The Film with the Best Message Day 8: 30 Days of Animated Films

(as always, the opinions expressed herein are mine and mine alone)

Movies serve a lot of different purposes — they exist for escapism and entertainment for sure, but like all art, films can also serve as mirrors on society, reflecting various aspects of the human condition. Most films try to do more than just relay plot points in a coherent order — they try to also deliver a message.

Typically the “message” of a film can be summed up as a declarative in a single sentence. Sometimes a film might have more than one message, as various pieces of the narrative play out and different characters resolve their arcs. I like to think of a film’s message as their “fortune cookies” – short, pithy, and without the context of a great movie, usually pretty corny. Let’s take a look at a few:

  • The Matrix: It is better to face a harsh reality than live in a comfortable fantasy.
  • To Kill A Mockingbird: Injustice is worth fighting against, even if you don’t have a chance of winning
  • Babe: An open mind and a kind heart yield the greatest rewards.
  • The Shawshank Redemption: Hope is the best weapon against despair
  • The Prestige: Obsession erodes a person’s humanity
  • Dredd: If you are a criminal, Karl Urban will shoot you in the face

You get the idea.

If a movie is doing its job, you’ll barely notice the message because you’ll be engrossed by the characters and the plot. The overall arc of the film and the arcs of the individual characters contribute to the message, but you should never feel like you’re being preached to.

In his review of the film Equilibrium, Roger Ebert talks about the film’s message of individuality threatening totalitarianism like this:

The movie deals with this notion in the most effective way, by burying it in the story and almost drowning it with entertainment.

I like that idea a lot.

So how do the CG animated films compare when it comes to message? Here’s the question for today:

What animated film has the best message?

And the Winners Are…

One of the reasons why Pixar has been so critically acclaimed is because they have been devoted from day one to message – the films they produce are always trying to dig deep and say something meaningful. Of course…

Mater ruins everything. Again.

…sometimes this attempt seriously fails. But we’ll get to that later.

For now, let’s talk Toy Story.

Each film in the trilogy tackles remarkably deep philosophical questions about meaning, friendship, and even our place in the Cosmos. On the surface, the toys of Andy’s room face the issues inherent with being toys, and you might think that we can’t relate too well with the problems of plastic playthings. Without a delicate approach to the script, that’s exactly what might have happened, but our plastic protagonists provide fantastic proxies for our own hopes and fears, even though they come from a toy’s perspective.

Let’s take a look at each film, starting with the very first CG animated feature.

Toy Story

The Message: Being special has more to do with love and friendship than status.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

The original toy story film follows two parallel character arcs, with both Buzz and Woody discovering that they aren’t as special and unique as they thought they were – and wanted to be.

One element of constructing a character arc is deciding what a character wants and needs. These aren’t necessarily the same thing, and a big part of Toy Story’s drama comes from Buzz and Woody each discovering that their desires and their needs are very different things.

Woody wants desperately to be Andy’s favorite again, and regain his leadership role in Andy’s room. Buzz thinks he is a space ranger, and the realization of his child’s-play-thing status nearly destroys him. Both have lost their self-perceived status, and both are basically unable to cope.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

Ultimately it’s Woody who realizes that his jealousy has cost him something more important than status – he has lost his friends from Andy’s room, and the kid who once loved him more than anything. Buzz realizes just how much he really has as a toy instead of a space ranger, and embraces his new identity. Both characters discover the friendship and love that they really needed instead of the statuses that they desired.


Toy Story 2

The Message: A short life of warmth and love is better than an impersonal immortality.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

Toy Story 2 presents possibly the deepest message of all three films. If Toy Story is about accepting who you are, Toy Story 2 is about accepting that you will die one day.

This film is very much Woody’s story – the arc and the message belong to him, and the rescue attempt by the other toys of Andy’s room is largely incidental.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

Woody discovers that he is part of a larger line of toys tied in to an old TV show — and incredibly rare and valuable. He meets a new family of sorts, in the form of other toys from the show — including Jessie, who provides a sharper emotional counterpoint to Woody’s own struggle. Woody is presented with the opportunity for immortality in a Japanese museum, as part of the Woody’s Roundup collection.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

So in part, the story represents a midlife crisis for Woody, feeling his own mortality pressing in. Previously, Woody’s arm had been damaged, and he is well aware of the danger of being a broken toy.

Jessie gives Woody’s crisis an additional emotional angle, as she recalls the pain of being abandoned, and losing the love she once had.

We aren’t told much about the history of these toys, and who might have owned them before. It raises some really interesting questions, though. Andy’s mother tells Bob the toy-store guy that Woody is an old family toy, an heirloom presumably from the days of “Woody’s Roundup”. So for Woody at least, he has probably gone through Jessie’s sort of pain before being owned by Andy, a cycle of love and abandonment that will inevitably end with a broken toy that doesn’t get fixed, and the trash can.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

This stunning metaphor for life and death is found, remember, in a G-rated kid’s movie. You would be hard-pressed to find anything half as deep in any drama for adults.

Woody sees a chance at immortality and an end-run around the inevitable hurt of human connection. He is seriously tempted by it, and it’s easy to see why.

In a reversal from the first film, it’s Buzz who brings the message home, insisting that intimacy and love for a short while is better than an eternity behind glass.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

There are echoes of religious thought and existentialist philosophy in all this, difficult to imagine in a movie ostensibly aimed at little kids. After all, worry for the future is one of those things that doesn’t exactly resonate with the very young. A mid-life crisis seems a strange topic for toys, but somehow it all works.

Toy Story 3

The Message: Saying goodbye is immensely hard, but necessary at times

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

Toy Story 2 is about the inevitability of death, and Toy Story 3 is about letting go and saying goodbye.

I mean, jeeze, in the third act, the toys from Andy’s Room find themselves in the trash, on the way to the toy-equivalent of Gehenna. Even though the toys are ultimately saved, the film still requires us to face the pain of saying goodbye, even if it isn’t a literal death separating Andy from his toys.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

The first two acts of the film are mostly harmless fun, and somehow morph into a satisfactory prison-break flick somewhere in the middle. For me, the core of this film is all in the first and last fifteen minutes.

Andy is grown up, and he’s leaving his childish things behind. He opts to take Woody with him to college, and the majority of the remaining toys are going to the attic. The accidental donation, and Lotso’s petty dictatorship at SunnySide, isn’t really too important to the film’s message.

Andy is giving up his toys, and giving up his childhood. Even though we barely see him, this is Andy’s story as well, learning to let go of his old friends. Woody keeps trying to convince the others that Andy would never throw them away, but he knows that it’s over. They’ve been left behind for good.

copyright Disney/PIXAR

copyright Disney/PIXAR

And it really is “for good”. Whatever magic exists between a kid and their toys fades with age, and although Andy can still love Woody, it can never be the same. So they have to say goodbye. And it sucks.

It sucks to say goodbye, and it sucks to leave home, and it sucks to see your kid go off to college whether you’re his toy or his mom, and it sucks to admit that it’s all for the best. The moment when Andy realizes that Woody is in that box for Bonnie punches me in the gut every time. Woody is letting go of Andy, practically his sole reason for existing. He’s moving on, and letting Andy do the same.

So where does that leave us? What makes these films so amazing is that in making a movie with toys as our heroes, we end up examining what it means to be human. I’ve dreaded the idea of each sequel, and I still hope that 3 is the last. It’s such a perfect ending, with both Andy, the toys, and us all saying goodbye.

Later: A Film From your Favorite Director

Speak Your Mind