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The New Animation: It’s Not Just About Love Anymore

New America Media, Commentary, Maria Shen Posted: Jul 15, 2008

Editor's Note: It’s been called “leftist propaganda” and accused of being “Malthusian fear mongering.” But "Wall-E," the latest animated movie from Pixar, is part of a new era of children’s movies that prize complex themes over simple tales of morality.

Released on June 27, “Wall-E” has already swept through the country, earning an astounding 97 percent (Certified Fresh!) on Rotten Tomatoes, a Web site that collects film reviews, and reaping more than $32.5 million at the box office.

This G-rated Pixar animation, written and directed by Andrew Stanton, is a futuristic love story/fairy tale, if such stories began with, “Once upon a time, in a post-apocalyptic world brimming with trash and abandoned by the human race….”

With such popularity, and such hefty themes, one can’t help but contrast it with the animations of old, which featured true love’s kiss and a multitude of friendly dwarves.

Classics like “Toy Story,” also produced by Andrew Stanton, preached about friendship, heroism and love. “Wall-E” conveys the same messages, but also includes the evils of human pollution, inadequate waste management, big corporations and big government. The setting is reminiscent of the abandoned emptiness in “I Am Legend,” but its images are ghastlier and lonelier. No one resides on the planet any longer. The scenes where humans the size of well-fed, baby whales slurp “cupcake in a cup” make one think of the themes found in the startling 2004 documentary “Super Size Me.” It is a repeat of movies that have already been done, but “Wall-E” is a warning like no other big-budget animation has been before, while still staying true to its core message: love.

That’s what makes the film so unique.

It’s been called “leftist propaganda” by its critics, and accused of “Malthusian fear mongering” by Jonah Goldberg, a conservative author and commentator, who nevertheless conceded that it is a “fascinating and at times brilliant movie.”

Malthusian fear mongering? Did I mention this is a children’s movie?

Interestingly, “Wall-E” does not stand alone. There seems to be a recent shift in children’s movies these days. Gone are the films with simple tales of morality. More and more animations now weave complex themes into their plotlines.

“The Incredibles,” released in 2004, was a well-received Pixar animation whose plot centered on a family of superheroes forced into hiding their extraordinary identities. Government-sponsored superheroes were then a thing of the past. Negative public opinion and numerous lawsuits by human citizens drove all of the superheroes underground, forbidden by the government to use their powers and confined to false, human identities.

Mr. Incredible and other superheroes are shown to be extraordinary in a world of human mediocrity, yet their powers are suppressed.

The Free Liberal, an online journal providing political and economic commentary, described “The Incredibles” as a quintessential tale of Objectivism.

The journal claims that the plot of the movie was a direct reflection of the ideas of Ayn Rand, the author of iconic novels advocating capitalism and the founder of Objectivism.

“[Ayn Rand] did lash out repeatedly against a world that celebrated mediocrity over achievement, norms over exceptionalism,” writes The Free Liberal.

Cosmo Landesman, who writes for The Sunday Times, agrees. “The Incredibles,” he writes, is “the story of how the egalitarian drive in modern America killed off the superhero. It’s a passionate and politically incorrect plea for truth, justice and the Nietzschean way.”

“Happy Feet” is another film with big themes aimed at young audiences. This 2006 film oozed an unmistakable denunciation of overfishing and pollution, speaking of global warming as truth when its existence was still largely debated (and, to some degree, still is).

In the movie, tap-dancing emperor penguins must seek new food supplies as global climate changes and overfishing deplete their food resources. It brings to light the environmental problems in Antarctica.

Actor Robin Williams remarked, “I hope, in wanting to know more about penguins, kids find out what's really going down.”

But not all think of the movie in a positive way. Glenn Beck of CNN Headline News found this sort of message distasteful.

On the Nov. 20 edition of program, Beck called the movie is "propaganda" and an "animated version of ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’"

“If you're going to include those themes, the least you could do is tell me, a parent. Tell me about it first, okay, so I know I'm walking into propaganda,” Beck said.

Neil Cavuto of Fox News expressed similar sentiments.

“I saw this with my two little boys. And what I found offensive – I don't care what your stands are on the environment – is that they shove this in a kids’ movie.”


Cartoons, animations, and children’s movies have actually always contained a bit of propaganda. An infamous and extreme example can be found in the anti-Japanese cartoons flagrantly displayed by Disney cartoons in the 1940s and 50s.

Watching these cartoons through 21st century eyes, the degradation for the Japanese and their culture is truly appalling. They cemented the stereotypes of squinty-eyed Asians and tinny accents for decades to come. Even now, these stereotypes are widespread.

It might be unfair to compare an anti-pollution message with a racist, anti-Japanese message, but both of these have been described as propaganda.

What makes these new animations with big messages different from the old animations with big messages is simply that, whenever complex messages have appeared in old animations, they have usually been there to breed ignorance, while recent films have been trying to shed light on hot, global issues.

And they are anything but tepid about their topics. Animations like “Happy Feet” and “Wall-E” display their big themes boldly and staunchly. These new animations are now more than ideological proponents of “love,” “harmony” and “happiness.”

They are provocative, acting as a sort of news update for the little ones. And best of all, not everyone agrees with their themes.

After all, who wants another kids’ movie that we can nod dully to, acknowledging for the ten thousandth time, “Yes, love is good”?

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