Are they leaning into the “Pixar mom” meme at this point? I only ask because Little Bo Peep has a dump truck four times as big as the rest of her body.

Anyway, it’s another Pixar movie starring toys and crap. All your favorites are here, and they’ve never looked better. The animation is just stupendous. Look at that god damn rain at the beginning—relax, guys. I kind of feel like you’re showing off at this point. The human characters look great, full of warmth and personality and emotion. The biggest weakness of the Toy Story franchise was how the people tended to resemble plastic toys themselves, and that’s no longer the case.

But I think I’m over Toy Story. Let’s face it, there’s exactly three stories you can get out of this concept—toys lose their owners; toys are no longer wanted; toys confront an existential crisis—and after four movies, Pixar has explored them all. Everything on the screen provoked a reaction of “yep, seen that before.” It’s well-animated and as sharp and funny as ever, but it’s all getting a bit too comfy at this point.

There’s only one truly original idea: the fork. Woody’s new owner Bonnie makes a weird misshapen figure out of a plastic fork, a popsicle stick, and a pipecleaner, writes her name on its feet, and it comes to life. Which pokes at a neat idea: what makes a toy a toy? Woody and Buzz are expensive branded products, but really, all that separates a “toy” from anything else is a child’s belief. Forky is made of random junk, but Bonnie has decided that he will be a toy. However, the resulting character makes no sense: changing from a near-silent lobotomy victim to wisecracking comic relief as the movie progresses. (There’s a sequence where Forky, believing himself to be trash, keeps trying to throw himself away. Randy Newman, tasked with writing music for this, screwed up his brow in concentration, came up with a song called “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” and then patted himself on the back for a hard day’s work.) Sadly, Forky ends up becoming yet more clutter in a movie that’s already overstuffed with characters, most of whom wrapped up their arcs several movies ago and have no reason to be there.

Buzz is the prime example. It’s honestly funny how the writers have zero idea of what to do with him and basically write him out of the movie. I mean, his arc is resolved. His whole deal in Toy Story (1995) was that he was delusional and actually thought he was a space ranger. He is no longer delusional, no longer thinks he’s a space ranger, so what are we doing here? Buzz Lightyear is a character past his sell-by date, the equivalent of when you tell a funny story to someone, and instead of laughing they ask “…and then what happened?”

There’s also the issue of what’s not in the movie: a compelling villain.

Sid was great in the first movie, and I have a soft spot for Al McWhiggin. By contrast, Gabby Gabby doesn’t do the business. There’s an idea there (soft-spoken madness), but they don’t push it as far as they need to. The dial’s stuck on 2. They end up giving her a cloying, overly sympathetic backstory (to the point where she basically is forced to become a good guy), leading to the most obnoxious and unearned heel-face turn since Cletus “Gator Molester” Shithat betrayed his best friend Billie-Bob Grunklefuck in the Floribama Swamp-Ass Grand Wrasslin’ Championship of 1993 (classic match, I’m sure you remember it) and becoming a good character. If the first Toy Story had been written this way, we’d get a 20 minute flashback showing how Sid is secretly a nice child who gets yelled at by his dad. Can this studio grow some balls and write a proper villain again? The glory days of Hopper and Syndrome seem far behind us.

Toy Story 4 is not a bad movie. It is a deeply pointless one, however, which may be worse—I love many bad movies, but cannot love a waste of time. I’ve long felt that Pixar is a rat in a Skinner box that pressed a button a few times, received massive amounts of food, and now they’re just senselessly hammering that button forever, regardless of whether food is coming out.

Now they’re making a Toy Story 5. Okay. I have some creative story ideas they could use:

