Looking for Hope from Frostbite Falls to Emerald City

In the darkness of the Trump era, our chief film critic finds a light on the other side of a tornado.

In about 5 billion years the Sun will exhaust its hydrogen, growing into a red giant that engulfs the Earth. Isn’t that a reassuring thought? It’ll be as if the words “President Donald J. Trump” never existed!

I try to put those painful words out of my head in the here and now, but as the film critic for a disreputable newsweekly I end up seeing lots of indie films and documentaries, and they wouldn’t let me forget this past year. Even beyond the obvious case of Fahrenheit 11/9, the 2016 election and the bad man himself came up in 2018 films such as Quest, The Final Year, Have a Nice Day, The Leisure Seeker, The China Hustle, The King, American Chaos, Burning, and Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, and surely others I missed. It’s a wave that will only get uglier in 2019.

The silver lining I always return to is that the Kids These Days may grow up understanding that the way things are right now is not normal, and that no matter how much the presence of a Black man in the Executive Branch made some people in my extended family feel icky, Trump is not what a President or even a mature grown-up should be. Thankfully, deep in the streaming world are some shows that suggest that that might be the case. (The 18-hour Showtime series Twin Peaks: The Return came in at No. 12 in last year’s Village Voice Film Critics Poll, so let’s not pretend television is still an entirely separate medium that doesn’t belong in these discussions, or indulge in the equally chauvinistic attitude that only shows for adults are worth considering.) No doubt because Jeff Bezos gets his liberal marching orders from the Streisand compound, Amazon Prime’s kidvid slate has offered some interesting commentaries on Orange 45 this year: in the Dreamworks reboot of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and the Bureau of Magic’s Lost in Oz.

The original Rocky and Bullwinkle always functioned as a spoof of the Cold War, and Season 1 of the new series, which dropped in May, is updated accordingly. Rocky and Bullwinkle now carry cell phones and live in a diverse world in which previously lilywhite supporting characters such as Peachfuzz and the Mayor of Frostbite Falls are Black — as is the new character Eccentric Billionaire Rafi Tusk. The designs of Boris and Natasha have not changed, however, and Fearless Leader is still trying to take over the world like the Bond villains he predated, complete with addressing assorted heads of state in a video conference call.

None of those unnamed world leaders in the new Bullwinkle are white men; one is modeled on Angela Merkel, and the American president clearly represents Obama. He only has a few lines of dialog throughout the 300 minutes of the season and we only see him from the waist up, but all he has to do is look and act presidential, which is just not something that could ever work with a caricature of Trump.

Speaking of caricatures of Trump, the true balm this year was Lost in Oz. Finding parallels to Gilded Age politics in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books has long been a sport, but even if you don’t believe he intended the Yellow Brick Road to be a metaphor for the gold standard, no art is created in a vacuum. Lost in Oz is set in the present day, and executive producer Jared Mark tells SF Weekly he believes his show speaks to modern times: “The only reason to retell yet another Oz story has to be because it’s relevant to right now.”

Season 1B of Lost in Oz dropped in June, and after being enslaved in the Nome Kingdom for a month, Dorothy, Toto, and Scarecrow are brought before King Roquat. Introduced in the 1907 book Ozma of Oz, Baum’s Roquat was described as physically resembling Santa Claus, even shaking like jelly when he laughs. Lost’s Roquat is a wee thing with a terrible mop of hair and bushy eyebrows and looks for all the world like Trump down to that weird Mussolini thing he does with his lips. Unsurprisingly, Oz exec Mark disclaims this comparison: “As for the character design of Roquat (or any other character in Lost in Oz), any physical likeness to a real person is entirely coincidental.” Far more surprisingly, he says all the creative decisions behind Roquat were made well before the night of the 2016 election.

An entitled, greedy young boy who wields his power like a blunt object, Lost’s Roquat is a Nome nationalist who disparagingly refers to Emerald City denizens as “Emeraldos,” demands blind loyalty, and can’t conceive of having respect for anybody other than himself. His lack of empathy angries up the blood of Lost’s otherwise unflappable Dorothy like little else we’ve seen, and indeed, Roquat was designed to be her antithesis.

“We always describe Dorothy Gale as a hero who can’t let a problem go unsolved,” Mark says. “It’s both her greatest strength and her biggest weakness. Roquat, on the other hand, is dumbfounded by a closed door, having had someone to open doors for him his entire life.”

What’s notable is that while Roquat is Dorothy’s antagonist for a few episodes, his strings are being pulled — like a puppet, if you will — but he doesn’t realize it so long as he’s being plied with gifts and being told how smart and handsome he is.

Roquat sees the errors of his ways thanks to Dorothy’s persistence and kindness, and my inner cynic tells me that it shouldn’t be taken seriously because Lost in Oz is just a fantasy for children — and even having that thought makes me realize how broken things are, because I wrote a book about how fantasies for children deserve to be taken seriously. (Speaking of which, may I recommend Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016, now available at popular prices?)

If our country survives this current crisis, the only thing that will keep it from happening again is the current generation growing up believing in the sort of kindness and empathy which they’re not seeing from our nation’s most powerful adult. This is not a cry for civility, which has become the biggest rhetorical strawman this side of “political correctness,” and we must never stop speaking out against injustices. Dorothy doesn’t give up on Roquat, but she also never fails to call him out on his awfulness. This can’t be written off as generic positive-messaging, because the fact that Roquat looks like the President is not going to be lost on any viewer old enough to appreciate the TV-Y7 series.

Even if Roquat’s physical resemblance to Trump is “entirely coincidental” from a legal standpoint, the rest is not.

Lost in Oz is about bridging divides,” Mark says. “Ultimately, we hope our show will inspire some kids to be empathetic adventurers.”

And that right there, that’s how the generation growing up right now may be able to fix the damage the grownups have caused. It’s the barest thread, but I’m clinging to it, and it certainly beats waiting for the sun to engulf the Earth.


Read more from SF Weekly’s Year in Film issue:

The 10 Best Movies of 2018
Both our state and our democracy burned at an alarming rate this year, but at least good movies were still being made.

2018 Movie Moments You Might Have Missed
You can’t see every movie — nor would you want to, because most are terrible — but some have little moments of transcendence that make everything worth it.

Mary Poppins Returns: Don’t Spoil It With Questions
No amount of pixels can produce greater fireworks than Blunt and Miranda singing and dancing together.


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