How Conservative is Pixar? How Conservative is Pixar?

How Conservative is Pixar?

Tom Elrod makes the case in this well thought out blog post for a special brand of conservatism that appears in Pixar’s output. I don’t quite agree with it, but it’s a viewpoint worth sharing:

There is something conservative about much of Pixar’s output, but when I say conservative, I mean a small “c” conservative that sees the world along the same lines as Edmund Burke: “A disposition to preserve.” I’m going to call this “social conservatism,” by which I don’t mean the religious or moral conservatism of modern political discourse, but a conservatism that is interested in preserving traditional social features – in particular, the idea of “family” – but which sees such preservation as ultimately futile. The family will dissolve, eventually, and so we must do what we can to keep it going as long as possible. It is a worldview based not on progression but on loss.

It could be argued that a lot of that conservatism is simply a byproduct of the excessively nostalgic and sentimental viewpoint in Pixar’s films (think the Toy Story series, Cars and Up).

(via Kottke)

  • An interesting tangent to this -as it will surely turn into “home team” politics -is that the Republican Party has been more Radical that (c)onservative throughout its history, whether that be abolition, suffrage, TR’s environmentalism, Reaganomics, The Contract With American, The Bush Doctrine, on and on.

    These are political policies that are radical breaks from the evolution of public policy.

    Further evidence can be seen in the last three Democratic regimes’ continuation of the majority of the political status quo.

    In any event, I find it an intellectually empty claim to tag children’s/family entertainment with “conservative” or “progressive”. Pixar makes buddy films, genre pictures, breaking the mores of this format will lead to box office disaster.

  • I rather like this view of Pixar’s output. It’s very true and a good, careful observation without reading into things too much.

  • Jay Sabicer

    I think Tom and Amid are reading way too much into this. A film company, bankrolled – then purchased outright by a company (Disney) with the largest family-minded market base (remember, film is commerce), designed by people who take pride in listing their children that were born during production in every film’s end credit sequence. Family themes are going to abound in that environment. I would challenge you guys to conceptualize a small “l” liberal film utilizing the same system PIXAR currently has in place. I’m gonna venture a guess it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable as what the boys and girls in Emeryville have been doing since 1984.

    And I have to disagree with Tom’s views on the futile attempt on preserving “family”. True, we lose our parents over time (like I have, losing both over the past 5 years). Unless you were hatched from a ‘Body Snatchers seed pod’, we all have familial ties to people other than our parents. Families are constantly growing and receding, but they remain families.

    I would take the view of a family as a fractal image- as you continue closer into the edges of the image, parts are pushed out the picture, signifying the passage of time and the loss of the ‘parent’, but the smaller outcroppings reveal as they grow larger continue to bloom and wind, and the process continues infinitely (or to a point where you stop viewing). A family is not a static thing. Single people figure that out after they start their own families.

    And must we label everything? It’s a movie, folks. It’s fun. It’s escape. It’s an evening out. Can’t a film be enjoyed for it’s face value and not have every little nuance overintellectualized? Or politicized? Please, let’s not do that.

  • Dock Miles

    A benign enough essay, but I didn’t think it was particularly well-argued. The conclusions drawn from a couple examples were wacky. For instance —

    “None of these films may be overtly political, but the moral message is innate: The family (or small community) is central, and it is failing, so we must do what we can to preserve it.”

    Failing? How so? “Transitory” is more like it, and an eternal fact of life. Your parents won’t be around forever. Your kids won’t always be little or under your control or even at home, eventually. How this can be construed as “failing” is beyond me.

    *The Incredibles* is a mess as a conservative (and why not admit it’s been embraced as a Conservative?) message. “Everybody’s special” is PC hooey, right? Okay, but then why aren’t the truly special a suspect “elite”? Pushy. Know-it-alls. Agents of the gummit? Can’t have it both ways.

    Simple canned nostalgia and sentimentality works better as an explanation of these elements.