  • Woody gets washed out into the Pacific Garbage Patch. Alone and isolated, he goes mad under the hot alien sun, worshipping a god sculpted from plastic drinking straws. At night, he dreams of high-density polyethylene pellets melting and sliding down the stark walls of the sky, like the pale sperm of some celestial progenitor. He starts laughing dementedly, realizing that nature is a powerless fraud, and the world is controlled by the forces of manufacture and industry. In the final scene, he dives suicidally into the ocean, deliberately choking an endangered dolphin with his body while praying to return to the necrotic plastic heart that beats at the planet’s core.
  • Woody’s voice-box begins to break. When he pulls the string, the words slur and distort. There’s a sneak in my boot! Someone poisoned the warble-hole! The speech swiftly becomes incomprehensible, melting into a garbled wreckage of sounds, but sometimes, almost-audible messages can be heard, as though something with a thousand tongues is trying to communicate through him. One day, his voice box crackles to life on its own. “Don’t look for it in the garden.” What could this mean? When the toys explore the garden, Hamm finds a single tiny black flower growing beneath a canopy of wisteria and bougainvillea . The toys uproot the flower and dig a hole straight down: two feet under, there is a small, unmarked wooden box with a lock on it. They take the box inside, and Slinky Dog, working alone for several days straight, manages to pick the lock. “What did you see in the box?” Woody asks. “Nothing,” Slinky Dog says, glancing nervously at the ground. “The box was empty.” Immediately, he runs out of the house and out onto the road, where a car smashes him to pieces. The horrified survivors take no more chances with the box. They slam it shut (taking care not to look inside), re-lock it, carry it back to the garden, and bury it again. They promise each other that they’ll forget the incident. But one day, Woody pulls his voice-box string, and hears a distorted recording of Slinky Dog…
  • A weird change overcomes the toys. They fall into bestial rages. They are consumed by a hunger that only warm, living flesh can satisfy. Jessie is shown eating a dead bird with her teeth. Mr Potato Head’s hollow shell starts filling up with bloody mouse bones. They start communicating through glottal grunts and roars. Only Rex is unaffected. Researching the problem, he realizes that all of the toys are made of plastic, which is made of petrochemicals, which come from petroleum, which comes from ancient decayed biomass that includes dinosaurs. Essentially, the toys are now possessed by the souls of dead dinosaurs, and Rex is immune because he’s already a dinosaur. He doesn’t know what to do, and lifts up his arms in comical horror as the dinosaur-possessed toys assemble around him—blood dripping from their plastic mouths and hands—and kneel, awaiting his command.
  • Bonnie grows to adulthood. Puberty runs her down like an 18-wheeler truck. Confused and impressionable, she makes some friends online, and them some other friends. They introduce her to right and wrong. She cuts her hair, and dyes the remnants in variegated colors. She manufactures an edgy online persona, given to ranty, sweary, pop-feminist dialectic. By age 17, her Twitter pfp shows her with one eyebrow quirkily raised, sipping from a mug with “MALE TEARS” on it. But smugness gives way to guilt. She is a white-presenting person living in the wealthiest nation on Earth, and she feels absolutely horrible about. She was born in sin. Her parents were manspreaders, whitesplainers, and possibly even misgenderers. She seeks to escape who she is. She changes pronouns six times. Her mastectomy is booked for July. Maybe if she destroys the guilty girl, piece by piece, she’ll escape the sense that she’s evil and corrupt. She remains fond of her childhood toys, but realizes that she cannot go on owning Woody—he’s modeled after a Wild West sheriff, and 👏 we! 👏 don’t! 👏 do! 👏 that! 👏 anymore! The final straw comes when she watches the Woody’s Roundup puppet show. Not once does Woody acknowledge that he’s living on Chiricahua Apache land! Horrified, she burns Woody on an open fire, hoping to purge her sins. Woody screams as his face melts. He screams and screams.
  • A new toy joins the gang: Murdilator the Deathslayer. He’s pretty cool, particularly his brain-vivisector attachment. But beneath the MADE IN CHINA sticker on his foot there’s a compartment, and inside the compartment, Buzz finds a rolled up scrap of paper. It’s a handwritten Mandarin message. 救命啊!我被困在玩具厂里了!“HELP! I AM TRAPPED IN A TOY FACTORY!” Murdilator consents to have his brain-vivisector attachment damaged on purpose, so that Bonnie’s mom will return him to the story, which will then ship him back to China. The toys sneak into the return-parcel, and one week later, they’re being unpacked at a factory at Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. They want to find the imprisoned man and save him, but they’re in for a shock: all the workers at the factory are that man! They have arrived at a dismal Dickensian sweatshop. Thousands of dead-eyed contract workers sit in rows, performing Q&A inspections of worthless plastic dreck for brutal hours and starvation wages. Even death is not an escape. The factory doors are locked, and anti-suicide nets are strung under every window. An overseer walks up and down the benches like a slave-driver at a galley, and snatches up the damaged Murdilator from the packaging. With vindictive swiftness, he identifies the worker who signed off on this particular toy, and docks him a week’s salary. The man starts weeping. He has a family. The toys are left heartsick by what they’ve done: they haven’t helped the man, they’ve made his lot in life even worse! The rest of the movie is Murdilator the Deathslayer sitting on a therapist’s chair with Hamm, trying to overcome his guilt. Eventually, he has a breakthrough. He leaps into the air and cheers, and we end on a blissful reprise of “You Got A Friend in Me”.
  • Bo Peep is sold to a new owner. Unfortunately he’s an anime fan. The camera’s focus tightens around her terrified face, like an ensnaring net. From somewhere out of frame, we hear heavy breathing, and the sound of pants unzipping. The camera goes mercifully black.
  • A crossover, where Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber explain Christianity to the gang. Who’s mightier, God or the Boogie-Man? Does the Bible really tell us to forgive our enemies?
  • Really, they should probably just not make the movie at all. Enough’s enough.

