It goes without saying (but I’m going to say it anyways): Our children are our future.
Me? No. I don’t have kids. I have dogs. And you can’t take dogs into public movie theaters. But if I could no doubt even they would pick up on the not so subtle messages being presented to them in recent animated family blockbusters like Wall-E and Happy Feet. Both films tell the story of cute and loveable cast-outs forced to live among the ruinous influence of man. They are both underdogs against overwhelming odds, not only in their immediate social structures (that of more advanced robots and more singing-inclined penguins, respectively), but also against the encroaching destruction wreaked by humanity and their neglect for the planet. Both movies carry huge, whop you over the head like a mallet in Whack-A-Mole, sized messages of conservation, recycling and anti-pollution.
Is this the best way to get the message across? Well, I think that each film has a varying level of effectiveness. No doubt, this is the exact audience that this message needs to reach the most. Yes. Our children are our future? Me? I’ll be joining the 30-somethings in December. The card game is already long in the tooth and everybody knows the cards I’m holding. But the future of this planet lies in the hands of children who are being told something very clear from a source that they absolutely listen to: cartoons.
You know that scene in Disney’s Pinnochio where that jackass kid leads Pinnochio astray and starts smoking gets turned into, well, a jackass? That scene horrified me. I absolutely credit that nightmarish sequence as one of the reasons I’ve never picked up a cigarette. It kept me up at night for countless nights. It completely scared me off of gambling and smoking (I have yet to properly learn the game of poker).
That approach is what was employed in George Miller’s Happy Feet. For the first half of the movie, you have one of the most magical animated stories I have ever seen. When that little egg pops out penguin feet and starts dancing around, you are in love. The entire time Happy Feet grows into adolescence, you are there. We recognize all of the moments: feeling outcast, your first love, striving to be the best at being you. The first half of Happy Feet was one of my favorite experiences in a theater that year.
Then something just… snaps. We meet the older penguin voiced by Mork from Ork. He’s got a plastic six-pack holder stuck around his neck. Okay. It’s Robin Williams so it’s still funny… right? I’m still with it, I guess. Then the heavier pollution themes begin to appear. The ice is melting. The oil tankers are coming. There’s a horrific scene where Robin Williams’ penguin appears to have died violently while gasping for air. The story begins to get weighed down to a crawl. Then it starts to bend under this weight. The audience checks their watches. Happy Feet gets caught in a net and brought into the world of man.
Then the movie turns into a SCI-FI HORROR FILM AND I AM SCARED! In minutes, Happy Feet goes from being something that I am completely invested in to something that scares the living hell out of me. The visual language of the film is from horror films. The themes and sounds resonate the darkest science fiction, alien invasion plots of the 1950s and 1960s. I am 100% creeped the fuck out. The kid next to me is covering his eyes. We are sharing the same expression on our faces. Our jaws are agape and our eyes are wide. Complete “what the hell is happening” fear.
In Happy Feet, the humans might be represented as faceless members of a whole but they are absolutely REAL. They are realistic in their compositions and rendering. They are human in their voices. The pollution and destruction that they have wrought are real world terrors from the front pages of our newspapers (or at least the papers that Al Gore and I read). There is an immediate recognition and attribution when these horrors and humans are on screen.
Is it too much? The movie went on to rake in all sorts of cash at the box office. We lived in a world of Happy Feet for 6 months. The film won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature (over the perfect Monster House). But I can’t help but think that many of us were left behind. For me, the language of the message was too much.
With Happy Feet I felt as though I was being scared into a certain way of thinking. The stance was obvious and I was being provoked into getting in line. The gradual brainwashing sequence in the film comes to mind. Happy Feet scared you into being a better person… for the good of our world.
Wall-E goes about the same message in a very different way. Here, the problems are magnified far beyond reality. Our world is already uninhabitable and has been for centuries. The Earth has already lost. Humanity has already begun a slow devolution as punishment for their myopic and selfish crimes. But you laughed! And even though the world in which Wall-E exists is severely separated from the reality we currently live in, we felt more empathetic towards it. This is a world we wanted to see succeed, even though the odds were that much more insurmountable. Despite its distance from us and the fact that our main character spoke in beeps and whirs, we were invested in its human element.
Wall-E’s complete separation from reality is what gives the message its effectiveness. We aren’t being scared into thinking a certain way. We are painted a picture and given the exaggerated facts and then left with them to make of what we will. THIS is the world of the future. THESE are the people of the future. THAT is what we are left with. The circumstances are SO extreme and farfetched that it gives us the safety to be able to look at the situation objectively. Rather than having a finger pushed in our face and being challenged to react, we are given an image of the world in the film and are asked “how did we end up like this?”.
My girlfriend Laura has an incredible tool that she has mastered through years of working in human resources. I no doubt discovered this tool by messing up somehow but I will spare you that story and share this lesson with you freely. It works wonders.
Simply, when you are met with an interpersonal communication problem, start each sentence with “help me understand…”. It’s fucking genius. “Help me understand why you borrowed my razor without asking me first.” “Help me understand how my XBox Live profile got deleted.” “Help me understand why you thought it was a good idea to have sex in the changing rooms while we were taking store inventory.” Try it. It works in every situation.
What it does is several things. First, it diffuses the problem a bit and keeps both sides from taking immediate defensive positions going into problem solving. Second, it places the ball in THEIR hands. It asks THEM to help YOU. Rather than defensively responding in a rush of excuses, the other side problem solves and processes the series of events that led to the current situation. YOU are the open-armed good guy. THEY are now on your team, working with you to make things right. Someone might be in the wrong, but you start digesting the problem from a neutral and balanced place.
Pixar’s storytellers are so damn smart. The entire world of Wall-E is presented in this way. Even in the opening shots, the film is saying “Help me understand…”. We see spires and mountains and skyscrapers of abandoned junk. The audience is asked by these images to answer… “what happened here?” They are shown the problems of the film’s world on a grand scale but never forced or manipulated into judging. Just given a simple “help me understand.”
On the flipside, Happy Feet does to audiences what I do to my dogs when they won’t eat their pills. I start them off with their food and I watch as they eat it. While they do, I quietly get a treat and bury a pill into it. Then I feed it to them. By the time the pill has been swallowed, it’s too late. I have tricked them! They definitely hate me for that and are defensive about it. Any human would be.
So I pose the question to you: when it comes to using animated films to teach our children lessons, what approach is more effective or welcome? The open armed, humorous distancing of Wall-E? Or the cold, harsh reality lessons of Happy Feet? At the end of the day, is the message getting through? Is the storytelling lost in the lesson or the lesson lost in the storytelling?
Please. Help me understand. Did the message get through to you?