining a community” fostered through modern printing (what he calls print capitalism) and a decline in the belief in “rule by divine right,” both of which occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution.

An “imagined community” links a diverse group of people under a single identity. For example, a person in Oregon and a person in South Carolina are both “American” despite separation by thousands of miles and likely never meeting face to face. The conceptualization of the nation explicitly delineates a physical space for the “imagined community” with borders separating “self” from “the other.”

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The world of ATLA, with regions defined by the elemental benders that live in the respective area. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

While Waterbenders constitute northern and southern tribes, Airbenders populate specific temples, and Earthbenders live in the Earth Kingdom, Firebenders define their region as the “Fire Nation,” a space for an imagined community of Firebenders to live and operate. Unlike the other benders, the Firebenders consider themselves a nation, a continent for the “self” as opposed to the “other.” Nationalism can certainly be benign, a tool to unite a diverse population or a method to refute colonial rule, but Fire Lord Sozin and Fire Lord Ozai represent heightened nationalism that serves as a threat to “the others” in the world of ATLA.

In the Season 3 episode “The Avatar and the Fire Lord,” Fire Lord Sozin shares his idea for a better world with Avatar Roku, Aang’s predecessor.

“Our nation is enjoying an unprecedented time of peace and wealth. Our people are happy, and we’re so fortunate in so many ways. […] we should share this prosperity with the rest of the world. In our hands is the most successful empire in history. It’s time we expanded it.”

The Fire Nation, an industrial power utilizing coal-powered tanks and warships, represents the pinnacle of civility and modernity according to Sozin (modern industrialization being a prerequisite to nation formation per Anderson). He asks Roku — his best friend and fellow Fire Nation citizen — to extend his nationalist project, looking to form colonies in the Earth Kingdom and spread Fire Nation culture throughout the world. Being the Avatar, Roku recognizes the important of balance between the four elements and their landholdings, leading him to reject Sozin’s proposal. Later in the episode, when Roku chastises Fire Lord Sozin for setting up Fire Nation colonies despite his warning, Sozin replies:

“How dare you, a citizen of the Fire Nation, address your Fire Lord this way. Your loyalty is to our nation first. Anything less makes you a traitor.”

Sozin declares that Roku has betrayed his nation, the imagined community of the Fire Nation. Roku remained the biggest obstacle to Fire Lord Sozin’s ambition, but with the Avatar’s death, Sozin advances his project, extending the ideology of “self” and “other” to its most extreme.

Roku and Sozin

Roku and Sozin, both Fire Nation citizens, but with vastly different ideologies. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

After the death of Avatar Roku, Fire Lord Sozin recognizes that the next Avatar in the cycle will be an Airbender, leading him to conduct the genocide of the Air Nomads, leaving Aang to discover that, after being frozen for 100 years, he is the eponymous “last Airbender.”

Gyatso

The remains of Monk Gyatso, Aang’s mentor, after the Fire Nation genocide. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

In the series finale, Fire Lord Ozai attempts a similar genocidal campaign, harnessing the power of Sozin’s comet and adopting the title of Phoenix King, aiming to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom and establish himself as the ruler of the world. Though violent and horrifying, the actions of Sozin and Ozai represent the ultimate extension of national identity formation, where the “self” removes or eliminates the “other” to maintain the homogeneity of the nation.

Phoenix King

Ozai, bequeathing the title of Fire Lord and becoming the Phoenix King. ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ [Credit: Nickelodeon]

Rather than being separate from or a corruption of nationalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide have served as processes of national identity formation throughout history. Totalitarian regimes use violence to quell threats to the ruling power, while the Armenian Genocide and the Nazi Holocaust represent the worst of human atrocities conducted in the name of Turkish nationalism and fascist ideology, respectively, “protecting the self” from “threats to the nation.” Thus, the Fire Nation is the epitome of national identity formation, an imagined community defining “self” and “other” while using violence as an extension of nationalist rhetoric.

Rather than shy away from mature themes or adult concepts such as nationalism or mass violence, ATLA embraces big ideas and presents them to a young audience while balancing them with fast-paced action, humor and heart. Though nationalism does not automatically result in violence and is not inherently evil, the Fire Nation demonstrates the harm in hypernationalism, a rigid definition of “self” that precludes others.

Not only do show creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko illustrate the dangers of rampant nationalism, but they also present a solution: multiculturalism. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Suki and their allies hail from all across the globe. The embrace and celebration of differences helps the protagonists resist the attempt by the Fire Nation to eliminate difference, a worthy lesson coming from a smart, well-written and forward-thinking television program for children.