Live in Concert

A Goofy Movie (1995)

Walt Disney Pictures

Here’s what we know about the kid in the video: he’s in the backseat (and another world) getting chauffeured around by his older brother. He’s sharply dressed, word-perfect on Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk.” Too young to sit in the front seat, probably on his way home from school, he’s singing about getting a second chance, yearning, regret.

Yeah, but he’s, like, 12. What does he know about regret?

“f*** it up young fella,” reads the older brother’s caption. As he’s careful to film the proceedings without influencing them, we see brotherly love in the camera angle. He’s affectionate, baffled, proud. The comments agree that the kid is awfully young to act so old; he’s “lil man,” “old soul,” “big homie.” But he’s not emotionally precocious, if there is such a thing. You have to be old enough to sit in the front seat, but no one’s too young to feel any particular kind of way.

“Can We Talk” is a bit of a vision board, a smooth operator manifested by a teen, as true of the kid in the video as its singer. Discovered at age 12 by Quincy Jones and collaborating with Prince by 17, Tevin Campbell was the early ‘90s boy king of R&B, caught between his grown-up songs and his—not nearly grown enough—self.

In 1994, Seventeen asked him about “those supersexy Prince numbers” on his album I’m Ready1: “Are you as, um, experienced as those songs suggest?”

“Kids experience things at a young age,” Campbell said, “and even if they haven’t experienced it, it’s on their minds. It’s something we think about, so it’s reality.” His private life and his star image chased each other through all of puberty, a switchback of crayons and cologne. For winter break in his junior year, he even toured with Boyz II Men.

Campbell’s musical style and teen appeal made him a good match to voice Powerline—the “biggest rock star on the planet”—in 1995’s enduring classic, A Goofy Movie. Since Campbell is an avatar for being stuck in the teenage limbo of growing up too fast (or not growing up fast enough), he’s well suited to the movie’s themes of the pains of adolescence and the rewards of being yourself.

Does the thing that makes you different also make you special? How can you follow in someone’s footsteps and still be your own man? How soon is now? In A Goofy Movie, it takes the embarrassing process of growing up to be an original—the road trip between your inheritance (what you’re given) and your destiny (what you do with it).

I know of three roads to get to A Goofy Movie. Road one is the story of Goofy himself. In the ‘40s, he was a hapless everyman, batted about by modern life in parody instructional shorts. By the ‘90s, he’d entered the zeitgeist as a suburban dad in the sitcom Goof Troop. A Goofy Movie expands the backyard shenanigans of that show into a ragtag spectacular. Mickey Mouse shows up; Bigfoot, too. There’s pop star Powerline (hi, Tevin!), a personification of the bridge from Radio Disney (for babies) to Disney at karaoke (cool when I do it). Goofy fears that his son Max (Jason Marsden), now in high school, is a nascent criminal, while Max is mortified that they’re related. 

Road two is the story of its production, which Drew Taylor detailed in a piece for Vanity Fair to mark the movie’s 25th anniversary. In the midst of the Disney renaissance, Goofy’s feature debut was developed outside of Walt Disney Feature Animation as a “Disney MovieToon” on the whim of then-studio chief, Jeffrey Katzenberg. It always strikes me as a miracle that the consensus-first, conference-room style of movie-making ever results in a good movie, let alone one as strange and open as A Goofy Movie.

In that space for weirdness, I see meandering road three. The movie’s development began with Katzenberg’s suggestion of a road trip bridging the generation gap. But Max Goof’s romantic subplot seems informed by an unlikely source: Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac.

Rostand, to be clear, doesn’t have anything so prosaic as a “Story By” credit on A Goofy Movie. Perhaps to distinguish his film from the princess-industrial complex swirling around it, director Kevin Lima has said, “I felt we had made something contemporary. We’d made something that spoke to the time that we lived in, as opposed to a fairy-tale past.”2 The movie is distinctly of its time, with enough pizza, skateboards, landlines, and waterbeds for admission to the mezzanine of ‘90s cool. 

