WALL*E-Mart: What Are We Teaching Kids?
By Jesse Carey
Interactive Media Producer
The new film from Disney/Pixar, WALL*E—which releases in theaters this Friday—presents viewers with an interesting paradox. On its surface, the movie, like many of the earlier Pixar projects from Toy Story to Cars, is an uplifting story that promotes commendable values like friendship, loyalty and moral responsibility. It’s also extremely well made (you can read our review here). But along with its story of friendship, love and fortitude, WALL*E’s underlying message is one that pushes a not-so-subtle social agenda.
The film, which is made to appeal to both children and adults, warns of the dangers of over-consumption, mindless consumerism, cultural conformity, environmental carelessness and laziness. It’s a social agenda that is actually pretty admirable—especially for young children. Just like the positive values affirmed through the movie’s main story, the social message that underlies the movie is an important one.
The only problem is, the kids watching the movie are also getting some mixed messages from the people pushing the message of anti-consumerism and non-conformity.
The movie takes place a few hundred years in the future, and we first meet our loveable protagonist WALL*E (an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) as he wanders the post-apocalyptic landscape of an abandoned city, picking up the trash lift behind by humans. Think I Am Legend without the zombies meets Finding Nemo without all the fish. Meanwhile, Buy N Large, the big-box store responsible for the mounds of consumer waste that left earth uninhabitable, has rocketed the human race into outer space on a massive, luxurious, galaxy-hopping cruise ship called the Axiom, floating around the universe while earth is being cleaned by a lonely robot.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, because really, it’s the sub-plot that carries the social message. On the Axiom, humans sit in mechanical chairs (why walk when you can hover around in your own Segway-esque lazy-boy?), consume the latest Buy N Large projects (which are advertised via Telescreen-style billboards throughout the ship) and sit around watching their own TV screens getting fat and stupid (literally, everyone onboard is morbidly obese from lack exercise and drinking the latest Buy N Large meal-shakes and are almost completely illiterate and profoundly ignorant from just watching their TVs all day).
Along with the story of WALL*E and his friends trying to help the people return to earth (and the love story that ensues), the back-story provides an important message to children who are watching: get exercise; don’t succumb to corporate marketing campaigns; don’t overeat; exercise; don’t feel pressure to conform; stay educated by reading and not spending all your time watching TV. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting these important ideas, the message is contradicted by the medium.
The (in)famous phrase “The medium is the message” was first coined by the brilliant, late media theorist Marshall McLuhan in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. The crux of the idea is that sometimes the most obvious implications of the medium (in this case, the movie WALL*E) become the real message that is being communicated. In other words, the real “message” of the “medium” is not just the content of the film. It’s also the massive marketing blitz, the onslaught of WALL*E toys and products, the corporate branding of Disney and all of the commercialized junk that comes along with the promotion of major children’s movie.
The idea of the medium becoming the message has even taken on new application with the rise of the Internet. What does social networking, chatting and email really tell us? Does the “message” extend beyond just the content of our conversations? You could argue that in an increasingly isolated culture—one where we live within privacy fenced yards in gated communities, driving alone in our boxed-in cars, to boxed in-cubicals—that it’s no wonder that technology has evolved to meet our desperate need to connect. The medium (web 2.0 technology that seeks to connect people via the Internet) is the message (not the actual conversations, but the over-apparent loneliness of a culture where people no longer know their neighbors and turn to the Internet to communicate with other people).
After we attended a the screening and press junket last week in Hollywood, reporters and journalists were shown all of the toys, clothes, household accessories, video games and products that would be released in conjunction with the movie. Now, kids across America will be enticed to own their WALL*E wardrobe, sippy cup and even WALL*E branded Crocs. If Buy N Large, ummm, I mean, Disney, says we should buy it, than by all means, let’s spend away!
Andrew Stanton, the film’s director and co-writer said that the socially conscious element (and contradictions) of the movie wasn’t the filmmakers’ intention . “I wasn’t trying to be ‘anti’ anything,” he said at a recent press junket we attended. “I think I was just trying to go, ‘Look, too much of a good thing—of anything—is a cautionary tale.’ Honestly, everything I did was in reverse. I gotta go with trash because I love what it does to my main character, and it’s very clear. Well, then I went backwards from that. I said, ‘Why would there be too much trash? It’d be really easy to get to, We bought too much stuff. And it’d be really easy to show that without having to have it explained.’ And it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to be satirical like that.”
When asked about the any environmental or political undertones, Stanton said, “I knew I was going into territory that was basically the same stuff, but I don’t have a political bent. I don’t have an ecological push. I don’t mind that it supports that kind of view—it’s certainly a good citizen way to be—but everything I wanted to do was based on the love story.”
The thing is, WALL*E is actually a really good movie. Its love story is inspiring, and its socially conscious sub-plot and ensuing commercial implications present children with an important message. But how effectively can we (much less children) decipher the message of the movie when its meaning is distracted from by the medium it is present in? That’s a question you’ll just have to buy a ticket to watch WALL*E to answer for yourself.
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Jesse Carey is the Interactive Media Producer for CBN.com. With a background in entertainment and pop-culture writing, he offers his insight on music, movies, TV, trends and current events from a unique perspective that examines what implications the latest news has on Christians.
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