Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films by M. Keith Booker

16585a5bb1b2570-261x361.jpg Author M. Keith Booker
Isbn 9780313376726
File size 3.6MB
Year 2009
Pages 214
Language English
File format PDF
Category cinema


DISNEY, PIXAR, AND THE HIDDEN MESSAGES OF CHILDREN’S FILMS DISNEY, PIXAR, AND THE HIDDEN MESSAGES OF CHILDREN’S FILMS M. Keith Booker PRAEGER An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC Copyright 2010 by M. Keith Booker All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Booker, M. Keith. Disney, Pixar, and the hidden messages of children’s films / M. Keith Booker. p. cm. Includes filmography. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-313-37672-6 (hard copy : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-0-313-37673-3 (ebook) 1. Children’s films—United States—History and criticism. 2. Animated films—United States—History and criticism. 3. Children’s films—Political aspects. 4. Motion pictures and children. 5. Walt Disney Company. 6. Pixar (Firm) I. Title. PN1995.9.C45B56 2009 2009029420 791.430 75083—dc22 ISBN: 978-0-313-37672-6 EISBN: 978-0-313-37673-3 14 13 12 11 10 1 2 3 4 5 This book is also available on the World Wide Web as an eBook. Visit www.abc-clio.com for details. Praeger An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC ABC-CLIO, LLC 130 Cremona Drive, P.O. Box 1911 Santa Barbara, California 93116-1911 This book is printed on acid-free paper Manufactured in the United States of America For Benjamin, Skylor, and Adam Contents Personal Prologue 1. 2. 3. 4. Disney Does America: A Political History of Children’s Film ix 1 Disney after Disney: The Fall and Rise and Fall of Disney’s Dominance in Children’s Film 37 Magic Goes High-Tech: Pixar and the Children’s Film in the Age of Digital Reproduction 77 The Contemporary Challenge to Disney: Dreamworks and Others 113 Conclusion: The Politics of Children’s Film: What Hollywood Is Really Teaching Our Children 171 Notes 189 Bibliography 197 Films Cited 201 Index 209 Personal Prologue Conservative commentators have, in recent years, gained considerable attention with their claims that America’s youth are being corrupted by television and, especially, film. Employing a fairly standard conservative rewriting of history, such commentators have constructed a nostalgic (and mostly fictional) narrative of cultural history that describes the prominence of violence and sexuality in contemporary American popular culture as a decline from earlier days in which popular culture was dominated by more wholesome images. As with most nostalgic narratives, this one constructs a past that never really existed. In point of fact, there has been considerable suspicion about the possible negative influence of film in particular on America’s children (and on America as a whole) ever since the inception of the film industry at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Robert Sklar points out in Movie-Made America, his important cultural history of American film, the movies emerged as an important force in American culture ‘‘from the bottom up, receiving their principal support from the lowest and most invisible classes in American society’’ (3). Further, Sklar points out that the American film industry emerged during a crucial turning point in American history, as the explosive growth of consumer capitalism at the turn of the century led to a radical restructuring of American society and in particular the rapid growth of an urban working class that included unprecedented numbers of immigrant workers, newly arrived (mostly x Personal Prologue from Europe) to feed the ever-expanding demands of burgeoning American capitalism for more (and, preferably, cheaper) labor. The growth of this new class of American workers understandably led to considerable tensions and anxieties; even as these new workers provided the principal fuel for the growth of what we now think of as the American way of life, they were at the time widely regarded as a dangerous threat to established American values. Given that movies were intimately associated in the American consciousness with this new immigrant working class, it should come as no surprise that there was considerable anxiety about the cultural influence of movies as well. Indeed, for many years it was widely felt that movies were inappropriate fare for children altogether. By the 1930s, however, the film industry was becoming more firmly established as a part of American culture, and children were becoming a more and more important part of the market for that industry. This phenomenon, while reflecting a greater acceptance of film as a cultural form in American society, only served to increase anxieties about the possible negative impact of film on American children. In response, Hollywood began producing films that were overtly designed as wholesome fare suitable for the entire family, with the Disney company emerging in the decade as the leader in the production of movies designed principally for children. Indeed, as Nicholas Sammond points out, Disney profited substantially from public concerns that movies were bad for children