Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cartoons and Mirrors

A film review.

Once again, Pixar uses brightly colored playthings to smash us to pieces, only to glue us together again.

Prickly pieces have punctuated Pixar's productions in the past. In Finding Nemo, we find a desperate father absolutely devastated by the death of his long lost son. In The Incredibles, a family gets ripped to pieces by secrets that question identity and trust. Wall-E gives us harshly dystopian world in which an orphaned, trash picking robot is the only 'life' left on a planet destroyed by humans. And who can forget the brilliant opening sequence in Up? The perfect confection of boy meets girl leads unstoppably to the bitterness of loss and widowhood.

Dark stuff for kiddie movies. These people at Pixar aren't messing around.

This summer's Toy Story 3 avoids none of the bleakness, either. The end of childhood comes to toy-stewarding Andy, and never in the film do we see him happy to go to college. The focus remains on the toys, however, and here we find abandonment, attempted homicide, and the annihilation of a family.

I'm reminded of the unvarnished Grimm tales. Before Disney (ironically the parent company of Pixar) got a hold of a Grimm tale like "Cinderella," the story was filled with harsh consequences. For instance, the “evil” stepfamily abused Cinderella and constantly lied to her. Cinderella's name comes from the fact that she picked her food from the ashes in the fireplace- often for the sport of her family. Late in the story, when faced with a too-small glass slipper, one of the sisters cut off her own heel to make a gory fit. The prince recognized that Cinderella as the true owner of the shoe simply because “there was no blood in” the shoe when she slipped it on. Birds that spent the story helping Cinderella finish the tale by pecking out the eyes of the sisters, leaving them blinded for a life of darkness.


What makes a Grimm “children's story” tick are the abject desolation and violence that many stories of our time whitewash. Oh, sure, our stories have explosions and death; we love a good chase scene and showdown. But most of our stories often leave us where they found us, counting on the idea that all will be right in the end. The status quo will be preserved. The good guys (or girls) will win and everything will be returned to normal.

The storytellers at Pixar make no deals with us. They grasp that an authentic representation of the world must include irreversible consequences. On one hand, Pixar films seem to offer escape and bliss: we go to these movies expecting to have our heartstrings pulled while we giggle and laugh. On the other hand, Pixar films abuse us with the burdens of our sympathies: we lean forward, inhaling, worried that these little dolls/fish/robots might not actually survive how awful everything is.

We adults watching these films know that the world is an unforgiving place. Bad things happen to good people. Friends leave us. Homes are destroyed forever. People die. We know what's on the line for Nemo's dad when he breaks down in the face of how incredibly large and dangerous the ocean is. We understand that Wall-E's trash dump world is a reasonable, if avoidable, future to our own fragile green planet. And we know that Andy's loyal and determined toys, like all playthings, are all destined to be tossed off by a boy who outgrows his own childhood.

These Pixar characters are destined to be changed forever by their travails, left with permanent scars and irretrievable pasts. In Toy Story 3, Woody and Buzz and the toy gang go through a one-way door, forever leaving the familiar comforts of grown-boy Andy's bedroom. And Andy, too, goes through his own threshold, leaving his emptied bedroom for college. Andy, like his erstwhile plastic and fuzzy friends, will never be the same.

And we, watching from the chilly dark of our cineplex, recognize these primal forces at work. We know that these animations are merely ephemeral pixies, pretty things that glow from hard drives. (It's just a cartoon!) But something about the distance of it all-- the remove of the cartoon coupled with the remove of the cinematic experience, opens a window into the very center of us.

In the dazzling color of all, something wonderful happens. Through the unique alchemy of animation, Pixar makes us kids again. Witches are real, as are giants and monsters. We re-encounter the way we experienced stories as children. We look up at towering kitchen tables, looking through belt buckle perspectives and are reminded just how big and scary and thrilling this world can be.

Where nostalgia helps us shine up our memories, focusing on the good and the beautiful, Pixar's Toy Story 3 gives us the entire memory. We see mom's heartbreak at our newly emptied room. We remember our own favorite and worn toys from our childhood, knowing that these well-loved pieces are likely in a landfill somewhere.

And we remember that first, last time we looked at the place we grew up, that first time we left home. We clearly see that one way door that led from our technicolor childhood to our complex and ever-shifting adulthood.

For a moment, in that half light of the cinema, the fragility and durability of these animated toys pulls back the curtain. And the beauty is more than enough.

1 comment:

  1. That's funny, I have a Grimms tales project brewing for the Fall.

    As as kid I got the uncensored version of the tales. Or so I though. You'll like this. In Cinderella, the mom on deathbed tells the girl that she should be good and pious and God will take care of her. That third character didn't exist in my Bosnian literature, fiction or otherwise.