Mosley – A Value-Driven, Different Tale

Mosley is an unusual and gently told animated film aimed at children. The story revolves around an intelligent, talking species called thoriphants who look a bit like elephants but with pointed ears, tusks and no trunk. They are enslaved by humans who give the thoriphants no credit for their intelligence and dignity. Through one particular thoriphant – Mosley – and his family, we see how the species longs to be able to walk upright and have fingers, as their ancestors did. The adventure sees Mosely rising up to defend his family from the humans, searching for his long-lost ancestors, and breaking free of his bonds.

An adult might easily see in Mosley a picture of human slavery and the denigration of one people group by another. Even young children will at least recognise elements of unfairness, cruelty and oppression. Whether slavery, or simple prejudice, the representation in Mosley could make for a good discussion between adults and children on the subjects of injustice and worthwhile values.

Mosley is unusual in its use of Christian/biblical images. Mosley’s search for his ancestors takes him back to an Eden-like place, where we see in stylistic form images of the fruit and tree of life, and a force (God?) outside of Mosley who helps Mosley in his hour of greatest need. This idea of faith in a higher being as opposed to faith simply within oneself contrasts with that in typical Disney films which usually feature the latter. For example, when told to ‘believe inside his heart’, Rue, Mosley’s little son, says ‘but it can’t just be in my heart, it must be real’.

But more than a journey of faith, Mosley gives us images of cave paintings, ancient warriors, lost cities in the jungle, extinction and de-extinction. These trouble the film, preventing it from being too simplistic. Even these elements are further complicated when we see that the thoriphant ancestors seem to be more advanced than the thoriphants who came after them.

In many American films the baddies speak with an English accent, the goodies with an American one. In Mosley this trend is reversed. Of course, this observation is primed when the viewer sees at the start of the movie that Mosley is a New Zealand/Chinese production, rather than the ubiquitous American one. Parents, take your children to see Mosley. It is well worth it for its difference and important values. Mosley opens in South African cinemas today, 31 January 2020.

Image: from Mosley Facebook page.

Aladdin

Why You Should Watch Aladdin

The children’s film, Aladdin, released at cinemas in South Africa aladdinrecently. It is based on the story Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and explores the themes of power and desire. The clever, satisfying ending makes the moral of the story clear for viewers: Your motives are powerful; be careful of them because, unchecked, they can lead to your destruction.

For parents keen to expose their children to films and stories that provoke interesting, worthwhile discussions I recommend Aladdin. But parental guidance is advised. This 2019 version is very similar to the 1992 animated one – funny, endearing and entertaining. However, this year’s film stars real people. Without the barrier of cartoon characters the romance between Aladdin and the princess Jasmine seems inappropriate for very small children. (Of course, this point is mild when you compare it to one of the older written versions of the story. In the latter, Aladdin spends the night with the princess after having lured an earlier suitor out of the way!)

aladdinBriefly, the story Aladdin opens with an unlikely hero: a poor, fatherless, young thief named Aladdin. The antagonist is a powerful man called Jafar, counsellor to the country’s Sultan. Jafar wants the Sultan’s powerful position for himself. Desire (for position and power). Aladdin – to put it crudely – wants the Sultan’s daughter (Jasmine) for himself. Desire (for riches and love). The source of empowerment in the story is a supposed magic lamp which contains a genie who is able to grant the lamp keeper’s wishes. Jafar and Aladdin vie for the lamp and this creates the conflict in the story.

Whilst the genie has the power to grant the wishes, the genie’s power is directed by the wishes and desires of the one who owns the lamp. He is enslaved to whoever commands him. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Genie’s enslavement is a picture of what our own desires do to us: they gradually enslave us.

As the struggle intensifies both Aladdin and Jafar become more desperate to have their thwarted desires met. And their desires escalate; instead of wanting only to be sultan Jafar eventually wants to become the most powerful genie in the land. (Think Saruman in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring). For his part Aladdin is tempted to go back on his word in order to get what he wants.