by producing movies specifically designed and marketed as alternatives that were good for children. Meanwhile, social scientists began to undertake studies designed to determine the effects of movies on America’s youth. One of the most prominent of these undertakings was a study supported by the Payne Fund of New York City beginning in the spring of 1929, based on the assumption that movies have a powerful and direct influence on young audiences—and that this influence was likely to be negative. The Payne studies involved a large network of psychologists, sociologists, and educational specialists, who studied the supposed effects of movies on America’s youth for four years, producing a number of research reports as well as summaries intended for popular audiences. One of the latter was Henry James Forman’s 1934 Our Movie Made Children, the title of which provided the inspiration for Sklar’s title— ironically so, given Sklar’s much more positive vision of film as a Personal Prologue xi cultural phenomenon. For Forman, movies have tremendous educational potential, but one that was not being effectively utilized for the public good. Indeed, Forman argues that the current organization of the film industry (sometimes dominated, he hints with what may be thinly disguised anti-Semitism, by ‘‘questionable characters’’) was ‘‘extremely likely to create a haphazard, promiscuous and undesirable national consciousness’’ (140). For Forman (employing what came to be known as the ‘‘hypodermic needle’’ model of communication), the minds of children begin as ‘‘unmarked slates,’’ subsequently to be written upon by the movies, often in morally deplorable ways. Indeed, the tone of moral outrage in Forman’s writing is clear, as, upon close examination, is the association of movie-made immorality with immigrants and Jews. A more moderate public volume produced by the Payne studies was Edgar Dale’s How to Appreciate Motion Pictures: A Manual of Motion-Picture Criticism Prepared for High-School Students (1938), though this volume involves the same assumption that movies can have a powerful formative influence on young minds. Aimed, as the title notes, at high-school students, Dale’s study purports to provide practical advice to that audience on what films to watch and what to look for in those films, thus preparing them to resist the most deleterious effects of movie-watching. Among other things, Dale’s vocabulary is avowedly consumerist, putting a great deal of emphasis on ‘‘shopping’’ for films that are appropriate for teenagers. But Dale also puts considerable emphasis on education, arguing that high schools should teach classes in film appreciation so that their students can learn to be better consumers of films. Indeed, Dale’s own book seems designed partly to serve as a textbook for such classes. Along these lines, Dale even envisions the possible establishment of governmentsponsored schools to train artists to work in the motion-picture industry. Finally, Dale describes his ‘‘ideal motion-picture studio,’’ designed not to make profits but to make movies that meet the needs of the people, dominated by artists who seek to make good pictures simply for the satisfaction of producing good work. Casting a haughty and dismissive glance at the glitz and glitter of Hollywood (and, incidentally, making positive comments about the less commercialized film industry of the Soviet Union), Dale concludes by imagining that these film artists of the future will ‘‘look with amused contempt on those so-called artists who obtain their satisfactions in the vulgar xii Personal Prologue display of expensive cars, Hollywood villas, and all such glittering trappings’’ (230). The complaints of both Forman and Dale foreshadow quite directly the more recent concerns of commentators such as Medved about the possible negative impact of the film industry on America’s children. I think, however, that there is an inherent contempt for movies (i.e., an inherent assumption that the effects of movies on kids will be bad) built into many critiques of the film industry and its effects on children. Moreover, it seems to me that the more recent right-wing attacks on the effects of media on children may be informed by a subtle contempt for children as well.1 These attacks seem to begin with the assumption (unsupported by actual data) that our children have become horrors; there must, therefore, be some reason for this sad state, with popular culture ranking as one of the prime suspects. For my part, I love movies, my kids love movies, and, by and large, I’m happy that my kids love movies, especially given some of the alternative entertainments that are available today. On the other hand, as a parent as well as a film critic, I naturally have concerns about the effects of film (and most other things) on my children, though I suspect that the perspective of my concerns differs from that of Forman, Dale, and Medved. In particular, I share very little of the right-wing concern that movies will teach my kids to be immoral. I don’t even worry very much about the liberal concern that the movies will teach my kids to be sexist