My brother’s just got his PhD in animated film which involved a lot of watching and re-watching pixar animation movies. I’m very proud of him, but little did I think that my two year old son would be following in his uncle’s footsteps at such a young age. So it has come to pass that in the last 2 weeks he gets me up every morning with his empty bottle at 5am to demand Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (and more milk). My son. Not his uncle.
Muuummyyyyy wake up. Can Ah watch Alex the Lion?
Don’t judge me for putting on telly. It’s 5 o’clock in the bloody morning.
I have watched this film through squinting eyes, in fragmented pieces and become oddly addicted to the soundtrack by Will.I.Am (or rather one particular song, in one particular scene, which brings tears to my eyes. Probably because I’m so tired).
As my son correctly identifies, the film is about Alex the Lion who is reunited with his parents in Africa when their plane crashes in the savannah where he was poached as a small cub. Overjoyed at first to be reunited with his son, his father becomes increasingly disappointed and angry as it becomes apparent that Alex, having grown up in the Big Apple, does not know what it is to be a ‘real lion’.
He cannot fight. He can only dance.
In our increasingly complex debate about what gender equality is, and is not, it’s an obvious parallel that the Alex who cannot fight, but can dance is not only a real lion, but also is not a real ‘man’. He is rejected from his pride and by his father for who he is because ‘Lions don’t dance’.
As an adoptee, I’m a sucker for family reunions, even if my own were crippling. The themes of parental love and rejection tug on my battered heartstrings. My son has no knowledge of concepts like gender discrimination, abandonment or lack of acceptance just yet. But he, like I, watches transfixed as Alex’s father Zuba, grows slowly over the course of the film to accept and embrace his son, culminating in his incredulous acceptance of his beautiful son and their joyful synchronized dance to Will.I.Am’s ‘The Traveling Song’…
Just gotta have someone, gotta have someone
To relate to, to relate to
See I been traveling, been traveling forever
But now that I found a home, feels like I’m in heaven
Home, it’s obvious, is the place where you are accepted and loved for all that you are. Alex is a lion. And he dances, beautifully.
I’m excessively careful about what I let my kids watch. Their formative influences are only under my jurisdiction for a very short while and already my daughter is demanding pretty pink nail polish (luckily my son is too and they both look great in it). I’ve called out a whole bunch of programming for its gender stereotypes, lack of real emotional expression (anger is sometimes a valid response to being shit on Mickey Mouse) and utter sexism. But the more I watch Escape 2 Africa, the more I appreciate some of the lessons it has to give to my children, even at 5am.
The explicit upset of ‘thin’ privilege by the hippos…
‘I like ’em big, I like ’em chunky
I like ’em big, I like ’em plumpy
And the dismissal of sexual objectification when Gloria’s plumpy body is the only thing he can talk about…followed by the nod to mixed relationships as Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the hippo fall in love with one another. The power of the all male monkeys union demanding maternity leave in their contracts before they stop their strike and the demonstration that everyone’s problems deserve to be heard
It’s always about you, isn’t it? Your one in a million friend hopes you enjoy your bigger than everyone else’s problems alone!
And of course that every zebra is unique and worthy of appreciation even if surrounded by a million other rather similar looking zebras…
It’s not a Fight Club, or an American Beauty of course. There’s no deep and existential allegory. It’s simple, warm and fun. And great for highlighting some important lessons to your toddlers.
Zuba: What are you doing son?
Alex (dancing): The only thing I know how to do.
Alex: Dad, what are you doing?
Zuba (dancing): I’m dancing with my son.
Because as it turns out lions, and both my children, do dance after all.
I’m so proud of them. Even if I do wish they did it a little later in the day.