“A person’s a person, no matter how small.”
That famous maxim of Dr. Seuss’s high-minded elephant Horton, hero of Horton Hears a Who! and Horton Hatches the Egg, has long been claimed by pro-lifers. It’s graced countless handmade signs at pro-life demonstrations, appeared on T-shirts, been sig quoted in emails and online forums, and so forth. In 2008 the Los Angeles premiere of Blue Sky Studios’ charming computer-animated Horton Hears a Who!, starring Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, was disrupted by pro-life activists chanting the line.
Perhaps pro-life use of the slogan irked the late Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Geisel, and his widow Audrey. (Geisel once threatened to sue an anti-abortion group for using the line on their stationery, and Audrey is reportedly a Planned Parenthood donor.) But art — even silly rhyming anapestic tetrameter accompanied by whimsical, rubbery pen-and-ink illustrations with splashy color — is polyvalent, and lends itself to applications far beyond the artist’s intent.
That doesn’t mean all applications are equally persuasive. But Horton’s maxim was coined in defense of microscopic life: microscopic life on a speck of dust “as small as the head of a pin” that becomes endangered, in part, because other animals who don’t believe this life exists want to destroy the dust speck.
In his other adventure, Horton Hatches the Egg, Horton doggedly cares for embryonic life — specifically, the life in a bird’s egg — abandoned by its mother, a flighty bird named Mayzie. In Horton Hears a Who! a capricious mother figure, a “sour” kangaroo whose baby in the pouch mirrors the mother’s sour attitude, leads the other animals against Horton. In both stories Horton heroically endures intense ridicule and even great physical threats to protect the tiny or incipient life or lives in danger.
In Horton’s big-screen 2008 adventure, it’s the sour kangaroo’s baby, Rudy, who first realizes at the climax that Horton is right about the life on the speck. Rudy switches sides and helps Horton save the speck from his mother, leaving the pouch to do so. The mother is thus opposed by her own quasi-fetal offspring, who is on the side of life.
In a further pro-life twist, the film gives Who-ville Mayor Ned McDodd and his wife Sally (Carell and Amy Poehler) 97 children (96 well-adjusted girls and one moody boy, who of course helps to save the day). Clearly the McDodds are Irish Catholics.
The pro-life interpretation of Horton Hears a Who! doesn’t invalidate other approaches, of course. The way the microscopicWho’s eventually win recognition from the sour kangaroo and the other animals by crying out all together suggests an obvious political reading: Those who are politically insignificant and invisible may be heard if everyone “speaks” up (e.g., by voting for their best interests).
Still, clearly Horton can be called a “pro-life” hero in a broad sense, and even in a sense that resonates in some striking ways with the pro-life cause. And his isn’t the only animated adventure with pro-life resonances.
Concern for the preciousness of embryonic life is central to a key scene in Pixar’s Finding Nemo, directed by Andrew Stanton. In the prologue, tragedy strikes the clownfish couple Marlin and Coral, killing Coral and nearly their whole incipient brood, a clutch of eggs even more numerous than the McDodd clan.
One egg is spared, though damaged. In a haunting first-person shot, Marlin cradles that one precious egg in his fins, as through the translucent membrane we see the wiggling embryonic fry that will become the title character. This shot is recalled in flashback later on, attesting how this moment is seared on Marlin’s mind.
Another Pixar film, Pete Docter’s Up also begins with a prologue that poignantly acknowledges the value of unborn life and the pain of losing it. Up’s prologue tells the life story of Carl and Ellie, who meet as children, marry, and grow old together. The story of their married life, told in a montage of wordless vignettes and delicately scored by Michael Giacchino, has widely been hailed as one of the best sequences in Pixar’s oeuvre, one that could stand alone as a silent short.
During this sequence, we see Ellie break the news to Carl that she’s pregnant. (They’re lying on a grassy hill gazing up at cloud shapes and talking about what they see, and suddenly all the clouds look like babies to Carl.)
Next we see Carl and Ellie merrily decorating a nursery for the new arrival (Ellie paints a mural of a stork carrying a bundle of joy) — but this moment doesn’t last. A lateral dolly movement and an invisible wipe leaves that happy time behind forever as we glimpse Carl comforting a weeping Ellie in an ob/gyn’s office as a doctor gives her the bad news. (Not to intrude too much on Ellie’s grief, the shot is evocatively framed through the office door from a darkened hallway.)
Ellie’s pain lingers into the next couple of shots, and we gather that not only did she lose the baby, they won’t be able to try again. Her face is rigid as she tries to keep it together, and Carl gently tries to help her move on to the next phase of their life together.
It’s astounding to see so frank and sensitive a depiction of the heartbreak of miscarriage and childlessness in an animated Hollywood family film. Perhaps not coincidentally, both Docter and Finding Nemo director Stanton are openly Christian.
Docter’s first film for Pixar, Monsters, Inc., offers another sort of pro-life theme, one also found in Blue Sky’s debut film, the first Ice Age. These films are essentially variations on Three Men and a Baby; a number of child-averse protagonists (all male, and all non-human) wind up saddled with the responsibility for a human tot (an infant in Ice Age, a toddler in Monsters, Inc.) that winds up transforming their attitudes and opening their minds.
In Monsters, Inc., monster-world protagonists Mike Wazowski and James Sullivan (Billy Crystal and John Goodman) have always accepted their culture’s premise that human children are literally toxic. Gradually, though, exposure to the adorable burbling tyke Sully nicknames “Boo” persuades them that they’ve been misled about children.
The unlikely animal heroes of Ice Age have more reason to fear prehistoric humans, who are great predators. Somehow, though, they wind up banding together in an unlikely effort to return a human infant to its nomadic “herd.” A touching scene depicts gruff Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano) unsuccessfully trying to keep up his guard against their tiny charge: “No claws, no fangs. You’re little folds of skin wrapped in…mush. What’s so threatening about you?”
Fear of children, or of the responsibility of parenthood, is an important component of the culture of death. Monsters, Inc. and Ice Age implicitly confront common anti-natalist anxieties, making the simple case that life is good.
One issue common to nearly all these stories is the dominant male point of view and the neglect — or worse — of the mother’s point of view. In Horton Hears a Who! the mother figure is actually the antagonist, though she’s gratifyingly redeemed in the end. For that matter, the mother in Horton Hatches the Egg is just as bad in her own way.
Both Ice Age and Finding Nemo depict a mother heroically sacrificing her life in an effort to save her offspring. After that, though, the male protagonists carry the plot, and both stories wind up with the child returned to his widowed father. Boo in Monsters, Inc. may have a mother as well as a father, but we see neither of them.
Up does somewhat better: Ellie’s lost maternity is an emotional focal point of the wordless prologue segment. But this sequence ends with Ellie’s death, leaving Carl (Ed Asner) to carry on alone and forge a quasi-paternal (or rather grandparental) bond with young Russell the Wilderness Explorer. Russell’s parents are divorced and his father is at least an emotional deadbeat, and in the end we see his single mother caring for him on her own.
The trope of the dead wife or mother as motivation or character development for male protagonists is far too common in Hollywood, and not only in cartoons. A culture in which the male perspective dominates in this way can’t be pro-life in any meaningful sense.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.