Showing the parallels between Cyrano and A Goofy Movie is a tall order, then. But Goofy is a tall guy, and he didn’t come to Disneyland to not ride the rollercoaster. So here are the facts: Rostand’s play follows Cyrano de Bergerac, the 17th-century swashbuckler and wit. He’s in love with his cousin, Roxane, but he feels unworthy of her because she’s beautiful and his nose is huge. He concocts a plan with the handsome, tongue-tied cadet Christian: if Christian signs his name to Cyrano’s letters, he’ll have Cyrano’s wit, Cyrano will have Christian’s looks, and Roxane will have a proper romantic hero.

That doesn’t sound like a goofy story to you?

After all, Max Goof crushes from afar on a classmate named Roxanne. He’s got a big nose, too—one just like his dad’s—though he treats it with the mirror dread of a zit, making this a Cyrano story about the body horror of adolescence. 

It’s through Cyrano—who sword fights, writes poetry, and sacrifices happiness for love—that Max’s painfully normie teenage insecurity comes into sharper relief. He wants a girlfriend but he’s self-conscious. He can’t wait to grow up but fears becoming his dad. Max and Cyrano share a special sadness: the fear that they’re not good enough. That’s epic poetry by way of second-period English.

Plus, as soon as Max dresses up as Powerline to impress Roxanne, all I see is Cyrano conspiring with Christian to win the heart of the woman he loves.

“Shall we complete each other?” Cyrano asks Christian. “We’ll walk together: you in the light, I in the shadows. I’ll make you eloquent, you’ll make me handsome.” This lie drives the drama of the play. Picture, for example, the famous balcony scene: Roxane stands on hers while Christian professes his love to her, repeating the lines that Cyrano feeds him from the shadows. Eventually, Cyrano pushes Christian aside to woo her. He has to tell her how he feels, even if she thinks he’s someone else. Christian pretending to be Cyrano is a turn-based ruse—there are cooldown periods, second drafts. Cyrano pretending to be Christian, on the other hand, is a live show without a script: if Cyrano doesn’t act in that moment, Roxane might break it off with the both of them.

Max, too, hopes to impress Roxanne by being someone else. About to crash the end-of-year assembly (mirroring Cyrano’s interrupted Act I performance), Max is caught in the adolescent trap between pay attention to me! and don’t look at me!!!! He dresses as Powerline to impress Roxanne, a sharp-angled rock star instead of a beveled Goof. “‘Til mine is the only face you see,” Max-as-Powerline sings, “I’m gonna stand out ‘til you notice me.”  

Once you’re on Cyrano’s wavelength, you see him everywhere. When he believes that Roxane loves him, he duels 100 men at once. Max’s 100:1 moment comes when Roxanne agrees to go with him to her breathless friend’s party “to watch the Powerline concert live on pay-per-view,” and Max skateboards home, invincible. The victory is sweet and short-lived. Cyrano learns that Roxane loves another, and Max’s summer romance is steamrolled by his dad’s road trip plans.

Something of the spirit of Cyrano peeks out when Goofy asks, “How many cups of sugar does it take to get to the moon?” It’s a light touch that seals a betrayal, the moment when Max is lying to his dad as well as Roxanne. When Cyrano stalls a cowardly courtier by inventing six whimsical ways to get to the moon, he’s making sure that he and Roxane will never marry. And, call it patternicity, but I see a germ of the pun-drunk baker Ragueneau—Cyrano’s ally who sells pastries in exchange for poems—in Bobby Zimuruski. He’s the wastoid-architect behind “the leaning tower of cheez-a” who sells A/V favors in exchange for spray cheese.3

Along with these little parallels, it’s the daylight between the play and A Goofy Movie’s Cyrano set-up that yields the richest thematic depths. When Max performs as Powerline, he’s lip-syncing—Powerline’s words, Powerline’s voice. Even the dance moves are straight out of the music video. Cyrano wears Christian’s good looks as a mask. But if Max is all Powerline, then where is he in Cyrano’s bargain?