  • Scott

    Don’t confuse “radical” with “regressive.”

    But under the aforementioned definition of “conservative,” I’d say MOST American animated features (not all) would fly under this banner. Pixar’s just the overall most successful for the time being.

  • GhaleonQ

    As a conservative and someone lukewarm about most of Pixar’s output, I don’t think the author distinguished properly between traditionalism and conservatism. Excepting anti-war stuff, any of this could be applied to Miyazaki’s very Japanese worldview as well. Explicit conservatism would demonstrate HOW institutions act as bulwarks to chaos, inefficiency, self-destruction, or hate. Conservatism doesn’t just promote pre-political institutions as subjectively good (i.e., where someone can find love, “deserving” or “undeserving”), but objectively good (that is, important as innovation is, the so-called “democracy of the dead” has proved marriage or the traditional family unit the premier way of existing). We don’t see any of that in the “severed families” movies. That’s the main generalization he makes to construe Pixar as conservative. So, what’s left?

    Wall-E? Obviously liberal for the reasons mentioned. Cars? Again, traditionalist. Authors like Dostoevskii examined the waning days of a way of life in explicitly political ways. “Their way of life is based on ___, which creates a fissure between our way, _____, because ____.” Cars simply acknowledges the poor luck some places face and then reminds us that the people who inhabit such areas are entitled to decency as much as anyone else. Tie this into McQueen’s choice of loyalty over money at the end, and you have a very traditionalist movie. It’s more Souseki Natsume than Yukio Mishima.

    Brad Bird? The Incredibles: conservative, for reasons well-explained. Ratatouille? There’s something in there about intuition and experience being essential to learning, but Linguini’s fate means that this explicitly only applies to artistry, for sure. So, by my count, it’s 1 movie (balanced by 1 liberal movie, The Iron Giant).

  • jake

    i think the conservative slant is only really there in brad bird’s pixar films, ratatouille and the incredibles. both celebrate excellence, greatness rising to the top. this is an inherently capitalistic way of looking at things.

  • Jamil

    I agree with Scott. All American Animated Features fall under the same cookie cutter formula, and honestly if the big players like Pixar, Dreamworks,…etc don’t have the stones to break that system and pump some new fresh ideas, well that’s just painful to even think about. Don Bluth did it, Chuck Jones did it and America ate it up so I think Americans are open to a new rout but those big boys want to play it safe and make their executives happy

  • bobo

    I agree, they have been playing it safe for so long they’ve become what Disney was in the 90’s…boring. Just look at Wall-E, the potential shown in the first 20 minutes then the hack Disney story comes into it and it turns into another chase down a hallway like all their other action scenes. I mean who cares about the fatty humans who have everything they need on that blasted ship?They wouldn’t want to come back to earth to work, or plow fields,what a waste of an hour.I’m still waiting for the rest of that movie, the one about the little robot.(remember their cocky as hell trailer for Wall-E where they claim they made up the story years ago at a cafe ? Imagine a live action director like Hitchcock having a trailer telling us how good he is, and just wait for his next master piece?)They forget that the audience decides what’s a classic, not marketing hype. Jaws and Star Wars were considered failures by their creators, until lines began forming around the block.
    Pixar is making the same mistake as Disney by putting out product every year. Don’t force it on us guys, wait until you have a story to tell, then tell it. Walt would go 4 years before showing us a great tale.

  • His thesis… “There is something conservative about much of Pixar’s output” … is so weasel-ly constructed that it make the rest pointless.

    “Much” of Pixar’s output? That could be as little as two or three films.

    “something” is conservative? We could say that about any human endeavor.

    This is classic academic journal BS (now finding a new home on the internet) where the author writes long passages about … stuff… but hedges his assertions so much that he can always claim some fig leaf defense no matter how wrong he turns out to be.

  • Trevor

    I pretty politically apathetic, but I think the love of your family and the pains of any transition in life transcend liberal and conservative labels.

