Mortality, Parenting and the Epic Existentialism of Pixar

·17-min read
Photo credit: Pixar
Photo credit: Pixar

“You are going to die,” my three-year-old son told me calmly, barely looking up from his dinner. “You are going to die and…” he pointed his fork at his mother now “…so are you.” We watched him struggle to make sense of his coleslaw. “And I,” he added eventually, speaking now with his mouth full, “I am going to die as well. And so will baby Leela. Everyone is going to die… and then there will be nobody left.” He chewed, swallowed then reached for his beaker.

Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when our son became interested in the inevitable demise of everyone he knows and loves. It has, after all, been a big year for death. Over the back garden wall, our neighbours share daily mortality statistics or the latest vaccine side effects. Even when we do talk to them about the weather, it’s usually in the context of how it will impact the spread of airborne particulates.

And if I say my son’s first imaginary friend was a stick called “Coronavirus” you can see how far it’s gone. In the middle of the playground, he held the friend aloft, yelled, “I’ve got Coronavirus!” which also had the helpful effect of keeping other families at a safe distance. Yet these are not the only reasons he has become morbid. We can also trace his interest in death to one specific afternoon in December when we finally caved in and let him watch his first feature film.

Up to that point, we’d managed to restrict him to a handful of YouTube videos, in particular a short documentary about a toilet paper factory that he eventually memorised, attaining detailed knowledge about how the pulp is mashed and turned into a “master roll” the size of a hay bale. But as lockdown wore on, we knew we needed more substantial distractions. We needed longer running times. We needed happier endings. We needed Disney+.

Initially, of course, we told ourselves we wouldn’t let him watch just anything. We had seen, first hand, the devastating impact Frozen II was having on the lives of our friends. How their sweet daughters entered the cinema with open minds and open hearts and emerged two hours later transformed into hardline gender conformists, refusing to leave the house without their princess dresses. We had watched the same friends’ houses steadily fill with Elsa dolls, Elsa shoes and slippers, Elsa bedsheets and bathrobes, Elsa tiara sets which were essential headgear while riding the Elsa bike. In the first film, Princess Elsa is trapped inside an ice palace of her own creation and, in real life, millions of parents are locked in their own homes, suffocating beneath an avalanche of Disney tie-ins, forever washing glitter from their children’s ears.

So, for our son’s first, and undoubtedly formative, experience of visual art, we took the morally responsible decision to let him watch “the new Pixar”. It says a lot about the company’s reputation that those three words were all we needed as reassurance. (We quietly ignored the fact that Pixar is, of course, owned by Disney.) In our times, no other film company had managed to hit the mark as often as Pixar and we were happy to let it take control of our child’s inner life. The other unspoken advantage was that we would probably enjoy the film more than he did.

Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado
Photo credit: Smith Collection/Gado

Pixar’s success over the last 25 years is all the more remarkable when you consider the profound failures of its early years. In 1986, Pixar Inc was a hardware manufacturer whose lead product was the Pixar Image Computer — a bland, grey cube the size of a picnic hamper — designed to digitally analyse and enhance images. It cost $135,000. For that price you got the grey box and nothing else — no software, no screen, no interface. To function, it required a $35,000 graphics workstation. Unsurprisingly, it did not sell well. It’s appropriate that the only lasting success from this piece of hardware was its beautifully designed logo. After giving up on manufacturing computers, Pixar was only slightly less unsuccessful making image-rendering software, before it finally found its purpose: computer-animated feature films, the first of which was Toy Story in 1995.

It has now made 24 films, including its latest, Luca. On Rotten Tomatoes, six of the top 10 best-ever kids’ films are made by Pixar. Its feature-length animation films have won 16 Oscars and taken over $14bn at box offices worldwide. For those of us who find this kind of success sickening — and who then decide to watch Cars just to see it fail at something — the grim truth is that even its worst films are ruthlessly watchable. Cars, I sombrely report, is not that bad. It just seems terrible because we are aware that this is the same company that can achieve the heights of Wall-E — the first act of which is like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker for kids.

I am, it should be said, not totally objective when it comes to evaluating the artistry of Pixar. I was 14 when Toy Story came out. At that point in my life, nothing seemed so exciting to me as the rapid development of computer graphics. I was willing to spend hours of my life playing joyless military video games simply to see the next cutscene, to coo at some hideously pixellated Chinook. So my initial excitement about Toy Story was all about watching sunlight convincingly bend and refract off moving vehicles.

But while geekery got me into the cinema, what kept me there were feelings. I considered myself too cool to care about silly toys and yet there I was, caring. When I was 19, I saw Monsters Inc, a film about a company which supplies the creatures who hide underneath children’s beds. The human protagonist in the film is a two-year-old girl with pigtails called Boo. Since I was now listening to skate punk and writing nihilistic poetry, this film should not have been for me.

