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America according to Pixar

I was watching Pixar’s Wall-E for the millionth time with my young son. The Earth is ruined and humans have become freakishly obese, oblong, giant éclairs with tiny arms and legs and blond buzz cuts, wearing jumpsuits and whizzing around their spaceship refuge on hover chairs, drinking Slurpee-like meals through straws. Buy ‘n Large, the big box two-of-everything company responsible for the Earth’s demise, is also the engineer of these humans’ salvation.

And then I wondered: What became of everyone else?

Textbooks tell us that economics is the study of the allocation of scarce resources, and free markets allocate according to who has money. So when the resource is a freaking spaceship capable of sustaining shopping-mall-comfortable human life for 700 years, we’re talking really, really scarce, and lots and lots of money. Clearly, these giant éclair people are descended from the moneyed classes, from the Tribecas and Beverley Hills of the world, from the Oyster Bays and the Greenwiches.

So what happened to everyone else? What became of all the people from St. Louis, from Compton, the immigrant home builders, the Bangladeshi garment workers who made the jumpsuits, the Chinese factory workers who tweezed all the microchips into place, the guy working the late shift ringing up your beef jerky purchases at the gas station? That is, the people who couldn’t afford to take a cruise on the Buy n’ Large space ships while the Wall-E robots clean up the toxic mess created by globally consolidated capitalism running its course?

Maybe you could rewind the footage of the loveable self-aware robot on his lonely treks through the trash wasteland to the part where he sifts the detritus of human civilization and picks out a skull. He turns it over with his little anthropomorphized claws in what could be a “poor Yorick” moment: “Poor Tyler, the office temp. He never did make the coffee right, and then he died from fungal pneumonia.”

Actually, the skull would not interest Wall-E because they would be so common. As would femurs, and jawbones, and shinbones, and all the other bits. The remains of some 6 billion people would be scattered through the trash piles where they fell dead from cancer and asthma and starvation. The bones would be bleaching on the banks of fetid rivers. They would be piled up around the spaceship launch stations where hordes of diseased and desperate people were gunned down as they clamored to board the last ship off the dead planet, 1975-Saigon style. Skulls would be so common that Wall-E would toss Tyler the Office Temp away with the rest of the junk, moving on, his binocular eyes whirring to focus on the colors of a Rubix cube, which is really an interesting find.

Of course, we see none of this in Wall-E. And it’s not because skulls and death are verboten for kids movies. If there’s one thing kids movies love, it’s unimaginable horror. Lost in the woods? Maybe a witch will cook you and eat you! Fleeing your step mother? She probably sent a woodsman after you to bring back your heart in a box. You love your mother? Watch this kid’s mother get shot to death! Even human remains show up with semi-regularity in kid’s movies, sometimes to comic effect (Madagascar) and sometimes to scare the bejesus out of the little darlings (The Rescuers).

But not in Wall-E, and probably not out of an excess of caution. The thing is, in Wall-E, in the spectacular fantasy world created by Pixar Studies, there can’t be any bones, because in the Pixar fantasy world none of those other people ever existed at all. Think about it: Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc. Not only are the travails of the less-fortunate unfit material for Pixar narratives, the less-fortunate rarely even appear.

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In the brief history of animated feature films for children, this is unusual. I know Disney is the Death Star of American cultural hegemony in the world, but especially in earlier Disney animated features, the clashing interests of the haves and have-nots – or maybe the down-on-their-lucks and the guys-with-the-whips – is often the central narrative tension, the axel on which the entire action of the plot turns. Take Dumbo, for instance: a physically-deformed protagonist is bullied and his mother – his only protector – is imprisoned. Dumbo is then used and abused by those more powerful than him and forced by a bunch of clowns to perform in front of an audience for the profit of the circus owners. You could argue that it’s just an awful, terrifying story that exploits the greatest fears of all children – bullies, separation from mom, pink elephants on parade – but it’s also the story of an underdog outsider triumphing over adversity and over society itself.

The same could be said of Pinocchio. A boy who is not really a boy wanders away from his modest, clock-making father and society crowds in to exploit the little naïf. Jungle Book also starts off with Mowgli losing his parents, and again, danger lurks in every tree and temple ruin. And of course let’s not forget Bambi. All these stories are essentially the same: There are those – your friends, your parents – who want to help you, and there is everyone else – orangutans, circus clowns, hunters, erudite tigers, anyone with the nickname “Honest John” – who want to use you, to exploit you, or simply to kill you.

Or take Lady and the Tramp, a different kind of Disney outsider movie. Here, in this lovely little New England town circa 1909, the steak-eating, sleek-furred cocker spaniel who lives in a wedding-cake house on “snob hill” gets to experience the other side of the tracks, the other side of life, where her anti-authoritarian counterpart lives in a barrel and eats the bones and other leftovers passed to him by a variety of different immigrant groups that have settled in WASP-ville: Italians, Irish, Germans. Lady falls in with a variety of hucksters and down-on-their-lucksters with different accents that signal a whole range of different social classes and cultures. She also discovers that these inconvenient members of dog society are regularly executed.