Conniving and betrayal make up both Jafar’s and Aladdin’s journeys until the final scenes of the film see Jafar’s wish to be the most powerful genie coming true. But the benefits of Jafar’s new position (in particular) don’t quite live up to his expectations!

The Christian Bible essentially teaches the same idea. Romans 6:16 says: Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness.

Watch Aladdin with your children and discuss how the different characters (including Abu, Aladdin’s monkey!):

  • are tempted,
  • what desires within the characters are stirred by those temptations,
  • and the consequences of giving in to those temptations.

Talk about Aladdin:

  • do you think he was a ‘better person’ than Jafar was?
  • were Aladdin’s desires ‘more worthy’ than Jafar’s?
  • could Aladdin have had the same end as Jafar did? How? Why?

The Least of These: A Story of Enduring Love

The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is based on the true story of the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The film is set in India and is directed by Aneesh Daniel. South African, Bruce Retief, was responsible for the stirring soundtrack.

Decades before his death Graham Staines and his wife Gladys started and ran a leprosy mission in India. They imbued the patients with dignity, defying conventional wisdom that treated lepers as outcasts. In the 1990s religious tensions rose, when, in Hindu areas, accusations of ‘illegal conversions’ were levelled at Christians.

The action in The Least of These starts at this point and centres on journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) who has a wife and a new baby. Banerjee is an ambitious writer with desperate living conditions and he tries to make it big by covering the sensationalist rumours of the aforementioned illegal Christian conversions. Urged on by his editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawardi), Banerjee searches for evidence linking Staines (Stephen Baldwin) to these accusations. Along the way Banerjee unwittingly speaks inflammatory words to a listening crowd, and influences a serious outcome.

Banerjee’s own journey in the story takes him from scepticism and suspicion, through regret, to realisation and putting things right. The journalist’s journey also acts as a vehicle for highlighting the role of the media in political and religious tensions.

Ultimately, though, The Least of These is a gently told story of relationships, of faithfulness, of genuine, selfless love, and of forgiveness.

Some of the acting in The Least of These is stilted – particularly from Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby (who plays Gladys Staines). The focus on a White ‘saviour-type’ missionary in an Indian environment is racially uncomfortable. But the setting in the suburbs of Odisha, India, is authentic and the storyline well-rounded. The Least of These is worthwhile viewing and is currently on at cinemas in South Africa countrywide.

Middlesex and the Subject of Intersex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is now one of my most memorable reads. I read this 2002 novel for the first time in 2015 and listened recently to the audio version. The latter was brilliantly narrated by Kristoffer Tabori. Tabori appears to know the text intimately and gives just the right inflection. Because of Tabori’s reading I realised just how funny Middlesex really is. One of the most amusing scenes comes right near the end when the main character’s father, Milton Stephanides, dies in a car crash while chasing another vehicle. Milton’s life stretches out before him in his last moments and, in some way, his thoughts act as a summary of the different strands the text of Middlesex explores.

These strands include the troubling subject of intersex conditions, cultural prejudices in Detroit USA, and the replacement of an older generation (and its viewpoint) by a younger one. The scene is also a fine example of the intriguing narrative technique used by Eugenides. Eugenides uses a combination of first person and third-person omniscient narrative viewpoint. This has the effect of casting Cal Stephanides, the ‘I’ in the book, as an omniscient narrator of his own life, from before conception to present day. So, in the scene when Cal’s father, Milton, meets his end, it appears as if Cal has entered his own father’s head. I loved this masterful narrative technique.

Of course, the opening scene of the book is one readers of Middlesex are also likely never to forget: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…. and then again, as a teenage boy…’ Readers immediately have an idea of the subject that is to follow. Eugenides employs this foreshadowing method throughout. It functions to draw the reader in, and in no way spoils the experience of this complex, highly thought-provoking novel.

