In seventh grade, a friend of mine told me that since her TV at home was always tuned to the USA Network, the logo had burned into the corner of the screen. Even when she and her family weren’t watching a banal legal drama on America’s favorite cable network, the scorched outline of the three overlapping letters was still just visible, as if the TV itself was begging them to change the channel, to allow it to return home.
In the days of yore, they thought that seeing was an interactive process, that beams from objects in your range of vision shot outward to your eyes and made physical impressions there, and that was how seeing worked. According to Big Science, vision actually works differently than this. I’ve heard, too, that new-fangled TV screens aren’t capable of having anything burn into them anymore.
My brain, however, is a different story. In my twenty years of life, there have been certain images so confoundingly beautiful, disgusting, or upsetting that they’ve burned into my mind and made permanent impressions on my consciousness. If you took my brain out of my head and looked at it (please don’t!), you’d see little pictures stamped there the way they brand horses and cows. Hunter Biden wearing a denim jacket over his bare torso and taking a mirror selfie, for instance. The little blue mailbox in my preschool that precipitated a physical altercation between myself and a classmate. The climactic scene in “The Inferno,” an episode in the fifth season of The Waltons.
I shouldn’t have to tell you what The Waltons is, but I understand that most of my peers did not spend their childhoods watching only wholesome family dramas that concluded production several decades prior to their birth. Flanked by the likes of Little House on the Prairie and Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman in my heart’s library of great TV, The Waltons, a television program from the 70s about a poor family of eleven living through the Great Depression and World War II, shines brighter than all the rest. The Waltons’ eldest son, named John-Boy after his father, has dreams of being a writer (“wriiiiter” in actor Richard Thomas’s approximation of a Virginia accent), and so comes face-to-face with many historical incidents which he records in his self-published newspaper, The Blueridge Chronicle.
Not the least of which is the landing of the Hindenburg, the massive airship whose successful journey across the sea from Germany would make a great article for John-Boy’s paper. Or, it would have, had the Hindenburg’s journey been successful. Then again, its spectacular lack of success probably made a pretty good story too. It certainly made a good episode.
In a shocking and controversial move by director Harry Harris, actual footage of the Hindenburg’s tragic, fiery collapse plays behind a superimposed John-Boy, his face wrought with horror as he runs from the wreckage, flames roaring behind him.
There’s a corner inside my head that’s like a tiny old-fashioned movie theater. In between showings of Cats and Now You See Me 2, this one moment from “The Inferno” plays again and again to an audience of one: me.
I sit in my imaginary theater and I contemplate the future that was stripped away from humanity the day the Hindenburg caught ablaze. As the airship’s skeletal frame crumples in on itself, I see the collapse of something else—a future in which our primary mode of air transportation would have been charmingly rotund boats in the sky. In this future, bunnies would have hopped down the sidewalk wearing little sweaters, grocery stores would only sell one variety of everything, and Princess Diana probably never would have died.
Instead, we inhabit a world empty of whimsy and full of airplanes. Our world is one of extravagant ugliness, where I’ve never seen a bunny hop down a sidewalk, let alone wear a little sweater. Grocery stores love to have thousands of varieties of everything. Princess Diana is dead.
When I think of other disasters, few strike me to be as all encompassing, as painfully and undeniably indicative of the failure of our human experiment, as the Hindenburg’s destruction in the final moments of its maiden voyage. In fact, only one tragedy of a comparable scale comes to mind. I’m talking, of course, about the 1999 film Stuart Little.
Like the Hindenburg, Stuart Little begins as a voyage filled with hope, joy, and the effervescent happiness one can only feel before disaster. The Little family arrives at an orphanage in search of a new son, and it’s love at first sight for the Littles and the audience alike when they spot Stuart, a tiny little boy who just happens to be a mouse, sitting perched on a tiny little shelf, reading a tiny little copy of Little Women. It’s a scene grown in a test tube by benevolent scientists (oxymoron) specifically to make me squeal. The film promises to be filled with further such moments of unadulterated joy—how could it not be? Just imagine all the tiny little things Stuart must have and interact with—tiny clothes, tiny suitcase, tiny toothbrush, tiny piece of lint that looks like a tumbleweed because Stuart himself is so tiny!
Unfortunately, these things will only ever exist for me in the landscape of my imagination. Stuart Little, like the Hindenburg, crashes and burns. Just moments after his introduction, Stuart goes home with the Littles, and in my mind, I’m watching the scaffolding of the Hindenburg collapsing in on itself again and again like a terrible Instagram story boomerang, and Hunter Biden is sitting next to me in my mind movie theater now, and I really wish he would put a shirt on under that denim jacket, and Snowball, the Little family’s cat, speaks. Out loud. In English. Stuart can hear and understand him, but the Littles can’t.
You might think it’s insensitive of me to compare the thirty-seven very tragic deaths associated with the Hindenburg disaster to one talking cat in a movie made primarily for children. But consider this: the promise of Stuart Little is that of ultimate whimsy. By making a movie about a little mouse who gets adopted by a normal sized human family, director Rob Minkoff signed an implicit contract with humanity, like God after the great flood. He established a covenant to reward people for being alive with the simple pleasure of a cute talking mouse wearing tiny little pants. Far more than thirty-seven people saw Stuart Little, and I would bet that most of them left the theater with the dull throb of loss and pain in the pit of their stomach, whether they recognized the source of such grief or not.
