Sunday, September 21, 2008

Social Commentary and Children's Entertainment....a Good Combo?

Social commentary is not something that comes to mind when I scroll through the children's movies I've seen over the years. Certainly children's movies reflect the attitudes of the day. You can look right at the progression of the Disney heroines over the years, from Snow White to Mulan, to see how attitudes toward women and their role in society has changed. But I wouldn't suggest that a movie like "Finding Nemo" has any broad meaning to it-- other than "differently abled" fish can swim just as well as any other fish. But Pixar's Wall-E is an entirely different kettle of fish-- so to speak. We like to take our kids to the movie theatre when we can. My son has finally reached the age where he can sit through a whole hour-and-a-half movie and it's great because my husband and I genuinely like animated films. Thanks to the Pixar marketing machine my son has wanted to see "Wall-E" ever since it came out in June and we finally made it to the theatre to see it this morning. "Wall-E" is the story of a robot who has been left behind on a massively over-polluted Earth. He has spent the last 700 years attempting to clean up the piles of trash that have overtaken the whole planet while humanity floats along in space being catered to by a robot army of machines that feed, transport and entertain them. Wall-E lives on Earth by himself, as the other machines have stopped working over the 700-year clean-up period. His only companion is a cockroach who lives on Twinkies. Wall-E continues on with his job of cleaning up, while picking and saving bits of trash that he uses to decorate his "home" in the belly of another big machine. He watches an old tape of "Hello Dolly" and learns about love and companionship from the old movie. Then one day a probe sent from the Axiom, the ship that carries the descendants of the people who originally left Earth, arrives and Wall-E meets EVE; a robot sent to see if organic life has reappeared on the planet. The first 30 minutes of the movie are very quiet. We follow Wall-E through the incredible amount of waste still left to be disposed. The sky is cloudy and polluted and we see that even space is so crowded with satellites that a spaceship must crash through a layer of them just to leave the planet's atmosphere. Clearly Pixar is suggesting we need to recycle. The movie bounces between Earth and the Axiom, showing us that humanity is both wasteful and superfluous. People have reached the point that they are so dependant on machines that they can no longer walk. They have become fat, lazy-- and like I said, altogether pointless. Wow. I wasn't expecting quite so much ecologically-minded content in my G-rated film. But is that a bad thing? I'm guessing from the 96% positive rating the movie got on Rotten Tomatoes that most people would say no. And there is nothing in the message that is incorrect. It doesn't take a genius to notice that human beings are wasteful and a trip to the gym wouldn't hurt most of us. Wall-E is an incredibly sweet character. The movie absolutely has a soul and I enjoyed it very much. But could you call it a good "kid's" movie? That is a matter of perspective. My husband fell asleep during the movie while my 4 1/2-year-old was spellbound. I have no idea what to make of that. But I do wonder what parent's think of "Wall-E" in general. I don't think there is anything wrong with putting the message in a kid's film that we shouldn't be wasteful. (For the record my husband has taught my kids to pick up trash in our neighborhood and throw it away-- my husband isn't against recycling, he just thought the movie was slow). And goodness knows that weight is definitely becoming an issue world-wide. But do kids really get the message from a movie like "Wall-E?" Do they pick up the undertones or do they just get bored and tune out? Does it matter? I really don't know. I thought the movie was cute. My kids liked it and if they come away with the idea that waste is bad, then what could be wrong with that? But my husband was irritated by the whole thing. I think he felt like a social agenda was being shoved down his throat while he was just trying to watch a cartoon. I get that. Sometimes I just want to be entertained too. So what do you think? Is Pixar trying too hard to be socially conscious? Or do you think that it's a great idea to expose kids to a social agenda as early as possible? "Wall-E" has a message that I think most of us would agree is a good one. But if movie-makers get into the habit of including a message, at what point are they likely to court controversy? Just a whiff of spirituality would be enough freak out a whole lot of people IMO. Maybe our acceptance is entirely dependent on the message itself. Or maybe I'm just over-thinking this.

13 comments:

furiousBall said...

i think it's fine, i never want there to be limits on art. if film makers want to include social commentary, that's ok - and we can all vote with our dollars. it will ebb and flow most likely, the studios will react if "message" films do poorly and pare it back or keep it going.

SQT said...

I tend to think movie makers should be able to do whatever they want. I just wonder if children's entertainment is the right placement.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think quite a few movie makers these days are heavy handed. And this sounds like it was. But if it worked as a story I'll forgive it. Certainly, it doesn't hurt to have some fingers pointed at human greed and wastefullness.

The Curmudgeon said...

I would suggest that Wall-E, though animated, was not just a "kids' movie."

Long Suffering Spouse and I went to see it without kids (all of whom are far to old for cartoons... except "Family Guy"... and I'm not old enough for that....)

