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Paws For Thought: Tara Joshi On Disney's A Goofy Movie
Tara Joshi , August 18th, 2022 11:20

In this month's Low Culture essay, Tara Joshi goes back to 1995 and Disney outlier A Goofy Movie, a surprisingly deep examination of the trials of adolescence and fitting in

A teenager runs through a golden field of wheat towards the sound of someone calling his name. In the distance he sees the object of his affections, Roxanne, waiting statuesque on a pillar, draped in white with Botticelli-red hair spooling out behind her. She leaps down, blowing bobbing dandelion seeds in his direction as they meet, lay on the ground and laugh together. It’s a blissful sequence, yet storm clouds gather and the teenager begins to transform, werewolf-like, screaming, limbs elongating and clothes tearing, voice changing, until suddenly he has become his worst nightmare: he is the spitting image of his father. And his father is, of course, famed talking dog, Goofy. The transformation is so complete that he even makes a “hyuck” noise, the distinctive Goofy laugh.

This is the harrowing opening scene to A Goofy Movie, released by Disney in 1995. Whenever I bring it up, it’s relatively rare that people have even heard of the film, let alone watched it. Often, they think I’m doing some kind of bit when I say it is one of my favourite films of all time.

For those who haven’t seen it, A Goofy Movie follows high school teen Maximilian ‘Max’ Goof (voiced by Jason Marsden) and his relationship with his dad, Goofy (voiced by Bill Farmer). Max is constantly aggravated by his father’s embarrassing behaviour, feels desperately uncool and wants to be noticed by the girl he fancies. And so, on the last day before the summer break, he hatches a plan with his two best mates, PJ and Bobby, dressing up as his musical idol Powerline and crashing the school assembly. This is a success in that Roxanne says yes when Max later asks her out on a date – but it also causes the Principal of the school to call up Goofy and tell him that his son incited a riot among his peers and, if allowed to continue on this path, Max is likely to end up in a gang and, eventually, on the electric chair. And so, troubled by the outlook for his purportedly at-risk son, Goofy insists that Max accompany him on a cross-country roadtrip to go fishing, like Goofy and his own father once did. In turn, a miserable Max lies to Roxanne about why he can no longer make their date, claiming his father is old friends with Powerline. What follows is chaos, resentment and touching depictions of the angsty growing pains between parent and child. At one point there is awkward silence after Goofy reminisces that Max used to say “I love you” to him back when he was a child.

In the decades since A Goofy Movie was released, it has garnered a cult following. There are people doing live action remakes of songs on YouTube (this one has over seven million views), Buzzfeed articles have been written that are genuinely called things like ‘Max From “A Goofy Movie” Is Now Insanely Hot’, when discussing a rendering of a cartoon character. Then there are new runs of merchandise, and active subreddits where people continue to discuss the film and all its nuances. Gatherings of the cast as well as performances of the film’s songs have a tendency to go viral. There are joke-y tweets and reviews about how it is the Greta Gerwig film, Ladybird. It was a piece of Goofy Movie fan-art that gave birth to the incredible meme, “damn, bitch, you live like this?” (something which is particularly dear to me as a Goofy stan who does, unfortunately, very often live like that). Earlier this year, a chef on TikTok tried to recreate the impossibly gooey, stretchy-looking pizza from the film. There’s also a whole internet joke about Goofy’s best friend, Pete, as a “power cuck” – but that is perhaps best left as an aside.

When it first came out, though, the film was very much an after-thought in the Disney canon. In the midst of the so-called 1989 to 1999 ‘Renaissance’ of films such as Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas and so on (all created by the main behemoth Walt Disney Animation Studios in California), this was simply a spin-off from a TV series called Goof Troop. It was developed at various satellite animation studios around the world as a Disney MovieToon production, which very often meant ‘straight-to-video’. It had even been greenlighted by-then Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg who was fired shortly afterwards; and so, according to Vanity Fair, its production only really went ahead due to contractual obligations rather than any goodwill from the people who were now in charge.

Though the Kevin Lima-directed film did get a cinematic release (via a premiere in Florida, snubbed from the standard Disney fanfare of a California event), it was to unimpressed reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “brutal”, while the Austin Chronicle labelled it “bland” as well as “not much fun”. I don’t understand how they came to these erroneous conclusions, but they feel completely at odds with how people talk about and remember the film now. It was after A Goofy Movie got its video release that it began its slow burning infiltration as a need-to-know, culturally-enduring moment in Disney’s back catalogue.

I do not remember how I first came across A Goofy Movie, but it was probably around the year 2000. Near our home on the Isle of Wight, our local corner shop would let you rent out videos, so it’s possible we once borrowed it from there, or else the library over in the nearest town. I do know that I watched it over and over, until eventually I was given my own copy for a birthday. To this day, it holds a special place somewhere deep in the cartoon golden fields of my heart. I think the reason it means so much to me – and so many others – is that, at its core, the film deals with classic coming-of-age tropes: the cruelty of puberty, the endless embarrassments of teen angst, family, self-loathing and all-encompassing personal insecurity, as well as the desperate yearning to be seen by the person you seemingly unrequitedly fancy (as relatable to my younger self as it is to my now 30-year-old iteration).

