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Are Pixar's animated features too emotionally manipulative?

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Are Pixar's animated features too emotionally manipulative?

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Did you catch that piece about Michael Barrier that the Huffington Post ran last week? Where this noted animation historian said that the films that Pixar produces " ... are emotionally manipulative in a fundamentally dishonest way."

Well, no disrespect to Mr. Barrier (By that I mean: I'm a longtime fan of Michael's work. I've been reading & enjoying Barrier's articles since he first began making them available through his "Funnyworld" magazine. More to the point, I've got well-thumbed copies of Barrier's books - "Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age" and "The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney" - in my research library. So Michael Barrier is a historian & industry observer whose opinions I've really come to trust over the past 40 years) ... But I think that Michael is way off base here.

Michael Barrier

I mean, it's not that Pixar's movies aren't actually emotionally manipulative. Because they are. But when you get right down to it, aren't all movies (at least the really good ones) emotionally manipulative?

Seriously, people. Think about it. When you go to your local multiplex and sit down in that darkened theater with your over-priced Coke & popcorn & then stare up at that big screen ... Isn't the whole point of making a trip to the movie theater that you're actually hoping to be emotionally manipulated? Because you want someone to tell you a story that will then make you laugh or cry?

Master storyteller Walt Disney certainly understood this. That people genuinely enjoyed being taken on an emotional roller coaster ride whenever they went to the movies. Which is why Walt once famously told the storymen who worked at his studio that " ... for every laugh, there should be a tear."

And right from the get-go - at least when it came to Disney's animated features - Walt made sure that these films had scenes that deliberately went out their way to make the audience cry. I mean, think back to the funeral scene in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

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The only time in this entire movie that we get to see the character Happy being anything other than happy is when he's standing in front of Snow White's bier, weeping.

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Likewise, when Grumpy - who's always been guarded with his emotions right up until this point in the picture - starts to break down ... Well, that's when the audience starts crying as well.

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But the coup de grace in this scene comes with Dopey & Doc. Now you gotta remember that Dopey is basically a pantomime character. He never actually speaks in "Snow White." So to now hear Dopey openly sobbing in Doc's arms ... That's the moment in this animated feature that usually makes even the most stoic audience member reach for the Kleenex.

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And the Disney animated features that were produced during this era, when Walt was personally calling the shots story-wise on all of these projects, are loaded with all sorts of emotionally manipulative moments. Be it the death of Bambi's mother ...

Just a reminder that the Diamond Edition of "Bambi" goes on sale
tomorrow. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... or Cinderella having her dress torn to shreds by her stepsisters and then losing all hope that she'll be ever able to go to the Ball before her Fairy Godmother finally arrives on the scene ...

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... or the entire "Baby Mine" sequence from "Dumbo."

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Each of these Golden era animated features was emotionally manipulative in some way. Though - according to what Barrier told the Huffington Post last week - the pictures that were produced during this period in Disney production history were far " ... more organic in their storytelling."

Whereas the movies that Pixar produces ... Well, to hear Michael talk, they're loaded with "... synthetic emotions."  That these "grotesquely sentimental" films are only suitable to for those who are " ... looking for an excuse to break into tears."

Which - again - kind of confuses me. Because -- to be blunt here -- animated features aren't organic. Whether they're done in CG or by using hand-drawn animation, these types of motion picture are manufactured products which passes through hundreds of hands before they finally reaches the big screen.

So if a film is this entirely artificial thing that people deliberately go to because they want to be manipulated into laughing or crying ... Then why is it a bad thing to be emotionally manipulated by an animated feature?

I would argue - given that there are so many movies being produced today which fail to make any sort of emotional connection with the audience - that this ability to repeatedly forge an emotional connection with the movie-going public is one of the real virtues of the Pixar film library. Whether it's the "Kitty has to go" sequence from "Monsters, Inc." ...

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... or the opening montage from "Up" ...

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... Pixar's animated features give audiences something tangible to take home with them. A lasting emotional connection to these stories & characters. Which is why these films wind up doing as well as they do during their initial theatrical releases and then go on to do just as well - if not better - when they're sold as Blu-rays and DVDs.

In fact, I'd argue that one of the main reasons that "Despicable Me" did as well as it did last summer was because this Universal Pictures release borrowed heavily from the Pixar playbook. And I mean that in a good way. In that this Illumination Entertainment served up characters and a storyline that people could genuinely care about. Which is why "Despicable Me" wound up with such terrific word of mouth ...

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... more to the point, how this animated feature wound up selling $544 million worth of tickets worldwide.

