A Sense Of Place in Pixar

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It was about a year ago that I saw Pixar’s tenth effort, Up!, their first 3D feature film that surprisingly ranked pretty low in my overall rankings of all Pixar movies. Watching it again in February I am still firm in my convictions that it’s not quite as strong as other Pixar movies. Although the story of Carl (the old man) was bittersweet and well played, and there was plenty of comic relief, much of the film is a little wacky to the extreme. The combination of giant elusive dodo birds, chatty boy scouts, floating houses, lost blimps, talking dogs, and venomous adventurers was a little obscure for my ultimate tastes.

I was a tiny bit nervous in the year leading up to the release of Toy Story 3. I had the same hesitant feelings going in that I did when Ratatouille came out. The pre-film buzz and industry news was that the films were wrought with drama behind the scenes. TS3 was delayed several times as horrible scripts were rewritten. Ratatouille sidelined the project’s leaders in an attempt to salvage it. And you know what? Both films were incredible. By the time I actually walked into the theatre to see TS3 I knew it was going to be good, and I wasn’t let down (as Pixar never does).

Entertainment Weekly has written at least one piece about TS3 in the month since its been released, and I’ve been keeping on top of it online through reviews, box office takes, and news. There are only 3 negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes at last check for the film, and I bothered to read one of them, on what felt like a hack website (seriously RT, you’ll include El Random internet writer and not the big newspapers in every major Canadian city?) called Movie Martyr.

I was surprised to find that I agreed with a couple of points the reviewer made. Mostly, he drew the quite similar parallels between Toy Stories 2 & 3. He argued that Lotso Huggin Bear was a retread of Toy Story 2’s ‘Stinky Pete’ – the forgotten, angry, manipulative toy. He focused on the fact that the plot of being left behind and growing out of toy ownership was the exact same between the two films.

After contemplating this last point in particular, I agree. However, unlike the writer, I disagree that TS3 was an unnecessary sequel to TS2 (or for that matter, TS1). The issue at hand in Toy Story 2 was that Woody could give up the emotions and love of being played with now in exchange for admiration from afar forever. Woody decided by the end of the film that he wouldn’t give up being played with by Andy for anything, and opted to return home.
Toy Story 3, in contrast, plays out this last point. Although Woody is fully aware in TS2 that an inevitable time will come when he just won’t be played with anymore, he still accepts it, even in the heartbreaking opening scenes of the movie when the characters resolve themselves to a life in the attic. What transpires from there is a serious look at how to resolve the emotional attachments we have to our youth (the toys serving primarily as a metaphor) as we grow up and move on.

Had Toy Story 3 never existed, I doubt the majority of us would have ever thought about that day when Andy would give up his toys. We would have been to content to with the happily ever after in the blissful frozen state Andy was in at age 8 when we last saw him with Buzz, Woody and the gang. But Pixar sagely revisits things for the few that question “What about when he gets older?” and manages to find a bittersweet ending that resolves that question, and brings things full circle.

If Jeremy Hielman really had a problem with the overriding linking themes between the Toy Story films, he probably doesn’t like Pixar films in general. Why you ask? Because at their core, Pixar films are about a very similar topic that is bent and reshaped in so many different directions, it’s hard to call them one-trick ponies.

That theme is ‘a sense of place’, or home. Every single Pixar film tackles this, often creating ‘adventure’ stories that see their primary characters leaving home as they know it to find a place for themselves in a bigger social system. Cases in point (with the exception of A Bug’s Life, which I can’t comment on since I still haven’t seen it!):

Toy Story – Woody’s place is threatened by Buzz, so he eliminates him. When he does so, he realizes his place is further jeopardized and leaves home to try to save his position as most favoured toy in Andy’s life, and amongst the other toys. When he comes back, he realizes he doesn’t need the top dog spot exclusively, as long as he belongs to Andy.

Toy Story 2 – Woody debates whether it’s better to be admired from afar forever, and loved intimately for now. He decides the latter and heads back home to spend another carefree couple of years with his best friend Andy.

Monsters Inc – The introduction of a human child he’s contracted to scare has Sully the monster questioning whether what he’s made a proud life doing is really ‘right’. He leaves his post as top monster to try and find an alternative while subverting the system he’s grown so accustomed to, and like Woody, manages to find a compromise.

Finding Nemo – Emotionally damaged by his own defect, Nemo heads into the deep sea to prove his friends wrong. When he’s captured, his own cautious-as-can-be clownfish father must brave dozens of different sea environments to rescue his son, and realize no matter how hard he tries, he can’t protect Nemo from everything, and that perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

The Incredibles – After years of fitting into a restrained place in society assigned to them, a family of superheroes flexes their super powers to see whether they can publicly mitigate their private strength with their public lives.

Cars – After spending his whole life dreaming of nothing but being a champion race car, Lightning McQueen learns to appreciate the simple things when he makes a wrong turn too many in life.

Ratatouille – Growing up in a colony of foraging rats, Remy knew his love for fine cuisine was abnormal. When a chance encounter separates him from the pack, he embraces the opportunity to get his paws into cooking, in a world that traditionally wants him to have nothing to do with their food.

Wall-E – Being designed for one simple purpose, to clean up Earth, Wall-E evolved to be a curious and empathetic robot. His exposure to the slick, glossy life beyond the grim realities of Earth reveal to him that despite the destitution that awaits, the possibility of a brighter future for Earth is enough to fight hard to save it.

Up! – Carl always dreamed of being an adventurer with his wife Ellie, but life always seemed to get in the way. He embarks on the great adventure they never took, only to realize through Ellie’s eyes their actual life was the greatest adventure they’d ever need to embark on.

As you can see, all of these stories involve a journey to self-discovery, and finding a way to negotiate who you were and who you should be. They often involve subverting a system of 'the way things are' to find alternatives and compromises. I believe Toy Story sagely took the three movies its story spanned across to create one collective message on this: it’s not about how many people who love you, or even (to a degree) who, it’s simply about being loved and appreciated.

I heart Pixar. I hope their move to two movies per year doesn’t over saturate the market or hurt their storytelling abilities, as Hollywood continues to gape at the longest-running hit streak in movie-making memory, but from what I’ve heard and know about the Pixar wizards, I imagine they’ll be producing nothing but magic for years to come.

I feel like I could write a University paper on this, but there you have it: my Pixar thesis in blog form.

- Britt's On


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