Today when I was baking, and listening–
I’m on vacation. Please forgive me if it sounds like I don’t work. Sometimes I listen to Hamilton and I’m like “I too feel like I’m writing like I’m running out of time,” but then I realize I’m writing about The Rescuers Down Under and not drafting the Federalist Papers. I’m self-conscious. I’m looking for a mind at work. This movie makes the world burn.
So I was baking, and listening to the Grieg piano concerto. There was the roaring statement of the first theme in the 3rd movement (You’ve heard it…it’s the musical equivalent of opening a hot, steaming oven with your eyes unshielded…and it’s beautiful), and then, the second theme rushed in, flowed in: waves crashing on the beach and filtering down through the rocks, returning to the sea. It gets majestic at the end, but this first time it is delicate, sensitive, and intimate, and I thought–as I always think, as I seem not to be able to help but thinking when I hear this theme–“Ah, this is the part that’s from Rescuers Down Under score. Fly, Marahuté, fly.” Please tell me I’m not the only one.
Who among us have not had our childhood identity shaped by this movie? A three-year-old, I used to throw piles of dirty clothes on my bed to make it look as disheveled as Cody’s hammock. I used to dream of packing a pocket knife, kicking my feet over the picket fence in the early morning sunshine, and telling my mom I had packed a lunch for the day, and thus escaping with a clean lie.
I also used to identify with Frank. No one understands me, and I am just a little lizard trying to have a good time. I could have trouble being brave sometimes, but I could spread out my ear-things and prance about the room, stick my poor tale into locks and pick them in my sleep, murmuring my steps to freedom like an incantation. When I yelled, “Look at me I’m free!” all the kangaroos (voire adults) in my life would scream “Shhh.” But Frank, little John, find the keys. Learn to be responsible. Learn to set the people free.
I have no words to tell you–just as I cannot explain why it could be so, considering my life experiences up to that point–how profoundly resonant this movie’s central themes of freedom and escape were to me at age three. Think with me of all the examples. There was Cody in a pit, Cody lowered by the hook of a crane into a crocodile-infested river, there was Frank and that aging Koala in a prison of animal cages, and, lest we forget, John Candy’s Wilbur in that hospital trailer scene to which I have never seen in the history of film a more nightmarish moment. But consider “release” in its purest form: when I saw Cody cut the cords from Marahuté’s neck, in the earliest, most spiritual part of my heart, I knew and believed that someday the cords that bound me could be, would someday be broken. And it came as no surprise to me that Marahuté should have been caught and bound so many times. I just accepted it. “This it what life is like,” I felt in my heart, and I could have said if I had the words. And I could have watched that eagle get recaptured and restored a dozen, a hundred times more. The mind of a child never grows tired of the iterations of life’s fundamental realities. And if we’re being honest, I am not embellishing my experience of this movie at all. I know I’m not alone. Erik Eriksen can take it up from here.
In the United Nations scene, Bianca says, mistakenly, that all she will need for her wedding is “a pair of khaki shorts and some hiking boots.” I don’t think I understood what was happening in this engagement mix-up scene when I was three. This came later, but when it did, at age eight, I assuredly snorted out laughter. And for all those out there who have had or attended a Bay Area wedding… “Just a pair of khaki shorts and some hiking boots”…isn’t that kind of what the ceremony was like? I mean, we didn’t ride flying squirrels, but ok, next point.
I will not watch another funny video that someone wants to show me until they can be impressed upon to admit, with full sincerity, that America has not produced a finer comedic achievement than the scene with Joanna and the eggs. “THESE ARE NOT JOANNA EGGS.” I’m still dying of laughter.
“Daniel, the significance of that scene when Joanna was trying to steal the eggs was that McLeach was denying her femininity.” I actually said this once. College is a scary place.
But speaking of gender, why should Cody’s mother not be given a face? Like I get it—this is an animal movie. And maybe we don’t need to see a mother’s face to imagine her despair, just her soft, pale, ill-defined hands folding gently over the remains of her son’s pack, holding in her mourning. Remember, the rangers had just explained that her missing son had fallen into a crocodile hole. (Do such things really exist?) But McLeach is given a face. And so is Cody. The villain and the protagonist. The movie has room for the faces of two human men. But is Cody’s mother not just as interesting and, indeed, complex? It appears that she is a single parent. Maybe she was widowed or the last one left in her family when her parents died. Or did Cody’s father take her out to the heart of the Outback, promising romance, freedom, a chance to start a new life, only to abandon his family? She’s trying to hold her life together. There’s a working generator (Remember Cody’s electric fan), a sturdy-enough looking chimney (We looked at it for almost the whole of the minute-and-a-half movie introduction). She drives a truck (Let’s hope it still runs). But none of these nor the relief she must have felt each spring to know that the roof had held for one more winter can hardly have offered much in the way of consolation. And, if I can say so, she has some shortcomings. She accepted the lie that her son had packed a couple sandwiches for the day. She seems unable to imagine what her son was up to, activities which include climbing Australia’s El Capitan without gear and flying through the clouds on an eagle’s back to Grieg music. Let us pause to give thanks that he never tried to share words with the dingos and the jackals of his community. When the rangers came to her door, did she say “Why did my son go near that crocodile hole?” We want her to at least say this. But maybe she could not, not just then. Her grief is too deep for her to try to defend herself, or to pass blame, or to put up any kind of front. I see her returning to her place by the sink and, looking out the window, adding this to her catalogue of so many events in a life that just never seemed to work out right. I would have liked to see her face.
And let us thank the filmmakers for the transactive healing of young Cody and Marahuté. He, who needed as all children do affection, adventure, another chance to do good to someone, She whose husband’s death by poaching left her in the position of not being able to protect her growing nest from predators. She found a way to protect her babies, and he found, in the one he was protecting, not just a companion but a second mother, a bird mother with soft feathers and sharp talons who could help him rise above the pressures and traps and captivities of this life and restore him to his full humanity. Grieg couldn’t have been more proud.
And let us give thanks for Joanna, the true protagonist of this film, the only one other than Bernard who experiences character development (We can of course attempt to describe Cody’s mom’s inner life, but it is just that: an attempt. We imagine a change in her outlook on life once her son as at last found, free from crocodile teeth marks and the bruises of being kept in a cage by a potential father figure–I’m honestly trying to put a stop to this emotional content–this movie is just so rich). But Joanna, whether through self-interest (but of course it can’t merely be this) or through a growing sense of having trusted a man who won’t let her even enjoy the simple delights of life (i.e. eggs), who would force her to destroy another woman animal’s future to get these eggs, who she must have known would one day betray her when he no longer had use for her, would let this companion who can no longer be a companion walk out of her life. She waves goodbye, one finger at a time, with the hand that had once been crushed by the lid of the metal egg bin. She frees herself. And in so doing, I believe, frees Cody and Marahuté to soar among the clouds.
There are many things that happened in our culture since this movie came out. The country lost and regained its 1980s interest in Australia. The internet made the world smaller–and so painfully small: the Codys of this world no longer play outside. The Pokémon species’ insistence on one-word self-identifaction replaced the wide-ranging syntactical repertoire of the Australian animal kingdom. Somewhere northeast of their continent, Nemo found his beloved father, Dory sang whale songs, and the fish of an another century wriggled onto the land. But in my deepest of hearts, I know that in this still violent, still disturbing, and still sometimes hopeless-feeling era, Joanna is somewhere eating eggs. Maybe she has collected them herself. Maybe she has given up poaching and now orders them off Amazon. But I have reason to hope that she is enjoying a freedom that feels every day to her as fresh as each new carton of eggs. I feel you, Joanna. I feel you.