    I think Brad Bird’s films are the only ones that could argue a political slant (libertarian). Incredibles is to not celebrate mediocrity and Ratatouille definitely champions equal opportunity over equality of results.

  • Donald Benson

    People will find a full spectrum of political subtexts for these and other works as needed — whether they want to pin their own beliefs to a hit, or to condemn a filmmaker whose personal beliefs they oppose, or simply want some attention (How many readers of this board have written essays on Bugs Bunny’s cross-dressing just to flummox a teacher?).

    You can talk about “exceptionalism” and invoke Ayn Rand while discussing The Incredibles; you can just as easily claim it’s a fantasy for nonconformist liberals — those dreaded “elites” Who Think They Know Better. Note that the heartless insurance company and its jerk of a manager are liberal stereotypes of business. Note that the villain is a self-made tycoon looking to accrue glory for himself — a better Randian hero than Mr. Incredible, who seeks to help others even when stuffed in a cubicle. If there were a “conservative” agenda, it would have been fairly easy to make the anti-super crowd as politically correct whiners and make Syndrome a rich kid spouting entitlement. And note that it’s the super-parents themselves who talk about “fairness” — like liberals — and not some killjoy like the family’s government handler.

    In fact, with minimal imagination you can make almost any movie as left-wing or right-wing as you want.

    For example: Wall-E can be viewed as a “conservative” fable about how most people are lazy, worthless slobs and need Wall-E — a symbol of capitalist enterprise — to short-circuit the program-violating, elitist autopilot and let the corporation-planned technology determine the fate of humanity. It’s big business, and not tree-huggers or independent thinkers, who save us all. And note that they return not to the country, where they might become hippies or communal farmers, but to the city where man fits into a rigorous, usually conservative social order.

    It’s fun. Try it.

  • Thomas Dee

    I don’t like to spout off about links posted here, but Jesus, that was a pointless essay.

    Naturally a company making family fare would skew toward the conservative, right? Not politically speaking, of course, but the costs of making these mega budget family pictures, and the democratic process by which they are created, dictate that the films become more grounded in hopeful commonality, and that IS social conservatism, more or less.

    Clean streets, good values, respect for the community, well behaved kids, strong family ties (no matter how you define family)- all of these are conservative socially speaking. Lower case “c” conservative, as you said. I don’t see any major studio doing it any differently, and Walt did it the exact same way.

  • Guido

    Most movies that target children as an audience will have to deliver a conservative view on the world – because children long for safety and structure rather than for a revolution (Pipi Longstocking is revolutionary, but only because she is extremely strong and does not have a family as an alternative) The Left/socialist agenda wants to de-construct the “bourgeois” family structures, promote minorities as a new “working class” to get a revolutionary momentum – the goal is to topple the current social structures, so a new, socialist state can be implemented. (see “Frankfurt School”) Of course liberals have only taken on bits of that agenda and put a new meaning to it (e.g. rights for minorities = human rights, questioning the status quo = sign of enlightenment rather than a revolution) – so I think Tom Elrod has really just realized, that Pixar Films don’t match many popular values that he as a liberal took on as being good and political correct (i.e. “liberal”, left).
    I think in the end, everyone wants security and a family life – at least once the realization sets in that one is not as strong and independent as Pipi Longstocking …

  • Robiscus

    The apt word to hang on the family fare represented in Pixar’s films is “traditionalist”. Its borderline divisive to frame praise of the family unit “conservative” knowing full well that the political ramifications of the term.

    If we must, then lest go further; what else is conservative?
    The Brady Bunch?
    Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory?
    The Cosby Show?

    The family is, fundamentally, the most important social institution. Its a remarkable thing that someone finds it necessary to expound (almost to the point of amazement) that is takes a precedence in entertainment for all audiences.

    His next dissertation should be about how the sun rises in the east.

  • Elrod’s post is definitely interesting.