And yet, I remember the film as the first time I even remotely understood the appeal of small children. The idea that a two-year-old might be in some way charming or cute seemed like the kind of soft-brained nonsense that sleep-deprived parents find it necessary to believe in order to justify their disastrous life decisions. Young children, as I saw it, were repellent, sticky and unfathomable, probably evil. But as I watched a computer-generated toddler — expertly voiced by an actual two-year-old, Mary Gibbs — I had to concede a certain appeal. She giggled and hiccupped and the block of ice inside me got a tiny bit warmer. I’m not saying that Pixar made me want to have babies but it definitely provoked some spooky rumblings that I now recognise as the reproductive instinct.

Twenty years later, I find I am one of the soft-brained and sleep-deprived, eagerly showing Pixar films to my kids. My life, from this angle, looks like an exercise in extreme brand loyalty.

Photo credit: Pixar
Photo credit: Pixar

So, just after Christmas, we sat our son down on the sofa, dimmed the lights, drew the curtains and let him watch his first proper film, the new Pixar, Soul. Even though we knew it was a story about death and the afterlife, we kind of expected Pixar to do a better job of explaining all that stuff than we ever could. We were also happy to note that Soul is Pixar’s first film with a black protagonist, a stamp of progressiveness we were glad to acknowledge. We were wonderful parents, we decided, as we prepared to outsource the meaning of life and death to some millionaire scriptwriters in California.

Soul, which won the Best Animated Feature Oscar in April, tells the story of Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a New York school teacher who dreams of being a jazz pianist. When he finally gets an audition with one of his musical heroes, he overcomes his nerves and performs a piano solo so transcendent that he seems to leave his body for a moment. Afterwards, he is offered a position in the band and it feels like his dreams have finally come true. He skips joyfully home in a reverie of good fortune, so distracted with happiness that he almost gets hit by a sack of falling bricks, nearly gets mown down by speeding traffic, then finally falls down a manhole and is instantly killed.

It was at this moment my son — who had been watching silently from the sofa — started to laugh. He laughed and laughed because the cheerful man had disappeared forever into a hole in the ground. It was here that I realised I was not in control of what the film would mean to him.

After the death of its main character, the film follows Joe’s soul — a little tadpole-like blob — on its journey into the afterlife. Because Joe still has a burgeoning jazz career he wants to pursue back in New York, his soul decides to escape and find its way to “the before-life”, an ethereal place where new souls are prepared for their journey to Earth. This floaty dreamscape is run somewhat like a scout camp: new souls have to collect badges that will define their personalities. Potential traits include: excitable, aloof, flamboyant and curious. Once they’ve found their balance of qualities — “I’m a manipulative megalomaniac who’s intensely opportunistic,” one cute little soul tells us — they jump through a hole in the ground and skydive down towards Earth, where they can be matched up with a suitable body.

That this is just one small strand of the plot makes me aware of both how ambitious this film is and also, how messy. There are lots of great ideas and lots of great plot holes. Not that it really matters, though, because of how exhilarating it is to experience a piece of art — by which I mean a family-friendly comedy film released in the festive period — that attempts to answer the big questions: why are we here? What are we for? Where do we go when we die? What happens before we’re born?

What Pixar understand is that these are entirely appropriate questions for a kids’ film because children are naturally existential as they keep asking: why? It’s we adults, distracted by the endless bureaucracy of filling and emptying the dishwasher, who forget to wonder what the hell we are all doing here, sacks of sentient flesh reproducing ourselves in a universe beyond comprehension.

We watched Soul in two sittings to accommodate the toddler attention span. As the credits rolled, our son confirmed that his favourite bit had indeed been when the happy, gangly man fell down the hole. Did he think of this as a moment of harmless slapstick, or did he truly understand the moment of death? That question seemed to answer itself over the following weeks.

Whenever we listened to my son’s favourite music he would ask if the performers were dead: “Yes, Nina Simone is.” “Yes, Elvis is.” “Yes, Buddy Holly was in a plane crash.” “No, Brian of The Beach Boys is still alive… though his brothers Dennis and Carl are dead.” For him, the moral of the film seemed to be: musicians always die.

Photo credit: Pixar
Photo credit: Pixar

After watching Soul, I noted just how many Pixar films, particularly the recent ones, are about death. Before Soul there was 2020’s Onward, in which two teenage elf brothers try to bring their father back from the dead by casting a “visitation spell”. In 2017, it released the cheerful-sounding Coco — a jolly musical set in Mexico! — about a young boy’s journey into the Land of the Dead. The boy, Miguel, watches his own flesh become transparent, revealing the skeleton that lies inside us all. We watched it (without our son) on New Year’s Day, a perfect movie for those moments when we are attuned to the relentless passage of time, winter trees waving their skeletons in the windows. Of course, it’s clearly not new for kids’ films to have death as part of the narrative. No one will forget the brutal murder of Bambi’s mother, or Simba’s father, roaring as he falls to his doom. Pixar’s own Up, from 2009, famously begins with one of the most ruthless, efficient and heartbreaking deaths in the history of film but, crucially, the pain of that moment is counterbalanced by 90 minutes of slapstick adventure involving the quest to find an elusive 13ft-tall tropical bird. In Pixar’s new films, however, death is not just a feature of the story, it is the story.