The equipment fails and Max re-emerges; he has to tell Roxanne how he feels, a moment of truth he soon complicates with escalating lies. It’s the tightrope tension of performing live, of Cyrano pretending to be Christian, that A Goofy Movie takes as an organizing motif: hesitate and life will pass you by.

From the secretary outside the principal’s office who hums a funeral march, to the Powerline concert live on pay-per-view, the brevity of live performance demonstrates that time threatens to leave Max behindwhich he wants, because he’s sick of being a kid, but resists, because he doesn’t want to be like his dad. Consider the kick-ass end of school anthem “After Today,” which Max finishes with the downer line, “I wish that this was the day after today.”

A little storm cloud follows Max around: his bad mood. The past yawns behind him, and the present is just an obstacle to future happiness. Goofy, trying to bond with Max, plays a cheesy cassette tape, and Max fights back with an FM guitar solo. Their tape deck duel breaks the radio, and destroys the tape. No more transmissions from an earlier world. All they have is each other, and time.

Middle of nowhere, bad company, worse attitude, waste of time: Max’s teen agony reaches new heights at Lester’s Possum Park, the “awesome possum jamboree” that only swamp criminals on the lam could love. Broken down, rat-shaped robots (fail to) play in a shower of sparks until they finally, mercifully stop. The glitchy playback is missing a certain vitality. Max is desperate to attend those movie-familiar, once-in-a-lifetime high school milestones, concerts, and parties, and here he is stuck at the Chuck E. Cheese where they filmed Deliverance; he’s afraid of missing out on his own life.

Forced to go on a road trip with his father and break his date with Roxanne, Max pretends that he’s in control by telling the movie’s big lie. Not only will he attend Powerline’s concert in person, he explains, Powerline and his dad are former bandmates—one of those classic lies told to impress a girl. Max gets away with his lie but, by movie’s end, is living in the present and tells Roxanne the truth: he’s the navigator, not the driver. He’s the cool kid—maybe; he’s the goof’s kid, for sure.

“Careful,” Goofy says, smoothing the map. “You’ll wrinkle my past…and our future.” Goofy’s sensibility is stuck in the 1940s. He decides to take Max on the road trip because he reckons that Max is Bart Simpson, or worse. “Retracing the steps of [his] boyhood,” they’ll drive the same route and arrive at the same destination—which is to say, Lake Destiny—where they’ll fish with the fishing pole handed down “from Goof to Goof to Goof.” It’s fate versus free will drawn in parent-child miniature, the contested map standing in for Max’s path in life. As Max embraces his goofiness, from his laugh to his nose, Goofy learns that his son is his own man.

However much Max takes after his dad, though, Goofy does the stunts. His signature move is the Perfect Cast, a complex series of poses for casting a fishing line. This is Max’s inheritance, passed down across “12 or 13 generations,” an oral tradition that combines clock face positions and ballet into Macarena-level choreography.4 Goofy ushers Max into adulthood along this worn groove, but until his dad’s life is in danger, Max isn’t interested. When Goofy disappears over the edge of a waterfall, Max performs the Perfect Cast, hooking his dad by the pants and saving the day. The fishing line of their shared tradition is the gossamer connective tissue between generations of Goofs. Goofy, rescued from oblivion, has passed down the Perfect Cast, and Max accepts his heritage by saving his dad.

It’s in the spirit of this new understanding that Goofy decides to help Max win Roxanne’s heart at the Powerline concert. With Max’s encouragement from the catwalk, Goofy performs the Perfect Cast as a kind of dance onstage. When Max, Goofy, and Powerline all dance together, Max is vindicated in Roxanne’s eyes, and the Cyrano triangle explodes. Max is as cool as a rockstar, as dorky as his dad, and totally himself.