    But I think the fear of losing one’s family is a primal one that’s been reflected and will be reflected for a long, long time. Think about Oedipus. What story is that but of his discovery and reaction to family loss? Our relationships with loved ones are so important! It’s no wonder that so many stories, told in so many ways, are based on this condition.

  • Imagine a live action director like Hitchcock having a trailer telling us how good he is, and just wait for his next master piece?
    Uhhh….. most of Hitchcock’s trailers ARE a little bit like that, have you not seen any? :)

  • MJ

    Why do you guys think he’s talking about the movies politically…?

  • squirrel

    I think this is… your most profound post you have ever posted.

  • Yellowkat

    The article is interesting but I find the idea that only conservatives have and appreciate family values somewhat irritating and disturbing.

    Believe it or not, progressives and liberals not only care about their families, most care about the people and world around them and strive to make it a better place.

    “Conservatives” don’t own this-they just think they do…

  • Scott

    “The Left/socialist agenda wants to de-construct the “bourgeois” family structures, promote minorities as a new “working class” to get a revolutionary momentum”

    BWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! That’s been the goal of the republican party for the last 30 years!!!!! I guess the republicans are socialists. They’re already corporate communists.

  • Dave O.

    Interesting, but its not entirely convincing particularly since conservative is a troublesome term and he goes back and forth between little-c and big-c conservatism. For example, the author cites Conservative icon Ayn Rand’s themes in THE INCREDIBLES and RATATOUILLE in that exceptional people should be recognized as such. Overall I sense that he is attempting to be provocative, but it just comes off as muddled by the time I got to the last paragraph.

    The author does not allow that Pixar’s ‘conservative’ themes might be an extension of Disney’s. A strong (often, non-traditional) family unit has always been a strong theme in the Disney canon of animation and it can be argued that Pixar is a natural growth of that. I disagree with his idea that the central idea within FINDING NEMO, UP, and CARS is that “the family (or small community) is central, and it is failing, so we must do what we can to preserve it.” Each of these films has the veneer of John Lassater-style (that is, Disney-esque) schmaltz and as such the central conflicts end up being more psychological/emotional than they are feats of strength/physical ones. Its not so much that the families or communities are failing as they are notably different from the traditional nuclear family. The broken families such as the ones that the characters come from in each of these films are variations on the Disney tradition of the dead mother.

    That people band together as family outside of a traditional family structure doesn’t seem conservative or not to me and his overuse of the word confuses his observations.

  • I completely agree. Pixars’ films a “safe” and very conservative. In relation to most other studios around the world.

    But that’s not a bad thing. America knows what it likes, and obviously knows what some of the rest of the world likes. Bottom line is, they’re making money. Period. Good for them.

    I’d like to add that Pixar is smart in hiring “conservative talent” aswell. Of course their artists are “good” at what they do, but they’re be no means the “only” answer to animation’s HUGE visual capabilities. They’re just one, clean and efficient story house.

    Again, good for them.

  • *To add, I never mean the word conservative in a “political” sense.

    More in a “being square and not taking risks” kinda sense.

  • Pedro Nakama

    The Incredibles is a conservative film? Didn’t Mr. Incredible work for a Medical Insurance Death Panel?

  • Nice thoughts!
    The only thing that is wrong about his statement is that the family will dissolve eventually. Other than that incorrect fact, it’s an interesting insight.

  • Thomas Dee

    We’re not talking abou tPixar being POLITICALLY conservative. We’re discussing their films being culturally conservative. It’s an important difference.

  • Jones

    I hate how Pixar always becomes the focal point of any conversation, it’s as if we don’t have any other companies working here…Anyways, Triplets of Belleville for instance is a top notch film, and When we (and by that I mean all american animation companies not only Pixar) start making something equivalent to that in sophistication then we can consider American production “Progressive”

  • Scott

    “Don Bluth did it, ”

    did WHAT? Make crap? Yes. And no, Americans (nor anyone else) did NOT “eat it up.”

