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Nostalgia - The Assassin of Objective Viewing

Admit it: you're severely nostalgic about at least one film or television show, if not two, three, or ten. It sits within you, never surfacing until the works in question produce themselves again, and suddenly you're robbed of anything even resembling a wary eye. It doesn't matter what the subject matter is, although the most powerful nostalgic flicks tend to key into previous themes and elements that have still remained fairly important to you. It's almost always based on your childhood, what you watched and who you were. And for some reason, these cinematic treasures' entertainment value is quintupled and you're left there with a stupid grin on your face when it's all done. You think you're a judgmental critic? Not when nostaglia comes a-knockin'. Don't care much about entertainment? You do when it's your childhood favorite. Nostaglia is the greatest and most powerful excuse for loving anything, because how can you argue against the lingering remnants of a child's love?

I was born in 1983, and thusly, I am a child of the Second Renaissance, as the stretch of Disney films and WB television is typically called from 1988-1994 (the WB TV renaissance ended a bit later, around 1998). The most recognized films of this time, like The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, are films just as appreciated by adults as children, and so they are not truly considered "nostalgia films". So instead, to find what nostaglia means to my age group, you'd have to look at things like The Chipmunk Adventure or The Rescuers Down Under. In something of an experiment on the topic, I have recently viewed two different films of the 1987-88 period: The Brave Little Toaster and Oliver & Company.

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First, Toaster. My approach in this case was as a complete neophyte. Unlike many of my peers, this is not one of my nostaglia films, and I came to it entirely as an adult. Thusly, in retrospect, I do not believe that this film was as effective on me as it would be for anyone the same age who loved it as a child. There are scenes and characters in Toaster that I know I would've been hooked into as a kid: the clown nightmare, playing with the animals in the forest, the incredibly cutesy Electric Blanket character. But to my seasoned and weary eyes, these were enjoyable, but slight and not terribly engaging. The SNL boys Hartman and Lovitz were the cast members most game for the proceedings, but nothing else really stands out in the realm of acting, or storytelling for that matter. It's a very simple story about a set of beloved appliances on a journey. There might have been a cautionary tale about patience to tell (had they waited a bit longer, their master would've shown up and all would've been well), or something about the old being better than the new (with the nasty new appliances and all that jazz), but the film keeps everything so light and fluffy that nothing is really ventured into serious thematic exploration. Not that this is entirely bad - it's a well-made little feature that is likely to enrapture kids. But when visited for the first time from an adult palette, I personally found it only "good".

But then, while that is a major nostalgia film for some of my peers, Oliver & Company is the film that defeats me and my abilities to analyze every time. I find it impossible to be entirely objective about the film. After all, it has Billy Joel in it, the musician whose work I've been a major fan of since practically birth. Does Billy do a mind-blowing acting job? No. Does he do a good-enough job? Yeah, and to a silly fanboy like myself, that ends up being all I need. Even more potent for a nostalgia factor is the setting and setup of the film, because when this film came out in 1988, I was a young kid in New York City with a kitten I desperately loved. I wasn't rich and I'm not a girl, but it doesn't matter. The film is a distillation of everything I remember loving about my childhood in the City. When I watched it again, I noticed the relatively thin plot and the oddly simple action scenes (barring the final chase in the subway), and the proliferation of rougher-than-usual computer-generated scenes; after all, the film was one of the stepping stones on the way to Disney's later famed integration of the techniques in Beauty and the Beast. But while I noticed it, I couldn't get myself to care a bit, like I would with any other film (like Toaster). It didn't matter, because the damn thing meant too much to me as transportation back to an earlier and more blissful time.

What sort of lesson can be gleaned from this? My friends who assured me that Toaster was a masterpiece might be affected by some nostalgic bias - but then, as demonstrated above, I'm hardly one to talk. What I realized from this little examination was that nostalgia is just as crucial a factor in opinions as anything else. Not important, mind you, but crucial. We can't really justify our opinions via nostalgia, but we can't discount it and we certainly can't defeat it. The important thing, at least, may be to recognize ourselves enough to know why we love what we love. Films like Rashomon appeal to an entirely different side of me than films like Oliver & Company, and while I'll always recommend the latter film when asked about it, I'll be sure to add where I'm coming from.

The Brave Little Toaster: Three (***) stars out of four (****)
Oliver & Company: Three and a half (***1/2) stars out of four (****), despite my personal enjoyment at a four-star level

A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on August 2, 2004

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