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The Great Works at the Acton Institute Open House

Tuesday, Nov. 30 - 4pm to 8pm

For the past several decades, American popular culture has frequently promulgated an idea central to modern liberalism: the idea of a life without limits, that we can have everything we want with out having to make hard choices. That assumption is especially evident in Walt Disney movies, and not only in recent ones. Fortunately, the makers of some pop culture products see the absurdity and danger of that notion.

The life-without-limits mindset, derived most directly from the ideas of the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (one of the main progenitors of modern, statist liberalism), is an essential foundation of modern liberalism and has an important corollary that pervades leftist politics: that the only thing that stops each of us from achieving our life without limits is the stubborn restrictions placed on us by various villains, usually business or religion and typically both.

Though largely French in origin, the myth of a life without limits is character istically American and, in fact, typical of adolescents the world over. It involves the idea that freedom means doing what ever you want, not simply having a choice among whatever options life makes available. Instead, the American fantasy is that both individuals and society as a whole can overcome every obstacle to our numerous desires, provided we only wish strongly enough and get our friends on our side.

The lyrics of countless songs in Disney movies skillfully convey this dream, as in these famous lines from the Academy Award-winning song from the 1940 Disney film Pinocchio:

When you wish upon a star,
Makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires Will come to you.
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do.

The reality, of course, is that everybody’s life does have limits, and that we often have to make hard choices between imperfect alternatives. In fact, the longing for perfect freedom must ultimately be a tyrannical and consuming desire for god-like power. And that is why modern liberalism is so strongly based on coercion.

Recognizing this reality and making it vividly apparent in the narrative, the recent movie Marley and Me is very much the anti-Disney film for children. It identifies and clearly criticizes the notion of a life without limits. Whereas Disney films say that you can do anything you want and have anything you want if you only want it badly enough (Disney films have said so since the studio started making feature films, not just in recent years), Marley and Me shows how adolescent and unrealistic this longing for perfect freedom really is.

The very title of the film is a clue that the human protagonist should be a central focus of our attention, and newspaper columnist John Grogan (Owen Wilson) does indeed splendidly represent the Disney philosophy. Dissatisfied with his work as a columnist, at which he is highly suc cessful, he longs to be a “real reporter“ like his friend Sebastian, who gets to interview important political figures and is published in The New York Times. Of course, once John achieves his dream of being a reporter, he doesn’t like it and wants the freedom he had as a columnist.

The reluctance to accept the limits reality imposes on all of us is manifested also in the difficulty John has in deciding whether to have children. He clearly does not want to take on the responsibility that children bring, and ultimately when he decides to go ahead with it, he lays all the responsibility for the decision on his wife, Jennifer (Jennifer Aniston), as he makes quite clear in a conversation with Sebastian.

This is brought home with great force in a later scene in which Jennifer decides that she wants to quit her job in order to raise their children. She tells John that she can’t be either a good mother or a good journalist if she tries to do both, and that she chooses to be a good mother, as that is more important to her. It’s a perfectly sensible and indeed laudable choice, albeit a difficult one, yet John, still trapped in his Disney fantasies, actually tries to talk her out of it, offering to get her some “help“ in taking care of the kids. Fortunately, Jennifer’s natural sense of personal autonomy and willingness to accept responsibility prevent her from giving in to his foolish entreaties.

That’s the real conflict at the center of the film: John’s unwillingness to accept his natural quota of adult authority when it’s handed to him and to take responsibility for the choices he makes and the people he loves.

This is made quite evident in an amusing way during a scene in which John and Jennifer take their dog to an obedience training class. The teacher (played by Kathleen Turner), asks which of the two will take the role of master, and John defers to Jennifer and lays down in the grass, happy to shirk the responsibility. Later in the scene, however, he ends up having to do his part, and fails miserably, causing Marley and his owners to be kicked out of the class for good. John and Jennifer find it rather amusing, but most normal people would see it as quite humiliating.

As the film goes on, John’s failure to accept his role as an authority and to get control of Marley results in much destruction, comical but still costly.

John’s friend Sebastian also plays an important part in the film, as he represents John’s fantasy of professional and social success without the attendant responsibilities. Yet although Sebastian is a bachelor who seems to do very well with the ladies, it’s clear to the audience, though not to John, that Sebastian’s choices have consequences. His decision to remain a bachelor, for example, means that he can’t experience the joys of marriage and parenting that the film clearly depicts as immensely desirable outcomes of John’s choices.

Sebastian, however, appears to be at peace with his decisions and to accept the fact that his choices have placed real limits on his life. The tragedy at the center of the film is that John fails to appreciate the beauty of what he has and that these things are in fact the real essence of life. Instead, he continually imagines how splendid his life would be if he were else where doing other things.

The one who really lives the way John would like to exist is Marley, the dog. Yet Marley’s free-spirited misbehavior causes chaos in John’s home and almost forces the couple into divorce. Marley defecates in the ocean on the pet beach, which may cause it to be closed. And he develops an agonizing ailment, stomach torsion, as a result of eating or drinking too quickly.

The final scenes press home this theme of the limits to personal autonomy and power, as Marley inevitably confronts the one limit we all must ultimately accept: death. Here John finally seems to begin to understand what’s really important in life, and appears to appreciate the value of the family, home, and job that he has chosen.

Yet even in these scenes John’s fantasy-mongering continues. He expresses discontent with his job, and in his sentimental goodbye to Marley as the dog is dying, John tells Marley that he has been a good dog. That is an absurd lie, and it can only be for John’s own benefit, as the dog obviously has no under standing of language. It’s John’s way of pretending once again that his choices didn’t have negative consequences, that the American fantasy of having it all still holds true. The film’s story, however, makes it clear that just the opposite is true: contrary to the Disney myth, many things our hearts desire won’t come to us, no matter how fervently we may wish for them.

Recent films as varied as Milk, Kung Fu Panda, and Step Brothers all convey the Disney myth that we can overcome life’s limits by wanting it badly enough, but a significant number of films present a more realistic appraisal of the limits of human autonomy and power: movies such as The Dark Knight, Defiance, Gran Torino, The Wrestler, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, Fireproof, and In Bruges. Marley and Me is particularly interesting in accomplishing this through comedy, and in a film that will appeal to children.

Having Grogan’s character played by Owen Wilson is an inspired choice. He has long been known for playing free-spirited characters in movies, yet in real life he nearly died last year in what appears to have been a failed suicide attempt. That brings home another sobering truth about the life without limits: when we fail to find happiness in such a life, we have no one to blame but ourselves, and that is a direct path to despair.

The film is based on the memoirs of a real life American newspaper columnist, and hence is no fantasy itself. Its honesty about the adolescent longing for perfect freedom at the heart of much of American culture makes Marley and Me an excellent antidote to the Disney myth and the utopianism of modern liberalism.

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