  • Keith

    I’m still confused by people’s constant need to make entertainment political. Every time a company becomes successful it seems like each side just has to make a play at how they’re on their side. The truth is, very very few entertainers go out of their way to make a political statement, because it’s just alienating to an audience if they don’t agree with you. Oftentimes when they do it’s generally very obvious and in my opinion takes you out of the story. (I felt that way during the Bush parallels in Avatar, and I didn’t even vote for the guy. True or not, stories could do without those kind of cheapshots.) Bottom line is most entertainers are just out to tell a good story and any kind of political slant is just collateral damage to make the story work logistically. Good films are about the things we can all share, good family, romance, rooting for the underdog, and wondering who’s going to die next in a slasher film :) Just remember to enjoy the movies, that’s what they’re here for.

  • This is a silly essay that gets people worked up and arguing over their political bent.

    I would love to see something here on the Brew talking more about outsourcing. That is something that really affects animation and jobs for those of us working in animation here in the US. While its great to see animation getting produced all over the world. It sucks when American company’s are making these films but many of us who live here and would love to work on them don’t get to enjoy working on them.

    An interesting fact that broke my heart was hearing that they are outsourcing the in-betweens to Canada. Crap…I’m 33…I would gladly accept beans to in-between for Eric Goldberg or one of these guys. At least it would give me a chance to make it as a traditional animator at some point. (None of these other countries we send work to are sending any work our way)

    It would be great to hear peoples views on this sort of thing.


  • Greg Ehrbar

    Wasn’t it Susan Sonntag who said in Cahiers du Cinema that, “The bourgeous affectations of Mr. and Mrs. Howell offset the brutal facism of The Skipper, whose frequent smacking of Gilligan with his hat was a smokescreen for insecurity about his obesity and assumed unnacceptability to Ginger as an object of affection, mirrored by The Professor’s Faustian use of coconuts and bamboo to create his own record player during the musical version of ‘Hamlet” that rendered him, as was so artfully depicted in ‘Un Chien Andalu,’ a socio-economic paradigm not unlike that of Eisenstein?”

  • I miss the Smurfs

  • wgan

    safe and money guaranteed, the only possible exception is the incredibles, seemingly it’s the most conservative one pixar ever made towards the family value, but for a little while it swings to the not-that-safe side of ‘only super heroes can save the world, normal people only screws’, it’s so different from ratatouille, although rata comes with a bizarre story, but the idea behind is pretty safe and yes, conservative, everyone can cook regardless the fact not everyone can get the foot in the pixar :D

  • Daniel Spencer

    I never realised that the idea of “family” was a conservative notion. As Apposed to what? The family is not a conservative notion. To claim otherwise is absurd and reveals more about the authors views than anything

  • If we are saying that “conservative” is a happy ending, then I would say that Pixar definitely fits into that boat. Honestly I hope they are able to go with a story line where characters, that we care about, do not live “happily ever after”. That is, if a story comes around that asks for that. You can say they sort of did it with Ellie, in UP.

    I think that the filmmakers at Pixar put one thing ahead of all the rest and that is their Vision for the story they want to tell. When you read about the directors at Pixar and listen to them talk about the films they have made, it is obvious that they have passion in making the story they have in their head, come to life. I think all of the Pixar movies are lead by true enthusiasm and dedication for the story they want to see.

    It just happens that most of them like family valued stories. I do not think it is a bad thing to want to highlight family values and they sure find unique ways to do it. It seems like some people think that if they highlight family values, they are doing the same thing all the time. There are many different values that Pixar concentrates on in each of their films. “Family values”, is a very huge subject and I don’t think they will run out of unique ways to do it, any time soon.

  • Rene Ramos

    Why bring grown up subjects to a kids movie? just because adults enjoy it doesn’t mean they should bring controversial stuff that might offend a few. Isn’t impossible to keep at least one thing good clean family stuff? Would he have Woody rather killed Buzz not lo lose the owner’s affection? a void senseless robot that never developed a personality like Walle? a rat trap for Ratatouille since 99% of people consider it a pest? it’s just F*CKIN make-believe!!

