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Every Pixar Movie Is About the Same Thing

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by Matt Singer
June 19, 2013 5:07 PM
7 Comments
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"Monsters University."

After "Cars 2" and "Brave," Pixar Animation Studios' unprecedented, unbroken streak of classic children's films seems to be over. But even if the last few years have seen a (slight) dip in the quality of Pixar's movies, the company still holds other traditions that date all the way back to its very first feature, 1995's "Toy Story." All thirteen subsequent films, for example, feature a vocal performance from "Cheers" star John Ratzenberger; all thirteen also include some kind of reference to classroom "A113," where Pixar directors like John Lassseter and Brad Bird learned their craft at the California Institute of the Arts. And though it's less frequently discussed than those famous easter eggs, all of Pixar's movies, from "Toy Story" to this weekend's "Monsters University," are basically about the exact same thing: the value of friendship and teamwork.

Although each Pixar movie (besides their sequels and prequels) exist within its own universe with its own unique characters -- living toys, futuristic robots, superhero families, college-aged monsters -- each follows essentially the same basic story arc. They all start with a character who is talented and smart, but also, in some way, a loner. Flik from "A Bug's Life" is a clever inventer, but an outsider in his colony of ants. Merida in "Brave" is a free-spirited 16-year-old girl who refuses to listen to her parents and doesn't have any interest in marriage. "Cars"' Lightning McQueen is one of the best race cars in the world, but he's cocky and self-centered. "Up"'s Carl Fredrickson is still reeling from the death of his beloved wife, and just wants to be left alone in his little house.

No Pixar hero wants help, but they eventually realize they not only need it, they enjoy working with others. Flik recruits a group of circus bugs and together they defeat a band of evil grasshoppers. Merida's adventure in the woods makes her realize how much she loves and needs her mom. With the help of the friends he discovers in the community of Radiator Springs, Lightning McQueen realizes that good sportsmanship and loyalty are more important than winning. With he help of his new friend Russell, Carl finds a reason to keep on living after his marriage. The theme song to "Toy Story," Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend In Me," could be the theme song to every single Pixar movie.

I first noticed this trend back in 2009, when I was commissioned to write a piece on the best buddy duo of "the naughts" as part of a retrospective series on the decade in film. I picked "Finding Nemo"'s Marlin and Dory, and as I rewatched the movie and considered its story I realized that this great story of friendship had a lot in common with other Pixar movies. Many of them have quirky, curmudgeonly protagonists who discover the value of companionship.

In the four years and four films since, nothing has changed. It may not be the studio's most brilliant or creative production, but by this rubric, "Monsters University" is easily one of the Pixar-iest Pixar movies ever. Mike Wazowski is an ambitious college freshman at Monsters University, Monstropolis' greatest educational institution devoted to the the art and science of scaring children. Since he was a young monster, Mike has dreamed of becoming a great scarer (the monsters who enter the human world and frighten kids so their screams can be harvested as the energy that powers Monstropolis). He arrives at MU eager, cocky, and brilliant -- and immediately begins a rivalry with laconic, lazy, naturally gifted monster Sulley. But despite his ample knowledge about the world of scaring, he quickly gets in trouble with the college dean -- and the only way to get back in her good graces is for Mike and Sulley to put aside their differences and work as a team. 

In 2009, I speculated that Pixar was making movies about Pixar -- a place where talented, singular artists like Lasseter, Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and others combine their vision and passion with the skills of hundreds of animators to create great works of art. Individuals are important at Pixar, but without teamwork, their contributions are worthless. And so each Pixar movie celebrates the sort of working environment that produces Pixar movies.

What has changed since I wrote that earlier piece is Pixar's reputation. The studio is still the golden child of the animation world, but their image has been tarnished just a little bit. They're increasingly accused of losing a bit of their great creative spark, and of relying too heavily on franchises rather than original properties ("Monsters University" is the company's third sequel in four films). Meanwhile, many of Pixar's most talented artists have begun working elsewhere. Stanton and Bird made live-action films; Lasseter expanded his job to include Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. 

So while the Pixar message has remained unchanged, the message's meaning is beginning to look very different. Now teamwork isn't just important to Pixar's continued success; with the loss of some key personnel, it's absolutely vital. If the company wants to maintain its dominant position in Hollywood, it will need new artists to rise to the occasion. But that's why you have a team. Like the Randy Newman song says, you stick together and see it through.

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7 Comments

  • Brian W. | June 23, 2013 1:03 PMReply

    I was tempted to agree fully with Joe and Spock in saying that, aren't these at least common themes through most children's films? But then it occurred to me that even some of the pinnacle Disney films (Beauty and the Beast, Little Mermaid, Peter Pan, Cinderella, Snow White, Pinocchio, etc.) all have themes of friendship, but are arguably not primarily about friendship and teamwork.

    In that way, Pixar's films really do have very common themes, and I think this piece points that out very astutely. What's missing as a clarifying piece is that this commonality exists between all of them, but what makes most of them great is that they are about other things as well. Wall-E considers the environment, technology, silent movies and more, Ratatouille is about finding greatness in yourself no matter your background, Cars is about going against your best instincts and learning to try new things, Nemo is about fathers and sons, Brave is about mothers and daughters, and the Toy Story sequels are about growing old, maybe even death.

    I think that's how Pixar redeems themselves, in not playing into their formula too much while still relying on some of the basic tenants that made them universal.

  • SpookySpock | June 21, 2013 10:23 PMReply

    While I agree that there's a noticeable decline in quality for Pixar movies, the whole similar story arc/character development angle is kind of a stretch...I tend to agree with Joe below. Isn't a sympathetic protagonist who takes on obstacles despite their own flaws a very common element in any form of storytelling? Make a list character types and I'm sure the one you described would be the overwhelming majority.

  • a guy named joe | June 20, 2013 6:54 PMReply

    "They all start with a character who is talented and smart, but also, in some way, a loner."

    I'm not so sure I want to watch a movie with a character who is average and dull-witted and likes to follow the crowd. What Pixar is doing, because they understand basic storytelling, is starting with a protagonist who is deeply flawed, who must grow emotionally and overcome his personality flaw. It's screenwriting 101, and while some might think it's unoriginal, it's the basis for a lot of compelling drama. Anti-heroes are great too, but sometimes you end up with diarrhea like "Liberal Arts" (whose protagonist is a morose, mediocre, pretentious dork who doesn't grow at all).

  • Nic Kramer | June 20, 2013 8:52 AMReply

    I always hated that when a studio takes a false move, the critics starts turning there backs on them. Don't you critics have other things to complain like your own predictablitys?

  • steve | June 19, 2013 8:59 PMReply

    Ya know what i realize from critics? they dont realize the flip side. If disney started changing things up, they would start to recieve critism for changing. Some people like change, some like consistentcy, both think their opinions are the best

  • John | June 20, 2013 1:02 PM

    Was Matt critical? Pretty sure it was just an observational piece. "Hey, I noticed this thing about Pixar. Maybe you'll find it interesting too," M. Singer says.

    Critics know the perils of change as well. Don't be daft.

  • ska-triumph | June 20, 2013 11:48 AM

    They already did start changing, and did receive flack, but kept making smart long-term money moves. They make less and less original (or edgy) product but have invested in major brands AFTER PIXAR - e.g. Marvel, LucasFilm. I don't see critics too worried about Disney's bottom line but more on the Disney hand-draw animation aesthetic.

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