I think Pixar's success is due to the fact that the films it has made aren't just kids' movies -- they're movies. ("A Bug's Life" was the closest they've come to a kids' movie as such... and it may be the least successful of the Pixar films.)

In movies generally I don't like to be beaten over the head with a "message" -- but here the "message" was an essential part of the plot, don't you think?

SQT said...

Curmudgeon

If I didn't have little kids I'd agree. But my son has been the one who has wanted to see it the most. They've had Wall-E toys on sale at the Disney store and my son checks it out every time we go in there.

Also, Pixar has made Toy Story, Cars, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Monsters-- all of which my kids love.

I do think Pixar makes movies that appeal to adults as well as kids, but when they're released I still think kids are assumed to be the primary audience.

I think the commentary was integral to the plot but it didn't have to be written that way. I guarantee Wall-E could have been created with a completely different concept. But clearly Pixar wanted to make a socially conscious movie. Nothing wrong with that. I just wonder if movie with similar concepts, geared toward children, will be as well received in the future.

Steve Malley said...

Social lessons embedded in children's entertainment are nothing new. Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm were right out there with it. In the first half of the 20th century we had the sly and cynical Bugs Bunny and the slightly creepy, quietly racist agrarian eugenics of Walt Disney.

Embedded well, the lessons go unnoticed in the story. Done badly, well, think 1970's Superfriends...

Oh, and the Pixar that made Toy Story through Monsters, Inc. no longer exists.

Disney used to distribute the independent Pixar's films. It wasn't lost among the management that the Mouse Itself hadn't made a good movie in well over a decade, and buying a quality brand was seen as simpler than trying to do a decent job themselves. Pixar is now a subsidiary of Disney, and I'm not happy...

SQT said...

Steve

I think I remember hearing that Pixar had gone though some changes in recent years, but I never really paid too much attention to it. Does that mean that the new Pixar films won't have the same feel as the old ones? To me Wall-E seemed very different.

Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator said...

I liked Wall-E, though the message was a bit heavy handed. To me it seemed part of the story though, like the Crumudgeon said.

Despite that, when I asked my 6-year-old what the message was, she said "don't leave Earth without permission."

Virginia Lady said...

I agree that the movie isn't just for kids and the marketing of toys isn't just for kids either. I know many people with a variety of toys about their cubes and homes and they aren't for anyone under eighteen. The toys are for them.

As for the message, movies go through phases where messages are there or aren't. I suspect if one were to track it the trend might follow the ups and downs of the economy or women's skirt lengths maybe. ;-)

There are many people who believe the messages get through even when they are background. In fact, if you watch any TV or movies you'll see many brand names in the scenes now. It's advertising. Paid advertising. And it is evidently working. And of course, there are people who believe if a song's lyrics are about killing someone, children will go out and kill people. And other ideas along those lines.

A positive message in a movie can only be a good thing, unless of course, you run a landfill and want people to be wasteful. :-)

I suspect we'll see more of this, even in animated films because so many of the viewers are adults, or at least pretending to be.

Steve Malley said...

Once Disney management starts sticking their oars in, there's no telling how much damage they might do.

'If it ain't broke don't fix it' gets nobody promoted. 'If it ain't broke, buy it, bust it and blame it for breaking' seems to be more the order of the modern day...

Lisa Bee said...

Interesting post and an intriguing question. I actually thought Wall-E wove in its message pretty skillfully because so much of it was conveyed through humor. Which goes a long way toward making it palatable. And I agree that it wouldn't have been the same movie without the message. It would've just been another robot movie (not that there's anything wrong with robot movies).

I don't mind including a message in a movie that's primarily directed toward children (although I agree that kids and adults both enjoy Pixar flicks), as long as it's not over their heads or too preachy. And I don't think Wall-E's message was either.

rethoryke said...

I think other movies that have included social messages have also had very different pacing from the first half of WALL-E. If there had been explosions or disaster or devastation actually happening before your spouse's eyes, he might have felt more entertained, and then not 'minded' the environmental messages.

For myself, I thought the silence was stunning and supported the lyrical tone of the movie. You needed the silence to contrast with the hyperstimulation of the Axiom ship. On the other hand, some people are unaccustomed to silence, so that, in itself, could be disturbing....and some people don't take well to being unsettled by an animated film....

rethoryke said...

I liked the "slower" pace of the Earth scenes in WALL-E. They showed the scale of the problem, and the silence was an important contrast to the hyperstimulation everywhere on the Axiom ship.

But many people might have preferred to see disaster striking, or the fall of human civilization in that first section. More 'action', more explosions or dire situations....that's the core of a lot of entertainment now. Perhaps the lack of sudden disaster reduced the entertainment value for some viewers....and so the environmental message wasn't cloaked in "entertainment" the way it often is in movies.

On the other hand, it might have been the relative silence of the first part of WALL-E that some people found unsettling; it's not what we've come to expect from animated films.