Category Archives: Animated film

The Incredibles (2004), directed by Brad Bird

incredibles posterMy oldest son, Rabbi Daniel, has recently written a book entitled What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone: Creating a Life of Legacy. Much of the book emerges from eulogies that he has delivered during the past 25 years as a synagogue rabbi. A consistent theme over the years is the good that people do anonymously, without any recognition or fanfare. Such good deeds done, below the societal radar, testify to the essential goodness of the deceased. Doing good without being recognized for it is at the heart of The Incredibles, an imaginative animated film that deals with superheroes who want to do good without receiving accolades. They just want to be helpful and do the right thing.

The main superheroes in the film are Mr. Incredible, who possesses super strength, Elastigirl, who can stretch her body like flexible rubber, and Frozone, who has the ability to create ice instantly. The opening scenes depict the heroes in a series of events where they are called upon to use their superpowers to catch criminals. They are almost entirely successful except in one case when they are foiled by Buddy, an enthusiastic fan of Mr. Incredible, who wants to be his ward like Batman’s Robin. It is his interruption that prevents Mr. Incredible from capturing the culprit.

After the excitement, the superheroes return to their alter egos and lead normal lives. Mr. Incredible is Robert Parr, Elastigirl is is Helen Parr, Robert’s wife, and Frozone is Lucius Best, Parr’s close friend.

Their lives are turned upside down when an avalanche of lawsuits are filed against the superheroes because of civilian injuries and collateral damage. Eventually, the superheroes conclude that they have to turn in their super suits and live normal lives away from the limelight, and assume their secret identities permanently. The Superhero Relocation Program provides ex-superheroes with new jobs and homes and amnesty for past actions.

The narrative continues 15 years later with Robert working for an insurance company, leading a life focused on his wife and children. However, he still dreams of his superhero years when he saved many people from disaster.

Soon an opportunity arises for him to return to his calling as a superhero. For a hefty sum, he is asked by Mirage, a mysterious woman, to destroy a rogue robot who is wreaking havoc on the residents of a remote island. However, Mr. Incredible soon discovers that his job is a ruse simply to get him to the island where Mirage’s anonymous employer terminates the lives of all the existing superheroes. The race to save himself and other superheroes makes for a tense and exciting denouement, in which Elastigirl, Frozone, and Mr. Incredible’s children play key roles.

A character trait that stands out among all three superheroes is their lack of interest in public acclaim. None of them is seeking recognition of any kind. They only want to help other people. This is a Jewish sensibility. In The Ethics of the Fathers, Jews are instructed to serve God, to do the right thing, without any intention of receiving reward. Moreover, Maimonides, in describing the eight levels of charity, writes that giving anonymously is one of the highest forms of charity.

It is significant to note that Mr. Incredible’s adversary is motivated primarily by a strong desire for recognition. He purposely destabilizes the world so that he can arrive on the scene and put it back together again in front of a large audience. He is a villain who thrives on the aphrodisiac of fame. The Incredibles reminds us that doing good things is more enduring than transient fame.

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Horton Hears a Who! (2008), directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino

Horton Hears a Who posterA friend of mine believes in the efficacy of conventional medicine. No matter what ails him, he refuses to consider holistic medical practices. He recently was having severe leg pain and I suggested that he consider acupuncture or chiropractic. He rejected both approaches categorically and continued to suffer, looking forward to his appointment with an orthopedic physician.

I was not certain that alternate therapies would work for my friend’s leg problem, but I was disturbed that he ruled them out without seriously considering the possibility that they might help. This dogmatic approach to problem solving is reflected in Horton Hears a Who, in which members of society reject the possibility of seeing things from another’s perspective.

This is the narrative crux of Horton Hears a Who, an animated version of the famous Dr. Seuss story of Horton, an elephant who hears voices of little creatures that no one else can hear. Everyone in the jungle of Nool dismisses these small voices, but Horton does not. He sees things differently, shifts his paradigm, and takes these voices seriously. He understands that it is possible to see things from another vantage point.

