On Selfish Heroes and False Values

For a few years now, I have continuously annoyed people with my incessant rants about children’s animation movies, so I thought I’d finally write some of that rant-potential down. Disclaimer: I have not seen all there is to see – Wall-E, Monsters vs. Aliens and UP, for example are still on my to-watch list. So my opinion is, I guess, a little one-sided. I am not, therefore, condemning all animation films per se. I just hated Rango and Over The Hedge – and here’s why.

Let’s start with Rango. I can appreciate the hommage to classics like Chinatown, but that does not exonerate the movie’s most insipid plot hole: THEY ARE LIZARDS. The WHOLE TOWN of Dirt consists of very small animals. I can suspend a lot of dibelief in animation films, but somehow this upset me beyond belief. I just cannot accept that a bunch of small animals, who have all the desert space they could possibly want, are involved in this elaborate land-buying-scheme. That just doesn’t make sense. Okay, that out of the way, my biggest problem is the hero himself.

Rango is a con-man. He pretends he’s somebody he’s not, to fool the stupid naive townfolk of Dirt. He eventually comes around, but only after he has been found out and made to leave the town. Only through outside help does Rango learn that “it’s better to work with others” – the value of “community” and “friendship”. He’s the hero, because he solves the puzzle, which, again, wasn’t really his doing alone. So what’s the message here? Con others for your own benefit as long as you can, then heroically exploit the efforts and hints of others as your own genius. If the community has rejected you before for your fakeness, just save the day and they will welcome you with open arms. Humbleness? Nah, that’s for losers.

This brings me to Over The Hedge, which has a pretty similar plot. (And there are a few more films that follow this pattern.) Our hero is a racoon with a drug addiction. Yes, I know he’s primarily hungry, but just look at them:

Addiction!

The racoon RJ is a cowardly con-man. He uses the other forest animals to further his own goals, preying on their naivety and friendliness. The poor old turtle, the only one who sees right through him, is ridiculed and ignored. The racoon, just as Rango, has no skills but his charisma: He’s, if you will, “good with people”. This suggests to viewers, especially kids, that there simply are certain roles to fulfil in a circle of friends: There’s the cautious one, the crazy one, the cute one, and a few freaks, defined by one characteristic only. The racoon is the “leader”-type, the guy who gets things going. By default the racoon thinks all the other animals are pretty naive, dull and stupid, ready to be used in his plan. As usual, the treacherous hero comes around at one point, but again only after  someone else exposed him. Of course, the entire message lies in the “but RJ didn’t HAVE to go back to save his friends”, which hammers home the “value of friendship” and “community” once more.

Con-Man RJ

So here we are: Two films that teach their protagonists to “believe in friendship” and the value of helping others. How can that possibly be bad? Well. First of all, I have a problem with preachy movies. I agree that children’s movies should, in some way, show children how it’s nice to get along with friends and such. So what’s the problem with Rango and Over The Hedge and all the other films like them? They are way to preachy on that aspect! If you make a film about friends having adventures and helping each other, as EQUALS, that sufficiently stresses the point! You don’t need to spell it out for us. There can be moments in a story, where a character is maybe tempted to pursue their own gain instead of helping a friend. This moment is then overcome and the group continues on their adventure. But it’s not something that needs to be used as THE main message. Just by showing friends together in a movie you already make this point, without spelling it out.

This brings me to Secondly, the “value” of friendship. In both movies, and many others, friendship and community is something the protagonists either don’t have or have rejected. They’re on their own. Their outlook in life is an ego-driven one, because they never knew life could be otherwise. The problem is that they do not really change their attitude through one partly selfless act.

Rango helps the Dirt townfolk as a means of overcoming their rejection. They kicked him out, and that hurt his pride. Now it’s personal, and he’s got nothing to lose. They can hardly kick him out more, so he might as well try to become the hero and get back in their good favour.

RJ realises that a group of animals there is a higher chance of surviving in the forest. He has already proven that they are willing and able to help in his schemes. A resourceful group that is easily controlled. Again, RJ had nothing to lose at that point. The threat from the bear was hardly convincing – and in that relationship he was the weak one. In the group, he was a leader. He just needs to win back their affection, which is portrayed as mind-numbingly simple, and all’s well that ends well. He can count on their naivety and simpleness. The nice characters are the ones taken advantage of, and the racoon’s gamble paid off.

Of course, these developments are then dressed up as learning a “valuable” lesson on friendship. However, I would argue that this “value” is wrongly shown as a real, tangible value, contrary to what friendship and family normally mean. Friendship is not something you just flick on with a switch. It takes time to develop between complicated human beings. It’s based on trust: something that is earned over time, not just given or taken away in an instant. Friendship comes through getting to know people, not through judging them or categorizing them into “types”. Circles of friends are even more complicated, and these films only poorly represent what group dynamics are like. Sure, children’s films need to simplify some aspects of interpersonal relationships. But that does not mean they can mold them into this weird construct of selfish and selfless actions that determine their course. What’s more, selfless acts only teach people a lesson if they are truly selfless. If choosing them means putting yourself at a disadvantage for the sake of a loved one. If you actually value the other person’s happiness and well-being as high as your own. Being in positions where they had nothing to lose, both Rango and RJ didn’t learn anything.

Okay, this entire analysis may be way over the top. They’re only animation films, what’s the big deal? Well, seeing that these are the films our kids watch, it’s actually quite a big deal. I wouldn’t want kids to learn that “each for their own, as long as it works, community only when necessary”, a message thinly veiled by a funny hyperactive squirrel or pointless pop-cultural hommages. 

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