Monday, March 4, 2024

Walt Disney, part XLVII: Stand out till you notice me


Directed by Kevin Lima
Written by Jymn Magon, Chris Matheson, and Brian Pimental

Spoilers: moderate

We're at a funny place with A Goofy Movie.  No longer is there any great urgency to reclaim it from the dismissive reception it got at the time of its 1995 theatrical release, for in the intervening twenty-nine years it's become one of Disney animation's small handful of true cult classic hits, lodged firmly in the hearts of people who were kids then and in their mid-30s today.  And yet that's a self-terminating legacy: we're undoubtedly well past "peak" Goofy Movie in 2024, which means the film is now in danger of falling right back into obscurity, as one more example of perplexing Millennial shit.  It's probably inevitable; it'll be a pity.  But I believe I speak with immunity to any nostalgic pull: I never watched the show it's based on, and didn't watch the movie until much later in life, because by age thirteen, I thought I could tell the difference between a "real" Walt Disney Feature Animation movie and A Goofy Movie, and when I did finally see it, I assumed it would be embarrassing as well as terrible.  To my delight, it was the opposite of terrible.  It's sort of embarrassing, but partly just because a certain embarrassment is inherent to its genre (to the extent that I think we can't even leave "on purpose" off the table), and mostly because folks are always second-guessing themselves about their childhood faves.  But it's not my childhood, so while I've often been more circumspect about it myself, screw it.  Forget "cult," let's just call it the classic it is, one of the most unique ever released under Disney's banner.

For starters, it's the only theatrical feature actually starring one of their classic trinity of 20 and 30s characters, with not Mickey Mouse, nor Donald Duck, nor Goofy otherwise ever getting a whole one for themselves (the closest, which is still not that close, is Donald's package film, The Three Caballeros).  It's also a bona fide comedy; yet even amongst the four or five true Disney features where my first instinct would actually be to call them "comedies," not one of them is a comedy like this, situating that comedy in an entirely ordinary, even more-or-less credible contemporary environment, rather than, say, pre-Columbian Peru.  Relatedly, but distinctly, its single most unusual move might be that this Disney comedy is actually about being, or about having, a teenager.

I realize that doesn't sound unusual.  But that's the thing: Disney does larger-than-life ideas of teenagers, existing mythlike in some Disneyfied milieu (and for the most part, they're teenagers of marriageable age, rather than barely post-pubescent).  To be sure, they often embody their teenaged feelings with the kind of soul-blasting power that far exceeds anything A Goofy Movie would even wantbut, by the same token, not risking the kind of mundane relatability that comes with telling a story about one more suburban dork stuck with an unhip dad on a road trip.  And what that means is that, in the absence of any high-concept to justify or obscure its slapstickier components, it's one of the few Disney theatrical features that openly gives you permission to call it "a cartoon" instead of something stuffier like "an animated film."  This has an even more vital effect, of allowing its comedywhich, while mostly character-driven in some way or another, is still pitched in an unapologetically cartoony registerto frequently serve as a metaphor and embellishment for all the realistic human emotions its story wants to get at (or realistic freakish bipedal dog-person emotions, which in this context are the same thing).  And that's great, because in its center A Goofy Movie has a pair of the most intelligent emotional arcs to be found in Disney animation, bolstered by some of the most careful storytelling.

I'll make the case for all these extraordinary claims, but we should know what we're dealing with, an adaptation of the 1992-1993 television program Goof Troop, though right away my impulse is, "But not really, right?"  The show looked to the material of Goofy's final, 1950s phase as a short film headliner, where he served as a parody of the suburban family man, and, accordingly, it took Goofy (Bill Farmer, whose tenure as the voice of Goofy has now outlasted even the role's originator, Pinto Colvig) much as it found him, but gave him a real-ish name ("G.G. 'Goofy' Goof") and transmogrified his son, "Junior," into an eleven year old 90s kid, Maximilian "Max" Goof, while excising the wife, making Goofy a single dad.  A Goofy Movie is difficult to square with the show, however, shifting that premise around enough that it comes off like a soft retcon: for instance, I don't believe Goofy's neighbor, Pete (Jim Farmer), whom Goofy is too comically oblivious to recognize is his enemy, is Goofy's neighbor anymore, but he is Goofy's boss, at a different job in a department store; Pete keeps his son, P.J. (Rob Paulsen), but his wife has vanished; the Goofs used to have a cat.  Smoothing things over somewhat, the movie takes place a good three (maybe four!) years after the show, long enough to need to recast Max (replacing Dana Hill, for obvious-enough hormone-related reasons, with Jason Marsden and the singing voice of Aaron Lohr).  But what seems most important, in terms of its fidelity to a television show I've seen two episodes of, is how much those two episodes of Goof Troop feel like a poke in the eyes, especially after recently praising Walt Disney Television Animation for some well-above-average-looking TV cartoons.  A Goofy Movie couldn't look like Goof Troop and expect to be taken even as seriously as it was: the character designs, some established in the 1930s, and the rest coming from a decidedly more modern, angular mentality (that still manages to mesh), obviously get a facelift; and the animation was always going to be sloppier on the TV cartoon; but the backgrounds of Goof Troop are such surrealistic scrawls that they're almost avant-garde.  By this, I of course mean they're the most forceful of several things that make the show look wretchedly cheap.

