The entertainment industry is a window into the collective soul of its audience. It provides us with a gestault read on the mood of our era.
The first decade of the twenty-first century has been a dark one. The peace and prosperity of the Clinton Administration has been answered with the war and economic insecurity of the Bush Administration. Terrorism, the fear of a less than competent and authoritarian minded administration, rising gasoline prices, the threat of bird flu, the failed response to Hurricane Katrina, global warming, the Tsunamni in the Indian Ocean, stagnant markets and rising deficits at a time of an increasing divide between the rich and the poor, have loomed over us and colored most entertainment offerings in books and movies of our time in one way or another.
This past weekend I went to the dollar theater with the kids and saw "Curious George." It was modified from the original picture book version. Unlike H.A. Rey's books, which are told from the monkey's perspective, the movie opens our eyes to the perspective of the man in the yellow hat, giving him a name, a girlfriend, a boss, and a more conflicted view about his little friend than George ever suspected. It also strips out the imperialist explorer (and subtle homosexual) undertones of the original, transposing the story to the here and now with its poetic license, rather than being slavishly faithful to the original. It pulls all this off remarkably well.
But, this isn't what truly struck me as I walked away into the post-Matinee daylight. What makes the movie is its absolutely care free optimism. The mellow sound track, the lack of any menance greater than non-profits that shut down their phones at five o'clock on the dot, and the commercial pressure to replace art with parking lots, and the absence of political lessons was refreshing and hopeful.
Yes, it is a children's movie, designed to preserve a certain childish innocence for even very young children. Still, the hottest media property of the decade for older children is the dark, political Harry Potter, in which hope stands starkly against the foil of distopian prospects for the future. "Robots", another major motion picture for children, featured a totalitarian regime that was scorning the weak in their society.
The film version "The Chronicles of Narnia" based on the books by C.S. Lewis also for somewhat older children, but notable because it can not simply be attributed to the concerns of a liberal entertainment elite out of power in the current regime in Washington, similarly is a fundamentally dark story of a world in peril. And, the other really big Christian film of recent years (albeit for adults), whose popular appeal in our current cultural moment reached the point of being a grass roots movement of local churches, Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," is perhaps the most brutal and graphic telling of the Biblical "Good News" possible, despite the fact that one could easily, had the spirit of the age been different, have told the same story in a more hopeful fashion or chosen another Biblical story entirely, instead.
In contrast, "Curious George" was a ray of light. It gives you heart to know that someone can credibly step onto the stage and believe that somehow, everything is going to work out, that life is worth living even on personal bad days, that pure happiness is not dead. This is a movie about the promise of new love, the optimism of childhood, and the triumph of curiousity over commerce. It makes you believe, if only for a moment, that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that perhaps the downward trend our nation has been on lately may somehow turn around. The zeitgeist is no longer unanimously pessimistic.