All work and no play: why the cartoon world must stop copying the corporate | Movie

Do you feel happy? Well, you too, punk? If you do, some supernatural busybodies may be manipulating you from the comfort of their hi-tech control rooms, in between sips of coffee from the staff canteen. If they press one button, you’ll find a £10 note. If they press another, you’ll fall into a manhole.

At least that’s the premise of Luck, an Apple+ cartoon that will premiere in August. The film shows that human affairs are affected by the Land of Happiness, although, judging by the trailer, “The Office Complex of Luck” would be more accurate. Hundreds of leprechauns and rabbits (and a black cat voiced by Simon Pegg) roam the corridors of a gleaming business campus, delivering parcels, reading memos and reporting to their cleverly suited boss, a dragon voiced by Jane Fonda.

The idea that something as elusive as happiness could be ruled by alien workers is fun — and 20 years ago it might have seemed original too. But in 2022, the contrast between the ethereal and the bland bureaucratic is as cartoon cliche as crazy talking animals. Take a mysterious, metaphysical concept, add a crowd of bean counters and pin pushers, and you’ve got a movie.

To be fair, this kind of comedy has an illustrious history, ranging from Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (in which Peter learns that heaven has filing clerks) to Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (in which the recently deceased Maitlands visit an afterlife bureau). In animation Monsters, Inc. in 2001 the game changer – and it’s still one of Pixar’s finest cartoons. You can’t beat the sight of hairy and/or slimy creatures merrily entering a factory where they bottle children’s screams into yellow jerry cans. Ten years later, a similar combination of the industrial and the magical did the trick in Aardman’s Arthur Christmas. The suggestion that Santa’s elves would need desktop computers and digital displays had a pleasing logic, yet the film retained a touch of traditional festive wonder.

Business scaremongers… Monsters, Inc.Business scaremongers… Monsters, Inc. Photo: AP

In the decade since, however, the same big-business trinket has been used in cartoon after cartoon: the conveyor belts and gangways; the announcements on tannoys, and the consoles dotted with levers and dials; the monitors that show individual houses, and the wall-sized screens that show a map of the earth. There is often a cityscape that stretches beyond the center of operations, and there is often an ignorant human who stumbles in and messes up an otherwise foolproof system. And there are filing cabinets. So many filing cabinets.

These incorporeal corporate setups have become every American cartoon’s answer to life’s toughest questions. Where do babies come from? According to Storks, the storks involved have collars and ties and productivity charts. On the other hand, The Boss Baby states that the babies run the show from their cubicle, where they study pie charts and dream of corner offices.

But where do children’s personalities come from? Soul gives the stock headquarters a new-age makeover, but it still has seminars, name tags, a grumpy accountant and yes, filing cabinets. In Inside Out, moods and memories are overseen by a team of colleagues with a dashboard, clipboard and a complicated data storage process. And in Coco – like A Matter of Life and Death and Beetlejuice – the Land of the Dead also has managers, regulations and filing cabinets. Crucially, all this mystical chatter is suspiciously divine, but specific deities and religions are never mentioned.

Emotional industrial complex… Inside Out.Emotional industrial complex… Inside Out. Photo: AA Film Archive/Alamy

Then there are the less highfalutin examples. Always wanted to know what goes on in a beehive, an arcade game or the internet? Bee Movie, Wreck-It Ralph and The Emoji Movie agree that they are full of wage slaves doing their nine-to-five jobs.

If anyone is behind this trend, it’s Pete Docter, who directed Monsters, Inc., Inside Out and Soul, who helped define what a Pixar cartoon could be. (It can’t be a coincidence that Luck is Skydance Animation’s first film — and that the animation studio is Pixar’s former supremo John Lasseter.) Docter’s own cartoons come across as genuine attempts to tell truthful philosophical riddles. But in most movies directed by his imitators, all the talk about quotas and promotions and performance ratings seems like a lazy gimmick, and a pretty depressing one too. As charming as these cartoons may be, their underlying message is that the best way to make anything possible—birth, death, joy, Christmas gifts—is to have hordes of diligent employees committed to one monolithic company.

You can see why that message might appeal to the executives at Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks and Skydance, but I hope the trend ends. I’m not lucky though. Pixar’s 2023 release, Elemental, is set “in a city where denizens of fire, water, land and air live together”. Don’t be surprised if there are filing cabinets somewhere.

Luck will be released in theaters on August 5 and on Apple TV+.

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