So in the end, does it really matter that "Toy Story 3" (which - as I was typing this piece - just won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature) is emotionally manipulative? That audience members were taken to the blackest, bleakest moment ever seen in a Pixar production when (SPOILER AHEAD) Woody & the Andy's Room gang appear to be just seconds away from being burned up in an incinerator ...

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... only to then - at the last possible moment - be rescued from above by the  Pizza Planet aliens. Who - in a gag that goes all the way back to the original "Toy Story" - are wielding the landfill's enormous claw.

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So I guess what I'm saying here is ... Well, that I don't think things are quite as cut-and-dried as Mr. Barrier says they are. That the films that Walt personally rode herd on " ... are more organic in their storytelling" while the movies that Pixar makes now are " ... very manipulative and completely unconvincing."

Me personally, I figure that if it's okay to feel sad when Geppetto thinks that Pinocchio is dead ...

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... and then cry tears of joy when the Blue Fairy turns that puppet into a real boy ...

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... I figure that it's okay to become emotional while I'm watching "Toy Story 3." To feel bad for Woody as Andy drives off for college ...

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... but - at the same time - feel happy for the Toy Story gang. Given that they seem to be in such good hands, now that they've been folded into Bonnie's family of playthings.

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Speaking of which ... Though the feature film adventures of the Toy Story gang have officially come to a close, Woody, Buzz et al will live on thanks to the "Toy Story Toons" series. The first of which, "Hawaiian Vacation" ...

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... deals with what happens when Ken and Barbie are accidentally left behind when Bonnie's family heads off to Hawaii.  And it's up to Sheriff Woody and the gang to make these playthings' playcation dreams come true.

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Anyway ... Getting to the question that's driving today's JHM article: Do you folks think that Pixar's films are too emotionally manipulative? Or do you - like me - see this as a positive (rather than a negative) aspect of these animated features?

More to the point, do you - like Mr. Barrier - use a different yardstick when it comes to measuring the animated features that were produced while Walt was personally in charge of his Studio? And - if so - why is it then okay to be concerned for Bambi & Faline as they're trying to escape from that forest fire ...

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... and yet, when Woody & Co. are about to be burned up in that incinerator ...

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... that's somehow considered emotionally manipulative?

What's the real difference between these two films? They're both animated features, right? If so, shouldn't they be measured by the exact same emotional yardstick? I mean, the child who's going to slot their copy of the Diamond Edition of "Bambi" right next to the Blu-ray version of "Toy Story 3" isn't going to differentiate between those films because one was released in 1942 and the other was released in 2010. So why should we?

I'm genuinely intrigued to hear you folks' thoughts on this matter. Because - while I do respect Mr. Barrier's knowledge when it comes to animation history - I think that Michael's letting his obvious love of the Golden Age classics get in the way of his ability to be able to enjoy some of the more genuinely entertaining stuff that's being produced today.

Your  thoughts?

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  • I think you described it perfectly.  I was in awe that within 15 minutes of a film start ("Up") I was shedding tears.  I was shedding them because I map my own experiences and the experiences of those around me to Carl and Ellie and that just amplified the scenes.  You are right that a movie that takes years to produce has to be manipulative/scripted by it's very definition.  That's not a bad thing if it leads to authentic emotions within us.

  • I think any movie manipulates your emotions, they are all written, edited, etc to create a particular feeling. It is not like they happened to film the moment Old Yeller gets shot, it was planned from the start. Personally I found Toy Story 3 to be one of the most emotional movies I have seen, but that could be due to where I am in my life. I have started to pass down some of my cherished toys to my son to play with and (being a collector as well) it has been a difficult decision for me.

  • First off I automatically discount anything I read on the Huffington Post ... that commie bitch's site is garbage and I give it all the attention it deserves, which is to say I ignore it and anyone that blogs there. Secondly, you're completely correct and this Barrier dude obviously has some axe to grind with Pixar because any idiot knows that any film is supposed to be emotionally manipulative. See also E.T.

  • Well, sometimes the emotion is a bit one-themed.  Pixar, aside from "Bug's Life" did tend to latch onto nostalgia as its primary emotion (Toy Story == toys, Monsters == our Sesame Street days and the "monsters under the bed" idea, Wall-E == our first love, Incredibles == comic books, Cars == well, cars, but also the whole Rt 66 theme (which my mother had lived watching the decline of Rt 17 along the east coast)).  Even Ratatouille "wins" by regressing the main bad guy into his own childhood.

