I woke up on the morning I wrote this article when the smoke alarm went off because my fiancée’s tween daughter turned the electric range on too high, and one of the first things I had to do (after teaching her how to make pancakes) was get her 15-year-old brother to answer a Facebook message. He doesn’t check Facebook as a general rule (the lucky bastard). This is a regular day now—a lot of sudden reminders that kids are growing apart from you even as they do still need guidance for what seem to you to be the simplest things.
It’s fitting, then, that A Goofy Movie was met with little enthusiasm when I put it on. I saw the film in theaters when it came out in 1995 and thought it was strange and not really in keeping with the other more fantastical, epic stories that Disney was releasing in theaters during their ’90s Renaissance. I recall saying it “wasn’t about much” afterward, but also thinking there was something about it I wasn’t getting.
I have nonetheless sought A Goofy Movie out for a re-watch almost more often than any of the other Disney animated films over the years—partly because it is, compared to the other, polished parts of the Disney canon, just weirder. It has a distorted, sometimes jaded sensibility, more at home with the anarchic feel of cable TV cartoons than the fresh-faced princess narratives of the movies immediately surrounding it. It is also one of the vanishingly few animated Disney films that tackles interpersonal relationships with any kind of real-world point of reference. Goofy and his son Max are not returning the heart of the Earth Mother to her, lifting a sorceress’s sleeping curse or winning Grecian godhood, but they are nonetheless on an epic hero’s journey.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home. —The Odyssey, Wilson translation
You know (because I told you) that this is one of a particular class of road trip movies that can be mapped onto Joseph Campbell’s monomyth/hero’s journey. (The fact The Little Mermaid gets not one but two sight gags in the movie might be reading too much into it, but there’s something nautical about the whole affair, right up to the point father and son reconcile their differences while drifting through a river canyon.) A Goofy Movie opens with its storm-tossed hero, Max, seeking out his own muse, fellow high schooler Roxanne. His idyllic dream is disrupted when his subconscious bombards him with body issues, warping him into the gangly, awkward version of his father, who is Goofy. For the opening of a kid’s movie, it’s a lot.
Max wins himself glory and recognition on the last day of school by upstaging the principal’s closing remarks with a pop concert that catches Roxanne’s eye, but gets him busted. How on Earth he thought he’d get away with it is a question never answered, but his principal’s hysterical phone call to his father convinced Goofy that his son is hell-bound unless he figures out how to get through to the kid. Max is dragged along on a father-son fishing trip just as he’s managed to land a hot date with Roxanne, and he lies to her about why he’s forced to leave, claiming he’ll be on stage for a concert in L.A.
It’s about here that the movie does what I think makes it better than contemporary reviews gave it credit for: It establishes Goofy as another protagonist, with goals that compete with Max’s goals and which form the tension that’s present throughout the film. Max wants to break away and come into his own, Goofy wants to hold him closer and impart something of himself to the boy. Max is torn between chasing after a cute girl and loyalty to his father, Goofy is torn over whether he wants a son who loves him or a son who fears and respects him.
And while it’s a contrivance that the duo keep running into Goofy’s coworker, Pete (Jim Cummings), and his son PJ (Rob Paulsen), their appearances serve to rekindle Goofy’s conflict and keep it in tandem with Max’s conflict. The clear hero’s journey beats Max overcomes—the rejection of his journey, crossing into the unknown, facing his personal shortcomings and reaching transformation—are all essentially mirrored by Goofy in the same or nearly the same scene. Their conflicts collide, at last, when Max is faced with a choice of steering the road trip to L.A. to fulfill his lie to Roxanne or toward Goofy’s original destination, and Goofy is similarly faced with confronting the doubt he has that his son is being truthful to him.
Goofy isn’t normally that deep a character. It’s to the film’s credit that it manages to keep him recognizably himself as it also provides decades-long voice actor Bill Farmer opportunities to portray the guy as hopeful, hurt, awkward and empathetic.
The movie served as a sort of follow-up to the Goof Troop cartoon show that finished airing a couple of years prior, but it isn’t a sequel in any true sense—while many of the characters return and almost all of the voice actors reprise their roles, there isn’t much continuity between the two, just as there’s no continuity with any other Disney movie, the film being a product of Disney’s TV animation division. It also barely made a splash, raking in a tiny, tiny fraction of that heavy hitter of the previous year, The Lion King, or even Pocahontas (which came out the same year as A Goofy Movie). There’s a lot about the movie that feels deeply strange once it gets to the road trip portion of the movie, where America is portrayed in all its stereotypical hokey glory. Every supporting character is some kind of grotesque caricature, every stop on the road has a kind of funhouse mirror distortion in the way it’s portrayed. There are a few times when the movie looks like what motion sickness feels like.
Yet, it’s the only Disney animated feature I can think of where there’s any deeper examination of a parental relationship to their child. In almost every other feature, the parents exist either to be killed off or to hinder the protagonist—in either case, they are abandoned as the hero heads off into the great unknown and we get to the fun stuff about ice magic and crab demons.
A Goofy Movie is now old enough that others like me—the ostensible target audience at the time it came out—are rearing our own kids, searching for some common ground with them as they inexorably grow apart from us. The movie still feels as weird, awkward, and unquantifiable as fatherhood so often does.
Kenneth Lowe wishes that this was the day after today. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.