Not so for A Goofy Movie.  For what it is, it looks tremendous.  This Goof Troop movie's production largely mirrors its "Disney MovieToon" sibling (the only two ever so-branded), DuckTales the Movie: a special was contemplated, and then it got kicked up several notches.  One interesting difference is that it somehow became Jeffrey Katzenberg's babythe whole "road trip" premise is attributed to him, founded upon a bonding experience he had with his own daughterand by the time it was released, Katzenberg was dead to Disney, which might explain the lack of marketing enthusiasm as well as yet another horrible Katzenfact that sounds made up, because nobody is that stupid or weird.  The executive reputedly had Farmer, going on two weeks of recording, attempt the titular role without the character's customary voice, which Katzenberg allegedly deemed... goofy.

I said thirteen year old me could tell the difference between a "real" Disney movie and this, but A Goofy Movie blurs that line, and its Katzenberg push put some real Disney institutional muscle into it.  That's a marked departure from The DuckTales Movie, which existed mostly to see if Disney's international studios could make any movie.  Principal animation was again handled in large part by Disney's outpostsin France*, but this time with help from Australia (and from non-Disney studio Phoenix in Canada, as well as through an unknown-to-me, outsourced digital ink-and-paint firm, Pixibox, that used a software called Pegs)but pre-production and the overall shape of the project, and afterwards a non-trivial amount of clean-up, inbetweening, and effects, were in fact handled at WDFA.  Kevin Lima, a veteran animator and story artist who'd soon help oversee one extremely real Disney movie, assumed directorial duties; and from a story developed by Jymn Magon (previously a smuggler operating on the Outer Rim of the Galactic Empire, one presumes), a script was hammered out between its three screenwriters, Magon, Brian Pimental, and one Chris Mathesonand it's feasible that some of the specialness of A Goofy Movie could be located in the legendary co-creator of Bill & Ted.

That story, then, is solid sitcommery, perhaps not quite recommending itself as "the movie" version of a show, given its vignettish structure, except for the sheer oomph put into it, and because it at least takes the characters out of their usual setting.  So: as noted, it's a road trip, but a forcible one, instigated when Max, in the most wholesome example of acting out imaginableit's a wonder how fully this feels like "a teen movie," burgeoning sexuality and all, despite being so G-ratedinterrupts a year-ending school assembly with the help of P.J. and their co-conspirator Bobby (Pauly Shore, guys!**), whereupon Max puts on a lip-synced, cosplay performance of one of the big hits from his world's biggest pop superstar, Powerline (a rather smaller pop star in our world, a Princeling within this film's budget, Tevin Campbell).  And I want to stop this already stop-and-start review to point out how quickly this announces itself as the damned smart and efficient piece of storytelling I previously called it.  A Goofy Movie knows we don't know who the hell Powerline is; yet it knows it needs to tell us before it rests a crucial narrative pivot on it; and it knows this 78 minute movie needs that narrative pivot to happen immediately, and doesn't have time for any dedicated set-up.  And so it gracefully turns this exposition into a tight character beat instead, having Max's famously clumsy father burst into his room to vacuum (at 7:30 a.m.!), and accidentally more-or-less destroy Max's beloved carboard standee of his favorite pop superstar.  So now we know who Powerline is, and just as importantly we know that Goofy is a clueless, overbearing klutz, while Max accurately regards him as lame despite being pretty lame himself.  (I'm also a fan of the erotic/horror opening dream sequence prologue, which accomplishes similar things.)  Hell, the storytelling attending Goofy's over-the-phone discovery of Max's "delinquent" behavior is easily just as sophisticated, involving some striking axial jump cuts, like this was a movie or something, to fully get across Goofy's overreactive terror at Principal Mazur's (Wallace Shawn's) prophecies of Max's doom; it follows that up with some downright expressionistic lighting effects to reveal to Goofy the solution to the problem of his son, namely a fateful cross-country father-son fishing trip.  And pretty much the whole movie is like this, not always so showily, but approaching perfect visually-supported narrative construction, even when, e.g., they get attacked by Bigfoot (Frank Welker).