or racist: I’m pretty sure I can overcome those possibilities (though sexism is more subtly ingrained in American culture than is racism, I think, and therefore harder to surmount). What I really worry about is that movies might teach my kids the mainstream American values of capitalism, such as valuing competition with others more than cooperation, or valuing money more than people. Among other things, this means that I typically have to read American children’s films against the grain, because these films do generally reinforce, at least on the surface, the mainstream values of American capitalism. Moreover, pressure to adhere to certain preconceived norms of acceptability, especially from the Right, means that American children’s films are often oppressively banal. The right-wing critique of American media is generally couched in almost entirely negative terms, as declarations of what should not appear in children’s films, rather than of what should appear in such films (other than occasionally vague nods toward ‘‘family values’’). All too often, this Personal Prologue xiii attitude results in the removal of so much material that there is very little left with any real bite to it. The result, for Bazalgette and Staples, is tepid fare that hardly matches up to our society’s ‘‘much vaunted concern for children and the sanctity of childhood,’’ which should cause us to devote considerable resources to the production of a far richer and more varied body of children’s films than currently emanates from the ‘‘low-risk, high-yield philosophy’’ of the children’s culture industry (108). I am, among other things, a professional academic film scholar, and, yes, I should admit up front that I am an unrepentant leftist egghead intellectual. But I am also a dad, and I’ve come to understand that the complexities and responsibilities associated with being a parent to kids who watch movies need to be dealt with by all parents, eggheads or not, and of whatever political persuasion. I hope I have some special experience to share in this sense, because I’m a professional film critic, but also because I’ve been a dad for such a long time, including sharing the childhood of my first son before I became a film scholar and bona fide egghead intellectual. Some of my fondest memories of times spent with my sons involve viewing movies with them; even if I haven’t necessarily always enjoyed the particular movies they’ve enjoyed, I’ve always taken pleasure in their enjoyment. My eldest son, Adam, was born in 1980; my adopted son, Skylor, was born in 1999, though I didn’t meet him until 2002, and didn’t live with him until the middle of 2003. My youngest son, Benjamin, was born in 2005. So I’ve had an especially long and varied tour of the world of kids’ movies, or at least of movies watched by kids— especially if you consider my own experience as a child, which began around 1958 with the first movie I clearly recall seeing in a theater, a Saturday morning showing of Queen of Outer Space (1958), starring Zsa Zsa Gabor, of all people. A dreadful film I now realize, but it must have made quite an impression, and I was so amazed by the spectacle of the big screen that I still remember it, even if I remember very little about the film itself. I have loved science fiction film ever since (and written extensively about it), though I hope my tastes have improved. Most of my childhood film viewing (whether in theaters or on that new TV thing our family first acquired in 1957) was dominated by the products of the Disney corporation, with films such as the Davy Crockett sequence, Old Yeller (1957), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), xiv Personal Prologue and The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) engraving themselves indelibly on my consciousness. Looking back, I’m a bit surprised to realize that there are absolutely no animated films in my memory of things that made an impression on me in my childhood, but that might be because Disney issued only one animated feature during my early formative years (1959’s Sleeping Beauty), and, given the Southern working-class milieu in which I grew up, I (and my parents) probably dismissed that one as being for girls. My own lack of attachment to animated films may provide part of the explanation for the fact that, as Adam was growing up, I never really tried to steer him toward such films. Then again, the 1980s, like the late 1950s, were a relatively dull decade for such films. When Adam was born, Walt Disney had been dead for fourteen years and the movie studio he founded had been in a slump (especially in animation) ever since, while no other studio had picked up the slack. Disney’s business fortunes began to turn around soon after Michael Eisner took the helm of the company in 1984, but it was not until the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 that Walt Disney Pictures began to recover some of the aura of their glory days in movie animation. Consequently, it may be no surprise that, as with my own childhood, none of the movies I remember from Adam’s early childhood were animated. I also made no effort to seek