Robin Hood is another entry in this genre, and has some of the most emotional portrayals of the struggling poor probably anywhere in American film. Like this folk song, written and performed by Roger Miller:

Every town has its ups and downs
Sometimes ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham

I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flyin’
Can’t you see the tears we’re cryin’?
Can’t there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham.

It’s a refrain straight out of the Dustbowl. And it goes on: Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 101 Dalmatians, The Rescuers, The Aristocats, The Great Mouse Detective. Some greedy person wants to exploit you or wants you dead, and it’s up to you, the underdog outsider, and your underdog outsider friends to help each other out and save the day.

Of course there are caveats to this. In the Disney myth, “triumph” usually means becoming rich and powerful yourself, often with a helping hand from some sort of royalty, so in a sense it’s classic American Dream propaganda. And yes, these old Disney movies are often terribly racist and misogynist. Representing the swinging jazz scene in Jungle Book using apes and monkeys was maybe not the best idea. The crows in Dumbo make you cringe, as does the evil Gypsy in Pinocchio. And the clichéd, knuckleheaded Italian immigrants in Lady and the Tramp have surely made an appearance in someone’s doctoral dissertation on Representations of Immigrant as Other in 20th Century American Film. And I’m also aware that these older films rely heavily on European children’s tales and tropes where conflict between the rich and poor, royalty and commoners, is a constant preoccupation.

But that doesn’t change the fact that these older movies feature something I would call diversity. Rich and poor, young and old, rural and urban, north and south, tyranny and insurgency, immigrants, the disabled, orphans – all have a role to play in the American myth as represented by the 20th century Disney animated feature.

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Somewhere in the 90s, something changed. Maybe because the Cold War ended and prosperity reigned. Maybe you could see it in America rising up to applaud Bill Clinton’s sweeping welfare reform, to vote for Rudy Giuliani time after time as he cleared the riff-raff off the streets of New York City. The rugged individualism of the Regan years seeped into our national identity. Dead-beats and moochers, get a job! The stock market is booming. We are all millionaires now, potentially. And in 1995, Pixar released Toy Story.

In a mythic suburb called the Tri-County area, a sparkly middle-class fantasy world where a single mother of two can simultaneously buy a new two-story brick house and spend all her time caring for her children, the good, white, blue-eyed child – Andy – consumes all the coordinating bedspreads and posters and accessories for his law enforcement toys (Woody = sheriff; Buzz = space ranger). Meanwhile, the bad, evil kid is Sid, the outsider, the skateboarder, the metal-head, the one with the tacky wall-paper and Poptarts for breakfast, the one with a workbench in his room who plays with fireworks and hacks his toys in a way that would offend and horrify the good folks in the Mattel™ marketing department.

In an early Disney movie, the narrative would be reversed. The clever, handy, plucky, outsider kid with the absent or abusive step-parents would find solace in the hodgepodge of cast-off toys that he’s rescued and lovingly brought back to life, and those toys would rally to defeat the machinations of the perfect kid with his perfect toys and matching accessories next door. Instead, by the end of the Toy Story cycle, Andy is the one going to college; Sid is the garbage man.

The outsider-as-villain is repeated in The Incredibles, another Pixar world of upper-middle-class urban and suburban sparkle, where everyone has a job and food and lives in art deco splendor somewhere near a coast. Mr. Incredible is awesome, a superhero with the God-given ability to kick ass, if only the federal government and court system would get out of his way and let him. Buddy is a clearly lonely and outcast kid who is smart enough to make his own rocket boots. But in the Pixar world, these plucky outsiders capable of challenging the status quo are dangerous, and sure enough, jilted by Mr. Incredible, Buddy becomes his nemesis, Syndrome, a brilliant weapons manufacturer with an island lair and an unresolved inferiority complex.

You might argue that Finding Nemo is an underdog movie, where the disadvantaged triumph over overwhelming odds, and it is, of a sort. But while it is maybe Pixar’s best attempt at the Lost Parent genre of kid’s movies, the narrative is instructively Pixarified. Nemo loses his mother at the beginning, but as the result of random violence, the undersea equivalent of a car crash, not the irresistible machinations of the more powerful. Marlin and Nemo are not outsiders; they live in the suburbs, the Great Barrier Reef version of the Tri-County area, as idyllic and tranquil and upper-middle-class as anything you’ll find in a Crate and Barrel. Sure, Nemo has a “lucky fin,” but it has no bearing on the plot, no one mocks him for it, it is no real disadvantage. It is a boutique suburban America disability, like lactose intolerance or a peanut allergy.