    But then again, some of Disney's best from the silver age are also filled with nostalgia, like Peter Pan's ending of Mr. Darling recognizing the pirate ship in the clouds, or the look and feel of Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians.  And of course Disneyland is built entirely on the theme.  So in that, I see Pixar being a bit one-themed, but that theme has been a Disney theme for decades and thus why Pixar-Disney was always a good fit.

    Did I think Toy Story 3 reached a little too far?  Yeah, I did, and it isn't as high in the replay list as other Pixar films are (heck, I just sat through half of Ratatouillie last week).  A film can be emotionally manipulative, but it does have to still give the impression the emotions are natural, even as we objectively know they aren't.  

    [spoiler warning - but really, any JHM reader should have seen the film by now...]

    TS3 doesn't quite hide it as well as the first two did, particularly the over-extended epilogue that's meant to make us realize how much most of us did NOT have a real last "goodbye" to our toys - it was meant to make us regret something we didn't do rather than just be nostalgic for something we did, and that is the manipulation I think the author didn't like.  It isn't that the film is any more manipulative than any other, it is actually just that he didn't like the *particular* emotion they pulled out but rather than admit that he might have a personal opinion about himself, he rather pins the blame on that in the art and artist instead.  Rather poor critiquing, but as Robert Fripp often says, in reviewing a work the critic often reviews himself.

  • Wow, Ian, totally appropriate for a blog on Disney.

    Jim - I agree with your sentiments.

  • You've summed it up pretty perfectly, Jim. I think this is a classic case of an old-timer starting every sentence with, "Back in my day‚Ķ"

  • Sorry Dale ... I was cranky this morning. I actually wanted to edit that part out after I thought about it, but ... well ... there doesn't appear to be an edit feature. Apologies to anyone I offended with that, though. Definitely my bad.

  • Boy, Ian, your language is totally INappropriate for a site like this. People can and should have their own unique viewpoints, but expressing such venom, extremism and misogyny reveals more about your own character than what you're denigrating. This is indeed very ironic considering the uplifting themes of Pixar films.

  • This critique of Pixar films would be unfair to any film in their library except Toy Story 3. I still believe Pixar wouldn't have become a sequel factory, which it has yet to fully become, had machinations within Disney not forced their hand in making a Toy Story 2.

    This third entry was made to give the series itself and characters a proper sendoff, while it has heart and is organic, it still has that mission to serve.

    Though I say this, I challenge you not to lose it during that incinerator scene, as all hope is lost and Jessie reaches to hold Buzz's hand and except fate.

    I also would point to the UP montage and any section of Wall-E involving Wall-E and Eve as organic, emotionally engaging storytelling.

  • I agree with you Jim. Mr. Barrier is off base here.

  • The point of storytelling is the manipulate. You need to make the audience care about your characters to create tension. In this regard, Pixar films are near flawless.

  • Apparently, Mr. Barrier has become a doddering old stick in the mud.  Longing for the "good old days".

    It's a shame.

  • As cited in Innovate the Pixar Way, President Ed Catmull's dream is a far cry from "emotional manipulation": "...the ultimate test of whether John and I have achieved our goals is if Pixar and Disney are still producing animated films that touch world culture in a positive way long after we...are gone."

  • I'd argue that where and when and if you cry in Pixar films reveals more about what you BRING to the movie than what the movie is attempting to do to you.  For example, while I felt the dread and danger during the incinerator scene in Toy Story 3, it didn't move me to tears.

    Instead, later, when the boy felt a moment of selfishness at Bonnie reaching for Woody that he quickly quelled in favor of contributing to her joy, THAT'S what got me, because personally I'm more touched by giving up something you love for someone else than by a fear of death.

    In fact, the scene that always gets me in UP isn't the initial montage, it's when Carl realizes that, despite his longtime fears, he had not failed to live up to the promises he'd made to the love of his life.  On the contrary, he'd FULFILLED her dreams by loving her and being with her.  

    Because that's what I hope to give to my mate, it sticks me in the heart every time, even making me a little emotional writing about it now.

    Anyway, my long-winded point is that if Barrier finds the beats in Pixar films false, manipulative and saccharine, it's at least possible that he does so because those notes are what ring the most true within him now. Don't we all have to guard against becoming jaded, cynical and suspicious in the face of new experiences and art?

  • I thought "Finding Nemo" was just tops at eliciting real, raw emotion that most parents have felt - is my kid in danger? where is he? I also cringed several times during "The Incredibles" about how the kids seemed to be in danger. Those tapped into real emotions, so kudos to Pixar for being able to elicit those. Most other contemporary movies are truly so formulaic that they bore or offend me.

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