Villainy! Have politics hijacked 'toons?
Did you think this year's multiplex controversies ended with Election Day and the relegation of "Fahrenheit 9/11" to the back bins of the video store?
If so, think again. Now people are buzzing about several new family films.
One is "The Incredibles," where some see a "social Darwinist" agenda. Another is "The Polar Express," starring a computer-generated clone of Tom Hanks and, some allege, the message that "believing is beautiful," regardless of whether it's attached to anything real. I doubt if "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" will rouse partisan anger. But in today's polarized climate, who knows?
At first blush, it's hard to imagine anyone objecting to "The Polar Express," adapted from Chris Van Allsburg's bestselling children's book. It's about a lonely boy who's taken to the North Pole on Christmas Eve by a mysterious train conductor, who gathers emotionally needy kids on his way to Santa's workshop.
But in the "culture wars" age, issues swirl as ubiquitously as the snowflakes around Santa's beard. One issue is the "Polar Express" view of Christmas, bedecked in exclusively secular terms: It's loud about presents and decorations, silent on religious meanings.
And then there's the film's ultimate message to the main character - summed up in the word "believe," punched by the conductor on the lonely boy's ticket as a reminder of what's important in life. The boy's big mistake has been losing his faith in Santa Claus as he grows older.
The movie's big mistake, according to some critics, is illustrating the importance of faith by hooking it onto Santa, who - let's face it - doesn't exist. This may bother religious viewers who consider faith too important to fritter away on myths.
Those to the left of the political spectrum - perhaps unable to let go of the political season - are also irked by the message they see embedded in the movie: that facts and logic can't hold a candle to "believing."
"The message of blind faith, though certainly harmless in the context of a Santa Claus story, may trouble viewers who see the same principle at work today in US foreign policy," says critic Stuart Klawans, author of "Left in the Dark" and "Film Follies."
But how about "The Incredibles," about superheroes forced to hide their powers when the public turns against them?
A scene cited by several critics shows a homemaker, the former Elastigirl, reminding her husband, the former Mr. Incredible, that their superspeedy son Dash will be graduating soon. "He isn't graduating," says Mr. Incredible with disdain. "He's only moving from fourth grade to fifth grade.
"They're constantly finding ways to celebrate mediocrity!" he adds, exasperated that Dash gets honored for an ordinary achievement - but can't join his school's track team, because his superpowers would make it unfair to the other kids.
Is there a subtle sociological statement embedded in "The Incredibles"?
"I can't help thinking of [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche and his idea that some people are better and more deserving than others," says Mikita Brottman, professor of language and literature at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.
"The movie salutes Superman," Dr. Brottman adds. "Not the 'superman' in comic books but the one [despots] believe in. Its idea seems to be that even in a democracy some people are 'more equal' than others, and the rest of us shouldn't be so presumptuous as to get in their way."
Reviewers have been raising these concerns, too. "The Incredibles" suggests "a thorough, feverish immersion in both American comic books and the philosophy of Ayn Rand," writes A.O. Scott in The New York Times, referring to the founder of "objectivism," a philosophy anchored in capitalism and atheism.
When the "Incredibles" hero "balances a globe-shaped robot on his shoulders, should we be thinking of 'Atlas Shrugged'?" writes Newsday critic John Anderson, citing Rand's most famous novel, about a "strike" by gifted leaders that brings an ungrateful society to its knees. The movie's chief subplot, about a superhero imitator, "suggests not only class warfare, but also something approaching a Divine Right of Superheroes," he adds.
"The Incredibles" is great fun, these reviews agree, but they all sense a subtext that's serious. The film is "a fun-filled foray into animated action, fantasy, and adventure," as Mr. Anderson puts it. "And objectivism. And tort reform," he adds, noting that the villains include citizens who sue superheroes over injuries they've incurred during rescues.
Nobody connected with "The Incredibles" has laid claim to such subtexts - publicly, at least - and it's possible to read "The Polar Express" not as a right-wing celebration of "faith" but as a left-wing critique of "traditional values." At one point, for instance, a precious Polar Express ticket gets carried away by the wind, only to be "rescued" by an eagle, fed to a baby eagle, and spat out as unpalatable by the American symbol that tried to swallow it.
Some critics interpret "Forrest Gump," an earlier film by "Polar Express" director Robert Zemeckis, in a similar against-the-grain way, seeing it as a statement that only a feckless idiot like Forrest could move unscathed through 20th-century American history.
Whatever the underlying messages - if any - it appears "The Incredibles" is an instant hit, while "The Polar Express" is not.
Audience numbers won't silence suspicious critics, though. "The Incredibles" is "brilliantly engaging," Mr. Klawans says - which makes it "more worrisome, if you lack blind faith in the writings of Ayn Rand."