When Cyrano presses an unsigned letter on Christian to pass off as his own, he says, “You can change my fantasy into reality.” He’s sick of no one reading his poems; art is an artifact until someone reacts to it, and part of reacting to art is enacting it. That’s what the kid in the video does with “Can We Talk,” what Powerline does with his live show in LA. They pull the recorded into the now. What can you do with a song unsung but sing it?

Dance—the Perfect Cast, for example—is never undanced; it’s either enacted or gone, because the artwork and the body are indivisible in movement. Flashes of Yeats: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?” A secret handshake, a knock only we know, your father’s silly fishing dance—movement common to people gets passed on by being enacted, tradition living on like a flame passed from candle to candle.

Goofy and Max’s differences don’t melt away when they do the Perfect Cast together. But that flame, their bond as father and son, puts them on even footing. Max is literally following in his father’s footsteps. “For the first time ever,” Powerline sings, “we’re seein’ it eye to eye.” 

Records, pages—these are things designed to last; vessels, not wine. But singing, or reading, or any experience that ends, is like a dance in that it cannot be separated from the emotional highs of bringing art into four dimensions. Art as artifact becomes art as interface, a new way to engage with the world.

“I need a new me,” Max sings at the start of the movie, “Plus some positive proof that I’m not just a goof. ” But his goofiness is precisely what appeals to Roxanne. “I already liked you, Max,” she says when he tells her the truth. “From the very first time I saw you laugh. Ah-hyuck.” 

A Goofy Movie is about the value of being yourself, while Cyrano is about the cost. By play’s end, Roxane has been grieving Christian as his widow for 15 years, and Cyrano is dying of devotion—to Roxane, and to his lie. Cyrano would not have had it any other way. Without his nose, he would have “no more glory, nobility, poetry, quaintness, vivacity, or grandeur”5—in short, no panache. His panache is his essential self, as much the white plume he carries into battle as his poet’s soul and his big-ass nose.

As Max overcomes his puberty phobia—which is to say, grows up—he learns to stop worrying and love his nose, too. He discovers his own panache, his essential Goofy-ness, that he makes his own. While he once mimicked Powerline and fought being a Goofy clone, now his relationships are deeper because he’s more audaciously himself.

Something funny happens when your dad shows you how to dance, or your brother plays a song and you learn all the words. You approach it from outside your experience. And then, through the growing pains, outward expression discovers inner feeling. We bring art alive with new meaning by participating in it, candle to candle. For that kid in the video with panache to spare, “Can We Talk” is as much his brother’s song—as much Tevin Campbell’s song—as it is his own.

Art has an afterlife in that grail of early adolescence, the older relative’s music collection. It could be a cousin in art school, could be a brother who can drive. (Doesn’t even have to be your relative; anybody’s cousin will do.) Cool music is a rare oasis from doubt in the teen confidence desert, and what survives the generation gap is anybody’s guess. According to Tevin Campbell, the songs in A Goofy Movie “didn’t really blow up,” not at first. He didn’t know the impact Powerline had made until he was recognized outside the stage door of Hairspray 10 years after A Goofy Movie’s premiere. Now? “It’s gonna be cool forever.” 

  1. Was he ready, though? A sample lyric: “I’d rather do you after school like some homework.”
  2. According to Taylor, Katzenberg suggested pursuing Steve Martin, the Cyrano of the movie Roxanne, to voice Goofy. Ultimately, Goofy was voiced by Goof Troop’s Bill Farmer.
  3. Zimuruski is voiced in an uncredited cameo by America’s then son-in-law, a man we had no hand in choosing whom we also weren’t allowed to turn away, Pauly Shore.
  4. A VCR-breaking moment for the kids dancing along at home: pause, rewind, resume… “You gotta be loose. Relaxed. With your feet apart. 10 o’clock. Two o’clock. Quarter to three. Tour jeté. Twist, over, pas de deux. I’m a little teapot, and the windup… and let ‘er fly! The Perfect Cast.”
  5. Rostand. Act I, Scene IV, p. 37.