Dr. Toon Turns 10: A Manifesto
Up was released at a time when the aging population was already well on the way to becoming a major component of the American demographic. There was something very comforting to the so-called Baby Boomers who received the message that old age was something that could still be anticipated, not feared. To see an older character keep lifelong promises and live out dreams correlates to the hopes that the Boomers will end up on the positive side of Erik Erikson's tussle between Integrity and Despair. There was an additional panacea to the fear of caring to the limits of one's patience and finances for an army of aging, increasingly debilitated parents. The fantasy of a geriatric such as Carl participating in world-spanning adventures and even pulling a house behind him across the mountains must have been a comfort. For the younger set, the fantasy of a strong, caring grandfather easing the pain of a child who lost his nuclear family must have been a joy to kids who are dealing with a divorce rate over 50%. But then, aren't most good, healthy fantasies a joy?
Combine this with a sensitive, well-written script, top flight CGI, and exceptional character development, and success is assured. Did Pixar combine all of these themes consciously? Except for the aforementioned production values, that possibility is unlikely. Those themes were leached from a culture facing a soaring divorce rate and a population explosion of geriatrics with unsure healthcare options. Their offspring are facing disappearing 401K plans and foreclosure notices; people who can barely float themselves, never mind aging parents.
This goes on all the time in any society's current art scene. However, animation can have a very direct voice in the cultural commentary with its power to mirror - and mock – current events and cultural trends with a level of impunity that other art forms do not have. It has long been noted that cartoons can get away with commentary that would be very inflammatory had it come from live actors. Two prime examples are The Simpsons and South Park, shows that can sling arrows at any celebrity, politician, and event with the satirical force of a hundred thousand cream pies to the face. These shows can border on the libelous and scandalous, but examine their respective records of popularity and longevity.
Rather than tapping the societal unconscious, these two programs lift cultural representation directly off the top. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, in fact, have streamlined their animation process to the point where real-time events can be stitched into the current week's episode, making South Park a running commentary on the more risible aspects of common culture. One thing is for certain; there is no doubt that animation has a major role, both consciously and subconsciously in American popular culture.
Semiotics and deconstruction studies have thankfully (and deservedly) become a waning force in sociology. For more than 25 years these insular academics have managed to misinterpret American animation with laughable results. By assigning highly subjective interpretations based on arcane and inscrutable theoretical artifacts, the D-cons have sunk themselves in a messy morass of silly signifiers and piddly postmodernism. The lesson here is: If a cartoon can be constructed to mean anything, it finally turns out to mean nothing. In all my years of study I have read exactly one essay from this camp that came close to making any valid points.
The overarching culture remains more dynamic than any single pedantic interpretation. In short, never separate animation from the milieu in which it was created. This is the most valuable single thing I have learned, and it is, in one way or another, the basis for all my examinations of this wonderfully plastic and nuanced art.