Is it really that deep, though?
May 16, 2011 10:20 AM   Subscribe

Kyle Munkittrick, a program director at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a grad student at NYU, writes an interesting essay on understanding Pixar's movies through relationships between the human and non-human characters -- and perhaps shaping how an entire generation sees life and reality.
posted by bayani (26 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Even in films like a A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo, in which humans only exist as backdrops for the action, humanity’s presence in the story is essential.

In what way is humanity essential to A Bug's Life?

Also, is he seriously arguing that Pixar has invented the "spirits inhabit everything around us" model? Until recently, that was the idea everyone already naturally had.
posted by DU at 10:41 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of my essay, "Understanding the first 6 seconds of Pixar's films through relationships between lamps that have come to life and the letters in the word Pixar."
posted by Simpsolover at 10:45 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's not a bad read, but it doesn't help his case that he intentionally avoids examples that, you know, don't help his case.
posted by mrbula at 10:47 AM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Pixar as well-meaning agitprop leaping out in front of the coming post-singularity civil rights battles.

I don't think it really works as an argument but it still makes for an entertaining plate o' beans.
posted by Babblesort at 10:50 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I for one welcome (or coop) our new [rat or a robot or a monstrous alien] overlords
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 10:55 AM on May 16, 2011

I don't think the author's right at all; I think Pixar's portrayals of nonhumans have a lot to do with potential marketing tie ins (especially toy sales). On a deeper level, the reason those nonhuman character-based marketing tie-ins work is that humans have a tendency to more easily connect to non-humans with human characteristics than with actual humans. It's similar to the uncanny valley effect. We can't project as much onto portrayals of actual humans since we know that real people aren't the blank slates we see in our comic book superheroes, pets, computers, and cars (see, my theory even works for that movie too!).

We don't want to buy a human, we want to be the human. But we're ok with buying the human-like character's toy. Or the meal with the human-like character plastered on the packaging. In fact, we like him better than the non-anthropomorphised object, because we see the pure, uncomplicated best (or the pure, uncomplicated, worst) of ourselves reflected in him. Doesn't mean we like the human less, just that our connection to the human-like character is simpler and more easily commodified.

It's a bit of a digression, but I was just talking about a similar phenomenon in a conversation inspired by today's Star Wars post. I have a theory that George Lucas can only tell whether characters are popular based on their toy sales, and so he shaped the prequel characters accordingly. I was thinking, a kid might buy a Boba Fett or an R2D2 or a Yoda or a Darth Vader action figure to play with, but he doesn't necessarily buy a Luke or a Han or a Leia because while playing he becomes that character. He doesn't need the toy. He sees the face of a human character and places himself (or herself, of course) in the role of the character and uses props to playact. But he doesn't quite see himself in the nonhumans, not without a greater imaginative leap, and so it's simultaneously acceptable and necessary that they come in toy form.

Anyway, that's my theory for why the humans in the prequel are completely shafted in terms of characterization and character development, yet JarJar Binks, Darth Maul, and that creepy Wattoo -- who make great toys -- are so prominent in the first prequel.
posted by lesli212 at 11:05 AM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]

Also, toys and fish and robots don't hit the uncanny valley creep out effect as easily. Look at the humans in Toy Story 1, they're spooky plastic dolls. The toys are much more approachable cause they're more stylized and cartoonish.

One note he kind of buries, there's little to no "magic" in the Pixar stories. Everything happens for a reason - the closest to a straight out inexplicable device I can think of is Remy's hair-based control of Linguini. Although that's probably cause they're not adapting older stories.
posted by The Whelk at 11:15 AM on May 16, 2011

the closest to a straight out inexplicable device I can think of

Normal-sized houses cannot be picked up by helium balloons.
posted by DU at 11:23 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Next you'll tell me toys don't talk and have an independent existence
posted by The Whelk at 11:24 AM on May 16, 2011

Also, much to my disappointment, there are as yet no anti-gravity couches for fat people.
posted by Trurl at 11:27 AM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think it really works as an argument but it still makes for an entertaining plate o' beans.