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When Trump was elected, a sentiment I heard was “man, political satirists are gonna have a field day!”

They did not have a field day. The overwhelming consensus (both among mortals on earth and devils in hell) is that Trump-based comedy sucked: it was more boring than a male pig digging a tunnel to South Africa and hackier than Angelina Jolie and Keanu Reeves typing on the same keyboard.

There were exceptions. Tim Heidecker portrays a thin-skinned, blustering Trump pastiche in On Cinema At the Cinema. He is sometimes funny.

But overall, Trump comedy falls into two camps: jokeless “can you believe he said/did that?!?!” reactions, or juvenile “Drumpf is an ugly orange peepee poopoo cheeto Hitler fartbaby” insults that seemed more designed to hurt Trump’s feelings than to elicit on a sapient lifeform’s face the ghost of a smile.

Steve Benson, The Republic

Trump-era comedy had a horrendous heat-to-light ratio. There is only so much mileage to be had in Alec Baldwin pursing his lips and saying “yuge”.

What went wrong?

Trump was already a comedy character

The greatest comedian of the Trump years was Trump himself.

The man is hilarious. He has a diabolic gift for finding the most inappropriate thing possible to say, and then saying it. Calling Apple’s CEO “Tim Apple”. Talking about an African country called “Nambia”. Saying “Belgium is a beautiful city.” His “eulogy” for Colin Powell reads like literal satire, particularly the halfhearted backpedal at the end. “He made plenty of mistakes, but anyway, may he rest in peace!”

This overt jokiness presented a problem for comedians, because it gave them little to work with. The favorite mode of satire is to take something serious, and twist it so that it’s ridiculous. It is difficult to parody a thing that’s already funny.

I’m not even saying “Trump’s too ridiculous to parody, folks!” I’m saying he conducted himself in a broad, facially absurd way that was possibly intentional. He became famous to younger generations as a media star, after all, and surely knows how to play that game.

The cleverest thing Trump ever did was brand himself as a clown. If you’re a clown, people tend to ignore factual errors, inattentiveness, etc. You are judged by a different standard than the rest of humanity. No scandal ever sticks to you. Your gaffes make people laugh. While your opponents get dragged down by seriousness, you can skate through. Eventually, people stop caring about the clownshow. It becomes “oh, he’s just doing that thing he’s always doing.” But the question is: will people elect a clown as President? Apparently (for a brief moment in 2016, at least) the answer was yes!

Once, I was convinced by Scott Adams “Clown Genius” hypothesis: that Trump was knowingly weaponizing absurdity to judo his enemies into submission. Now, I think he mainly got lucky. He was born the way he is, and about ten fortunate things coincided (a timely scandal for Clinton, and so forth) that allowed him to become the President. He was a beneficiary of circumstance who humped the White House door until his dick picked the lock.

Regardless, lots of other people are trying to become tactical clowns. I remember seeing this Dan Crenshaw campaign ad, which turns him into an action hero who jumps out of a plane, does a Marvel landing on the hood of an antifa car, and punches through the windshield. I never saw stuff this cartoony before in US politics, at least not from major candidates. Trump paved the way.

Nobody wanted to laugh at Trump. They wanted to cheer or boo.

One of the better political parodies I’ve seen is Key & Peele on Obama. The bit I linked basically suggests that Obama’s famed “relatability” was cynical, calculating act from a cynical, calculating politician. But here’s the important thing: this is not anti-Obama. It’s basically just exploring a side to his character.

You could never do a bit that subtle about Trump. Firstly, he is not a person who has those kinds of hidden depths. And even if he did, nobody wants to explore them.