Horton discovers that the small voices are the voices of the residents of Who-ville, microscopic beings living on a speck of dust. A Who-ville scientist, Dr. Larue, tells the Mayor that Who-ville is in danger of extinction unless Horton finds a safer home for its citizens. And so begins Horton’s journey to Mt. Nool to provide safe haven for the residents of Who-ville. Along the way, he is harassed by many, especially the Sour Kangaroo, who feel Horton is out of his mind and hallucinating. Moreover, they feel his insistence on the reality of a microscopic Who-ville is dangerous educationally for it suggests to the children the existence of an alternate reality different from their own. Horton perseveres, however, repeating his motto “A person is a person, no matter how small.” In other words, opinions can have merit even if they express a minority view.

As Horton travels to Mt. Nool, he encounters life-threatening dangers. He almost falls off a bamboo bridge into a roaring river and he is attacked by a ferocious buzzard named Vlad, who almost kills him. In spite of these challenges and a hostile population that regards him as a liar and rebel, Horton continues to work on behalf of the citizens of Who-ville, whose perspective counts and who are relevant in spite of their miniscule dimensions.

Things come to a crisis because no one but Horton actually hears the citizens of Who-ville. But then the Mayor encourages everyone to shout “we are here” in the hope of letting the outside world know of their existence. In spite of their diminutive size, they still exist and want to live, albeit in their tiny universe.

In Jewish tradition, debate is good. The Talmud is filled with arguments expressing alternate points of view. Jewish law is decided by the majority of the Sages, but the minority view is still valued and preserved in the text. Why is this so? The Bible tells us that everyone is created in God’s image. This does not refer to a physical image, but rather to matters of the mind and spirit. Just as God is unique, so too is every human being. There is respect for differences and there is no expectation that everyone will think alike or look alike.

That is the essential message of Horton Hears a Who. Horton lives in his own world, but does not deny the reality of other worlds. He may talk to himself but he hears the voices of others. It is good to fit in and be normal, but it is also good to listen to others, to understand that your perceptions of reality are not the exclusive ones. Listening to others, understanding their worlds makes you a more sensitive and complete human being.

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Antz (1998), directed by Eric Darnell and Tim Johnson

antz posterIn high school, everybody wanted to look the same. Elvis was the fashion icon, and we all grew sideburns and dressed to look cool. Many years later, I was at an Orthodox Chassidic wedding, and I realized I was the only person there with a grey hat and suit. Everyone else was dressed in a black suit and wore a black hat. They all looked the same just as my buddies from high school looked the same with their pompadours and pegged pants. The common thread: similar dress indicated similar mindset. To be different branded one as an outsider looking in. Individuality was suspicious.

Confirming to the majority is the challenge facing “Z,” the hero of Antz, a hilarious animated feature, which deals with expressing one’s individuality in a world where conformity is the ideal. The narrative begins in an ant colony in Central Park in New York where Z-4195, also known as “Z”, longs for the chance to express himself as an individual. He is depressed over living in a totalitarian society that frowns upon and, in most cases, forbids veering from the norm. Into his world enters Princess Bala who meets Z at a bar to which she has escaped from her suffocating life at the palace.

Their union is aborted when the princess suddenly has to leave. However, Z, mesmerized by her, is undaunted by their different positions in society. He gladly exchanges his worker ant status with a friendly soldier ant to seek an opportunity to see Bala again and pursue their relationship.

Crisis arrives when the soldiers are sent into battle by General Mandible, the power-hungry leader of the army of ants. Z barely escapes with his life and resolves to seek a better world where individuality is valued. Mandible and Z represent two conflicting ideologies: conformity versus individuality. The worker ants have to choose between the two, or learn to strike some kind of balance between the two.

Jewish tradition offers such a balance. Jewish law requires conformity in practices related to rituals and moral behavior. Everyone who is with the program possesses a belief in God and in the divinity of sacred text. Once those basic principles are accepted, then there is room for individual expression.