I'm with you. But it made for interesting reading and thought it worth a post. And who doesn't like beans on a Monday?
posted by bayani at 11:28 AM on May 16, 2011

I'm a Pythagorean you insensitive monster.
posted by The Whelk at 11:33 AM on May 16, 2011 [4 favorites]

"Non-humans are sentient beings. That is the central difference between Pixar’s universe and our current reality." But-

"First are the Humans as Villain stories, in which the non-humans discover and develop personhood...." Have you-

"Second are the Humans as Partners stories, in which exceptional non-humans and exceptional humans share a moment of mutual recognition of personhood." I see...

Sit down, dear author, you need to know about the ancient age of cartoons before Renderman.

Work your way backwards... starting with skinned pig faces.
posted by lemuring at 12:08 PM on May 16, 2011

Normal-sized houses cannot be picked up by helium balloons.

posted by quin at 12:57 PM on May 16, 2011

I agree that the "no magic" thing is a much more interesting point, and the one I wish he'd explored. True, each of these world's is fantastic in some way (Monsters, Living toys/cars, talking fish/bugs, intelligent rats manipulating humans with their hair, superheroes, etc.) but once we are in those worlds (and he's right, each of them very similar to our own with that one-step-removed quality) the characters are left entirely to their own devices to fulfill their quests in them. The Incredibles have to function as a family in order to bring down the Omnidroid and Syndrome, Remy, Linguini and Tatou have to marshal all of their abilities to impress Ego. The fish in the tank and the fish and the sea and the birds in the air have to combine their skills to free Nemo. Etc.

But the coolest thing about this, and a big part of what makes Pixar so damned consistently excellent, is that the task presented to the protagonists is staggeringly difficult, bordering on impossible, and that Pixar then doesn't do anything to let them wish their way out of the situation. I adore Finding Nemo, but even just seeing the first poster for it nearly brought me to tears: a swirling vortex of fish in a clear, deep ocean, with one tiny clown fish in the center, and the tag line: "There are 3.7 Trillion fish in the ocean. They're looking for one." And of course, we learn that the one they are, in fact, looking for is actually in a tank in a dentist's office.

The first mark of a great character and great story is the quality of the task before them. Pixar routinely comes up with poignantly impossible tasks and has the protagonists execute them through their own efforts, almost always with a variation on figuring out how to work together because there's no way to accomplish it individually.

That, to me, is the "message" put forth via Pixar, and a damn fine one at that.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:07 PM on May 16, 2011 [9 favorites]

Yeah a lot of that is just good story structure, the challenge is big but the tools to solve it are there all along. Nothing comes up out of nowhere
posted by The Whelk at 1:15 PM on May 16, 2011

Normal-sized houses cannot be picked up by helium balloons.

o rly?
posted by Behemoth at 1:35 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood.

This would be great, except that Pixar's non-human characters are always idealized, deprived of any traits that threaten or disturb the audience. This is a fully domesticated Other who is just like us in every way except the most superficial. In reality, the Pixar Other is a narcissistic fantasy projection of us and the traits we are most proud of in ourselves, and played by non-human characters to cover up the fact that they represent a better class of humanity compared to ordinary humans.

This is most obviously true in The Incredibles, where heroes are an elite class born with super powers who must restore their privileges by defeating a villain who tries to democratize the world by giving everyone super powers via technology. But more subtly in Toy Story 1, where the toys are victimized by Sid, a boy whose family is coded with working class stereotypes: Sid's mother feeds him pop-tarts instead of healthy food; the house is filled with trash; Sid's pet is an aggressive pitbull; his father is shown passed out next to a pile of beer cans in a room decorated with a hunting trophy. The aesthetic contrast between Sid's house and the house that the toys live in could not be stronger: the former is old and run down, the latter perfectly pristine and white. But even this is not enough, the toys' family moves away from this neighborhood by the end of the movie, and the final scenes of the movie show their destination: a Norman Rockwell-esque idyllic country house covered in snow during Christmas.