In 2016, the US was heavily polarized. The kind of “let’s just laugh at politics” bipartisanship of Yes Minister was no longer possible. Today, you have to take a side. In the media, usually a liberal side. Yes We Can, Minister.

Sara Schaefer had this to say about Trump comedy.

I was talking about this to my friend, fellow comedian Nikki Glaser, and we both agreed that in many ways, we’re too angry and scared to find the funny in Donald Trump’s rule. For me, dark material has to incubate for a really long time before it can make its way to the stage. (To give you an idea, it took me a decade to be able to find a way to write jokes about my mom’s death.) Comedians are now struggling to get the distance needed to make something awful hilarious.

And it’s not just raw outrage aimed at politicians – many of us are dealing with the emotional fallout of the 2016 election in our personal lives. We’re grappling with family members, co-workers and friends who voted for the other side. Everyone is very angry at each other. Nikki summed it up well when she said: “I hate doing Trump jokes because if a section of the audience doesn’t laugh, then I know they voted for him and then I have to spend the rest of the show hating part of my audience.” It’s a two-way street. Not even the comedians can avoid succumbing to The Great American Butthole Tightening.

For these people, comedy had become tangled up in morality and politics possibly to an unhealthy degree.

This jibes with societal shifts I noticed in the late Cracked era. Nobody, nobody gave a rat’s bum about jokes. I remember the imprecations, which usually started with preachy assertions of what comedy is or isn’t. Comedy doesn’t punch down. Comedy comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Comedy has always been political!

It’s all well and good to try and use comedy for socially productive purposes. But…well…have you ever seen one of those Evangelicals who help the poor and needy, but underneath it is their real goal, saving souls for Christ? Yeah, it always comes out in the end. Most comedians, circa 2016, were like that. Yes, they told jokes and made audiences laugh (or at least clap)…but that was incidental. Their real purpose was to change the world.

There was a strain of thought among the left that it was almost morally wrong to joke in the age of Trump. “We should be fighting and raging and mourning, not laughing!” Others took the view that joking about Trump could be done, but it was like joking about rape: something to be done very carefully and respectfully.

Steve Almond, writing for WBUR, castigated Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, not for being unfunny, but for being calm. He wanted to see rage and fury. He asserted that the ability to make jokes at all about the incoming administration was a luxury not all Americans could afford.

“The political fate of this country isn’t a joke — especially for our most vulnerable citizens” (…) “the difference between a Biden and Trump presidency is a direct threat to your life, not a punchline” (…) “[believing otherwise is] what the voice of privilege sounds like”.

If you find Trump funny, you are a privileged white person.

Olivia Cathcart states this case even more strongly in Trump Isn’t Funny.

If tragedy plus time equals comedy, then it’s going to be a long time before any Trump jokes can pack a punch again. Trump is a tragedy but one we haven’t had any space from yet. The storm still rages and a new wound opens every day. Desperately trying to wring comedy from such an evil man is like trying to tell knock knock jokes while the Titanic’s going down. I have no interest or patience for your “zany” sketch while mid-drowning in frozen waters, and I cringe just thinking about the first way-too-soon Vice-esque movie we’ll get about this.

Nothing about Trump is funny. Nothing about him can be funny. Stop trying to force it.

Earlier, she says:

I’m so tired. I’m so exhausted. Each bombshell feels more like a fallen acorn. Not because it doesn’t matter, but because it doesn’t seem to work as a weapon against him, neither as fact nor fodder for jokes.

She reveals that she thinks of jokes as weapons. Their point is not to make anyone laugh, but to inflict damage on Trump, a person she hates. And if they are not doing that, she has little use for them.

On the other side of the aisle, conservatives who took even the mildest jabs at the President became inundated by angry Trump supporters calling them a cuck and a traitor and a RINO.

I have not discussed “conservative comedy”, but here’s a flawed but interesting video on where they were at as of 2016. They had fallen prey to many of the same ailments of the left. They were too angry to be funny. Or too something to be funny.

There was simply no room for equivocation where Trump was concerned. You were with him or against him.

Trump is confusing and complicated

As Sam Kriss once noted, Trump makes little sense. He is like a fictional character created by a bad writer.

He’s a man’s man who refuses to drink beer and eats pizza with a knife and fork. He’s the voice of Rust Belt America while being a New York liberal with a gold toilet. He’s fanatically obsessed with his appearance, yet thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to look like…that. He’s a classless boor who’s also a germaphobe. He thinks handshakes are “barbaric” and gets angry when someone dips the same nacho into guacamole twice. He’s the first President to like soccer instead of football.