out Disney films for him, having become aware of the controversy over the racism, sexism, and imperialism that seemed to be the primary stuff of which these films were made, at least according to some critics. I’m not quite sure, looking back, how clearly I thought about it at the time, but it seems to me in retrospect that I was also especially suspicious of any films that were overtly marketed as children’s films, on the premise that they were specifically designed to manipulate young minds and therefore were probably unsuitable viewing for any child whose father wanted him to grow up to challenge received ideas and think for himself. That was a mistake on my part. Children’s films may potentially affect children in negative ways, but they have a great potential to reach them in positive ways as well, especially with appropriate parental guidance. And, in any case, children growing up in America will be confronted by a barrage of media all their lives, so it is probably a good idea to learn media-coping skills early on. In any case, most of the films I watched with Adam weren’t really children’s films at all, even when he was quite young. Adam started Personal Prologue xv watching movies at age three, just after I got my first VCR (and just as I was involved in my first divorce, which meant that Adam and I had a lot of time together, just the two of us). I myself wasn’t a very sophisticated viewer of films at that time; I certainly wasn’t a professional student of them as I am now. That was during my first professional incarnation as a research scientist/engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. To qualify for that position I had a fair amount of technical training and some innate facility with mathematics, but I really had very little of what I would later come to regard as a more important kind of education, education in the humanities. (Most scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, and other highly trained and respected professionals—usually thought of as highly educated— similarly lack much in the way of education outside their specific fields, which may be part of the problem with our society today.) The first movie three-year-old Adam fell in love with was the original Star Wars (1977). Maybe I steered him toward science fiction because I was a scientist. Maybe it was that Zsa Zsa Gabor film. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I had been an avid reader of science fiction since age ten (when I discovered the novels of Andre Norton in my public school library, soon to transition to the hard stuff, like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein). Or maybe it was just an accident, because Star Wars was broadcast on television just as Adam was getting old enough to watch movies (and just after I had gotten that VCR, so that I could tape it for him). Having seen virtually no television or movies before, Adam was mesmerized by the film, which he clearly regarded as a sort of miracle, even on grainy home-recorded video. Using the then-magical rewind feature, we must have watched the big light-saber fight between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi hundreds of times. Ditto for the scene in the giant trash compactor on the Death Star in which most of the heroes are nearly pancaked along with the day’s refuse. Back then, in 1983, I saw Star Wars as innocent, rollicking, high-adventure entertainment. I’ve subsequently come to see it as more troubling, but it isn’t really a children’s film and so is not quite within the purview of my concerns in this book, even if it nicely illustrates the difficulty of drawing a boundary between what qualifies as a children’s film and what doesn’t. I should say at this point that I am relatively little troubled by the question of defining just what constitutes a ‘‘children’s film,’’ though xvi Personal Prologue that question (and allied concerns, such as making distinctions between children’s films and family films) is obviously relevant to my project in this book. However, rather than attempt a theoretical definition of the subject matter of this book, I have instead pursued a pragmatic definition. For me, children’s films are largely defined simply as the films that have interested me primarily as potential viewing matter for my sons. I have also focused almost exclusively on American films as the films that have been most accessible (culturally and linguistically) to my boys.2 The other films Adam enjoyed as a youngster were similarly problematic in terms of their status as children’s films, and, looking back, I’m not sure I can entirely remember my criteria in selecting films for him to see. My theory then was that he could watch anything he wanted as long as he watched it with me and as long as we talked about it together, though of course I greatly influenced his choices by taping things specifically for him. The other films he loved in the 1980s (all viewed repeatedly on homemade videotapes) included Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), which I guess could qualify as a children’s film (or at least a member of that allied and equally