Posted on Tuesday, June 9th, 2009 by Hunter Stephenson
Yesterday, CBS News aired a segment on an “ongoing blogger debate” over the representation of black people and negative stereotypes in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Of course, after previous and longer segments on the failing economy and Air France, even the way in which Katie Couric mentioned “bloggers” carried a decidedly trivial tone connoting birds-on-a-wire. Snob. However, given that hardly anyone has seen a near-complete version of the fourth-quarter film, I have to agree that any “chirped” anger, feigned or genuine, is premature. Also: the world is mad, get over it.
But heated discussions about Disney’s movies, especially in this case, do have precedent: clips from the studio’s infamous 1946 film, Song of the South, are forever available to support and fan the issues of political correctness. Moreover, theories about sociological, hidden and subliminal messages in Disney films and characters are so prevailing that I have enjoyed intriguing classes on the very subject in junior high (for free) and at university (for a repossessed Porsche).
Which brings me to Disney’s Pixar, where animated films are made to awe kids and—and arguably more-so—adults. Feted, beloved, and at times “progressive” as it may be, Pixar is not immune to similarly “bloggy” issues regarding political correctness; a debate over the absence of female lead characters in their films began earlier this year and remains a valid and popular talking point.
On the opposite end of the Internet debate spectrum, and in a memorable example of perverse 20something film theory, you may recall CHUD’s Devin Faraci on the /Filmcast last summer. Devin was there to argue that WALL·E ostensibily date-raped EVE. Sensational and lascivious as Faraci’s argument may sound (then and…now), WALL·E remains a very smart and subversive depiction of the modern awkward male/female relationship. Additionally, throughout Summer ’08 still other viewers (and conservative think tanks) proposed and sent up the hot notion that WALL·E was an overtly “green” film.
The “green” debate eventually spilled onto TV, leading director Andrew Stanton to state publicly soon thereafter that —all the messages about pollution, waste, obesity, human-spurred doom, and a plant-as-McGuffin aside—his film was definitely not “green” propaganda. I wasn’t convinced. The timing of the sound bite seemed primed to please Disney shareholders. I also found it odd for Stanton to suggest that some viewers were seeing too much message in his film; in The Pixar Touch he confirmed that his previous Pixar work, 2003’s Finding Nemo, had a Christian message, underlying story, and was influenced by his faith.
Also revealed in The Pixar Touch: Ratatouille—as stated directly in the book by Pixar employees—was originally conceived as a metaphor for a homosexual “coming out of the closet.” And recently, in The Art of Pixar’s UP, it’s said that the long-planned blueprint that is Pixar’s filmography portends a chronological metaphor for “the story of life.” It’s hard to argue that viewers “see too much” into Pixar’s films, when Pixar’s employees admit to entertaining such complex and deep notions, and occasionally carefully embed them for generations current and future. Family films are arguably the most instructive and inherently influential of mainstream offerings, and so it goes that their impact would work on multiple levels.
Before watching UP, viewers are shown a trailer for G-Force, a stupid-looking Disney kid’s film about a heroic, do-gooder squad of quipping guinea pigs. One of the furballs is semi-notably named “Darwin.” (Also, Zach Galifianakis stars in the flesh, a mindfuck on par with teaching intelligent design.) And then, following the trailer, viewers are shown, as is tradition, Pixar’s latest short film. Entitled Partly Cloudly from director Peter Sohn, this is one of my favorite things, short or feature, that Pixar has made thus far. I also find it to be one of the balliest in terms of subject matter for its core audience and demographic, and the most aggressively double-minded in terms of presentation (down to the interpretation of the title). But for the sake of brevity, let’s finally move on to UP.
Maybe it was just the renewed headlines about Prop 8 and California (where Pixar is based), but when Kevin first appeared onscreen—UP‘s tall, endangered, and colorful tropical bird—I instantly wondered if the bird was a gay-friendly character. By the end of the film, I thought it was rather obvious that indeed the character represented a subtle nod to the LGBT community. In the days following, several people I spoke with seemed to have reached similar if not as developed interpretations as my own. And by the time I discussed UP with /Film’s Peter Sciretta, clearly a big and informed fan of Pixar, I thought the Kevin theory was old hat. But Peter listened and eventually said, “I’m not sure I agree…but I like your theory. Could be an interesting post.”
Spoilers for UP in this paragraph only: One of the recurring themes in UP is that nothing is what it first seems to be: the now-iconic house becomes a quixotic mode of air-transportation; the old codger, Carl, comes to find that a life-long hero is a complete asshole bent on destroying him. (In all his wisdom, Carl views the twist as being in tune with life’s dark sense of humor.) Viewers’ and the characters’ grand introduction to Dug—the fan-favorite floppy canine—is the most literal example of the “looks are deceiving” theme: Dug appears to be one of a handful of foreboding rock-formations shaped like living things. And the other dogs in the film rotate between mean and friendly, ferocious and docile. As dogs often do, of course. Their leader, the most dangerous-looking of the villains, is eventually revealed to have a wimpy (if temporary) voice a la Mike Tyson.
So, yeah, what about “Kevin”? Kevin is named by a young kid, the ambitious Russell. (It may or may not be significant to the “Kevin theory” that Russell is a boy scout.) To Russell’s surprise after-the-fact, he discovers that this Priscilla, Queen of the Desert-looking creature is actually, whoa, a female. Kevin has babies after all. When Russell first finds out about Kevin’s sex, he giggles something rather cheesy yet profound like, “You mean, Kevin is realllllly a girl?!?” What is interesting to me is the number of times Kevin’s name is said loudly by Russell on screen afterward. Family film formula and pet-calls withstanding, the effect of “Kevin” being said over and over in regard to an ousted female character is still curious; and in the film, Kevin deliberately stands out against diverse settings, so as to be a conscious decision on behalf the filmmakers. To young kids watching, I wondered then and now if a message was being implanted and hammered “home”: what “looks” and appears to be a boy can sometimes be a girl.
The almost-subliminal effect of hearing Kevin’s name repeatedly said on screen is not entirely dissimilar to the effect of Danny McBride’s character being named “Will” in Land of the Lost and observing that co-star Will Ferrell is always around when “Will” is loudly called upon. Both of these names make you think about and consider “identity,” purposely or not. And perhaps I’m really reaching here, but there is a lingering shot on a rainbow inside a waterfall in UP—discussed below in the comments—-that further affirmed my theory: Kevin is a subtle nod to the LGBT community, not enough to get some families pissed off, but it’s there.
Random Sidenote: Coincidentally, there is a “rainbow shot” in Land of the Lost that also made me wonder if an intentional—if stonerfied—nod was being given to Prop 8. If you’ve seen LoTL, consider the evolutionary context of the scene and characters (at the end), mannnn.
Hunter Stephenson can be reached at h.attila[at]gmail.com and on Twitter.