parables and princesses

“‘Wall·E’ can’t help but send out a powerful and even frightening environmental message. Though G-rated, its dystopian vision of what the perils of consumer excess have in store for the planet is unnerving without trying too hard, bringing to mind the old truism that Walt Disney and his company (Pixar’s parent) have scared more people than Alfred Hitchcock.”       -Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Note: Minimal spoilers in this post – not much beyond your standard movie review. But really, you should go out and see “Wall·E” immediately!

There was a group of snarky children sitting behind me in the movie theater the other day. We had come straight from happy hour to “Wall·E,” and I wasn’t in the mood to listen to sullen kids shouting, “Lame!” during the previews. “Wouldn’t it be weird if you grew up watching so much computer animation?” my coworker whispered as we suffered through the fifth trailer for a sub-par movie about talking animals. I thought that if the children behind us were any indication, we’d have incredibly high standards for animated films. Nothing would dazzle us; the bigger and flashier, the better. They whispered loudly through the charming short film that preceded the main feature. But as the screen darkened with the first expanse of outer space and the strains of “Hello, Dolly!,” (“Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers”) the kids finally fell silent. 

The opening sequence of Pixar’s newest animated blockbuster is one of the darkest things I’ve ever seen in a film, children’s or otherwise. The cheery “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” the happy jaunt around the galaxy – it all comes crashing down in about ninety seconds. Literally, even, as we descend to Earth and the music fades away. We see a world that has been decimated and abandoned, filled with skyscrapers made of garbage and covered with a thick haze of toxic dust. When you listen to director Andrew Stanton’s happy pitch – “What if mankind evacuated Earth and forgot to turn off the last remaining robot?” – and see clips of the adorable Wall·E hitting himself in the eye with a paddle ball, it all sounds great, like a classic Disney movie. But we quickly learn that 700 years earlier, Earth was driven into the ground under the control of a single mega-corporation, Buy n Large. The remaining inhabitants fled on a “five year cruise” through space that stretched on for centuries. As the camera pans across crumbling highways and enormous scrap heaps, we meet Wall·E, dutifully compacting trash. It’s a bleak introduction, and it left me near tears: it hit too close to home.

People my age – in their mid-twenties or so – began watching movies during what many now consider to be a renaissance in Disney animation, stretching from “The Little Mermaid” to (arguably) “Mulan.” The impact of these films has been pervasive and long-lasting. A few years ago I took a course called “Film Music” (that unfortunately had very little to do with either of those words). The final project was open-ended, so my group took on Disney’s surprisingly complex musical cues, focusing on “Aladdin” (lots of obvious racial/musical connections) and “Beauty and the Beast” (which required a deeper understanding of music, like listening for recurring thematic material). At the start of our presentation we asked for a show of hands to find out who hadn’t seen these films. It was a diverse group of 100 students, with a fair number of foreigners and a huge range of cinematic tastes. Not a single hand went up. Disney had gotten to us all. 

There’s a Facebook group with over 120,000 members called “Disney Gave Me Unrealistic Expectations About Love.” The group is for “the young of heart,” the creators write, “who believe that swapping your voice and family for a pair of legs is a good deal.” They list a dozen instantly recognizable Disney plot-lines that, out of context, sound absolutely absurd. It’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, but I think it’s also an acknowledgment of the lasting impact of the films of our childhood. I love “The Little Mermaid” – I used to watch it every weekend with a bowl of oatmeal – but isn’t the message a tad superficial? Catch his eye with your feminine wiles and seashell bra? Even Disney movies that impart brutal truths (nice guys – and hunchbacks – finish last) are lighthearted and nicely packaged.

Pixar, though owned by Disney, is a different story entirely. Their screenwriters and directors are clever and when they deliver a message, it’s usually sensible and rarely overbearing. In “The Incredibles,” rewarding mediocrity is discouraged, countering the “everyone is special” mantra on which my generation was raised. The same themes are echoed in “Ratatouille” – anyone can become a cook, but not everyone can cook. But these films focus on a child’s development; “Wall·E” is about our collective future. In Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Rich’s “Wall·E for President” is a beautiful assessment of the power of this movie, the lessons that children may be taking from it, and the lessons grown-ups – particularly our presidential candidates – need to take from it.

Climate change, consumer excesses, the necessity to reuse, renew, and recycle: these are not the newest ideas around. But they’ve only recently become accepted fact in children’s movies – and not without a backlash from conservative pundits. I grew up with Disney’s mixed messages: it’s okay for girls to love books, but they’ll be virtual outcasts, forced to flee town and live with bitter, hairy men. All of your problems will be solved if you’re charming, attractive, and manage to marry royalty. A child raised on “Wall·E ” will have a moral compass that’s tuned to our impending environmental disaster. But it will be decades before they’ll be able to make policies and steer corporations; for that matter, it will be decades before most of us can, too. Our fate is in the hands of people raised on a distinctly unmodern Disney, all helpless damsels and strapping princes. Look at the results. “Compare any 10 minutes of the movie with 10 minutes of any cable-news channel,” Frank Rich writes, “and you’ll soon be asking: Exactly who are the adults in our country and who are the cartoon characters?” Grown-ups need “Wall·E” more than children do. You can see it for the cost of two gallons of gas, so get out to the movies – before it’s too late.

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