Where the Heart is: Home (B)

So, there was a time on this Spaceship Earth of ours when aminuscule fraction of society – one ethnicity largely confined to one continent really – amassed enough influence to parcel off most of the rest of the world,along with its people. Which might seem drastic, let alone impossible, but this tiny coalition had magic: they told themselves they were superior and they somehow possessed the conviction to believe it. They turned conquering and enslaving the majority of the inhabited world into a charity drive – “We’re helping them, poor souls.”

This was Colonialism. It made today’s innocuous other-countries of Europe – your Belgiums and Portugals – into megalomaniacs of the first order, and it really only stopped being accepted doctrine – scientifically even (eugenics shudder) – well less than a century ago.

It was a magic spell so powerful – telling yourself you’re better and then making it so by force – that we’re still shaking it off today. Who am I kidding? We may never shake it off completely.

Just look at movies – the vast majority of them still portray and, through their power over us all, enforce a world in which all the important things happen to white people and their white friends and white associates and, usually through mandate, they might tangentially affect one non-white person. We have to make ourselves make sure they have non-white people in them. Because, you know, we might forget.

If this seems like a heavy way to introduce an animated film from the studio that brought you Madagascars 1-3, it sort of is. I doubt even one child – and make no mistake, children are the audience for whom Home is primarily made – will state in appreciation, “Mummy, I think it’s quite novel that this film has – for no other reason than the fact that the vast majority of the world is non-white and more than half the world is female, so why shouldn’t she be? – a non-white, female lead.” No child will have much to say about a heartfelt scene in which Oh (Jim Parsons) apologizes to Tip (Rihanna!) for buying into his culture’s doctrine that the humans of Earth, about which he knew nothing beyond what was presented on a tiny pamphlet, are simple, pathetic creatures in need of help and change. Little about the look on the faces of families relocated to what is essentially a Human Reservation on Australia – a look of powerlessness and devastation – will register for them. And surely, as the film climaxes, their focus will be on Oh and Tip as they reunite and save the planet; it will not be on the vast sea of people behind them, which could be deemed shockingly diverse if it didn’t appear that their proportions are derived directly from the diversity of real life – on a real world where, when walking down the street, you are likely to see not just one black face or one turban, but many.

Bless these children, because for many, it won’t even occur to them to point such things out as out of the ordinary. If there are more movies made with the sensitivity of Home, they may never have the need to do so. But since I am not them, and I am 25 and cognizant of some of the attendant issues here, I am going to take a moment to highlight how casually revolutionary Home is.

It has not been that long since Disney made an appropriately big fuss about its first black princess, Tiana (and fumbled the hand-off a bit when it courted controversy by having her initially written as a maid). It has been even less time since an appropriately big fuss was made about how much Merida looked like a real, possible teenage girl (and since Disney also fumbled that hand-off by subsequently marketing glammed-up Merida dolls). We are not even a month away from an Oscars in which Every. Nominated. Actor. Was. White…

At DragonCon this past year, I had the privilege of attending a panel led by the enchanting Kelly Sue DeConnick, who described some of her troubles writing a then-unreleased comic (“Bitch Planet,” now in publication and wonderful) that shunted what we think of as the “default human,” and featured as its core cast an eclectic group of badass non-white females. The trap of the “default human” is apparent whenever a creator has to give a reason why they might include or feature a character who happens to be – instead of a heterosexual white male – gay, or Asian, or female. If no reasonable answer can be given (the reason usually being “This figure was not white in real life,” which is why so many films with black protagonists are based on history) than it is assumed that character will default to “the norm.” This is often subconscious. It is also dangerous.

So even if Home were a failure as a movie (which it is so not), it would be a major victory in this: look at Tip. If we were actually to push our way to something approaching the average teenager of Earth, we might see Tip: dark-skinned, probably mixed-race, with the body of a typical seventh-grade girl and not that of a gym-happy co-ed. Even more delightful: Tip’s natural hair, which is wonderful to behold, and which will hopefully be an inspiration to many whose hair naturally looks like Tip’s. With the imminent box office success of this film, creators will have one less reason not to write a non-white protagonist if that’s what they want to do.

That’s what Adam Rex wanted to do when he wrote a YA book, The True Meaning of Smekday. While much has changed from his original conception of Tip’s adventures with a kind member of the invading Boov race, two very important things carried over to the film: Tip’s race and the science-fiction colonialism allegory.

Without that second piece, the first might just be happy coincidence. But with its thoughtful deconstruction of a supposedly benevolent society that pushes aside whatever civilization is in its way, justifying its actions by denigrating the displaced, Home becomes something much greater. It is downright thoughtful.

It is also a lot of fun. Parsons is perfect, and eminently quotable, as a lonely clutz with a limited grasp of parts of speech such as pronouns. Rihanna is a pretty big surprise as Tip. Occasionally, a line filled with emotion comes across as slightly wooden, but the singer brings a surprising heft to her role as an abandoned teenager searching for her mother. Who knows what brought Rihanna to this project (maybe the chance to do a compilation album?), but whatever the case, the character obtains her Barbadan heritage and a some of her warrior power.

The only drawback in the film’s small voice cast is its most venerated personage, Steve Martin. Martin is hamming it up pretty hard as Captain Smek, a buffoon who unwittingly made off with the entire next generation of a rival civilization. Almost every one of his lines is a riff on “Man, do I love this human object I’m using in a weird way,” and it’s a shtick that wears out quick.

All is well though, because Smek is merely a figurehead, and it would be too easy if the ouster of one ignorant Boov immediately fixed the ills of Home’s colonialism. Instead, Home focuses wisely, as it speeds towards its conclusion, on the reconciliation of Tip and Oh and on the reparations Oh mus make now that he is in charge. The film ties together many thematic threads – humanity’s tendency to hope in spite of hopeless odds, feeling cast out by society, the ties that bind us to family – and every one of these is actually enhanced by the film’s sly insights on colonialism and by pairing a lonely purple alien with a Barbadan girl.

If the film is over-reliant on slapstick, physical comedy setpieces, and Smek’s shtick, it is thankfully free from excessive pop culture homage, Dreamworks’ bread, butter, and jam. It is also resoundingly colorful; actually, visually and aurally, it paints with colors we may not be used to in animated fare. During on alien fight sequence, there is an actual Drrrrooooppp!

It’s interesting to see and hear a film aimed at a young audience play with new flavors, pulling freely from the world Rihanna rules as Princess Regent. (Because Beyonce is Queen, obvi.) The film glows a dancefloor green and purple, a palate borrowed from the Slushies that power Tip’s hover car. It may not seem that novel, but in fact, this is the film’s own quiet revolution. Digital coloring has pushed film comically in the direction of an orange and teal tint: many films look like a broadcast of a Miami Dolphins’ game.

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The basis is, like the “default human,” subconscious but dangerous: the majority of film scenes feature actors with orange-ish skin in front of blue skies. This has formed an accepted color template that affects much of the rest of a shot. Sets are dressed and images are digitally sweetened to match this color dichotomy. It takes something as simple as featuring a girl who doesn’t conform to this “default” or “norm” to subtly reconfigure everything we’ve come to know about film doctrine.

Home is a gorgeous film to behold because of this. Kids will think its pretty. They’ll probably never know what a game-changer it truly is.