In Finding Nemo, bad things happen not as the result of evil or systemic exploitation but misfortune, misunderstanding, misguidedness, misplaced intentions, miscommunication. A nice dentist SCUBA diver thinks he is rescuing you, the shark can’t help himself because he got a whiff of blood, the jelly fish are just hanging out, whoops. There is no intent to evil, no intelligence behind it, no “us versus them,” and in the end everyone is back to the suburbs, having a laugh.

This, indeed, is the central feature of Pixar movies: the status quo. Everyone has their little incidental, accidental adventures, and then things go back more or less to the way they were before, maybe with a few adjustments, because in the Pixar world everything is pretty great. The way Pixar depicts corporate excesses is a great example of this. Monsters, Inc. takes place in a world where (again) everyone eats sushi and lives in peaceful, affluent, urban comfort, yet there is a looming energy crisis due to a shortage of the child screams that produce electricity (kids these days). Mr. Waternoose, the owner of the scream factory, becomes the villain when it turns out he has plans to kidnap children and really give them something to scream about. “For the good of the company,” he says, and to solve the energy crisis. That is, his sin is not greed, but misplaced good intentions, and if he had only done his R&D – as Sully and Mike do later – he would have discovered that laughter produces more energy than screams, solving the problem, and everybody goes happily back to their lives. It’s not that there is anything fundamentally unsustainable about an economic model that institutionalizes ever-expanding consumption of energy: It’s that we must develop new technology, via the wonders of entrepreneurial innovation and the private sector, which are fundamentally good, though sometimes misguided. Somewhere, a Democrat and a Republican are spooning.

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I should maybe pause to mention that I kind of love Pixar movies. I’ve watched most of them dozens of times and can recite large sections of them by heart, laughing at jokes that my son sitting next to me will not understand until years later. They are the movie equivalent of a playground with a bar, which is part of the reason they are worthy of a rambling, 3,000-word essay on what they mean. You won’t find me delving into issues of representation and class in Blue’s Clues. And neither is the Pixar catalogue monolithic and unvarying. Credit where credit is due – a number of Pixar movies sit clearly outside the framework I’m erecting here. A Bug’s Life is a classic David v. Goliath plucky underdog kids movie á la early Disney. Ratatouille – which in my humble opinion is excellent and the most underrated of Pixar movies – also has outsider protagonists struggling against the bad guys, armed with nothing but their wits and few sprigs of rosemary. After all, what is more marginalized and despised than a rat in a kitchen? And I get the sense with later Pixar movies like Toy Story 3 and Up that the writers have started to wonder about some of the things I’m mentioning here: What about the little guy, minorities, people who lose their homes, totalitarian daycares?

But anyway, I’m not trying to argue that the classic Disney movies were somehow better than contemporary Pixar movies, or that Pixar is fully responsible for the values it espouses in its films. Art is as much (or more) a reflection of prevailing values as it is a vehicle for establishing those values. This is especially true in the case of Pixar, which in formulating its own version of our American myth over the last two decades no doubt did a tremendous amount of market research in order to show us what we want to see, or fundamentally, reflect back to us how we imagine ourselves and our society.

So this is what you get: In the Pixar world – in the world we like to think of as ours – there are no urban poor. There are no rural poor. There is no homelessness. There are no orphans. There is no unemployment. There are no immigrants. There is no inequality. We are all homeowners, job-havers, families who spend time with each other. No one is exploited or forgotten. We are all white, or we live and are treated like we are white. We are all upper-middle-class individuals, and our problems are individual ones. We are all the target market for the iPhone. We work for corporations that sometimes err, but that are fundamentally good and eventually correct their own errors. We will all someday be rich.

We are not the skulls in Wall-E. We are the éclair people. And there are no skulls in Wall-E, because if there were, it would make us question something fundamental about the way we structure our society, questions that Pixar does not want us to ask, or better put, that we would rather not ask ourselves. A ruined planet is an abstraction, a distant and intangible possibility, you can walk out of the theater planning to buy a Prius and go on with your life. You can negotiate with an unsustainable economic system that leads to pollution. OK, fine, save the planet, but later. But you can’t negotiate with a mass grave.

So in the Pixar fantasy world – in our American fantasy world – the skulls are not there, because those people aren’t there. And even though the American middle class is shrinking, good jobs are disappearing, public schools and universities are in decline, and poverty is on the rise, we – like Pixar – will probably keep on pretending that the people who can’t afford to save themselves are not there. And we will keep pretending until one day, in spite of all our whiteness and middle-classness and hard work and moral fiber, enough of us will lose our jobs or have our life savings wiped out by cancer or get humiliated and abused by law enforcement or lose our pensions or have our homes illegally foreclosed on or watch someone we love get deported or find ourselves working two jobs for 60 hours a week just to keep the lights on, and we will find that those invisible people do, indeed, exist.

And that now, they are us.

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