Monday, December 26, 2011
A Boomer’s Progress: Reflections on the Films of Pixar
by Kevin S. Baldwin
My family recently watched Toy Story 3 (2010) on DVD. Somehow in the chaos of last summer we had missed seeing that Pixar offering in the theater; something we have done without fail for the last decade. Needless to say, it was a fabulous film: Great story, worked on multiple levels, was humorous, and so on. As I continued to reflect on the film, it struck me that Toy Story 3 may be the culmination (or nearly so) of a meta narrative-arc that began with its first feature length film, Toy Story, in 1995. Collectively, these films chronicle many of the concerns of the baby boomer generation as they have matured.
Toy Story (1995) was not only the first entirely computer generated feature length film, it was also a terrific story. Though clearly set in the mid-1990's it was in many ways an homage to the childhoods of the boomers who grew up in the 1950's. The main human character, Andy, has an active imagination that he puts to good use with his toys (who have lives of their own when they are not being played with). The toy's leader is Sheriff Woody, a 1950's era cowboy. All is well in the toy ecosystem until a new "space toy" appears in the form of Buzz Lightyear, who believes he really is an astronaut. Woody's jealousy leads to an adventure worthy of a Norse saga in which both he and Buzz are separated from Andy and nearly face annihilation at the hands of Andy's sadistic next door neighbor, Sid. Order is restored when Woody convinces Buzz that a toy has a duty to be a child's play-thing. Eventually, they join forces to get back to Andy.
At another level this character rivalry reflects the increasing planned obsolescence and consumerism that took hold in the 1950's and has since accelerated. "That which must be owned immediately" is discarded when the next big thing comes along. One existential question Toy Story seems to be asking is: "How does one stay relevant and useful in a world that craves the latest and greatest?" Andy and Buzz are after all, only toys; merely stuff. What is really important are relationships. One of the enigmatic aspects of Pixar's success is the degree to which the movies have been used to sell toys. (Full disclosure: I am staring at a Buzz Lightyear action figure that is sitting on the coffee table and a veritable traffic jam of Cars 2 characters on the windowsill, courtesy of my six year old).
A Bug's Life (1998), extended the discussion of relationships to defining the boundary between individuals and groups. The main character, Flick, is an inventor of sorts who prizes his individuality and independence within the somewhat oppressive confines of an ant colony. Naturally, he is viewed with suspicion by most members of the colony and is exiled. What is an individual's relationship to the whole? Where do we mark that separation? Isn't that really the underlying question behind many of the waxing and waning movements that have encompassed the Baby Boomer generation: The Cold War, the subsequent counterculture, the Great Society, Reaganism, the Collapse of Communism in 1989, the 2008 Financial Meltdown, Obamacare, the Tea Party, and even the current Debt Crisis?
Flick's struggle is played out following an invasion by a band of marauding grasshoppers and a successful defense by a motley crew of outsiders, a circus troupe. Unrelated groups may have to ally in order to defeat evil third parties. In the end, he gets the girl, Princess Atta (mating with the queen is hitting the jackpot in terms of biological fitness in the hymenopteran world).
The tension between things and relationships established in the original Toy Story continues in Toy Story 2 (1999), in which Woody is kidnapped by a greedy collector who recognizes his value as a part of a collection of toys that dates back to the 1950's. Woody is asked to trade his loyalty to Andy for a shot at immortality in a Japanese toy museum. He at first declines, but when a real tear-jerker of a song (Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me," sung by Sarah McLachlan) by Woody's new pal, Jessie the Cowgirl, recounts her owner's loss of interest in her as she grew up, he accepts when he realizes he will be outgrown by Andy. Buzz finally ends up reminding Woody that his job as a toy is to be played with, not to be isolated in a glass display box, and after much ado, Buzz, Woody, and Jessie find their way back to Andy.
Another Pixar sub-theme debuts in this film: A kind of horrible fascination with complex systems. There is a labyrinthian baggage conveyor system at the airport at the end of the story. A conveyor system of doors at the Monster's Inc. factory plays a featured role. Another conveyor system that shuttles trash to the incinerator in Toy Story 3 appears near the end of the film. Is this is all an allusion to the complexity behind the simplicity that characterizes much of modern life?