His qualities are strong, but you cannot assign a one-note character to them, like you can for Nixon (“crook”), Clinton (“sex pervert”), or Bush (“dumb redneck”). It’s hard to “nail” Trump with a comedic portrayal, much as it’s hard to nail an octopus to a wall. He doesn’t appear to have an inner life that can be pulled apart. He exists as a series of flamboyant poses and gestures, many of them contradictory.

Political views? Bad news, he doesn’t have any! He’s essentially a man who likes being on TV, likes being popular, and who likes having people chant his name and applaud when he speaks. He wants to save America, not out of principle, but so that he’ll be the one to save it.

He does have strong viewpoints, but they never come from a coherent ideology. As far as I can tell, he sees a social issue on TV, gets an idea on how to solve it stuck in his head, and gets so excited he won’t metaphorically change the channel for years or sometimes decades.

“He might read something in the paper and immediately you’d get an impromptu meeting on trade,” said a person familiar with the president’s scheduling. “It’s just more impromptu than like a month in advance you have a policy time set that you’re going to work up to.”

Yes, he got sucked into the Republican Party applause-circle, and has learned to mimic their speech patterns. But he’s fundamentally not one of them, as displayed by the fact that he often forgets the script and says what he really thinks.

“I like taking the guns early. Like in this crazy man’s case that just took place in Florida, he had a lot of firearms – they saw everything – to go to court would have taken a long time, so you could do exactly what you’re saying, but take the guns first, go through due process second.” — Donald Trump

He is curiously stuck in the past. I don’t mean he’s conservative. In many ways, he’s not. His biggest interests were:

  • the war on drugs
  • inner-city crime
  • reviving US industry, particularly coal and steel
  • winning trade wars against China

These were all talking points from the 80s and 90s.

I’m not saying Trump’s concerns aren’t important. But he campaigned on them to the detriment of more timely issues. He had to be prodded hard before he reacted appropriately to, say, COVID, or the opioid crisis. Imagine a left-aligned politician who’s obsessed with overpopulation, holes in the ozone layer, and saving pandas. Yet he dived into social media addiction with mind-numbing force.

None of it really adds up to a character.

It’s hard to insult Trump without “punching down”

Given that Trump’s character is a maze of contradictions, what’s left? His physical aspect. But what can you say about that?

That he’s fat? That’s sizeist. That he’s old? That’s gerontophobic. That he has small feminine hands? Homophobic. That Melania is a trophy wife? Misogynistic and xenophobic.

Additionally, Trump’s tastes…

  • Pro wrestling
  • Junk food
  • Action movies
  • Daytime TV
  • Conspicuous spending

…Are decidedly low-class. They sound like they belong to either trailer trash or a rich black rapper. The only “high-class” activity he conspicuously engages in is golf. And making fun of golf is the only thing hackier than making fun of Trump.

Trump Fatigue

I was tired of hearing about Trump. You were tired of hearing about Trump. We were all tired of hearing about Trump. The way he seemingly seemed to insert himself into every conversation is something I remember with a shudder.

There was nothing to say about him. Nobody understood him. It was just “Trump, huh?” for four long years.

Overfamiliarity is the enemy of every comic.

Because of the extended phenotype

This is a little awkward to explain, but makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Basically, our bodies are larger—much, much larger—than we give them credit for. Richard Dawkins writes about “extended phenotypes”—the idea is that although our genes solely encode proteins via DNA bases, they do more: by modulating our behavior, they allow us alter environments in ways that benefit our (meaning their; meaning the genes) survival. From a genetic perspective, there is little difference between a beaver’s fur (a dead covering over the beaver that has undergone a form of cell death called cornification), and a beaver’s dam (a pile of gnawed sticks and logs). Both have (or neither) could be considered part of the beaver’s body. In essence, there is no real place where the beaver’s body begins or ends. Where does the life begin under our skin? We are surrounded by a tight-knit halo of death: a nebula of flaking skin and hairs dying according to a keratinocyte differentiation programme. We are humans who have modified the world to suit us. So according to the extended phenotype theory, the entire world—and shortly the universe beyond it—is also part of our bodies. My lawn needed a shave. So did my beard. I found the two concepts becoming entwined in my mind. As I started mowing the lawn, I felt bitter eruptions of pain all across my skin, like fireballs stinging me. I looked down and saw hair falling from my body as I pushed the lawnmower. Next, I started pulling up weeds. Blood began gushing from the earth, then I realized it wasn’t coming from the earth, but from my own body.