poorly defined species, the family film), though it would have to be characterized as a children’s horror film, which already raises all sorts of questions. And was it really appropriate for a children’s film to feature a scene in which a fuzzy little critter, however vicious, dramatically explodes from being cooked in a microwave oven? (That is the moment both Adam and I remember most from our original viewings of the film.) Gremlins, incidentally, was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, with Spielberg as executive producer. It followed soon after Spielberg’s E T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), with which it had much in common, Gremlin’s cuddly Gizmo joining E.T. as cute creatures misunderstood by most humans over twenty or so. Released so closely after E.T., Gremlins also announced the arrival of Spielberg/Amblin as a major player in the children’s film business, even as Disney was struggling to keep its feet. Among other things, Gremlins was immediately followed by two other genre-bending kids’ films from Amblin that Adam and I also enjoyed. The Goonies (1985) is an action-adventure flick geared toward children, while Harry and the Hendersons (1987) returns to the formula of the benevolent would-be monster who has to be saved from a suspicious (and Personal Prologue xvii potentially deadly) public. Another genre-crossing favorite was Disney cast-off Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), a postmodern satire masquerading as a children’s film. I think Adam and I finished off that first VCR endlessly replaying the scene in which the truck driver Large Marge’s eyes bulge comically out of her head, frightening the bejesus out of poor Pee-wee. And then there was John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986), perhaps Adam’s favorite film of the whole decade. I never quite understood the appeal of this one, but Adam may have had better judgment than I: the film has stood the test of time and gained something of a cult following (though not primarily among seven- and eight-year-olds, I suspect). There were others Adam liked that I didn’t quite take to, such as the three Karate Kid movies that appeared in the 1980s. And then there was Arnold. Anything Arnold, including bloodbath extravanganzas such as Commando (1985), which I still regret letting him watch. Not sure what I was thinking on that one, other than some vague reaction against the lunkheads who blame all of the world’s ills on the contaminating effects of television and movies on young minds. But The Terminator (1984) was definitely worth watching, and Adam and I have enjoyed the subsequent Terminator films together as well, not to mention the campy science fiction media satire The Running Man (1987) and the underrated Total Recall (1990). Total Recall will always stand as the first film Adam and I saw in a theater in Fayetteville, Arkansas, when we were in town as a still-single father and son looking for housing in the summer prior to the beginning of my second professional incarnation, this time as an English professor at the University of Arkansas. Looking back, I realize (though I didn’t realize it then) that the 1980s constituted a particularly interesting climate in which to be watching children’s films. If nothing else, the weakness of Disney during the decade opened the door for other players (led by Spielberg) to enter the market. This was the decade in which children’s film for the first time became market-driven (quickly leading to much greater box-office success for children’s films), as filmmakers scrambled to give children what they wanted, as opposed to earlier decades, in which the Disney company, with a stranglehold on the children’s film market, basically gave children what Walt wanted. In short, while Disney had in some (and only some) ways stood as a bulwark against the total commodification of children’s film, by the 1980s this xviii Personal Prologue commodification was virtually complete. Of course, this reduction of works of art to the status of commodities is, for leading theorists of postmodernism such as Fredric Jameson, one of the crucial markers of postmodern art. The increasingly postmodern tendencies of Hollywood film3 came to bear on children’s film in the 1980s in other ways as well, most obviously the tendency to ignore traditional genre boundaries and to mix multiple genres within a single film. In retrospect, it is clear that this phenomenon led to the production of much more interesting and diverse children’s films, a phenomenon that has continued over the past two decades, under the leadership of DreamWorks and Pixar. Incidentally, I might point out that, having received a doctorate in English, I was now much better educated than when I had been a mere government scientist, but I was still not necessarily a sophisticated viewer of film, having studied literature in graduate school and having written my doctoral dissertation on the fiction of James Joyce. On the other hand, by 1991 I was remarried—to a Yugoslav woman who said that she fell in love with me largely because I was the first American man she had