That father-son fishing trip, however, is exceedingly bad news for Max.  You see, Max's stunt has taken this zero and turned him into a high school hero (P.J. gets nothing; P.J.'s life is incredibly sad).  Max perceives, in particular, that his stock has gone up in the eyes of his crush, Roxanne (Kellie Martin).  (This is the point where you just have to accept that this story needs an inciting incident, even if I've always found it very sociologically dubious that "lip-sync cosplay" managed to turn a nerd popularthen again, TikTokthough I also suppose the part where he drops the principal through a trap door would have some "cool rebel" appeal.)  Anyway, Max has capitalized on his newfound popularity to secure a date with Roxanne, but now his father threatens to tear him away from her, and she isn't apt to wait for him (and let's file this under "minor flaws that are actually strengths," Roxanne only ever getting about twenty lines, and throughout all of them remaining extremely outwardly inconsistent about how she feels about Max, swinging between fully-reciprocal affection and borderline-hostile indifference, in a very petulant, teenaged way herself).  In a quandary, Max can only go for absolute broke: he makes up an elaborate, insane lie about his dadthis guybeing Powerline's old bandmate, and how they're going to L.A. to make a walk-on appearance at the big Powerline show, so Roxanne should watch the pay-per-view special real close, because there he, Max, will be.  But it's not exactly a lie if you pull it off, and in between the trials and tribulations of their odyssey, Max shall manipulate his dad into putting them into a position where he can at least try.

Now that I type it out, it is legitimately hard to think of a protagonist in any teen movie, or any movie, including all cartoons, who's a dumber motherfucker than Maximilian Goof.  But that's what's so great about A Goofy Movie, and it gets at what I said about how this avowed cartoon can capture the brain-addled febrility of teen alienation: a parent whose existence feels like a constant humiliation; a crush who feels like an inscrutable bitch; and a kid who's too stupid to explain himself to either one of them, and who, when confronted with the possibility of a hole, keeps digging.  It's especially great at the dad stuff (even if it doesn't quite "speak to me" specifically, since my dad was cool), with a nicely-calibrated performance from Marsden that is, at turns, about as mean and dark as a film like this could get away with.  It's perhaps not the single strongest plank of that performance, but I very much like Marsden's social horror and sullen fallout from the visit to one of Goofy's favorite roadside attractions, Lester's Possum Parkwhich (again with the efficiency!) doubles as a nervy send-up of Disney's rodent-based parks, by asking what the difference is besides budget and placentalism.  It's emblematic of the relationship here, where the son kind of honestly hates his dad, having practically forgotten why he ever loved him, because it's certainly not for anything he's done lately; the father, for his part, is at a loss to comprehend what's opened this gulf between them, even though it's the most obvious and natural thing in the world.

Which is how Goofy is such an ideal vehicle for an exploration of a parental-teenager divide tilted towards the teen's perspective: Goofy comprehends basically nothing, that's his whole deal, and you don't have to change anything to get him to serve as the most comically-blithe parody of fatherhood conceivablefundamentally sweet and good, something we obviously recognize, and hence the dramatic tension, but still flailing and harmful, making it easier to side with Max's frustrations, even when Max is obviously not being sweet or good.  Farmer's excellent at the hambone antics built into this (Farmer is, also, exceedingly funny, and this is an exceedingly funny movieall that "efficiency" talk could make it seem like all it does is artfully deliver plot points, but "narrative efficiency" can be synonymous with "good comic timing," and A Goofy Movie is replete with well-timed gags and oddball moments that aren't quite "gags," but still make you smile, for instance, "Leaning Tower of Cheese-ah").  But I don't know, maybe the most interesting tiny thing in the whole entire film is the one part of Farmer's performance that's the least typical, during a remarkably satanic-feeling hot-tub conversation Goofy has with Pete.