I will also concede that I probably did have a small crush on the teenage anthropomorphised cartoon dog, not least when he emulates Powerline at the school assembly to get Roxanne’s attention. “There's nothin' that I wouldn't do / If it was gettin' you to notice I'm alive,” he whispers to her, the words pulsing with youthful thirst and frisson. I am not ashamed to share this personal truth.

A Goofy Movie also looks fantastic. I once threatened a friend that I wanted to make an Instagram account that was purely dedicated to stills from the film, so people could better appreciate how beautiful and fun the aesthetics are. This might not have been coming from Disney’s main studios, but some of the animation work and detail is magic here: there’s the undulating waterbed filled with sea life, the soft clouds of mist that surround the waterfall, the way foamy amber beer drizzles down the TV screen when Pete spit-takes in shock, the violet electricity as an intended “backing vocalist” arrives on stage with Powerline. There are even sly little specificities like young children looking wide-eyed and cute when Goofy looks at them, and looking monstrous and ugly when his son, Max does.

An outlier from the Disney ‘Renaissance’, which largely depicted fantasies, myths and fairytales, this release was an original concept set to appeal to a contemporary youth market. In fact, much has been written about A Goofy Movie as Disney’s ‘Blackest’ film. For starters, it has two glorious moments on its soundtrack courtesy of Powerline, the music superstar who Max and his friends all adore. Powerline’s larger-than-life vibe and aesthetic was modelled after then-huge artist Bobby Brown, who had originally been lined-up to voice the character before he checked himself into rehabilitation for drug and alcohol dependency. The role instead went to dreamy 90s teen R&B sensation Tevin Campbell with his soaring vocals – and the production on his two tracks, ‘Stand Out’ and ‘I 2 I’, was done by David Z, who is best known for his work with Prince.

Writing for the Outline in an article called ‘Is Goofy black, too?’, Dillon Thomas Jones raised questions about whether the character had always been intended as a dim-witted “hick” as a foil to Mickey Mouse, or indeed some kind of minstrel, and whether Max seeking to be seen as cool and accepted via the lens of music might be indicative of caricatures and stereotypes of Blackness (it’s worth noting that the cast and writing team of A Goofy Movie were all white bar Tevin Campbell). More broadly, though, from Campbell channelling Bobby Brown, to the teens in baggy hip-hop era clothes, to Max’s friend Bobby, the would-be stoner (he’s obsessed with cheese so as to keep it PG) who is seemingly the white friend who’s much more relaxed about how his parents might react to misbehaviour, writer Austin Williams argued the film was a Black millennial classic.

As someone of Indian origin, I cannot speak to that specific experience, but I will say the resentment around what you perceive to be an overbearing, overprotective parent is something that felt very relatable when watching A Goofy Movie. While Pete advocates for a parental style of being strict and keeping your children “under your thumb”, caring more about being respected by his son than being loved, Goofy eventually decides to try for something more laissez-faire and trusting, for fear of losing his child. My relationship with my parents has toyed with those lines through my life; they are first-generation immigrants who were trying to raise me in a way that felt familiar to them, not understanding the things I was drawn to in the UK and therefore sometimes doubling down against them. To me, they occasionally seemed unreasonably strict and determined not to let me have fun or freedom in the same way as my white friends – but, as with Max and Goofy, I see now that their expressions of love, care and concern just manifested in a language I didn’t always appreciate or comprehend.

Maybe A Goofy Movie was an after-thought for Disney, but it has endured because it speaks to these universal truths while also capturing a very specific moment in time; something Disney hadn’t really done before then, and something it has very rarely done since.

On a personal level, it’s a film that takes me back to my realest self. I don’t make “hyuck” noises when I laugh, but it still brings me to a tender place with Tevin Campbell singalongs, joy, silliness, earnestness, yearning crushes and trying to recognise that the things I find embarrassing about myself or annoying about my family are things I might miss one day. There are clearly many like me for whom Goofy is layered with personal meaning. I see them on the subreddit, making videos, drawing fan art – we are bound by this nostalgia for a sweet, aesthetically bold film that takes us back to simpler times. A film which taught us about love in its various forms: crushes, friends, parents, even music fandom and acceptance of the self.

When I meet people who have also been touched by A Goofy Movie, it feels weirdly significant to me; and when I show it to someone, it serves as some kind of dialect for my affection and trust. My original draft of this essay included a line about how the film is my own personal love language, but I decided it was maybe too deranged. To be honest, though, one evening last summer, I arranged a second date at my place to watch it. In spite of the connotations of “watching a movie”, it was not at all a salacious night – I’ll admit the choice of a children’s movie might have ensured this. I just really wanted to have a moment with this person and the film after he’d said in passing that his favourite Disney character was Goofy. And so we sat on the sofa, hands occasionally grazing as we reached for sweet and salty popcorn out of a pink and purple bag, comfortable and cute, laughing and discussing the giddy emotional highs and lows of the film and its banging soundtrack. For me, sharing this film anew each time is its own form of intimacy – and when that particular relationship didn’t work out, my flatmate patted me on the arm and sincerely said the words: “Aw, you gave him Goofy Tara and everything”.