The final twist is that throughout the series, the toys' are concerned with being outgrown and Woody constantly emphasizes how they are there for the child, not for their own enjoyment of being played with. This preoccupation is very close to the common situation where parents get a lot of gratification out of feeling needed, but gradually their kids grow up and stop needing them. And the toys live a double life, as toys from the kid's perspective, and only come alive when the child is not there or asleep. Isn't this basically a reference to the way that parents also live a double life - playing "Mom" or "Dad" in the child's naive universe, and concealing their true identities as real adults with all the stresses and worries that you don't let your kids know about? This might be one reason why it is popular among parents.

But going back to the issue of class, Wall-E is another movie where the villains are coded with working class stereotypes: the humans are fat, lazy, ignorant, wasteful and mostly shop at what can only be read as Walmart, in contrast to the cultivated upper middle class aesthetic appreciation of "quality" consumer goods that Wall-E has towards his shrine of recovered objects. Pixar gets away with catering to class snobbery because the characters that express those ideas are non-human, so they seem to be outsiders and ignorant of issues of class. If you had human characters with those attitudes, it would be uncomfortably obvious that it's elitism. The overriding theme of "if you work hard, you can overcome all the obstacles" is brutal class ideology that justifies their economic position, and explains away the situation of the working class as a result of poor work ethic.
posted by AlsoMike at 2:21 PM on May 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

Your essay on this topic realy realy really needs to be called "The Pixar Work Ethic".
posted by The Whelk at 2:26 PM on May 16, 2011

AlsoMike, I see how Pixar's movies could be read that way if you really, really wanted to find messages you hate in Pixar movies, sure.

Your example from The Incredibles is easier to read into than most, but I also think it misses the point. They wouldn't be going after Syndrome if all he did was create technology and "democratize" the world with it. They fought against him because he was killing supers, selling arms to terrorists and rogue states, and set an unstoppable murderbot on (fictionalized) lower Manhattan. His motivation for doing so was clearly (to me) just to point out how much of an asshole Bob could be, and that his treatment of the boy Syndrome for not having superpowers is what "created" the syndrome we know now. It's a compelling moral grey area which I think is often missed because it's a superhero cartoon and we're expecting our morality to be black and white.

As for Toy Story, for the purposes of the aesthetics, Syd's house needed to be a depressing dystopia compared to Andy's. Moreover, when we see his house we get a bit of sympathy for Syd, since he's a kid in a shitty environment obviously shaped by those experiences. John Lasseter also made The Princess and the Frog, where the heroine was a lower class woman whose childhood friend was a spoiled upper-crust debutante.

As for WALL-E, I don't know where to start, but the humans sure as shit aren't "villains," but victims. Wall-e and Eve help to accidentally get them to turn away from their screens, and the humans become heroic. It really has nothing to do with class.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:55 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

AlsoMike has it. I think another aspect of Pixar that's frequently ignored is that a lot of their texts are aimed at parents, rather than children. Almost all of their films are centered around themes of parenthing/fostering. Compare and contrast with most of the animated Disneys; a kind of Bildungsroman about growing up, finding independence, defining and asserting identity - these are themes of children maturing. Pixar's by contrast are more often about looking after someone, fostering someone, self-discovery via someone or something else. In short, more typically parental themes. They are also steeped in nostalgia, from the route 66 angle of cars, to the wonderful kitchens of yesteryear in Ratatouille, to the old school toys of Toy Story and so on. Interesting. I don't think this makes them bad texts, necessarily, but I do miss the more, hmmmm, mythic aspects of the Disney films, the more life-and-death struggles.
posted by smoke at 4:39 PM on May 16, 2011

As for WALL-E, I don't know where to start, but the humans sure as shit aren't "villains," but victims.