The latter holds forth on his parenting philosophy, and Goofy responds with an uncharacteristically-terse "yeah" that Farmer allows to punch nearly completely through Goofy's goofiness (almost-but-not-quite losing the "Goofy" accent!).  It allows for the deeply-weird sensation of discovering a slapstick cartoon moron's genuine interiority, as he wrestles with how to be a fatherindeed, judging his "friend" for representing such a monstrous alternative.  And hence a character, altogether defined by his failure to understand anything, that understands this one thing implicitly, but the fact that Pete was also correct in his accusations gets us, soon enough, to a place where Goofyfucking Goofyfinds his breaking point, and gets mad like a real person.  Pity that this fascinating little feature of Farmer's performance also gets the single worst, or at least most damaging, animation mistake, where somebody in Paris, Sydney, or somewhere appears to have to forgotten that key frames should have inbetweens, maybe especially when a character is walking slowly.

It is perhaps not, then, a masterpiece of animationthere's a laughably bad cheat during a crowd scene, where the bird's eye camera hypothetically justifies extras "making a hole" by literally just disappearing between frames, and there's other small stuff you can readily catchbut, for the most part, A Goofy Movie's only sin is that it reins in the ambition that you associate with the Disney Renaissance, with noticeably less dynamic layouts, using shot scales and staging that, for better and worse, are more like "a movie or something" than a 90s cartoon.  (The usual complaint here is that A Goofy Movie, often obliged to have heavily-populated backdrops because of its settings, can't really afford to animate its extras much, though I think between careful framing, strategic use of animator resources to give the illusion of background activity, and the ideal viewer's "who cares? they're extras in a cartoon" attitude, it gets the job done.)  Even so, I would confidently put it in a contest with any other cartoon of the first half of the 1990s besides WDFA'sit beats the snot out of The DuckTales Movie, just to startespecially on grounds of expressive character animation for Goofy, Max, Roxanne (who probably gets most of her character from her animation), and many others, where I think it does compete with WDFA.  (Which you'd hope it ought, since the outposts would be doing chunks of WDFA cartoons soon enough.)  To a degree the small-scaledness works on behalf of the story being toldthis is no grand fantasy, after all, and the background paintings are swell at doing "heightened version of quotidian Middle America"and when it does get ambitious, it can have outsized impact, from something as wacky as the (often pretty damn great) squash-and-stretch approach it takes to vehicles for the sake of the film's physics-straining physical comedy, to something as dramatically crucial as the attention paid to light and shadow during the remarkably-intense river climax.  (I'm not sure how much I adore how many different aesthetics get used for the effects animation of that river, by however many different studios worked on it, but it helps that they're all pretty excellent, particularly the pencil-like immediacy of the current during the perilous part right before the waterfall, which lands with surprisingly-high physical stakes for a movie that shouldn't be able to have any physical stakes by now.)

There's also some ambition in the musical numbers, and I don't know why I wouldn't go ahead and assert that A Goofy Movie holds up to its corporate cousins on this count, too, even if it's a little bit apples and oranges.  The three book numbers by Tom Snow and Jack Feldman are really good stuff, regardless: the scene-setting "After Today" montage does its job admirably, and performs the additional service of effectively giving Max an "I want" song; Max and Goofy's reconciliation duet "Nobody Else But You" is, rather than a ballad, a nicely-cozy, very-paternal song, gaining a lot from the meditative quality of all that water animation, plus some cute lyrics between the two; and, in the middle, "On the Open Road" is honestly extraordinary, a very fun song with some wonderful only-in-a-cartoon choreography (Damien Chazelle didn't even try, man) that takes advantage of moving cars and dozens of zany featured extras, putting it in the running for the stand-out work of animation here.  There is also the matter of Tevin Campbell's songs; they might benefit unfairly from our ability to pretend that Prince doesn't exist in this universe at all, and the whole affair almost makes it feel like a period pieceeven from the standpoint of 1995a movie made by forty year olds for ten year olds, aiming to capture and assuage their fears of impending teenagedom, yet, charmingly enough, five years out of date already.  Nevertheless, whatever: "Stand Out" and "I 2 I"hehare total bangers, no notes.  ("Stand Out's" reprise is likewise well-used for a cool Ferris Bueller riff.)  And they also get some joyous and colorful, if somewhat more physically-bounded stagingon the other hand, they get some decent life-referenced, literal choreographyand I love how corny Goofy's triumphant contribution to that choreography is (and Powerline's "what the fuck is this?" initial expression is one of my favorite surprisingly-subtle pieces of character animation here).  If you've bought into A Goofy Movie by now, and I suppose it's possible that you haven't, because you emerged from your father's head fully-grown like Athena, then it's kind of fantastic how redemptive that feels for this very goofy dad.  It's not as good as Disney gets, but it's real close, and it was never as good at what it's doing here, anywhere else.

