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The near-futurism of Disney Channel original movies — does it hold up?

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Better than you’d think

pixel perfect

Does It Hold Up is a chance to re-experience childhood favorites of books, movies, TV shows, video games, and other cultural phenomenon decades later. Have they gotten better like a fine wine, or are we drinking cork?

A cornerstone of any pre-teen’s life between 1998 to 2007 was the Disney Channel original movie. If you grew up during that time you do not need a refresher on why movies like Halloweentown or Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century were popular — they were your main option for entertainment because you were constantly at home! (That is what it is like to not have a driver’s license.) But you may need a refresher on their content, because I just revisited a bunch of them and they are not what I thought. Oddly, they are not innocent little time capsules of an era long gone by. They are portentous pieces of art that solemnly warned my generation of the techno-anxieties they would soon become all too familiar: they also made me cry a little bit because in spite of all those things, they are very optimistic about human beings.

Two Disney originals in particular stand out. The first (2004’s Pixel Perfect) is a pseudo-critique of Reddit beta male culture, Silicon Valley speak, and the feminization of AI personal assistants. The second (Smart House, from 1999) is an absurd extrapolation of the Internet of Things, and makes pretty spot-on predictions about the fears people now have around AI and the security of their homes in the age of smart locks and Dash buttons.

It is truly unfortunate that we don’t pay closer attention to silly near-future children’s entertainment when guessing at what anxieties we might soon develop. It’s too late, but we can look back at them now and marvel at what we missed anyway.

Pixel Perfect

In Pixel Perfect, Ricky Ullman (Phil of the Future) plays Roscoe, a young genius whose best friend Sam fronts an all-girl pop-punk band called The Zettabytes. When a label exec disses Sam because she can’t dance, Roscoe decides to build a 100 percent lifelike holographic pop star who can sing, dance, look hot — everything it is implied that Sam cannot do. (Rude.) He builds Loretta from bits and pieces of Michelle Branch, Victoria Beckham, and L'Oreal ads, and she is, of course, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 120 pounds, with the voice of an autotuned angel.

She can have conversations, make jokes, and express genuine emotion. She can also get angry, and taunts Sam for being “nothing but water and a few pounds of chemicals… maybe a few pounds more than you really need.” (Rude.) We still don’t have holograms that can do that, but we have dabbled in jarringly lifelike holograms in entertainment — the notorious virtual Tupac at Coachella in 2012, Ol’ Dirty Bastard resurrected to perform at 2013’s Rock the Bells, and a holographic Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Awards in 2014, to name a few.

Almost immediately after she’s built, Loretta longs to go outside and touch birds, and almost immediately, Roscoe longs to make out with her. While a little heavy-handed, it’s an interesting preview of a broad criticism that would eventually plague the companies that make personal assistants. Why are Siri and Alexa women? And why are they women built to please, coo, and express unlimited subservience and helpfulness? Because they’re built by men. Men like Roscoe, who is constantly spouting out buzz-phrases you’ve heard in every tech company press conference you’ve ever watched. “I’m here to bottle perfection,” he tells Loretta. “I’m here to make you.”

The fact that Loretta is “perfect” is reiterated in nearly every breath, though when she tries to write her own music for the band she can’t do anything but steal bits and pieces of other famous songs. But the story’s central conflict actually has nothing to do with the limits of AI. It’s about the fact that Loretta is so sweet — designed by Roscoe to go along with whatever he programs her to do and feel. Sam, who wears studded belts and has three Avril Lavigne posters in her room (girl, same), is a problem for him because she doesn’t uniformly love everything he says.

Sam and Roscoe have two big spats: the first when she discovers that as he parsed through exemplars of feminine beauty and talent to inspire Loretta, he for some reason pulled out photos of her and covered them with question marks, X’s, and other rude notes. The second is when she calls him out for having a crush on a hologram, saying “I’m sorry I can’t be agreeable 24/7 like Loretta.” His response: “So am I.” It’s a pretty good critique of the now culturally ubiquitous Reddit boy “beta male,” an insidious nice guy figure who thinks his gentility and brains mean that girls should be “agreeable,” nice to him at all times, and defer to his well-intentioned intellect.

Roscoe gets a redemption arc that I do not at all appreciate, but by the end of the movie he is no longer the hero. It’s Loretta who has to save Sam’s life by entering her brain through a medical monitor and convincing her to come out of a coma, then taking control of her body and forcing her to walk outside where she gets hit by lightning. Later Loretta comes back as a hologram ghost and watches Sam and Roscoe smooch very lightly. (You’ve got to have something just for the teens, okay?)

It’s clear that a lot of the language in this film is Silicon Valley parody, presented without comment (Disney Channel TV movies are not exactly the focus of cultural critics) long before pre-teens would have thought for one second about skewering tech press event lingo. Not shockingly, the screenplay was written by science fiction writer Neal Shusterman, best known for the psychological thriller Full Tilt and his contributions to the X-Files YA series. Pixel Perfect is the only screenplay he has ever written, possibly because of how deeply weird it is.

