Art in the Roots, #4: Are Cartoon Tears Salty Too?

I’m a dad. Some of you local readers know my kids. They’re good kids, at heart, but let’s just say they might not always understand that Calvin and Hobbes comics aren’t “how-to” guides. They mean well, at least. You gotta give them that. 

A lot of my dad friends and I have talked about some obvious generational differences between older generations and Generation X. For many reasons both good and bad that I won’t get into, parenting expectations have changed. I’m grateful my parents were involved, but I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Gen Xer, which means “involved” parents came to our Little League games but left us alone for entire summer afternoons. Me? I’d wander off to the woods with my dog, but I grew up on a farm. You all probably wandered the suburban yards, found the kid with a pool, and the rest wrote itself. If I did that as a parent today, someone might call the authorities. Times change. 

Pixar forces me to externalize just how much I want my sons’ lives to be good, just how much I want them to experience joy and peace, all while parading before me how much life will inevitably be full of pain

Ultimately, what’s changed the most may be how aware we are as parents. I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a helicopter parent, but it is pretty common for my generation to be hyper-aware parents. That’s a label that does fit me. We spend time on decisions that previous generations didn’t, or didn’t have to. My parents had one, single Little League baseball option for me, but we can choose from literally dozens of youth sports options for our kids. In basketball alone, we had to choose among five different leagues this past winter. Every parenting choice comes with a cereal aisle’s worth of options and even more research to dig through to inform that choice. So we’re already very aware of ourselves as parents. Which brings me to Pixar. 

Pixar isn’t fair. It’s devious, really. At least 90% of the time, their movies make me cry, and they set out to make the movies darned well knowing that. It’s sick stuff, man. I know, we’re supposed to be all, like, “men don’t cry,” but that’s some bull and we all know it. My problem here is the way Pixar knows we’re hyper-aware, and then they put our feelings right in front of us. They let us see ourselves through perfectly crafted narratives under a magnifying glass, exploiting the hearts on our sleeves. 

Pixar forces me to externalize just how much I want my sons’ lives to be good, just how much I want them to experience joy and peace, all while parading before me how much life will inevitably be full of pain, hardship, and—were we on the patio having a drink, I’d use a more to-the-point term, but we’re not, so—jerks. It lets us hope while also reminding us that life has no light without dark, no joy without sorrow. 

Pixar may be the best in the entire art world at making us actually reflect and confront ourselves through art. How was I supposed to watch Onward as both a dad of brothers and a brother myself without bawling? I want my boys to be accepted for who they are in this world, so how can I watch Luca without flooding the couch with tears? Even the superhero movie! I went into The Incredibles expecting a good time but was exposed to a past-his-prime dad who tries real hard but ultimately isn’t as great as he wants to be and his family loves him anyway. I’m supposed to watch that without blubbering in self-awareness? And don’t get me started on how my eight-year-old wanted to watch Finding Nemo with me on his birthday while we were quarantining together with COVID. Hoo, buddy. 

Pixar is brilliant and devious because it’s not even trying to be. In a world that seems to always have a card up its sleeve, seems to always be playing us as marks, Pixar puts our lives right in front of us. It knows we all want a life well lived and more than anything want that for our kids. But Pixar knows life is complicated. It uses art to smack some feelings out of us no matter how much we suppress them in daily life. That’s a mean trick to play on a Gen Xer, but I’m awfully happy they’re there for my kids. 

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