Score: 10/10 

*Who had, in the interim, been responsible for 1994's direct-to-video Aladdin sequel, The Return of Jafar.  I'm about two-thirds done with this Disney retrospective, but if I allowed myself to get sucked into that vortex, I wouldn't be halfway.
**And a major secondary character is also played by Jenna von Oy, aka Six.  Very 90s.


  1. A couple of random thoughts:

    - I think you're right that Roxanne's hot-cold routine with Max should be a problem, but actually ends up making her feel more human and like an actual teenage girl. She's dealing with her own feelings, and how Max reacts sways her too!

    -Pauly Shore is uncredited in this. No idea why.

    -I'm not sure how much Youtube Goofy Movie ephemera you have observed (as you are a relatively non-insane person, I would guess approximately "none"). But one guy made a pretty excellent live action "After Today." Years later, he did it again with "Lester's Possum Park," but roped in Bill Farmer and Jason Marsden!

    -Generous of you to credit a voice actor for Big Foot, but the grunts are funny enough to earn it, I'd say. (Incidentally, this is where I first experienced the Saturday Night Fever disco dance move.)

    -I've always loved that the movie basically has two "I Want" songs: "After Today" and "Stand Out." Really puts you in Max's head.

    -One particularly inspired sequence you don't call out here is the Freudian opening dream sequence. It's become one of my favorite part of the movie. Really good lite body horror stuff in there on top of the sexual imagery.

    -While talking about "Swiss Army Man," my friend and I pondered if Daniels were directly (or indirectly) inspired by Buzz Lightyear's karate chop action for some of Daniel Radcliffe's body abilities, since they are approximately the same age as us and probably would have watched Toy Story a thousand times, as we did. Your reference plus his recent podcast interview in which he cites Disney animation as his most formative movies have me wondering if Chazelle perhaps watched "A Goofy Movie" enough times for "On the Open Road" to directly inform "Another Day of Sun." Probably not, as he's a smidge too old, just like you.

    -I used to fastidiously rank and annually re-rank my 100 favorite songs of all time, and one year had "Stand Out" as high as #4 (not just movie songs, all songs). This was the first year the soundtrack appeared on iTunes and I could listen to it as often as I wanted without having to rewind a VHS.

    -From a character design perspective, Powerline is obviously Prince, but I've always thought of him as more of a Michael Jackson in terms of ubiquity. But it's always bugged me a little that everyone, from Star Trek geeks on up the social ladder, seem to revere Powerline. I'm not sure any music artist has ever been that popular with teens. Plus, in 1995, half the kids would have been listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, the other half to TLC and Mariah Carey. This is clearly an '80s vision of pop star -- Madonna or MJ .

    -Funniest small performance is Robyn Richards as "Lester's Grinning Girl" aka the toddler who sings along with "Lester's Possum Park"

  2. "One particularly inspired sequence you don't call out here is the Freudian opening dream sequence"

    I wanted to mention it somewhere and finally found a place during a compulsive proofread.

    "Plus, in 1995, half the kids would have been listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Radiohead, the other half to TLC and Mariah Carey. This is clearly an '80s vision of pop star -- Madonna or MJ"

    Yeah, this is stuck completely in 1989-1991. E.g., only two Goths, who dress more like Dieter from Sprockets, or theatrical stagehands, because there appears to be some fuzziness on what "Goth" styling would entail.

    "Funniest small performance is Robyn Richards as "Lester's Grinning Girl" aka the toddler who sings along with "Lester's Possum Park""

    I enjoy the "DORK and DORK JUNIOR" guy.

    "Generous of you to credit a voice actor for Big Foot"

    Hey, Frank Welker deserves acknowledgement when possible.

    I'll have to check those videos sometime soon. Sounds like good clean overenthusiastic geeky fun (so largely in-line with A Goofy Movie's ethos).

  3. Rewatching this, I think the opening scene alone earns the "sex is terrifying" tag

    1. The dream is Max's brain telling him he needs braces.