January 22, 2017

Mug Travel: Curing Agoraphobia in Children

Sam, the blue-eyed, big-headed, breakfast-craving little boy in the animated kiddie pic Mug Travel — a.k.a. My Friend Bernard — is terrified of everything. I mean everything! Heights, yapping dogs, monstrous shadows, polar bears, flying cups, water dragons, falling candy jars, escaping songbirds, et cetera. Writing out this list, I realize that he has every reason to be scared of some of those things. (Who wouldn't run like mad if a crazy penguin started coming at you making weird noises and flapping his wings?) But in this cartoon, we're led to believe that being freaked out way too easily is something that Sam is going to need to get over. The therapeutic process outlined by writer-director Lim Ah-ron includes soaring through the air in a spinning teacup, being abandoned in the middle of an arctic wilderness with no thermal underwear, and being transported to a desert without a thermos or a camel or a cellular phone. He may have a magical talisman to help him but he's still going to need to fall from plenty of high places to get the cure.

By the end, once his re-education is complete, that dog that used to terrorize him across the neighborhood will be licking his face with appreciative affection. And while I'm easily moved by the bonding between boy and canine, I'm still not game to recommend this animated flick to anyone as a good family film. The stereotype of the female penguin as a vain creature and little more than a love interest, in particular, is inexcusable at this point in history; the squeaky, preverbal noises made by characters, both human and not, is likely to drive adults up the wall. There's something bizarrely right about having the helpful Santa encountered in the beginning be replaced by a beardless man who looks like a recovering junkie ringing the bell for the Salvation Army at the end since this movie is, if nothing else, a total trip. But as trips go, it's not neither the most hallucinatory nor the most surreal. In short, there are much better Korean cartoon films for kids out there like Doggy Poo or Wolf Daddy, both of which have better animation as well as storytelling than this. Watch one of those instead.

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