Archive for the ‘the great escape’ tag
Spoiler-filled discussion of the Toy Story and Bourne franchises
I watched the satisfying Toy Story 3 yesterday, which is not only setting box office records (Pixar’s highest grossing opening weekend) but critical ones (one of the highest rated films on Metacritic, for instance). The story follows the further adventures of the beloved Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and the gang, as their owner Andy prepares to leave for college. There are some stunning action sequences (the film’s opening is a highlight) and some emotionally moving moments (a moment when the characters hold hands is especially poignant). But what stands out to me the next day is the rich political messages the film offers.
Firstly, there is throughout the Toy Story franchise an emphasis on the emotional rather than commercial value of toys, most clearly exemplified by the evil collector in Toy Story 2. That gets extended in Toy Story 3 by the film’s final sequence which shows 17-year-old Andy passing on his toys to young Bonnie. In addition to being yet another Pixar paean to imagination it’s a reminder that there is a joy to reusing old toys and passing on those old toys to others when they have more use for them which cuts to the heart of a consumerist aquisition of whatever is newest. Caring for old toys is a recurring theme throughout the Toy Story films, which goes beyond mere nostalgia. In the Toy Story films, imagination plus an old box, a paper plate, and some old toys make a perfectly workable spaceship game that are superior to any video game. (Computer games make a brief appearance in TS3, but the suggestion is that these are best enjoyed as a shared experience rather than a solitary one.) Re-using, sharing, and donating wisely are virtues at the heart of the Toy Story films. Disney may make a billion dollars from TS3 merchandise, but the Pixar folks would rather have you playing with your original Toy Story Buzz Lightyear than replace it with every sequel.
Secondly, and more remarkably, the middle third of TS3 showcases a fascist dystopia from which the toys must escape, The Great Escape-style. The Sunnyside Day Care is run by Lotsa Huggins, who smells like strawberries but rules the toys with an iron fist. In the midst of a Disney-financed blockbuster that will earn hundreds of millions of dollars in theaters, and more than that in merchandising and tie-ins, there is a surprisingly seamless tribute to Animal Farm. Orwell’s novel chronicles how easily totalitarianism can arise within democratic societies and how socialist ideals are easily corrupted. Toy Story 3 runs Animal Farm in reverse, beginning with a totalitarian regime (complete with brainwashing, violence, surveillance, torture) and ends with a benign ruler who encourages everyone to contribute what they can to promote the greater good. Like all Hollywood films, we’re required to have a trauma in Lotsa Huggins’ life that leads him to be such a cold, calloused teddy bear. And it’s not as though Toy Story 3 is running a political allegory of the sort that Orwell offered. My point is simply this: Toy Story 3 is a rich, complex story, and (like all rich, complex stories) it is an imagining of how the world works; such imaginings are inherently political.
It’s become commonplace for film critics to encourage viewers to see a film because it is “apolitical.” This happened a great deal with The Hurt Locker, a film that was praised for being “apolitical.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a truly apolitical film, but it would be awfully dull. Every film is political because every film says, in some limited way, “This is how the world is or could be.” So, sure, The Hurt Locker was not political in some narrow, crude sense of saying you should vote for a particular political party. But it was a highly political film in saying, this is one narrow glimpse of what war is like. In understanding what war is like for a bomb diffuser, we are better able to make political decisions like whether we should go to war. Now, critics say The Hurt Locker was apolitical in part because they wanted people to see a very good film and didn’t want them to avoid it for fear of getting Michael Moore’d by it. And some films suffer for trying a bit too hard to make a political point, such as Paul Greengrass’ The Green Zone. But every film, from romantic comedies to big war spectacles, contains depictions of human beings interacting with one another that can shape the way we understand the world. And your politics grows out of your understanding of people and how the world works.
One of the remarkable achievements of the Jason Bourne franchise wasn’t just the intense hand-to-hand fight sequences or Paul Greengrass’ shaky, hand-held camera style in the two sequels, but the very smart scripts by criminally under-appreciated Tony Gilroy, who presented a picture of the CIA as a collection of ambitious, petty, untrusting personalities crashing into one another, lying to each other, and fighting for control. Chris Cooper’s Conklin, Brian Cox’s Ward Abbott, Scott Glenn’s Ezra Cramer, Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy, and David Straitharn’s Noah Vosen are each vain, ambitious people who wage wars with each other over Jason Bourne’s future. This image of the CIA seemed radical at the time, and has influenced a whole host of films, right on down through enjoyable drivel like The A-Team. It even led to Daniel Craig’s James Bond going toe-to-toe with Judi Dench’s M in Casino Royale. This image of spies as tossed about by the whims of petty bureaucrats is one that has resonated in popular culture. And that is why the Bourne films are each deeply political. How you think about government, including whom you vote for but certainly not limited to that, can and should be affected by what you think shadow organizations like the CIA are doing. Rendition? Torture? In-fighting? That matters. That’s political.
I could go on and on discussing how every film is political, to some degree. (The Proposal re-calibrates how we view immigration! Artists and Models challenges our views on censorship!) But few are quite so explicit as Toy Story 3. I’m not settled yet on what exactly those political messages are, beyond the general points I made above. But this is part of what good filmmaking does: it leaves you thinking.