The Mouse Has Two Faces

Up until 15 years ago, the Walt Disney logo on a movie was a guarantee that its content would reflect traditional moral values and be suitable for family viewing.

New ownership changed this unstated compact between the company and its audience.

The Disney imprimatur would continue to be given to entertainment consistent with the founder's family-friendly vision. But a host of wholly owned subsidiaries bearing different labels were created for the express purpose of distributing product with morally loose content that would have made the previous management sick.

Two recent releases demonstrate this Disney personality split. The Princess Diaries, one of the summer's blockbuster hits, is an attempt to keep alive Walt's entertainment philosophy. Bubble Boy, a Touchstone presentation with no Disney label attached, breaks new ground for the parent company in the way it attacks Christianity and the suburban nuclear family.

From Muted Princess ...

Despite the populist trappings of our culture, many young girls still fantasize about what it would be like to have been born of royal blood. The Princess Diaries turns Meg Cabot's novel on the subject into a female-empowerment story in which some of the components of this dream are cleverly dissected.

In keeping with traditional Disney moviemaking, director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) and screenwriter Gina Wendkos emphasize the laughs rather than social commentary or psychological examination, and some of the movie's insights are muted to keep the atmosphere light.

The curly-haired, coltishly awkward 15-year-old Mia Thermapoulos (Anne Hathaway) is a child of divorce. She's been raised by her non-conforming artist mother, Helen (Caroline Goodall), and has never known her father.

This seemingly ugly duckling is embarrassed about her glasses and her inability to speak in a public setting. She pines after her school's big man on campus (Erik Von Detten), and hangs out with a fellow female nerd (Heather Matarazzo) instead of the in-crowd of perky cheerleaders. “My expectation in life is to stay invisible,” she declares.

A surprise visit by her grandmother, Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), changes all that. This well-bred, formal woman is, in fact, the queen of the independent, Monaco-like principality of Genovia, and the sudden death of Mia's father has made this very Americanized teenager heir to the throne. Her mother had hidden this royal connection in hopes that her daughter would have a normal childhood.

At first Mia doesn't want to be a princess, and makes a hilarious mess of her grandmother's attempts to teach her proper deportment and manners. But the movie quietly makes clear that these lessons are filling an important need. Mia's mother behaves more like a sister than a parent. She's a middle-aged hippie who says she uses her art to propagate “the values of Woodstock.” She also embarrasses her daughter by dating one of her teachers.

Mia's grandmother becomes a female authority figure who gently provides the girl with a kind of interior moral structure previously lacking. This training gives the teenager the confidence to stand up for herself at school and to give expression to her particular gifts.

Much is made of Mia's humorous transformation into a great beauty whom the in-crowd envies. But she also learns that inner changes mean more than outer ones and that serving others is more important than personal popularity.

Like many of its forerunners from Disney's golden days (The Parent Trap, The Absent-Minded Professor), The Princess Diaries has small ambitions and is not without its charms. From a Christian standpoint, the movie's greatest flaw is its falling in line with contemporary Hollywood's view of divorce: The filmmakers show the damage that divorce has inflicted on Mia, but are careful to tiptoe around the parents' decision to break their vows. The clear aim is to avoid any intimations of “judgmentalism” or “intolerance.”

On the whole, The Princess Diaries is an unexceptional piece of passably amusing family entertainment—and a reminder that, in the present cultural climate, only independently financed films have a chance of reflecting a consistently Christian conception of morality.

... to Obnoxious Invalid

Bubble Boy, a comedy about Jimmy Livingston (Jake Gyllenhaal), a 17-year-old boy with a rare genetic immune-system disease that forces him to live in an environmentally protected bubble, is in an altogether different category. Director Blair Hayes and screen-writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio intend the bubble to be a metaphor for Jimmy's airless, conservative Christian existence.

The walls of his Southern California tract home are plastered with religious images and pictures of Presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. The chief enforcer of this imagined cultural and psychological oppression is his cartoon-ishly overprotective mother (Swoosie Kurtz), who makes him recite the Pledge of Allegiance whenever he feels a “filthy” sexual longing. She also bakes him huge cookies in the shape of the cross.

The bubble boy falls in love with Chloe (Marley Shelton), the beautiful blonde next door, of whom his mother is obsessively jealous. “She's not the friend Jesus would pick,” mom exclaims.

When Jimmy learns that his heartthrob is going to get married in Niagara Falls, he sets out cross-country in his bubble suit to stop the wedding. This resembles the premise of countless successful comedies (The Graduate) where the hero tries to rescue his beloved from hooking up with the wrong guy. But the filmmakers turn the story into an obnoxious road movie instead.

As Jimmy careens through Las Vegas and the American heartland, offensive gags are aimed at any expression of spirituality, including New Age cult groups and Hinduism. He also mixes it up with a Chicano biker gang and a band of circus freaks.

This awful film wouldn't be worth noting, except that it represents a change in Disney's marketing strategy. Most of the company's previous attacks on Christianity (Priest) were released through subsidiaries that aimed at an educated, adult audience. Bubble Boy is the first anti-religious Disney product to be targeted at teenage and college viewers.

This ups the ante. Pro-family groups have organized consumer boycotts against the company for previous betrayals of its founder's legacy, but they appear to have no effect. Nevertheless, this summer's releases indicate the faithful must continue to be vigilant and informed.

John Prizer, the Register's arts & culture correspondent, is based in Los Angeles.