As a relic of an era when Apple could still do no wrong, this vision of boys who make gadgets and why they make them is refreshingly cutting. In Pixel Perfect, the man behind the machine is, it turns out, a little boy who wants the world to be more hospitable to him. He doesn’t really care about saving it. I was 10 years old when this movie came out, and could not possibly have made the connection between what was on the screen and the rise of a whole new age of facetious rhetoric around the common good, which makes the movie somewhat disturbing to watch now. It also makes Disney Channel content scan as much more subversive than I would have given it credit for before.

Smart House

Smart House (1999), for its part, has an opposite view of the pitfalls of artificial intelligence. It’s not that boy creators will fall in love with the fake women they make; it’s that women will make female monsters they can’t control. Pat, the AI behind a smart house that can do everything from keeping household schedules to preparing gourmet meals to soaking any and all messes into her floorboards, is made by a brainy woman named Sarah (who has a thing for dumb, male criminals, naturally). It would require a very lengthy, separate conversation to talk about all the broader gender role issues in this movie, but let’s just say this: at one point a single dad throws his hands up in exasperation when his daughter asks him to do her pigtails.

When Sarah gives the Cooper family a tour of the “Smart House” they’ll be living in, she proudly proclaims, “The thing about Pat is the more time she spends with you, the more she learns. Pretty soon she’ll know you better than you know yourself.” The Coopers’ biggest fear is that Pat wants to judge them — to weigh in on their choices when she’s not wanted — or to watch them in the shower. Sarah tells them that’s not a worry, but it quickly becomes one when the young boy in the family tries to program Pat to be more maternal, out of concern that his widowed father will start dating again.

Pat is scary and unrealistic — she eventually creates a holographic human form for herself and takes the whole family hostage because they’re ungrateful for her services. But the basics of what she does are approaching reality. Her ability to restock a kitchen, for example, is something we’ve seen already with Amazon Dash buttons. Her “atmospheric kitchen sensors” are basically Breathalyzers that sniff out nutritional needs, a proposed tool that crops up as crowdfunded vaporware about three times per year. She takes DNA samples to chart out the family’s medical history, and gradually develops an understanding of their music taste based on their listening habits.

I don’t love the underlying argument that femininity and maternal instinct are monstrous forces that should be tamped down by programming and physical force, but I do appreciate the still-lingering paranoia about living in a world where every item knows you intimately. This is still the worst nightmare of many people, who are able to imagine some nefarious actor programming their shower to boil them alive, or their more embarrassing automated shipments being leaked to their enemies. Pat’s assistance also makes the family weirdly lazy and introverted, with the kids getting too used to the idea of shouting out vague commands to a bot and the dad deciding he never needs to go into the office again because his home computer is so much better. The primary ill of late-stage capitalism is that it separates us from each other with extreme convenience!

Smart House had two screenwriters — William Hudson (this is his only listed film credit) and Stu Krieger. Krieger appears to be an in-house favorite of Disney Channel’s, as he wrote half a dozen films for them in total, including all of the Zenon films. Zenon is an overly optimistic response to the launching of the International Space Station in 1998, and his work on Smart House is an equally dramatic response to grandiose claims being made by Microsoft at the time. By way of being for kids, Smart House is allowed to overreact to something silly — but almost two decades later it’s deranged cynicism looks more like a proof of concept for reasonable skepticism.

Its innate sexism does not look nice, but luckily that’s not that cool anymore.

Disney’s near-futurism

Obviously Disney, as an entity with its tentacles in just about every form of entertainment you can consume, is known for dreaming (or in some cases, hallucinating) about the future. From Disney World’s Tomorrowland to the Disney film Tomorrowland; from The Wonderful World of Disney to the worlds of Meet the Robinsons and Pixar’s WALL-E, Disney’s idea of the “future” is constantly cycling between a gleaming castle on a hill and a war zone where human connection is a thing of the past. More so than any other entertainment studio I can name, the future is part of the Disney brand. It’s not surprising that even their direct-to-TV fictions tends to think harder and more specifically about burgeoning tech-related anxieties than anything made by their cohorts.

Regardless of these movies’ failure to function as escapism, it’s maybe a little comforting to think that kids the nation over were absorbing these ambitious ideas.What determines whether Disney’s original films truly “hold up,” however, isn’t whether they predicted (or failed to predict) the technology of today — but rather how well they articulated arguments about how we would feel about it. Yeah, we don’t have holographic cats that chase mice and change color. We don’t have homes that can rearrange our throw pillows for us.

But we still have looming questions about how much we trust artificial intelligence to contribute positively to our daily lives. We still don’t know what to do with the subtle radicalizing powers built into messaging forums. We are still afraid of women, who just might be monsters by design! But being Disney products, Pixel Perfect and Smart House have happy endings — human ingenuity and the innate desire to connect with other people is more powerful than whatever technological disasters the doofy male leads set loose. These films about our anxieties are far from cynical. They promise that the future will always be familiar in some key, comforting ways.