I’ll admit, talking animals are a tricky subject in any film—there are few truly successful examples of such a thing. Matt Damon provides the voice of Spirit, the titular stallion of the Cimarron, in what is frankly one of the best movies ever made; but vitally, Damon voices Spirit’s thoughts, not actual spoken words. Spirit’s a great movie, but Spirit isn’t a true talking animal. The Chronicles of Narnia has Aslan the lion, who does speak aloud, and does so nobly. But Aslan is literally Jesus, and so he doesn’t count, either. Curious George is great, too, but remember—George doesn’t speak. He makes cute little monkey noises that are weirdly easy to understand, but he does not speak.
Ironically, Stuart Little himself is one of the best examples of a successful talking animal in film. The reason for his success is that none of his human friends acknowledge his mousehood. Stuart’s a little boy – an orphan – and yeah, he happens to be a mouse. So what? He still has to go to school and learn how to drive and sit down at the dinner table. That only makes it cuter!
That Stuart is such a smashing success makes it all the more dreadful when that awful cat speaks. His snide commentary cheapens the magic of Stuart and raises some questions impossible to ignore. If the cat can talk, can all animals talk? If all animals can talk, what makes Stuart so special? Where are all the other orphaned mice with a penchant for 19th century coming-of-age novels? I want to meet them, too! Stuart is cute because he’s a mouse who does people things, and because the people around him refuse to acknowledge anything that makes him different from them. When the difference is so obvious (and adorable!) the audience finds themselves filled with baffled glee and overwhelming satisfaction. “This is a universe where a precocious talking mouse exists,” Stuart tells us. “Don’t worry about it! It’s normal, here. You can be happy and joyful!”
But not for long. That stupid cat opens its stupid mouth and stupid words come out instead of meows. I’m only grateful Princess Diana didn’t live to see this tragedy. But then again, if the Hindenburg hadn’t crashed and Princess Diana had lived, they probably never would have let the cat in Stuart Little talk, and we wouldn’t be having this problem now. But it did, she didn’t, and we do. We live in a world devoid of whimsy, with too many options in the grocery store and the USA logo burned into the corner of our TVs and only the threat of our own personal Hindenburg crash waiting for us at the end—if only it would come sooner!
On Christmas Day last year, a child was born—a child who saved me from that fiery, crumpled, scorched and tired fate, and can save you, too, if you only let it. I’m speaking, of course, of a metaphorical child—twins, actually, who go by the names Paddington and Paddington 2. By the hand of God, Cartoon Network was showing a Paddington marathon that Christmas Day. I donned my new Grinch pajamas. I settled in for a couple hours of what I assumed would be, at best, moderately alright talking animal fare.
Instead, I received my salvation.
Paddington Bear, hailing from Darkest Peru, capable of human speech because an explorer taught his aunt and uncle to speak English, arrives to a wonderfully whimsical version of London, where he encounters an equally whimsical family, and participates in various whimsical hijinks. The ensuing seven hours of my life [the second half of Paddington, followed by all of Paddington 2, followed by all of Paddington, followed by Paddington 2 all over again (I guess I should be thankful, after all, that TVs aren’t capable of burning in anymore—no one wants the Cartoon Network logo stuck on their screen for all eternity)] now live in a separate corner of my mind from the movie theater where “The Inferno” and Cats and Now You See Me 2 play—seven hours of absolute whimsy made infinite by my memory of them.
This corner isn’t a movie theater. It’s a spiral staircase, I think, that leads up to a little room with marigold yellow walls and slanted ceilings and a mullioned window that looks out on puffy clouds and bright sunshine. I think I see some bunnies down there in the grass, hopping around and wearing sweaters. There’s an old-fashioned TV in the corner, and it’s playing an endless Paddington marathon at the perfect volume. This corner of my mind probably existed before I watched Paddington. Although whimsy may be dead in our world, I like to think it’s always been alive and well in my soul. The Paddington movies simply reminded me to spend a little more time in this sunny, cheerful room.
Paddington is the pinnacle of excellence when it comes to talking animals on film— he’s adorable. He’s precocious. He wears little clothes and a little hat. He’s a little clumsy, yes, but fully loveable. Most importantly, the family that adopts him does not for one single moment acknowledge the oddness of a talking bear, and nor do they own an awful white cat. They treat Paddington’s unique situation as something completely normal, and it is this frank acceptance of the whimsical that makes their world so special.
Paddington, in his blue duffle coat and red bucket hat, is the world if we still had Princess Diana. If Hunter Biden wore a shirt under his denim jacket. If bunnies wore sweaters and grocery stores had fewer options. If more people watched The Waltons instead of fucking Suits (no offense Meghan Markle, I’m sure you’re great in it). Paddington is the future that is just out of reach no matter how far we stretch out our arms; the one that burned to a crisp the same day the Hindenburg did.
Only, that’s not quite right. Because we do have Paddington. We have him right now, right here, in this terrible awful blimp-less timeline we inhabit. While I was watching Paddington 2 on Christmas Day, I looked out the window of my living room. In the trees behind my house, there was a little red fox, his thick copper fur vibrant against the snow, his tail fluffy and delicately tipped in white. Just above him, perched on a slender branch of a leafless tree, there was an owl, his head angled to watch the fox make his careful way through the forest. They weren’t bunnies, and they weren’t wearing sweaters, but I think probably they were friends. Maybe they could be my friends, too.