Taking the Mickey

According to all the film critics, 2019 is going to be the year of Disney. They’re bringing out a whopping 10 potential blockbusters in the space of 12 months, most of which are either sequels to, or remakes of, films that have been wildly successful in the past. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? This does of course mean that 2019 is full of danger for those with young children, or those who have young children foisted upon them by their friends and relatives. Do you want to sit through Frozen 2? Possibly for the 16th time, and while everyone in the audience is singing along? Or do you want your sleeve covered in snot as the brat next to you wonders why Simba’s dad’s not getting up? (In fairness, I’d probably be blubbing too…)

The only sensible course of action is, of course, to make 2019 not the Year of Disney, but rather the Year of Taking the Kids Outside and Away from TV Screens. Take them shooting, take them beating, take them anywhere without phone reception. They’ll thank you when they’re older. Maybe. As I write this, however (hello from 2018! Has Brexit got any better yet?), there is one man for whom it is already the Year of Disney.

David Berry Junior has been sentenced by a US county court judge to watch the film Bambi at least once a month during his one-year jail sentence. Berry is, in fairness, a pretty bad egg. According to reports, he killed potentially hundreds of deer in Missouri, taking only the heads and leaving the bodies to rot in situ. It’s one of the biggest poaching cases ever prosecuted in Missouri and it wasn’t just Berry involved – according to the Guardian, “Three of his relatives, and another man, were also were caught in connection to the poaching case, and have paid $51,000 in fines and court costs.”

Those relatives included his father, and both Berries had their hunting, fishing and trapping privileges revoked for life. The reason that the case has gained such widespread coverage across the world is not, of course, the magnitude of the crime or that the waste of life involved sparked some debate about conservation or ethics – it’s the ridiculous sentence that the judge handed out.

Now, American judges are gaining something of a reputation for creative sentencing. In 2017, a judge in Hawaii ordered Daren Young to pay his ex-girlfriend 144 compliments, to compensate for the 144 times he had called, attempted to call or texted her with an abusive message – all in the space of less than three hours. In 2003, furthermore, as the BBC reports: “Two teenagers from Chicago were sentenced to 45 days in jail and ordered to march through the centre of their hometown with a donkey. It’s after the pair were found guilty of stealing and defacing a statue of the baby Jesus that was part of a church’s Christmas Eve nativity scene.

Jessica Lange and Brian Patrick, who were both 19 years old at the time, also had to carry a sign which said: “Sorry for the jackass offense.” Creative sentences, I’m sure, feel like a really smart way of tackling social problems. And sure, locking people up with other members of the criminal fraternity might not always be the smartest way to change people’s behaviour – it’s a bit like sending people to a university where they can study a huge variety of crime and find future business partners, and all without having to pay £9,000 a year for the privilege.

In Berry’s case, it’s clear that the Bambi bit of the sentence (not something I ever thought I’d write, but these are strange times) was to make him feel remorse for his crimes. As every publication reported (in much the same language, suggesting the dark art of ‘Ctrl + C’ is alive and well in our newsrooms): “Bambi is a popular Disney film following the exploits of a young deer whose mother is shot dead by a hunter during his first winter.”

Oddly, however, I feel like what it’s really done is infantilise and obscure the whole issue. The reasons that Berry deserves to be punished are essentially a) that he was stealing and b) that he killed the deer for selfish and unjustifiable purposes, in the process wasting an enormous amount of meat that could have fed hundreds of people. Surely the punishment shouldn’t aim to make him feel that shooting deer in general is wrong, particularly not in such a trite and lazy way, but instead should focus on impressing upon him the importance of hunting within the established framework?

If the judge had done this, rather than something that feels almost self-servingly eye-catching, then Judge Robert George would have had the opportunity to spread a message to the wider world about the real issues and why the laws exist. I am by no means arguing that films don’t have the power to change people – the brilliant film Sideways, for example, sent sales of Merlot-based wines into a steep downward spiral after its main character rallied against it – but that this particular punishment both misses the point and is destined to fail.

As the Guardian’s film critic wrote: “It’s true that the judge’s decision looks somewhat glib and ineffectual under the circumstances. Is a man who has been found responsible for slaughtering hundreds of deer for ‘the thrill of the kill’ (in the words of Randy Doman of the Missouri Department of Conservation) likely to be swayed by the onscreen demise of a cartoon doe? It seems as far-fetched as prescribing a season of films to tempt a criminal back on to the straight and narrow.”

While the mainstream media have covered this extensively as a news story, the lack of opinion pieces is telling – there is no easy win for the anti-shooting brigade here. Yes, there were the predictable nasty remarks in the comments and on social media, but the fact that Berry clearly acted illegally and is not a part of the legitimate shooting community, coupled with the fact that enough people could see the ridiculousness of the Bambi sentence, didn’t give them anything to work with.

For once, just once, the silliness was on our side. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and tell all my nieces, nephews and young cousins that I’m not going to be in the country in 2019… There’s no way I’ll be sitting through Toy Story 4!

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