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Magic Feather Syndrome


Last year, we took our son to see the Broadway show about cheerleaders, Bring It On, based (very loosely) on the movie of the same name. He had a great time – a better time than I expected, frankly – and he had some incisive things to say about the plot afterwards. Incisive and media-savvy.

Specifically, he asked whether the original movie was owned by Disney. No, I said; it was distributed by Universal. I knew it, he said; if it had been a Disney movie, the black team would have won in the end.

This wasn’t really an observation about political correctness with regard to race. It was an observation about political correctness with regard to plot dynamics.

The plot (of the musical) involves a white cheerleader, Campbell, who should be the head of the squad at her all-blonde suburban high school, being unexpectedly transferred to a “diverse” urban school where there is no cheerleading squad. But they do have a really impressive dance crew. And so, after establishing that she’s tough enough, talented enough and game enough to win the respect of the crew, she sets about turning them into a cheerleading squad by any means necessary (including lying about the possibility of winning a college scholarship). Eventually the truth comes out, and Campbell has to face what kind of person she has become in pursuit of her dream. She apologizes to her crew-cum-squad mates, and, after a rather easy reconciliation, they go on to compete for the national cheerleading title.

In the competition, instead of playing by the rules and trying their hardest to win, they “do their own thing” – they focus on their art and on the effect they are trying to achieve, and don’t fret about whether they stay inside the lines or stay within the allotted time or perform the expected moves in the expected sequence. And as a consequence – they lose. They don’t even place.

That’s what my son noticed, and what he thought was an “un-Disney” moment: the decision to make the moral not “if we are all true to each other, then we can do anything, even win nationals” but “if we are all true to each other, then we won’t really care about winning nationals.”

I thought about that apropos of this article about the proliferation of “magic feather” stories in children’s movies. It seems the problem isn’t just Disney:

For all the chatter about the formulaic sameness of Hollywood movies, no genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children’s movie. These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather–or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears–and believe that their greatness comes from within.


Examples from the past decade abound: a fat panda hopes to become a Kung Fu master (Kung Fu Panda); a sewer-dwelling rat dreams of becoming a French chef (Ratatouille); an 8-bit villain yearns to be a video-game hero (Wreck-It Ralph); an unscary monster pursues a career as a top-notch scarer (Monsters University). In the past month alone, two films with identical, paint-by-numbers plots–Turbo and Planes–have been released by separate studios, underlining the extent to which the magic-feather syndrome has infiltrated children’s entertainment.

Needless to say, the author, Luke Epplin, doesn’t think this is a good thing:

It’s probably no coincidence that the supremacy of the magic-feather syndrome in children’s movies overlaps with the so-called “cult of self-esteem.” The restless protagonists of these films never have to wake up to the reality that crop-dusters simply can’t fly faster than sleek racing aircraft. Instead, it’s the naysaying authority figures who need to be enlightened about the importance of never giving up on your dreams, no matter how irrational, improbable, or disruptive to the larger community. As Jean Twenge, the controversial cultural critic of America’s supposed narcissism epidemic, argues in her bestselling book Generation Me, younger generations “simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we are all special, and we all deserve to follow our dreams.”

Following one’s dreams necessarily entails the pursuit of the extraordinary in these films. The protagonists sneer at the mundane, repetitive work performed by their unimaginative peers. Dusty abhors the smell of fertilizer and whines to his flying coach that he’s “been flying day after day over these same fields for years.” Similarly, Turbo performs his duties in the garden poorly, and his insubordination eventually gets him and Chet fired. Their attitudes are all part of an ethos that privileges self-fulfillment over the communal good.

In addition to disparaging routine labor, these films discount the hard work that enables individuals to reach the top of their professions. Turbo and Dusty don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents. They are, in many ways, the perfect role models for a generation weaned on instant gratification.

The magic-feather syndrome has so thoroughly penetrated animated features that it’s difficult to imagine a film that doesn’t incorporate at least some of its tropes. Perhaps, you might be tempted to argue, kids movies have to be this way. But that’s easily debunked–just look at Pixar’s roster, which features a number of magic-feather narratives but also includes stories largely about family, friendship, and growing older.

Epplin goes on to cite the work of Charles M. Schulz as the perfect antidote. But the assertion that nobody (other than, occasionally, Pixar) is making movies for kids that don’t hew to the “magic feather” script got me to thinking of the exceptions to that rule. Looking back over the past decade, here’s what I came up with:

  • Tangled” (2010). A Disney princess movie based on the story of Rapunzel, “Tangled” is about a lot of things – overcoming the legacy of emotionally abusive parenting, giving up on a projected bravado and letting oneself be vulnerable, heroic self-sacrifice (the prince actually dies in order to save his beloved), and the power of true love to overcome death. But it’s not about the magic feather.
  • Despicable Me” (2010). A movie about how the opportunity to give love can change you from a (failed) super-villain to a (successful) ordinary human being. Not a magic feather movie.
  • Coraline” (2009). A movie about the ultimate horror of embracing ideal fantasy rather than frustrating reality. Not a magic feather movie.
  • Enchanted” (2007). Another Disney princess movie! This one I’ve written about before. It does climax with the heroine vanquishing a fire-breathing dragon. Nonetheless: not a magic feather movie.
  • Charlotte’s Web” (2006). Y’all know what this one is about. But for the purposes of this discussion, it’s an interesting inversion of the magic feather theme. Because there’s nothing magical at all about Wilbur; he’s a perfectly ordinary pig, if anything a bit inferior (he’s a runt). It’s the extraordinary spider who loves him who makes everybody think he’s something special, so they won’t kill him.

I’m sure there are more, but it was alarmingly tough to come up with those five – and too easy to think of movies that were badly damaged by allegiance to the magic feather theme (such as this one, or this one).

Anyway, I’m curious to hear: what films am I forgetting, that were released in the past ten years, intended for children, not by Pixar, that either don’t follow or subvert the “magic feather” trope.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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