Monsters, Inc. (2001) is many things: A buddy story, a comedy, and a whodunit, but it may really about having kids and the life-style changes they entail. Children are labelled as toxic, until it is shown they are not. The need for power is a sub-theme, which was nicely underlined in the real world by the Enron-manipulated, artificial power shortages that afflicted California at that time. In Monsters Inc., scarers are heroes who extract power in the form screams from the children they terrorize each night. One 4th of July, as I watched my then infant son recoil and cry out at the sound of fireworks, I couldn’t help but wonder about the effects of much larger “fireworks” on the psyches of Iraqi children. Was shock-and-awe our version of Monsters, Inc? How far are we willing to go to in order to secure “our” energy? In the world of Monsters Inc., the energy shortage is solved when the main characters discover that children's laughter is far more powerful than their screams. Another take on the old adage that it's possible to catch more flies with honey than vinegar or a not so subtle hint that we need to re-imagine our way of life?
Parenthood gets another treatment in Finding Nemo (2003), which also addresses some ecological concerns. Nemo has been raised by an over-protective father (Marlin) following the loss of his mother. In a small act of rebellion, Nemo swims away from his dad only snatched up by an unscrupulous sport diver. The story revolves around Marlin's heroic efforts to find his son (Why is it that single dads get all kinds of kudos for doing things that single moms do all the time. Is it that unusual?). Singe-parenting issues aside, the scene of divers taking fish off the reef, a plague of jellyfish (which do in fact seem to doing very well in overfished, polluted waters around the globe), scenes of indiscriminate industrial fishing, and a sewage line belching its contents into the ocean collectively tell a pretty damning tale of how we are abusing our oceans.
Family is discussed again in The Incredibles (2004), in which superheroes possess superior genetics. Mr. Incredible and Mrs. Incredible (formerly Elastigirl) were forced to stop practicing their super abilities because of liability issues and have been placed in a relocation program. They have settled down and had a family of super kids. A sub-theme revolves around what it actually means to be "super". When his son expected to attend a ceremony for passing from one elementary school grade to another, Mr. Incredible dislikes this celebration of mediocrity. He chafes under the restriction that his kids must hide their superpowers so that they don't stand out and blow their cover as an ordinary family. The Incredible siblings fight amongst themselves without mercy, yet come together when threatened by extra-familial forces in the form of Syndrome: A self-made superhero who has acquired his powers through euthenics and technology. His motto is: When everybody is super, then no one will be. The Incredibles end up triumphing as a family unit, with each member contributing his or her special gifts to the effort. There is clearly some ambivalence here about reconciling disparities between those who are naturally gifted and those who are not so endowed.
Post-WWII economic growth led to unprecedented geographic mobility to new opportunities for highly selective mate choice (a soft form of eugenics, perhaps?) and social programs have extended euthenics to ever larger portions of the population. We have created an incredibly diverse society in terms of abilities. As my grandmother once pithily observed: "Our best have never been better and our worse have never been worse." This heterogeneity makes it difficult to teach a populations of students, and hard to maintain a sense of citizenship amongst individuals of such disparate abilities, life experiences, and expectations (see Matt Taibbi's recent blog: ).
Another aspect of the post WWII America was the ascendancy of the automobile. Pixar's next film, Cars (2006) was set in an alternate universe of autos. Even the landscape mirrors automotive tropes with rock formations that look like Cadillac fins and radiator grills. The Eisenhower era Interstate Highway system was conceived in part as a way of making it easy to move troops and supplies around the country. It is very likely the largest public works project ever, it was however not without its drawbacks. In many locations the placement of the interstates rendered small towns and old highways obsolete. Such was the fate of Radiator Springs and its connection to the rest of the world, Route 66, which have been left behind, and is chronicled in a wistful James Taylor rendering of Randy Newman's song "Our Town."