Were they? Humanity seemed to have done pretty good for itself. The thing that kind of bothered me about WALL-E is that humanity seemed to have some sort of destiny to be bound with earth, even though it had completely shed it's dependence on terra long before. In an alternate sci-fi ending, I hoped WALL-E would return to earth with the plant, but not humans, where we could see in the closing credits, life once again evolve and take over the planet without human influence or co-destiny, over the course of millions of years, into something just as remarkable as had come before.
posted by 2N2222 at 5:09 PM on May 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Syndrome claims that he's going to democratise power, but he decides to go on a killing and destruction spree first so I'm not convinced he was ever going to get around to sharing.

I didn't get "if you work hard, you can overcome all the obstacles" from Wall-E either. I took more of a nature is precious, don't waste it or ignore it theme. Wall-E wasn't working hard, he was flailing wildly, and Eve simply used her in-built tech rather than doing anything particularly beyond her skills.

I do think the article on the FPP has a point - Disney is about the individual discovering themselves or their true calling, while Pixar is about family and community. Both are worthwhile messages, but I bet I could pick a Disney plot summary from a Pixar one in a blind test.
posted by harriet vane at 11:30 PM on May 16, 2011

as mentioned upthread, the big difference is that a lot of the big Pixar movies are basically from a Parent's perspective, even the Toys have a parental/caregiver relationship with the human children.
posted by The Whelk at 11:33 PM on May 16, 2011

They fought against him because he was killing supers, selling arms to terrorists and rogue states, and set an unstoppable murderbot on (fictionalized) lower Manhattan.

I read movies with the principle of "history is written by the victors". Syndrome is a fictional character who is made to do evil things by the writers so that the audience turns against him and what he stands for, and ally themselves with the heroes and what they stand for. Syndrome's murderousness and the Incredibles' goodness is basically propaganda to get the audience to reject democracy and feel sympathy towards what are effectively aristocrats fighting for heritary privilege. Because I am personally pro-democracy, I watch the movie with the assumption that all of Syndrome's alleged atrocities are either lies spread by the Incredibles or actually done by the Incredibles themselves to undermine his democratic project.

His motivation for doing so was clearly (to me) just to point out how much of an asshole Bob could be, and that his treatment of the boy Syndrome for not having superpowers

Yes, a classic cynical anti-democratic slander - "the democratizers are insincere, they aren't really interested in giving power to the people."

Syd's house needed to be a depressing dystopia compared to Andy's. Moreover, when we see his house we get a bit of sympathy for Syd, since he's a kid in a shitty environment obviously shaped by those experiences.

But the writers could have written him as a spoiled upperclass brat driven to cruelty by absent, overworked parents. Instead, they chose to make him an avatar of upper middle class stereotypes of the working class, for the audience to either hate or condescendingly pity.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:56 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

AlsoMike, I got the same impression of Syndrome's motives -- not because I was doing an alternate or deep reading of The Incredibles, but because Syndrome actually says (while monologuing) something to the effect that all he wanted to do was democratize superpowers, but his good intents were twisted when he was rejected time and time again for no good reason.

You're right that Pixar (especially in The Incredibles) is not "pro-democracy" And they're right: democracy and egalitarianism are often twisted to mean "each individual has equal potential for all things". But what those words really should mean is that "each individual should be allowed equal opportunity to do whatever things". Frankly, I don't know if the second definition is even possible in the real world; in the real world individuals are devalued when their innate talents, desires, or goals don't mesh up with the values of their dominant culture. I love that a "children's cartoon" had the guts to explore that.

Further, The Incredibles is also justly critical of the modern American "everybody's a winner!" trend. Everybody's not a winner in all things, and we risk devaluing the truly exceptional when we forget that. It's also brave enough to allegorically admit that denying someone's talents can create a monster. Bob's rejection of a a child's talents (mechanical, not supernatural) literally created Syndrome. And the Parrs seem to have learned the lesson because in the end we see Dash being allowed to utilize his talent.

But on the other hand, viewing The Incredibles as a straight allegory falters because, in order to set up the villain/hero dynamic, the Syndrome story teeters on the edge of, "Listen, just don't even try to do what you're not innately gifted at." At the end he's unredeemable; for all his hard work, he was defeated by the innately gifted.
posted by lesli212 at 9:41 PM on May 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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