met who could actually understand sophisticated movies. Maybe that was part of what inspired me to begin to study movies more seriously, but, alas, Adam was by this time approaching the terrible teens and it was too late for my newfound expertise, gained through the 1990s, to be of much use in helping him negotiate the formative film viewing of his tender young years. Flash forward to 2003, when Skylor and his mom moved in with me, the Yugoslav woman having departed via another divorce three years earlier. So I suddenly watched far fewer European films and far more kids’ films, though I must confess that I had seen the first Pixar film, Toy Story (1995), on my own with no kids around, just because I was fascinated by the technology of a completely computer-generated film. In 2003, four-year-old Skylor already had a significant amount of film-viewing experience in which I had played no part, but we subsequently became great movie buddies. It was my first experience viewing movies and television with a young child in the era of easily available video on DVD, a whole different world. Adam and I had watched mostly whatever I could tape from HBO; Skylor and I have had access to virtually every film ever made, though Disney films have still sometimes been a little problematic thanks to their business model, which still involves the periodic removal of their major films Personal Prologue xix from distribution on video, presumably to pump up the market when they are rereleased a few years later for a new batch of kids. (Amazon.com largely solves that problem, of course, with copies of most out-of-print DVDs easily available via their marketplace vendors.) Skylor also came along after the focus of my professional research had begun to shift toward film and television, so there was the advantage that I knew and understood much more about how films and television programs work. But there was the disadvantage that I had to watch so many things for work that much of what we watched together was part of my research, rather than selected specifically by me as appropriate for him. For example, when Skylor came into my household, I was furiously at work on a book about science fiction television that required me to watch hundreds of hours of everything from The Twilight Zone to Farscape and Stargate SG-1. That took up so much time that most of our initial experience in mutual viewing was of television he didn’t enjoy (though there were occasional moments and characters that he liked, such as the shape-shifter Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who for some reason really captured his imagination). We also watched a sprinkling of movies, which was largely a sort of nostalgia trip for me as I attempted to introduce him to many of the films I had watched earlier with Adam. By and large, he wasn’t impressed, though he did take some pleasure in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and he was already a Star Wars fan. I quickly discovered that, for kids of his generation, the real Star Wars is the prequel trilogy, while the original trilogy seems quaint and outdated. I moved almost immediately from work on the science fiction television book (which came out in 2004 with the simple and straightforward title Science Fiction Television) to work on a book about science fiction film (which would come out in 2006 as Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture). So, in the process of working on that book, Skylor and I saw lots of science fiction films, most of which he again found a bit boring. Both Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) were far too slow and plodding, for example. He did enjoy some films that were peripheral parts of my research, such as Enemy Mine (1985), which Adam had also enjoyed as a child. But the Terminator films were about the only ones I worked on extensively that Skylor really found interesting. Apparently Arnold is a can’t-miss with little boys.

Author M. Keith Booker Isbn 9780313376726 File size 3.6MB Year 2009 Pages 214 Language English File format PDF Category Cinema Book Description: FacebookTwitterGoogle+TumblrDiggMySpaceShare This work is a wide-ranging survey of American children’s film that provides detailed analysis of the political implications of these films, as well as a discussion of how movies intended for children have come to be so persistently charged with meaning. • Provides chapter-by-chapter coverage of films from different studios, including two chapters on Disney, one on Pixar, and one on films from other studios (with a special focus on Dreamworks) • Offers bibliographical listings of both printed works cited and films cited in the text • Includes a comprehensive index       Download (3.6MB) The Studios after the Studios: Neoclassical Hollywood (1970-2010) Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 Disney and the Dialectic of Desire: Fantasy as Social Practice Movies R Fun!: A Collection of Cinematic Classics for the Pre-(Film) School Cinephile Love Rules: Silent Hollywood And The Rise Of The Managerial Class Load more posts

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