Although everyone is created in God’s image, which means that everyone is unique and possesses infinite value, it is good that not everyone is exactly the same. We should appreciate the differences once common core principles are accepted. The classic model is the Talmudic discussion that takes place between Sages who may see the same reality but use different eyeglasses to arrive at different conclusions.

Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, in an intriguing article praising non-conformity and rebellion within Jewish education, observes that the Torah itself was the first text of rebellion to appear in world history. Abraham challenged existing beliefs and protested the status quo. The goal of the Bible was to be the catalyst for a “rebel movement of cosmic proportions.” Furthermore, Rabbi Cardozo writes that the Torah “protests against complacency, self-satisfaction, and negation of the spirit. It calls for radical thinking and drastic action without compromise, even when it means standing alone, being condemned and ridiculed.”

This is exactly what happens to Z when he foments revolution among the worker ants. The powers that be mock him, but Z does not despair. He is convinced that individuality is to be celebrated even when society operates with a totalitarian vision. The key is balance.

Antz is a wildly imaginative movie with lots of laughs, especially since Z is voiced by Woody Allen, articulating the neurotic pessimism that characterizes his humor. Beneath the surface, however, is a serious statement about preserving the integrity of the individual voice even when the majority wants to drown it out.

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Toy Story 3 (2010), directed by Lee Unkrich

Many years ago, I hired what I thought was a star teacher. He gave an excellent model lesson, had good references, and even played the guitar. Yet I soon discovered a serious flaw. He never wanted to deal with parents. It seems that, once long ago, he was abused verbally and emotionally by an insensitive school parent. The repercussions of that event still lingered and colored his approach to all parents. He was still angry with them, for they were the enemy. Ultimately, I had to let him go because our school welcomed parent engagement and did not see parents as adversaries.

The experience reminded me that sometimes we can let a bad experience define how we behave in the future. In truth, it is a great tragedy if we cannot move beyond a hurtful experience, if we permit anger and ill will towards others to dominate our lives.

Toy Story 3, an animated film that is a parable of human relationships, provides one classic example of this in the character of Lotso, the chief toy in a day care center full of dysfunctional and malevolent toys that lord over the new recruits who come to Sunnyside Day Care. Lotso has allowed a bad experience in his youth to forever taint his relationships with anyone he meets. The back story reveals that Lotso also was once a treasured toy, but his owner abandoned him, or so Lotso thought. In truth, she lost him and did not deliberately abandon him. Lotso, however, lived on the false myth of his abandonment and made that bad experience the seminal one in his life. Anger was what drove him and defined him.

Into Lotso’s monstrous world enter a group of naïve toys, who fear obsolescence when their owner, now grown up, departs for college. They fear abandonment, but take heart in the possibility of finding a warm and friendly environment of a local day care center. From a distance it looks attractive. But a closer look reveals that the ownerless day care toys are not only used but abused. The kids at the day care do not feel any emotional connection to the toys. The children play with the toys and then toss them away. In contrast, the new recruits, accustomed to an owner who had invested in a relationship with them, want in some way to replicate that situation. They want to feel valued, emotionally connected, and respected. The toys are truly us.

Their first impression of Lotso is positive. He is soft spoken and huggable on the outside, but they do not realize he is an angry monster on the inside. His past anger has determined his future.

Jewish tradition tells us that anger is one of the worst traits to possess. In fact, the Talmud compares it to idol worship. When one is angry, it is a manifestation of a lack of belief in God’s providential supervision of the universe. After all, how can one be angry if God is in charge of things? It is a Jewish mode of sensibility to presume that from the aspect of eternity, everything ultimately will make sense because God is orchestrating events in a hidden way which our finite minds cannot comprehend at the moment.

Lotso, whose life is defined by anger, reminds us not to allow negative memory tapes of the past to determine our present or future. It is a bad thing when anger lives rent-free in our brains and influences our present relationships.

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