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The Darkness of UP: Anxiety in Pixar’s Films


As I reported after seeing Pixar’s animated feature ‘UP’, it is a very adult film with adult concerns (love, loss, anxiety, quests left unfinished) and humor thrown in for the kiddie’s sake. What I failed to see was how this is a trend in Pixar’s films that echos the earliest of Walt Disney’s feature animated works.

But it all became clear to me after finding Michial Farmer’s two very insightful posts on the dark existential dream of early Disney Feature Animation and how Pixar appears to be recapturing that anxiety.

First, moved by watching ‘UP’, which Farmer considers the darkest animated film ever made by Disney or Pixar, he looks back at the early Walt Disney classics and the dark topics they explore.

Here, in other words, is what makes Pixar in 2009 closer to Disney in 1941 than Disney in 2009 or even 1992. All of the early Disney features—for our purposes, let’s define “early” as prewar, which would allow us to work with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi—are shiny and beautifully drawn, but all of their prettiness only serves to hide the deep, existential dread at their cores.

That all changes with the post World War II optimism and never lets up.

In his second post, Farmer looks at Pixar’s films and delves into how anxiety, a dark portion of the human condition, is the focus of the central conflict in each film. After brief consideration of the earliest Pixar films, Farmer starts with Monster’s Inc.:

which taps into a very specific but universal childhood fear: the monster in the closet. Never mind that most of these monsters turn out to be essentially good people—the operative point is that there’s a deep-seated need in Monstropolis for children to be afraid. If anxiety is defined (as it is by Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and others) as fear without an object, that’s certainly what we’re dealing with in the world influenced but outside of the movie. Children are afraid of monsters, which deep down they know do not exist—therefore, they are afraid of nothing, of an empty space in their closet. Monsters, Inc. plays off of this fear, exploits it before finally putting it (no pun intended) to bed.

Many people have said that the secret to Walt Disney’s success (other than his massive amounts of hard work and dedication to his dreams and ideals) was his ability to tap into the American gestalt. To intuitively know what audiences would want to see because that was what he wanted to see. The story trust at Pixar has been said to have the same talent. If Pixar is tapping into this sense of anxiety felt across America, what does that say about where America is right now?

See also this Pediatrician’s take on ‘Up’. It’s not a rant against the film, per se, but rather that reviewers aren’t doing their jobs warning parents about the very adult themes in the film Although I disagree with the severity of her claims, you have to know the limits of your own child.

11 thoughts on “The Darkness of UP: Anxiety in Pixar’s Films”

  1. It is easy for people to think of all the sweetness and fluffy princess stuff when it comes to Disney’s animated features, but when they actually sit down and watch through “Snow White”, “Pinocchio”, etc. they’re surprised just how scary and dark some of it is. That is not a knock on those films… life can often be scary and dark, but those films have a happy ending.

    “Pinocchio” scared the hell out of me when I was a kid. It literally gave me nightmares.

  2. I agree with your posting how the PIXAR films come closer to the early Disney films than anything else out there now. Even compared to the recent Disney animated films, PIXAR takes a much more sophisticated approach to character and storytelling. And bravo to them for doing so. They’ve created enduring, captivating movies – not just animated movies or kid movies – movies period. But the attack from the woman blogger in the link is unfounded, short sighted and annoying. If she is really this concerned than she should have previewed the movie herself before taking her kids. Shaking a finger at the critics for not emphasizing that this may be too much for HER children is ridiculous. Parents raise their children. Pixar makes movies. The end.

  3. please remember walt disney’s beautiful feature’s were stories based from fairy tales previously written by authors from another era. they are wonderful stories added with walt’s vision of his talents in animation , sound, and music set to them. remember, walt did not make these movies for children, they are not “cartoons” as most people think. they are animated features with endless time, passion, creativity put into them. they were made for all audiences, with with his goal to have families watch them and enjoy them together.
    as with pixar, they are the next best thing. their own original stories with amazing characters are none to compare to anything out there today. they are based on real feelings, dreams, fears, realities, love, friendships, adventures we have all dreamt about. instead of picking everything apart, i wish people would appreciate the love & dedication these wonderfully talented people are bringing to the theatre for us to enjoy….to laugh, to cry, to dream, also to give us a dose of reality as well. pay attention to the (good) messages they send and the world may just be a better place :)

  4. Peggy Matthews Rose

    “Adults are interested if you don’t play down to the little 2 or 3 year olds or talk down. I don’t believe in talking down to children. I don’t believe in talking down to any certain segment. I like to kind of just talk in a general way to the audience. Children are always reaching.” Walt Disney

    Pixar has picked up on Walt’s vision.

  5. I have a question for those of you who are downplaying the darker aspects of this movie. SPOILER ALERT!! Try to look at this question with an open mind; think about it for a moment. Can anyone name another disney or pixar “kid” movie where one human character casually attempts to murder a human child? When Muntz ties Russell to a chair, puts him on the ramp, and walks out he is killing Russell. As far as he’s concerned, after he closes the door, that child is dead. Any jury would convict him of attempted murder.
    Many of you may think that this is a subtle point that would go over the heads of most children. I think instead it went over the heads of most adults, myself included. My son pointed it out to me afterward. I think we have seen so many movies that we know, absolutely certainly, that the child is not going to die in this movie as we’re watching it. I think though that many children don’t know that there’s a guaranteed happy ending. If you watched this movie and genuinely thought Carl, Russell, or Kevin were going to be killed it really raises the anxiety factor.

  6. I have to say I agree with jtiii. I also have to say I did not like a lot of the old Disney movies because of the fear factor!!! I hated the evil in Pinocchio, some of the others had darkness in them but there was plenty of happiness. With UP, I was sad throughout most of the movie, my 10 year old son was teary eyed through most of the movie and at the end couldn’t explain why he was crying, he said the movie just made him feel so sad. My 7 year old said, “that movie was boring”. Interpretation – he didn’t like the way it made him feel either. I have never sugar coated anything for my children, they know life, death, that there is evil in the world, but when we go to a movie made by Disney, we were looking for something a little more UPlifting. A big thumbs down on this one Pixar.

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