Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pixar's Up: Hidden Agendas


            Pixar, a modest film animation studio based in California, burst on to the children's movie scene in the mid nineties and early 2000's with memorable films like Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Monster's Inc. What makes these films so poignant and successful are the gamut of topics they cover and the broad audience that they reach. In an article written by The Examiner, the top five Pixar films were ranked based on their ability to bridge the gap between the computer-animated driven youth and their elderly counterparts and one of the company's more recent films, Up, came in second. The film, released in 2009, tackles many issues that are easier for younger generations to digest: loyalty to your friends and your family, working together as an unlikely team to complete challenging tasks, and following your dreams with a sense of adventure are just a few among many. However, a much more wholesome and topical theme lies beneath the guise of an all-around crowd pleasing film. The abuse and mutilation of animals for human gain is just as much a part of the film as the struggle between the central characters and is presented in a manner that reaches not only the parents taking their children to see the movie, but the children themselves.

            A particularly powerful scene happens in the first ten minutes of the film. It's a typical boy-meets-girl story that ends with the inevitable death of the girl and the prolonged sadness of the man. Words cannot do the scene justice as it is an emotional roller-coaster of happiness, self-identification, and sadness. In actuality, the scene is expertly crafted and posited in the beginning of the film to set-up an emotional connection with Up's protagonist, Carl Fredricksen. I can speak from experience and there was not a dry eye in the house -- including Pixar's main audience (3-15 years of age). The rest of the film is done in a similar nature by setting up emotional connections with the central characters: a bumbling, youthful nature explorer, a electronically enhanced talking dog, and a strange, exotic bird. This is a theme that is common with all Pixar films. Getting America's youth to think ethically, critically, and logically about complex issues is all but impossible for them to comprehend at such an early stage in life. Complexities such as ethos and logos do not bode well in a seven year old's mind, they just want to sit, look at pretty pictures, and laugh when someone does something funny.

            One theme that did seem to resonate with kids and adults alike was the mistreatment of animals for the gain of the film's antagonist, Charles Muntz. By placing an electronic collar on his legion of well-tamed dogs, Muntz manages to have a formidable opposition against Up's protagonists. He uses this army to aid his search for a rare bird, the Swipe, that he has vowed to catch for many years and return to North America to punch his ticket to fame. Pixar does a wonderful job making the audience accept, at first, Muntz's claims by turning him into Carl's childhood hero and a good man in general. Yet, something does not seem quite right. In the end, Muntz's selfish motives are exposed as he goes on a tear, endangering the lives of not only Carl, but his accomplices and his own army of dogs. The mechanically enhanced K-9's are made to hunt against their will and only stop hunting after physical injury or personal danger. I distinctly remember a little voice from behind me in the theatre asking his mother "why the bad man was hurting his own dogs" and "why he wanted to hurt the bird." Good question, little boy. What reasons other than greed and self-affirmation did Charles Muntz want the swipe? None. Much like in their other films, Pixar used the emotional connection to stir the audience into cheering on the good guys. According to Gianetti readings, Up lands in the "implicit" ideology category. The stance against animal cruelty is not shoved down the viewer's throat, but it is implied that it is wrong through the actions of the antagonist and his downfall. This is not a particularly strong attempt at persuading people to do what you want them to because they may not fully understand what the director is attempting to say. Perhaps the message was meant for the parents exclusively and not the kids -- a mechanic that Pixar is quite fond of.

            While I wouldn't say that Up should be ranked higher on the top-five list submitted by The Examiner, it manages to do what many films with human actors and real animals cannot do to children and adults alike. The animation gurus at Pixar are almost prophetic in the way that they are able to give life and purpose to 3D generated characters rather than human beings. One thing is for certain, Up brought tears and joy to nearly everyone who gave it the time of day. Yet, the film fails to encourage children to think ethically and logically in place of the stark, emotional appeal that all Pixar movies contain. For that, it gets two super-duty, colorful balloons out of three.

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