Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Deep in the Big Black Heart of the Sunshine State, Pt. 2

In my last post, I discussed the deep, fundamental anxiety of the early Disney movies—and how that anxiety has largely disappeared since the Second World War. I didn’t bother making a hypothesis as to why that was the case, but I suspect it had something to do with the cheery attitude toward American destiny in the 1950s. (Why things didn’t change back in the 1970s, I have no idea.)

I claimed before that the reason Pixar movies are so artistically successful is that they recapture the spirit of anxiety that Disney largely left behind after Bambi. Now, I suppose, it’s time for me to defend that claim. Spoilers follow, including ones for Up. Consider yourself warned.

I’ll confess it’s been too long since I’ve seen the two Toy Story films and A Bug’s Life for me to talk about them, but I’ll say that (a) if internet rumors are any indication, next year’s Toy Story 3 will feature a gaping hole at its center, as Andy goes off to college and Woody, Buzz, et al, find themselves alone and unwanted; and (b) the Animal Kingdom/Disney’s California Adventure 3-D movie It’s Tough to Be a Bug certainly poses a threat to its audience, especially to children, whose screams of terror have made it hard to hear the show every time I’ve ever seen it.

So instead, I’ll start with Monsters, Inc., which taps into a very specific but universal childhood fear: the monster in the closet. Never mind that most of these monsters turn out to be essentially good people—the operative point is that there’s a deep-seated need in Monstropolis for children to be afraid. If anxiety is defined (as it is by Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others) as fear without an object, that’s certainly what we’re dealing with in the world influenced but outside of the movie. Children are afraid of monsters, which deep down they know do not exist—therefore, they are afraid of nothing, of an empty space in their closet. Monsters, Inc. plays off of this fear, exploits it before finally putting it (no pun intended) to bed.

That Monstropolis eventually moves beyond its need for children’s screams of fear in favor of their screams of laughter makes no difference; the movie is very clear that there are monsters (we meet two of them and must assume there are more) who scare for the sheer pleasure of it—monsters who would never listen to reason, who are out to get us for the sheer evil of it.

Finding Nemo, on the other hand, begins with a reference to and amplification of the central terror in Bambi. Here Marlin’s wife dies a terrible death just as they’re planning their life together, and the Barrucuda who eats her also goes ahead and takes out all but one of her eggs. Marlin—understandably, although the film doesn’t seem to acknowledge that!—becomes a picture of anxiety, protecting his disabled son (a nod to Dumbo, though Nemo doesn’t get the brutal mocking that his elephantine counterpart does) from the world that took his wife with little to no warning.

Marlin is right—it’s a big, cruel world out there, one that does not particularly care about you, one that’s happy to eat you alive, and though the movie takes a few steps back from the fullness of his anxiety, it largely still paints a picture of a world where something terrible is going to happen to everyone. Marlin and Nemo thus become pictures of what Paul Tillich calls courage, acting in the face of their own anxiety.

The Incredibles has, I believe, the honor of being the first Disney animated feature to be rated PG. The MPAA says it’s for “cartoon violence,” and yes, it deals relatively openly with death, with Syndrome murdering every superhero he can get his hands on—and worse, the blame gets planted squarely on Mr. Incredible’s broad shoulders, since all this death is the product of his coldness decades before.

But the deepest anxiety in the film comes from the suburban ennui the superheroes experience when they attempt to reintegrate into society. It reminds me of the American existentialist novels of the 1950s and 1960s—Mr. Incredible becomes Rabbit Angstrom. Having experienced greatness on the basketball court or in the world of crimefighting, our heroes can’t lower themselves to the “normal” world. It’s no wonder Mr. Incredible steps out, and it’s telling that Elastigirl thinks he’s having an affair.

In this, then, The Incredibles may be the darkest and most anxious of the Disney canon because its anxiety exists in our world. We’re all afraid of losing our parents, ala Bambi or Finding Nemo—but that loss is inevitable. What’s scarier is the notion that we are not special, that we’re going to go through the world in a cubicle, our souls buried beneath TS reports and fluorescent lights. This is a fear that can hardly be named, the essence of anxiety.

The next feature, Cars, takes that nightmare and expands it to cover an entire town. Radiator Springs, too, was once an exceptional town, an adorable little tourist trap, but when Route 66 falls into ruin, so does the town and its people. Anxiety sets in—how can everyone drive right past our lives? How can we be this insignificant?

