A sideways look at Pixar's films

A sideways look at Pixar's films

A column from the Christmas 2008 issue of Freedom that looks at the subversion to be found in places as unexpected as Pixar's films.

A Sideways Look
Having small children, a large proportion of the films I have seen in the last six years or so have been animated. A surprising number of them are deliciously subversive. What is most interesting is that so many of the highest grossing CGI animations have political themes, even the ones made by News International, though the market leader Pixar, now part of Disney, makes a lot of the strongest points.

Pixar started with theatrically-released feature films in 1995, the first of which was Toy Story. Basically a buddy movie, it was not particularly political, but was followed by A Bug's Life, which features themes of individualism, solidarity and a parasitic caste of grasshoppers filling a role very similar to that of the State.

In A Bug's Life, an ant colony gets bullied by a mob of grasshoppers into handing over large amounts of food every year. Eccentric individualist ant Flik has various plans to help the colony gather more food, but these go wrong and all the food offered to the grasshoppers is lost. To help save the colony, he goes off to find warriors who can fight the grasshoppers, but ends up finding bugs from a travelling circus, who he mistakes for warriors. The grasshoppers are shown to understand that their position in society comes from the fear of the ants, who outnumber them a hundred to one. They are a parasitical group that contributes nothing except for “protection”, mainly from themselves, in much the same way that a lot of would-be states and mafias work. After some adventures, the ants realise their strength lies in numbers and, linking arms in a visual gesture of solidarity, drive out the grasshoppers. The message of this film is clear – unproductive classes can be defeated by the solidarity of the productive class.

The next Pixar film, Toy Story 2, featured the same characters as the first one, but one of them is stolen by a greedy toy store owner. It's the first of Pixar's films to explicitly feature a capitalist as villain, though in this case it is only one capitalist who behaves in an erratic and juvenile way. At the film's conclusion, the defeated store owner is shown on a TV advert running a closing down sale, because his bad actions have led to his ruin in a classic morality tale.

Monsters, Inc was the next film up, with an ecological undercurrent and capitalist villains. The film is set in a parallel world of monsters, which is powered by screams harvested by scaring children. The monster world is running out of screams, because modern kids have become desensitized by video games and mass media, making them harder to scare. The monsters believe that children are toxic and have created a powerful Child Detection Agency (CDA) to prevent direct contact with them. Against the background of the scream shortage, an obvious parallel with energy shortages in our near future, the management of Monsters, Inc, recruit an unsavoury villain to carry out experiments on children to increase the scream that can be obtained. The management are clearly villains, and the CEO is arrested at the end by the CDA after vowing to do anything to keep the company afloat. The film's ending ducks the issues raised by finding new management who aren't as bad as the previous, and by tapping new forms of power that are less harmful – children's laughter.

Not all Pixar's films have politics, though. Finding Nemo, is about an over-protective father on a quest to rescue his son who has been kidnapped by an Australian dentist. Apart from an underlying theme of over-exploitation of the oceans, this has little to offer on today's society. Cars, the seventh film made, is a fable about the triumph of small-town values set in a world populated solely by anthropomorphised cars, obliterating any environmental concerns shown in previous films. It is Pixar's worst performing film in box office terms, though the merchandising opportunities appear to be endless. It is fun, though, and the hippy VW camper with his organic fuel is a nice touch.

The sixth offering was The Incredibles, a tale of everyday superheroes forced to hide their identities after the public start to sue them for their activities. The obvious theme is of those who are different trying to fit in and the film's main villain is a frustrated fan of a superhero, Mr Incredible, who becomes a Bond-style super-villain. My favourite part of this film is when, in his undercover job working for an insurance company, Mr Incredible is carpeted by his boss for not working hard enough for “our people – our stockholders” and told not to help someone being mugged. He flings the irritating, uptight, nitpicking little manager through several walls and breaks all his limbs. None of his colleagues appear too distraught. Wish fulfilment for the writers, perhaps? Or indeed anyone working anywhere where profit comes before people. (Just about all of us, then). The film follows a fairly predictable action setting, but does relentlessly pose the question of whether a man's work or family should come first.
2007 saw Ratatouille, a film about a gourmand rat who dreams of becoming a chef and realises his ambition through a clumsy kitchen porter. The rat follows in the footsteps of master chef Gusteau, who always stated that “anybody can cook”. The premise of the film is to show that skill not background is paramount.

This was followed this year by Wall-E, about a robot left behind on earth to clean up the mountains of rubbish left by the humans. Aside from being an unusual love story between cute robots, the film scores with its obvious warnings about the throwaway consumer society and the environmental degradation caused by it. There is only one company left in the world, called Buy 'N' Large (BnL), who own everything, and whose brand is ubiquitous. In space, humans lose their bones and become more like beached whales, though they start to recover when the Earth comes to support plant life again and they return. There can of course be no irony that Wall-E is sold by Tesco and Wal-Mart, the most obvious targets of the BnL satire.

It is unsurprising that Pixar's films shy away from the comprehensive critique of capitalism that they sometimes hint at. After all, no matter how creative the studio is, it still has a bottom line that must be maintained. What they do provide, however, is a subversively satisfying twist with enough bite to offset the cloying Disney treacle.


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Jan 11 2009 00:13


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Jan 13 2009 08:14

Really good write. I always liked certain scenes (The Incredible's one you mentioned), but never really thought/realized why until now.

Mike Harman
Jan 13 2009 11:39

I've ended up watching most of these as well, although I've not seen A Bugs Life yet. You forgot to mention 'A Bee Movie' which has a strike in it.

Jan 13 2009 23:25

Hi Catch,

There are so many of these cgi films that I opted to concentrate on Pixar. My son loves Bee Movie, but, like a lot of the CGI films, it's really an adult film that also appeals to kids - a lot of the humour is very adult. (Shrek is quite similar - full of things that work on lots of different levels).



Jan 9 2011 06:18

'A Bee Movie' was produced by Dreamworks not Disney/Pixar