It is thought-provoking in large part because of its treatment of the sensitive subject of intersex conditions. Middlesex attributes the abnormal development of intersex to incest. But then goes on to portray the main character (Cal Stephanides) as choosing to embrace the facets of his condition, rather than trying to change it.

One viewpoint that endorses embracing intersex conditions rather than trying to change them is the Christian ‘The Reformation Project’. The speakers in this Youtube video say that God created all variations of gender and should therefore be accepted as they are.

For a slightly different perspective a very thoughtful Christian talk from the Gospel Coalition on the subject can be listened to here. Andrew Wilson, the speaker, emphasises what a loving Christian response should be to intersex conditions and how to live with them.

 

 

A Christmas Carol & The Man Who Invented Christmas

I recently read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was elected as a ‘short read’ by the bookclub I belong to and fitted well with the time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Its arresting beginning – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ is a great start.

Scrooge, who is completely bad and miserable is at first ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ who hates Christmas. But he ends up in the last lines of the book knowing ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’

What exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? In A Christmas Carol it seems to be about caring for others, especially for the poor. Giving, receiving, enjoying.

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas backs this up. During the film’s telling of how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, the housemaid protests when Dickens initially kills off Tiny Tim at the end of the story. ‘But you can’t let Tiny Tim die’ she wails. And so Tiny Tim lives to see another day and in fact to speak the last words of the book, ‘God bless us everyone’.

Ensuring a happy ending gives A Christmas Carol a Disney feel. In today’s context ‘giving and receiving at Christmas time’ are gushy, feel-good sentiments. Both can be viewed as rather superficial. However, Dickens makes strong comment in many of his other books about the unfair treatment of the poor. Equally, A Christmas Carol may be making a more serious point about poverty and inequality. The rich Scrooge, with all his self-made money, can help to raise the unfortunate circumstances of poor, sick Tiny Tim.

Again, what exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? If we take the Christian origins of Christmas into account, keeping Christmas would be to remember and rejoice in the birth of Christ who was born to die for the sins of mankind. Although A Christmas Carol does make Christian references, I think Dickens does not explicitly endorse the Christian message. In some of his other works he is in fact quite disparaging of the hypocrisy of the church. In this sense, then, A Christmas Carol may in fact be Dickens showing the church to ‘put its mouth where its money is’ and help to lighten the load of others.

 

Making the Christian Faith Tangible for Young Readers

The Little House in Heaven is a lovely story about a young girl named Melissa Green who enters another world where she learns about Jesus. What she learns of Jesus there Melissa applies to her ordinary life in an English village. The full story sees Melissa attend church for the first time in her life, learn about the love and forgiveness of Jesus, grow in her faith in Him, deal with temptation, see the answer to her prayers, make friends with unlikely people, and understand the importance of obedience and listening to her conscience.

Author, Kathleen Watson, uses the motif of a picture of a house built on a rock as Melissa’s entry point into the other world. This motif is carried throughout the story and is used as a tool to teach a number of Christian principles. One of those principles is the wonderful news that believers in Jesus will each have their own mansions in heaven, an image which both opens and closes the book.

Other important Christian principles are spelt out using Bible verses, many of them explained to the protagonist by the character of Jesus himself.

Watson intersects Melissa’s imaginative world with the character’s real one in an effort to make Jesus and the Christian faith tangible for the reader. The Little House in Heaven is thus a sort of modern-day Pilgrim’s Progress.

The writing is simple enough for middle grade children to understand and the passage of time is well handled. Characters, from Miss Amy Light upstairs, to Rufus next door, to Melissa’s mother and grandparents are gently drawn and have just enough depth to be interesting.

Whilst adults will not likely struggle to understand the difference between Christian teaching and Watson’s vehicle for telling it, it could be confusing for children. As a caveat, therefore, to Watson’s story: adults would need to explain the important difference between a mere imaginative world and the real yet intangible one of the Christian faith.

The Little House in Heaven is available for purchase on eBay or from the author, blue4flower@yahoo.co.uk.