Monday, January 04, 2010

Why the Environment-Friendly Blockbuster Film is an Oxymoron

Back when WALL-E was in theaters, apart from enjoying the film itself, I took additional pleasure from readings its mostly glowing reviews. One review, though, which seemed contrary just for the sake of it, made a scathing commentary on the hypocrisy of Pixar for pushing some anti-capitalist, tree-hugging agenda despite the fact that at the time the film was released Disney's partners and licensees were busy hawking tie-in products that were unabashedly profit-oriented like toys and t-shirts (my kids each have one of the latter). The toys, as I understand it, didn't sell real well and are now presumably gathering dust in bargain bins or warehouses. In short, they'll probably turn out to be a lot like the junk WALL-E had to compact and stack for 700 years. Now, the fact that such tie-in products exist is arguably not attributable to Andrew Stanton, who created the story and characters, but to the studio's marketing arm. While it's unfair to criticize the film based on the actions of the suits responsible for selling it, that doesn't mean Pixar or Disney deserve a free pass. The fact remains that on some level they greenlit the attempt to sell useless junk based on a film that precisely decried the effect that the long-term accumulation of useless junk could have on our planet. After the merchandising phenomenon that Cars turned out to be (with new lines still selling almost four years after the film was first released), it's not hard to see why the suits at Disney would try to sell products based on their film, but there does seem be something highly contradictory or paradoxical about hawking consumer products based on a film that seemed to condemn excessive commercialism.

This, I believe, is a genuine problem facing well-intentioned films that nonetheless require the capitalist system to get off the ground. I think it's also a problem that the studio that financed the openly environmentalist blockbuster Avatar had to deal with; to hedge its bets on the gargantuan budget, Twentieth Century Fox probably sold off as much of the film as they could to sponsors and licensees. I've seen the McDonald's tie-in toys and have read about the existence of Mattel-manufactured toy line (though mercifully I haven't seen any of it). I'm fairly certain that there are (or at least will be) such other products as t-shirts, video games, and novelizations (or comic-book adaptations) to boot. While the film decries the abuse of forests, the suits marketing it chop down trees to print books about the film.

Of course, this has no real bearing on the story or James Cameron's vision but as in the case of WALL-E there's something distinctly off about a movie saying "save the planet" while it is accompanied by dozens of tie-in consumer products, that will, upon their disposal, undoubtedly add to the already near-catastrophic pollution problem we are currently facing.

I still remember the absurdity of the attempts to cash in on the unique financial juggernaut that Titanic turned out to be; there were talks about a planned TV series or miniseries that would be set before the sinking. A sort of "prequel TV tie-in." By its very nature, Titanic was not the kind of film that would lend itself to any kind of sequel so people tried (and failed) to find other ways to make money off its mammoth success.

Avatar, with its fantastical worlds, colorful characters and creatures and cool-looking mechanized villains, is ripe for "toyhood," with one of the most exploitative capitalists in the business, Mattel, taking on the license (though high-end collectible manufacturer Sideshow Collectibles reportedly has some really cool stuff in the pipeline). Fox could have gone straight to artisans like Sideshow and maintained some kind of integrity by shying away from mass-market products as opposed to limited production but again, to guard their gargantuan investment they went for the cash in Mattel's pockets.

Thus, to get its message across, Avatar or any other hyper-expensive film with an environmentally-oriented message must use the very system it condemns. Though this is an understandable and necessary evil, I still can't quite wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

Maybe down the line such films can be funded the same way Barack Obama's presidential campaign was; through grassroots fund raising of some sort, then maybe we could get some solid message-oriented work from creators who didn't have to sell a little bit of their souls to get their films made.