This is the reason why Donald John Trump (born June 14, 1946) was bad for comedy.

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Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

— Kahlil Gibran

Ringing Bell (released in Japan asチリンの鈴, or Chirin no Suzu) is an anime film from 1978. As you would expected from the studio that created Hello Kitty, it’s a descent through a corridor of nightmares, with walls of pulsating snakes. It’s fairly dark. I knew its reputation, and it still surprised me with its offhand brutality: it hits you like a loaded body bag dropped from twenty feet. It’s unusually thought-provoking. Usually, “adult anime” means Genocyber or MD Geist: tits and gore plus a childish concept (hey, I watch that stuff). Ringing Bell is different: it uses the vocabulary of childhood nostalgia to tell a mature and sophisticated story about existentialism, injustice, transformation and other topics usually left for incel 19th century philosophers.

Chirin is a lamb. He frolicks in a field of butterflies and small animals. His mother warns him to stay away from a nearby mountain, where a wolf lives.

Disney cliches are piling up fast, and we assume the rest of the movie will be “Chirin disobeys his mother, visits the wolf, suboptimal events occur, and Chirin learns a lesson about the importance of obeying your parents (et cetera)”. But the movie doesn’t go down that road. Chirin is well-behaved lamb, who (aside from one early mistake) obeys his mother. It is emphasized that Chirin does everything right and it doesn’t help in the end.

The wolf invades the farm, because that’s a thing it can do. It slaughters the sheep, because that’s a thing it can do. They die without resisting, because that’s a thing they can’t do. Chirin survives the massacre, but only because his mother leaps upon his body and dies in his stead. In one of the movie’s greatest shots, the wolf lunges, and the (hypothetical) camera zooms in on a scar on its eye. The scar seems to elongate through the black fur, like tear ripped in paper, revealing a slash of orange, which soon darkens to red, and then the red fragments into isolated twists of smoke, as though it wasn’t gore but fire. This is great filmmaking. Director Masami Hata found a way to imply flesh tearing and blood spurting, while displaying no on-screen violence whatsoever.

When Chirin recovers, he sees his mother dead, and the wolf gone. He does not understand. Why does he deserve this? He stands at the cusp of the movie’s central insight: it was not unjust. He is a sheep, and this is what being a sheep means. Millions of lambs have stood in his place. He is not special.

When a movie is about animals, it’s usually for a reason. One of three reasons, actually. The first is that the filmmakers had no choice. Maybe they’re adapting a children’s book written by a laudanum-addicted Victorian pederast called Archibald Featherwyckbottom III and that book has animals. Or they have some suit breathing down their neck, saying “We need to sell eleventy billion plushie dolls this quarter, so make the characters cute animals. We need the furries on our side here, so make them fuckable.”

The second is that it distances the setting from the human world, allowing access to the grand and mythic. It is difficult to tell a yearning, primal story about a character that has to pay rent and file TPS reports. Civilization is an anchor slung around your neck: it keeps you stable, but does no favors if you want to fly. A book like Life of Pi or Lord of the Flies has to forcibly extract its character(s) from the human world before the story can begin. An animal tale like Watership Down can simply get on and tell the story.

The third and most important reason is that animals have characterization built-in. Owls are wise. Lions are regal. Sharks are predatory. Dogs are loyal. Cats are devious, solitary, and sour. Foxes are devious, solitary, and cheerful. Eagles are libertarians. Hamsters are alt-right shitpoasters. Goldfish are effete limousine-liberal crypto-Kautskyites whose commitment to The Struggle is frankly more show than substance. We all know these tropes, and when there’s an animal in a movie, we understand its character before it even says or does anything.

With that in mind, what is the identity of a sheep?

Passivity. As a sheep, you are an object. You get herded around by slow but smart apes and fast but less-smart canines. You graze stupidly and endlessly, mulching grass through four successive stomachs before excreting it into pellets so uselessly precise they look like they came from an injection mold. Even your shit looks domesticated. Such is your life, a hollow tube that grass flows through, until the day the shepherd separates you from the flock, a high-velocity slug engraves death into your skull and the world spins on without you. Nobody asks your permission. Things are done to you, and done to you, and then finally you are done.

