When the movie “Happy Feet” was just starting to build up some hype, I overheard a news report criticizing it as an attempt to push a political agenda regarding the dangers of global warming. Putting aside my personal feelings on the subject, I found the suggestion laughable. Of course, I haven’t seen the movie, and it’s agenda may be more evident than the trailers suggest, but to set one movie aside as more worthy of scrutiny than any other is careless at best, manipulative at worst.
Nearly every movie ever made has had an agenda of some sort, whether political, psychological, or economic. In fact, it may be that every movie ever made has had an agenda, but there are probably many films, if not nearly all of them, in which the agenda was completely unintentional and, for that reason, may well be excused from any accusations of wrong-doing, in my opinion.
An excellent example of political propaganda on the silver screen would be the collection of Sherlock Holmes movies that were made during World War II starring Basil Rathbone. While completely ignoring the state of world affairs at the time would have been considered blasphemy by many (especially since Holmes was brought into the modern era for the series) the films went so far as to involve the famous detective directly in cases of war-time espionage and battles with the evil Axis powers. Suddenly, Holmes was a weapon used by the government, rather than a champion for justice. Certainly, fighting off the forces of Nazi Germany can be considered justice, but there is no denying that these films were designed to encourage patriotism and make a statement. This is an extreme example, of course.
In some cases, particularly in the case of psychological agendas, the statement is not so readily apparent to those who are not looking for it. To most people, fairy tales and the movies based on them are just good bedtime stories for their little ones, wholesome family entertainment. However, any student of psychology will tell you that fairy tales, even those as enchanting as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, serve to teach little girls that they can improve their lot in life only by marrying well and letting their princes sweep them off of their feet.
This is somewhat of an over-generalization. There are fairy tale films with more merit than that; “The Little Mermaid” and “Ella Enchanted” spring to mind, even if the latter isn’t based on an original fairy tale. Did the authors of the original tales intend to make such a statement to the little girls of the world? We will probably never know. But it doesn’t mean that such films should be banned from the family DVD player, just taken in moderation and with a grain of salt.
If you’re looking for examples in film of women being portrayed as weak or otherwise helpless to save themselves or their world, or just examples of men being portrayed as better than women, you don’t have to look far. But if you’re not paying attention or you believe that sometimes a movie is just a movie, you’ll probably miss most of the signs. The same can be said of any other type of psychological agenda. It has been suggested that an unspoken lesson being taught by “Star Trek” and its many incarnations is that the furtherance of technology is good. However, “Jurassic Park” very clearly states that taking technology too far is very, very bad.
If “The Lord of the Rings” is indeed a representation of author Tolkien’s experiences in war, then the stories of Middle-earth are definitely saying that “war is hell,” to borrow a phrase from Sherman. And there is no end to the movies that describe nature in its wild, uncivilized state as undesirable and contemptible, from “Paul Bunyan” to the aforementioned “Jurassic Park.”
Another example of manipulation in the movies is more well-known to fans of the big screen: economic agendas. Any movie studio or producer knows that the best way to make money off of the populace is to release films that promote the most popular opinion of the day, or conversely, the least popular and, therefore, most inflammatory opinion of the day. Economic agendas influence and even direct political and psychological agendas. During war-time, it makes sense to release films that promote patriotism and praise for government and country. In some cases, it may also be advisable to produce a movie or two railing against the current war; people who share the same opinion on the subject will flock to it.
The majority of the typical movie audience may be outraged, but they’ll have to see the film before they will know what to be outraged over. When global warming is a hot-button issue and a topic on everyone’s mind, a lot of money can be made by producing movies that address it and other environmental issues. “Happy Feet” may be an obvious attempt at convincing an audience that global warming is a real threat, but it is certainly not the first movie to capitalize on current events, nor will it be the last.
If the real fear about hidden agendas in movies is that it will control what the audience is thinking, we must not have much faith in our own cognitive abilities. And if the fear is only for our children, perhaps fairy tales should be banned from the family television and each movie screened and judged carefully and individually by a panel of experts hired to tell us what to watch. Otherwise, maybe we should remember that sometimes a movie is just a movie.