    I sure hate when someone decides to “update” something for the newer generations. Let’s keep the filth of the real world outside of dreamland.

    Maybe Tom Elrod just had a sad childhood and wants everyone to grow up to be like him. I bet he’s the kind of guy that tells his kids (if he ever has them, or adopts one as a experiment) he’s Santa Claus and eat their vegetables because candy will rot their teeth.


  • FP

    Eh. Watch PIXAR for the world’s most lovingly-crafted, technically sophisticated, beautiful animation, and watch various ADULT SWIM and FOX shows for genuine entertainment.

    I loves PIXAR, but their “messages” are usually Paul Harvey/Reader’s Digest-level sludge, better ignored than considered. THE INCREDIBLES is PIXAR’s crowning accomplishment (so far), and it’s the harshest, coolest thing the studio has done.

    Perfection would be PIXAR doing something such as XAVIER: RENEGADE ANGEL or DRINKY CROW. That would kick ass down the stairs after freezing it with liquid nitrogen. The stairs would be littered with glittering, shattered ass-fragments. It would be great.

  • ” It’s interesting that both of these films are directed by Brad Bird. Bird is actually somewhat of an anomaly in the Pixar political scheme, and thus his films are the ones which are most easily read as “ideologically” conservative – that is, as part of an actual, contemporary political movement”

    The director of The Iron Giant… a conservative????

    Methinks someone confuses conservatism with nostalgia.

  • ugh, at first i slightly disagreed with the suggestion, but if anything has cemented it for me, it’s the general slant of this talkback. one of my fav social critics and philosophers, slavoj zizek, points out that the places where an ideology is strongest are the places where something seems the most ‘utilitarian’, and deprived of symbolism, like toilets or roads. well what is more utilitarian than saying ‘hey, this is just a film to keep children entertained, come on, don’t overthink it!’. the fairly aggressive attacks on the author of this essay also evidence a degree of hypocrisy; if someone tries to practice deconstruction on American pop culture he ‘must have had a miserable childhood’, ‘misunderstands family values’, or is just ‘trying to politicize something innocent and pure’, but american critics can attribute every level of soviet-era russian culture, from literature to toys, to yes, even children’s cartoons, to the effects of a foreign political structure.
    i love pixar, and i don’t think nostalgia and the preservation of the family unit are negatives, but they ARE hallmarks of conservative (small ‘c’) thinking. no one ever said conservatives have a monopoly on these things; liberals never claimed to have a monopoly on subversion or social dissent. i think brad bird is definitely conservative or libertarian, even by his own admission. and just because iron-giant is anti-war doesn’t make it automatically liberal! (the equation war=conservative, peace=liberal is more of an oversimplification than anything in the essay) the sound of music is acknowledged by film historians to be a very entertaining conservative flick, and it basically espouses the same power dynamic as ‘giant’; strong, nostalgic, rural family based solidarity and values versus the bureaucratic, corrupt decadence of modern affectation, in this case the nazis.
    if animation is ever going to grow up and be a big contender, we’re going to need to subject it to the same criticism that any ‘art film’ is willing to undergo, even if it’s mainstream animation. otherwise it’s no good complaining about the disrespectful categorization of the academy awards on one hand, and claiming ‘it’s just kid’s stuff’ on the other. consistency and self-criticism, guys.

  • Matt Norcross

    As a guilty-as-charged conservative myself, I agree with this statement. It’s mainly because most of the elite in Hollywood is changing the idea of “family” into their own ideal (I’m not going to be specific because it would start a flame war, and I don’t want that to happen), and it’s declining our culture. I’m not surprised Mr. Amidi disagrees with that statement, but it’s a respectful disagreement, and it won’t stop me or him from sharing our love for Pixar and the animation industry in general.