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Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism

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Focus on the Family: Pixar’s Small-c Conservatism

Earlier this year, the National Review published a list of the top 25 conservative movies. Number two on this list was Pixar’s The Incredibles:

This animated film skips pop-culture references and gross jokes in favor of a story that celebrates marriage, courage, responsibility, and high achievement. A family of superheroes—Mr. Incredible, his wife Elastigirl, and their children—are living an anonymous life in the suburbs, thanks to a society that doesn’t appreciate their unique talents. Then it comes to need them. In one scene, son Dash, a super-speedy runner, wants to try out for track. Mom claims it wouldn’t be fair. “Dad says our powers make us special!” Dash objects. “Everyone is special,” Mom demurs, to which Dash mutters, “Which means nobody is.”

The Incredibles is probably Pixar’s most difficult film to pin down politically, but it is not John Lasseter & Co.’s only film to be read as conservative. At Big Hollywood, John Nolte (in response to the National Review) thought of Ratatouille as another great conservative film which “examines the same theme of extraordinariness” as The Incredibles. It’s interesting that both of these films are directed by Brad Bird. Bird is actually somewhat of an anomaly in the Pixar political scheme, and thus his films are the ones which are most easily read as “ideologically” conservative - that is, as part of an actual, contemporary political movement. If we step back, however, and consider Pixar’s films in a more relaxed definition of “conservatism,” then a political reading of them can actually help us understand something about their art, not just act as fodder for conservative commentating.

There is something conservative about much of Pixar’s output, but when I say conservative, I mean a small “c” conservative that sees the world along the same lines as Edmund Burke: “A disposition to preserve.” I’m going to call this “social conservatism,” by which I don’t mean the religious or moral conservatism of modern political discourse, but a conservatism that is interested in preserving traditional social features - in particular, the idea of “family” - but which sees such preservation as ultimately futile. The family will dissolve, eventually, and so we must do what we can to keep it going as long as possible. It is a worldview based not on progression but on loss.

From the beginning, the anxiety of the loss of family has been central to Pixar. The Toy Story films are a good example of this. As one questioner put it in Roger Ebert’s “Movie Answer Man” column back in 1999, “Think of the toys as symbols for parents. In the early years of childhood, we are everything to children, and they go nowhere without us. As they get older, we become less important in their everyday life. As parents, we know that will happen, but like Woody observes at the end of the movie, we wouldn’t miss a single day of that period of a child’s life.” Toy Story 2, in particular, focuses on the dissolution of the toy family, as Buzz and the gang attempt to rescue Woody from a toy dealer intent on selling Woody in Japan. The subplot of Jessie, a toy abandoned by her child, is the fullest expression of the abandonment feared by all the toys. Although the film ends with the toy community back together again in Andy’s bedroom, the “message” of the film is essentially to enjoy the time we have with those we love, as it won’t last forever.

This is a surprisingly adult message, but over the years, Pixar has made a number of films which return again and again to the anxiety of familial dissolution. Monsters, Inc. does this through the small family unit of Scully and Boo; Finding Nemo is about a father’s inability to let his son go; in Up, an old man learns to live after his wife’s death. In the (unfortunately) much-maligned Cars, the modern world’s loss of small communities (exemplified by Radiator Springs) is a tragedy, and the film (despite the restoration of the community at the end) is mostly a lament for lost values. None of these films may be overtly political, but the moral message is innate: The family (or small community) is central, and it is failing, so we must do what we can to preserve it.

Brad Bird’s films, The Incredibles and Ratatouille, actually deviate from this formula a bit. Although The Incredibles is certainly about a family unit in crisis, it is also about reconciling innate talent with a mediocre existence. Mr. Incredible wants to save the world, but instead he’s stuck in a dead-end job and a suffocating family life. At times, with its message that those who exhibit greatness are morally obligated to act on such greatness, the film has shades of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. This is the element celebrated by the National Review. Yes, the family unit is important in the film, but the characters are all still “super,” greater than the average citizen. The family unit ultimately sticks together because they have to, because if they don’t someone who isn’t actually talented (like the villain, Syndrome) could ruin the world.

Ratatouille’s message - that not everyone can be a genius, but if you are one you can come from anywhere - also reflects a similar concern with the talent of the individual. Granted, in both cases that talent ultimately flourishes by placing it among a family or community (in Ratatouille, Remy’s big night is assisted by the entire colony of rats), but Bird’s films are ultimately a triumph of the individual, not the community. His films seem to take the inherent social conservatism of Pixar features and run with them in another direction.

Wall-E is another interesting exception. The film is certainly an attack against environmental destruction and excessive consumerism, and it is also the Pixar film which drew the most ire of conservative commentators for its depiction of capitalism as inevitably leading us towards a future of obesity and laziness. At the end of the film, the world is saved by society’s (the whole of society, not just a small portion of it) decision to return to the site of disaster and rebuild. Wall-E himself is the impetus for this change, but ultimately humanity can only be saved if it decides to work together. This, of course, is quite different from a message about a small family unit. The vision of a society working together to achieve its common goals is really a liberal vision, a progressive vision.

It is not that the other Pixar films don’t feature cooperation, but it is usually among smaller groups (a few toys, a circus troupe of bugs, a tank full of fish) that such cooperation typically takes place. This is consistent with the continuing theme that one can only flourish and be saved when a part of the family unit. Wall-E is the great exception to this rule, and even in this case, the film’s heart is in the romance between Wall-E and EVE, a budding robot family.

Obviously, as a film studio making what are nominally “family films” in a category that in America is traditionally pitched to children, Pixar’s focus on the family should not be a complete shock. However, the imagination factory at Pixar is renowned for its work ethic and coherent creative vision, and the fact that their films consistently tackle anxiety about the family is more than just a quirk of their medium. It’s part and parcel of their creative vision. The exceptions to this trend - most notably in the films of Brad Bird and in Wall-E - also remind us that Pixar, though it sometimes resembles an auteur in and of itself, is in fact a collection of artists with unique and separate visions, and not all of their films are going to cohere in some thematically satisfying way.

However, if Pixar has developed a reputation as a socially conservative (with a small “c”) film studio, it’s not unwarranted. Such conservatism is also not antithetical to great art. Recent cinematic attempts at creating a “conservative cinema” have been overly ideological and political and thus failures as art (An American Carol comes to mind, as does the continuing conservative love for Red Dawn), but the same can be said for ideologically liberal films (Crash, any number of recent films about the war in Iraq).

A sympathetic artist, regardless of politics, is going to connect. Clint Eastwood is famously conservative, yet many of his films (Unforgiven, Gran Torino) explore with great artistry and craft the intersections of violence and community. If Pixar trends conservative, let it stay that way. The occasional exception (Wall-E) or variation (Ratatouille) makes the studio that much more interesting to watch, and when a Pixar film really nails the emotion and fear inherent in a family’s breakdown, as in this summer’s Up, it can often be transcendent.

Tom Elrod is a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He blogs at http://tomelrod.wordpress.com/.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.