Last year’s Wall*E, in my opinion the greatest of the Pixar films thus far, is about the dizziness that ensues from the combination of freedom and responsibility, ala Jean-Paul Sartre. The human race has exercised its freedom in a predictably ugly way, by completely destroying the planet and then avoiding its responsibility by vacating the planet for an extended cruise-ship life of overeating and sedentariness.

Our hero is a model of responsibility, a robot left to clean up the entire mess who accidentally learns agency but still does not abandon his responsibility. When he manages to teach that responsibility to the humans on board the cruise ship, deep pain ensues—they’re forced to work, to think, to connect in ways that are difficult and hurtful for them. The movie is in many ways about the end of anxiety, but the characters have go through the swamp to get to the dry land.

Finally, we come to Up. The film lightens up considerably after the first half-hour or so, but the first act may be the darkest thing ever released in a mainstream cartoon. We meet Carl and Ellie Frederickson when they are only children and are treated to a beautiful—and then brutal—wordless tour of their lives together. They’re the happiest couple you can imagine until Ellie gets pregnant and has a miscarriage. (In a movie that children all over the country are flocking to in droves!)

At this point, they come up with the idea of having an adventure in Paradise Falls, South America. Life intervenes, and it never happens. To some extent we have here the image of suburban ennui in The Incredibles, but it’s never implied that Carl and Ellie stand above or outside their society. They’re just normal people who love each other and whose dreams have been crushed by the contingencies of life.

Finally, Carl buys two tickets to Paradise Falls, and as he’s about to give them to his wife, she collapses. Then she dies. All of this is in the first eight minutes of the movie, and yet we feel that we know this couple, and her death is earth-shattering, horrible, and ugly. Carl’s life turns gray and bleak, and he decides to sail his house on 10,000 multicolored balloons to Paradise Falls—presumably to die. The film is built on a death wish built out of deep loneliness.

Now—all this darkness serves to make the brightness at the end of each of these films brighter, in a way that a movie without it—let’s say Brother Bear, my favorite whipping boy in the Disney stable—isn’t bright. My point is not that Pixar creates dark films that will disturb children. As I said last time, I wasn’t disturbed by the similarly dark early Disney films as a child. Rather, this anxiety is something they’re doing right, and I suspect that as long as they keep it up, we will be able to merge our lives with the characters’, and Pixar will stay on top.

5 comments:

stanford said...

Really interesting analysis. It seems to me that in clichéd rush to make us identify with 'villains' and to make 'heroes' conflicted (this stopped being innovative a decade ago, yet everyone still seems to think it is soooo clever), the narrative space between them has been compressed to the point that dread has been squeezed out.

I wonder if you think some of the same principles apply to the evolution of live action films as well?

Michial said...

I'm embarrassed to say that I don't watch many live-action films--I'm much more into television and cartoons. Call me lowbrow. But I'd imagine you're right; nothing I've seen has compared to 1930s and '40s film noir in terms of existential dread.

Except, that is, the Coen brothers movies (I've seen all of them, and I love them), each of which presents man as almost irrevocably stupid and wicked and almost all of which feature a character of pure evil. "No Country for Old Men" is the most obvious.

Tim Rhodes said...

Another great post. I don't think you're overthinking any of this at all (to carry on from the last post's comments). I think that one of the main reasons I haven't given many of the older Disney movies much critical thought is just because it has been so long since I had seen them.

I just saw "Up." I was so afraid I was going to build it up too much before seeing it, but it was better than even my highest expectations.

Corey said...

Man this is great stuff. Hopefully the next line of 2D films coming out of the mouse will be all the better. More anxiety!

Adrian said...

I really like the points you have made. I love all of these cartoons to death. And I've also noticed a definite lack of darkness in certain cartoons (although I never thought about WWII's influence on that, that was quite interesting), and I think it's a bit disappointing.
I love what Pixar has done, and what the earliest Disney movies have done with causing some sort of terror. I literally got chills thinking about the Queen in Snow White. Scared me shitless.
Back to my point, I think it's good to have some darkness in films - especially cartoons - so children know in a way how to cope with it later on.
Before I continue rambling, great observations, this was an awesome read! :D