(I actually own sheep, and they’re not as domesticated as their rep suggests. They can be very stubborn and aggressive, particularly in breeding season. Males will headbutt you hard enough to leave bruises through thick jackets. I’m sure a nonzero number of people get killed by sheep each year.)

Being a sheep places Chirin in a role of servitude. If he was a man, he would be a helot in 500BC Sparta, a black person in 19th century Louisiana, or a contemporary person who doesn’t find Jacqueline Novak’s stand-up very funny. He is an oppressed minority, living in a cruel and gray world that hates him, and his life is a living hell. He makes an audacious decision: I will not be a sheep any longer. But does that even make sense? A sheep is defined by not having a choice. You can’t choose not to be a sheep, any more than a tongueless man can talk or a legless man walk. (Conspiracists deride normies as “sheeple”…but if we’re truly sheep, we have no choice but to be fooled by the conspiracy. It’s pointless to even complain about. )

So if you could decide to not be a sheep…wouldn’t that mean you never were a sheep to begin with? And thus your mother’s death was a cosmic injustice, and thus his desire to become a wolf is also unjustified? It seems paradoxical. There is comfort in believing the world is neutral of morality, and a different sort of comfort in believing in right or wrong, but you have to pick a lane. However paradoxical the desire, Chirin decides to stop being a sheep.

He tracks the wolf down, and demands that the wolf fight him. The wolf ignores him: denying him even the respect of an enemy. But then Chirin starts demanding that the wolf teach him wolfish ways. The wolf responds with mockery, yet curiously, he does not kill Chirin. It might be that he’s already begun testing Chirin (if you’re truly a wolf, you’ll not be deterred by “you can’t do it”)

Chirin stays by the wolf’s side, and learns the way of the fang and claw. They go on adventures together. The movie drags a bit here, falling into master-and-apprentice martial arts cliches. There’s a cheesy reprise of the theme song, with goofy rock guitar licks dubbed over the top. Ringing Bell can be a somewhat “broad” movie at times. Particularly the music, which lyrically emphasises things we can already see on screen in a very heavyhanded and obvious way.

But then we arrive at the final act, where a movie that has been fairly fascinating becomes utterly engrossing. Chirin is given a choice by the wolf. It’s a brutal all-or-nothing decision, not just for his life, but for his soul. His reaction and what happens next is psychologically complex and fascinating.

Otherwise, it’s just a fairly well-made short film from 1978. The production studio, Sanrio, modeled itself after Disney. Except where Disney was an animation studio that branched out into merchandizing, Sanrio was a merchandizing company that branched out into animation. “Sanrio” is apparently meant to be a portmanteau of “San” (as in “San Francisco”) and “Rio” (as in “Rio Grande”), thus making the company’s name “Saint River”. Truly, they are the Sleve McDichael of the corporate world. Their artistic ouevre could be described as “diet Madhouse”, telling surprisingly deep and complicated (and weird) stories within the conventions of 70s anime. I assumed director Masami Hata later worked at Madhouse, but that seems to not be the case. He did later work on Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland. But every animator in history worked on that movie.

In many ways, Ringing Bell is a product of its time. The art style is very “70s anime”. Characters are designed with circles, where modern anime prefers triangles. There is a tragic dearth of sparkling magical schoolgirls and panty shots and oppai moments. A modern viewer would regard this as a relic of another age.

It is heavily influenced by Disney films—and both subverts those influences and plays them straight. Bambi is an obvious influence—it almost watches like a parody of that movie. The changing of the seasons, the death of a parent, the design of the adult Chirin. The marketing on the poster tries to play up this angle still further, prominently featuring furry critters and an owl who I don’t think gets one line of dialog in the actual movie.

But there’s also a Japanese character to the film which is deeply felt. The arrival of the wolf is an apocalypse, like a bomb falling on the sheep. We see it tearing them apart via silhouettes on the wall, which made me think of the permanent shadows of Hiroshima. It’s based on an anti-war manga. I was reminded of writer Kenzaburo Oe’s realization that the Showa emperor was in fact a mortal man. What better metaphor for a mother dying than that?

The truth is a gift, even when it hurts to hold. Chirin is granted a glimpse of the true reality of the world, one that most folks never get until they’re too old to change. He wishes he could return to the safety of his old life, but there never was any safety. He just had his eyes closed, and now they’re wide open. He lives in a world without justice and fairness. It has sheep and it has wolves. And it has Chirin, who is a sheep and a wolf.

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