With the interstate highways came fast food and all the convenience and homogeneity that it implies. Ratatouille (2007) could be seen as an attempt at an antidote. The rodent protagonist, Remy is another strong-willed individual who declines to join in with the rest of his brethren and insists on creating and eating the finest meals rather than subsisting on garbage. He is an "Artist," with all the single-mindedness, and temperamental characteristics that the title implies. Art of course has critics and through the taste-buds of a food critic, the aptly names Anton Ego, we get a meditation on criticism, The film is quite fun in its attempts to translate the abstract world of smell and taste into visual forms. It also succeeds in capturing just how evocative olfaction and taste can be. Ratatouille lit up the screens not long after Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" hit the bookshelves. Together, they signified the rise of slow food, locavory, and other foodie trends that have grown spectacularly over the last decade.
Eating and waste are sub-themes in Wall-E (2008), which is a surprisingly endearing love story between two robots, Wall-E and Eve. WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifters -- Earth Class: It designates robots that are tasked with cleaning up the garbage that has rendered the earth uninhabitable for everything but roaches. One of the opening shots zooms in on skyscrapers that on closer inspection turn out to be neatly stacked piles of garbage. Defunct windmills seem to indicate that alternative energy sources were not enough to maintain human civilization. Severe climate change seems to have happened as the robot protagonist must seek shelter from murderous storms that periodically envelop the city.
In this future dystopia, humans have fled an overcrowded, polluted earth on a giant cruise-ship of a spacecraft that caters to all their needs, courtesy of the Buy n Large Corporation. People are shuttled around on hovering recliner-craft that navigate throughout the ship while supplying entertainment and soft drinks on demand to the lounging "drivers." The people have voluntarily ceded just about everything including the Earth to this giant corporation. Not surprisingly, the lack of gravity, proper nutrition, and exercise have created blimp-like creatures whose bones have shrunk and muscles have atrophied to the point they are unable stand on their own. They are so used to communicating through their devices, they struggle to communicate face-to-face. This is all a brutal send-up of life in 21st century North America and seems to be an endpoint for the cheap energy, transport, and food alluded to in some of the earlier films. There is a bit of satire and subversiveness at work here. After all, isn't Pixar realizing a pretty good income by selling toys that cross-promote their films to us?
Pixar's next film, Up (2009), took on somewhat more somber material. Its curmudgeonly 80-ish main character, Carl Fredricksen, is recently widowed, having married his childhood sweetheart, Ellie, and having had a (sadly) childless marriage. No doubt the Fredricksens represent The Greatest Generation's aging and passing as well as foreshadowing what is in store for the Baby Boomers. Carl seems to be asking how does one find meaning following the loss of a longtime spouse or parent? His answer shows up rather unexpectedly on his doorstep in the form of 8-year-old Russell, a scout in search of adventure and in need of a little guidance. Through their escapades they form some intergenerational bonds. Carl softens up a bit and Russell matures. Together, they seem to make the case that we can't take it with us, but we can pass it on.
This theme is reiterated in Toy Story 3 (2010), Andy is going to college and can't take his toys with him and can't leave them behind in his room. He is given the choice of throwing them away or putting them in the attic. Through some miscommunication they end up at a daycare center, where they are "sacrificed" to rambunctious pre-schoolers by the leader of the daycare center's toys, Lotso, who has some abandonment issues. The toys try to escape but are nearly incinerated before being rescued by a mechanical claw, operated by some little green friends (unguis ex machina?). Eventually the toys find their way back to Andy who decides to leave them with a young girl, Bonnie, whose imagination seems to equal if not surpass his own. Andy accepts that he can't take his childhood with him as he moves on to the next stage of his life. He lets go, and bequeaths his treasure to the next generation.
Pixar's latest film, Cars 2 (2011), is a bit of a buddy film, mixed with some James Bond-like action and plot elements. Though there is a bit of an environmental sub-theme spun around biofuel, it seems a bit contrived. The film has not met with nearly the same critical acclaim as its predecessors. I wonder if this is because it is the first film to step out of the narrative arc of the Boomer life cycle, as I've described above.
Pixar has touched on many key issues of the baby boomer generation: phenomenal material wealth, relationships between individuals and within and apart from larger groups, the joys and travails of family life, societal heterogeneity, automobiles, art and criticism, fast and slow food culture, environmental degradation, waste, the loss of loved ones, and the unidirectional arrow of time. Some of these issues are peculiar to the boomers, others are human universals, and this combination may be part of why Pixar films have been so successful.
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