Mickey Mouse Club: The Best of Britney, Justin & Christina
(Disney DVD)

Empire of the Sun
(Universal DVD)

You'd have to be irrationally sensitive to feel sorry for Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera. For all the pressure of their lives as quazillion-selling recording artists, they all seem to have the two things they obviously want most: global superfame and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. However, even a jaundiced eye can perceive the rictus of need their bleached smiles try to mask. Though they are the defining icons of a whole generation of miserable white trash, they are showbiz children first and foremost, shucking and smiling to please emotionally crippled parents. Could anything be sadder?

For those with some perverse interest in seeing the roots of their willingness to convert every action into an applause break, this is the DVD for you. Before Britney, Justin, and Christina were puppets of the recording and print-media industries, they were puppets of the Disney corporation: dolled up in mall denim, wireless microphones grafted to their jazz hands as they deftly perpetrated candy-ass choreography over noxious arrangements of R&B hits. In short, they were Mouseketeers.

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There's no reason to watch the modernized, vaguely urbanized Mickey Mouse Club (MMC)—even if you have a kid, even if you are a kid—except to see the stars of today (and even some of their less famous contemporaries, like Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling) being put through the paces of insincere sincerity. They learned to be phony in segments like "visits home," where young, earthy Britney shows us how to peel crawfish and race go-karts; where cocky, pre-pubescent Justin takes us on a walking tour of Memphis that includes golf and Graceland; and where scrawny, underfed Christina romps through Orlando with her dog and her sister. Nothing about these segments, or even the "concert" footage (where the rudiments of lip-synching while executing elaborate aerobic dance steps were clearly drilled into them), is surprising; they're boilerplate Disney falseness. What's interesting is the way they translate—via time, plastic surgery, and digital pitch correction—into the adult pursuit of mass adulation by any means necessary. The ladies—especially eternal underdog Christina, whose surgical and stylistic makeovers are as painful to witness as they must be to endure—have it a lot worse than JT. But watching this DVD, it's pretty clear that all three of them would cut off their own heads if they thought it would make someone scream.

Contrast this with the trajectory of one Christian Bale, whose life in showbiz, while dotted with weird choices (hello, Newsies), nonetheless began with Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, in which the young actor's ample talents—his failure to be insincere—were the motor of the whole film. Rather than trade on this obvious head start, he waited almost 20 years to claim his ascendancy, working along the way in kinky art films, demonstrating his (sometimes terrifying) commitment to a craft beyond self-promotion. And guess what: Now he's freaking Batman! ■