Monday, August 25, 2014

Pixar and Personhood

I don't think it's a secret that media has a tremendous impact on our view of reality. The medium is the message all entertainment contains messages both overt and covert. In many ways, the most impactful messages are the ones the story assumes about the world, not the messages that subtly embellish a clever plot.  Even shows about nothing are about something. 

I recently read an interesting article over at Discover Magazine called "The Hidden Message in Pixars' Films." The author makes an interesting case that Pixar's movies are changing the way the next generation thinks about what it means to be a person - or even what it means to be human:

Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity. Buried within that constant  and complex goodness is a hidden message...

What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind...

An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere….

Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, is credited with saying, "I said I knew a very wise man [who]... believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads he need not care who should make the laws of a nation, and we find that most of the ancient legislators thought that they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet."And a good script writer. 

Please don't misunderstand - I like Pixar's films. The Toy Story series is fantastic; Up starts with some of the most heart-wrenching and beautiful 10 minutes you can find in film; Finding Nemo never gets old; The Incredibles was both entertaining and thoughtful; and Brave - okay, I could have done without Brave.  In general, I think Pixar films have some of the best overtly good messages in the industry.

I'm not even sure I agree with this article's final conclusions. The author may be giving Pixar more power than it's due. Nonetheless, it's a good reminder that those who tell our most winsome and engaging cultural stories  - books, movies, music - are settling our deepest debates in ways we often don't fully appreciate. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Maze Runner: Something WICKED This Way Comes

The Maze Runner took the YA world by storm in 2009, winning the New York State Charlotte Award, the Kentucky Bluegrass Award, the Oregon Reader’s Choice Award the New Hampshire Isinglass Teen Read Award, the Missouri Truman Readers Award, the Illinois Abraham Lincoln Award , the Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, the Arizona Grand Canyon Reader Award, the Georgia Peach Book Award , and the New Jersey Garden State Book Award.

So, yeah, it's kind of a big deal. Dashner went on to write three more books in the series: The Scorch Trials, The Death Cure, and a prequel called The Kill Order). The previews for the upcoming film look promising, so I suspect it will be a hit as well. However, as much as I enjoyed The Maze Runner (and am looking forward to the movie), I grew increasingly frustrated as I read the remaining books. Please be aware there will be all kinds of spoilers as I offer some thoughts about the series.

The Maze Runner

A boy named Thomas wakes up in a village populated solely by other teenage boys. He doesn't know who or where he is. He learns they all live in the middle of a maze that changes every day. Runners go out every morning attempting to map the maze, then return every night before mechanical monsters kill them (or at least make them wish they were dead). Somehow the maze is important, but no one knows why.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel Comics is on a roll. Guardians of the Galaxy opened with a stunning $94 million dollar weekend, breaking the previous August record for a movie opening. In spite of bewilderment within the entertainment industry leading up to its release (check out Rotten Tomatoes' discussion), critics and audiences have been giving it well-deserved reviews.

It's funny, surprisingly moving at time, and loaded with great special effects. It's not perfect (it's got some crude language, and the scope and severity of the violence was minimized and at times too light-hearted), but as far as summer blockbusters go, it's very good. I was certainly entertained. I was equally challenged by a thought-provoking scene near the end of the movie.

When Peter Quill realizes that he finally has a chance to stop running from hardship and do something truly noble, he tells the other soon-to-be guardians of the galaxy what he has in mind. Rocket soberly summarizes what is painfully clear to all of them:

 “You’re asking us to die.”

As I left the theater, a line from a very different kind of hero kept running through my head: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship. Don’t get me wrong –  Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t meant to be a spiritual parable. But that unexpected, sobering moment lingers with me.*