It’s hard not to note that this shift has coincided with the founders of Pixar reaching middle age. Pete Docter, co-writer and co-director of Soul and a self-described “geeky kid from Minnesota”, was in his mid-twenties when he worked on Toy Story. By the time Toy Story 4 came out in 2019, he was 50. For all the brilliance of those films, 25 years is still a long time to be documenting the life of a pull-string cowboy doll. In interviews, Docter has spoken about a personal crisis when, having won his second Oscar — for Inside Out in 2016; his first was for Up in 2010 — and achieving everything he imagined would make him happy, he realised he wasn’t. “It felt like the culmination of a lifetime of loving animation,” he said. “And yet I thought: ‘I still don’t feel like everything is settled and I’m at peace with the world.’ Why?’”

Photo credit: Eric Robert
Photo credit: Eric Robert

This was at the same time that Pixar was going through its own midlife crisis. After being bought out by Disney in 2006, the company increasingly relied on existing franchises while its original ideas seemed to have lost its trademark boldness; and it wasn’t just the films that were lacking. Pixar’s boss, John Lasseter, creator, director and writer of Toy Story, stepped down in 2017 from his role following multiple accusations of sexual harassment. That its heroic figurehead and founder turned out to be a huge letdown was exactly the kind of third-act plot twist that Pixar liked to deploy in its films. Remember when Lots-o’-Huggin’, the friendly bear in Toy Story 3, is revealed as a sociopath?

In 2018, Docter replaced Lasseter as head of the company and immediately banned any further sequels. All of Pixar’s forthcoming feature films are now original ideas and — for only the second time in its history — it has appointed a female director, Domee Shi. Under Docter’s tenure, Pixar seems to have rediscovered its spark, its bravery, which is good news not only for audiences but also for the small industry that exists to answer the question: how exactly does Pixar do it?

There are numerous books — The Pixar Touch; Creativity, Inc; To Pixar and Beyond — as well as Ted talks, workshops and seminars; all of which seek to explain the secret to its success. I know this because I have attended one such seminar. It felt somewhere between a life coaching session and a scriptwriting class. In a windowless conference room, we sat rapt as a man with a California tan and magnificent teeth guided us through the famous opening of Up, explaining how it takes the audience from nought to sobbing in a matter of seconds. The key to that scene, he explained, was the constant shifting from hope to disappointment.

In that film, Carl and Ellie, young newlyweds, decide to have children only to discover that they are infertile. They then dream of going travelling but every time they save up enough money something goes wrong: the house roof needs mending, the car needs work. Only in retirement do they finally have the cash and time to buy their plane tickets but it’s too late, they’re old now, and Ellie gets sick and dies. Brutal. Even watching the story beats as a PowerPoint presentation was enough to make my eyes prickle. But while it was interesting to understand why that scene worked, the bigger question was how they came up with it?

The answer to that question was much more prosaic and much more difficult to replicate. In 2004, Docter and 11 Pixar writers and artists went away for a three-day brainstorming session to Venezuela, which is where Docter had the idea that would eventually become Up. Back then, it wasn’t even that great an idea. It was a story about two brothers living in a floating city above a planet of alien, muppet-like creatures. Five years of development followed, involving 15 credited storyboard consultants as well as regular input from Pixar’s “Brain Trust”, a workshop group of all its best creatives who bluntly pick apart and critique every fresh idea.

The floating city became a floating house, the brothers became an old man and a small boy. After that, there were screenings with test audiences who, unsurprisingly, found the opening too much of a downer, but Docter was given the freedom not to compromise. So in summary, the secret of Pixar’s success is: talent plus creative independence, plus away day sessions in the tropics, plus half a decade of thinking time, plus rigorous critical feedback, plus the mammoth wads of money that make all those things possible. It really is that easy.

Photo credit: Pixar
Photo credit: Pixar

After the experience of letting our son watch Soul, we decided to steer him back towards YouTube: the toilet paper factory documentary. Perhaps our boy wasn’t quite ready for the full audio-visual-metaphysical onslaught of modern-day Pixar. Within a few weeks, he stopped talking about death and began talking about motorbikes instead. Specifically, he was obsessed with the burnt-orange Vespa around the corner from our house, as well as any and all Harley-Davidsons, having watched a middle-aged man in full leathers repeatedly kick-start his engine in the street.

Over the course of one afternoon in February, our son used the word “Vespa” 23 times and “Harley-Davidson” 31 times. Yes, we counted. He powered his balance bike through the streets, asking strangers if they knew what hog he was riding. The strangers found it adorable; we smiled and kept counting. It seemed an act of fate, then, when the publicity shots for the new Pixar film, Luca, were released: two boys and a girl riding a turquoise vintage Vespa in a small Italian seaside town. It would have felt cruel to keep it from him so again we drew the curtains and prepared to outsource our parenting.

The film is named for its protagonist, Luca, a meek young sea monster whose overprotective parents order him never to venture above the surface of the water. When Luca makes friends with another, wilder sea monster called Alberto, the pair of them ignore all warnings and emerge from the deep. It’s only on dry land that Luca discovers that both he and Alberto have the ability to transform into humans. Disguised as young boys, the two monsters explore the local town in search of a mythical object they have seen only on a faded poster: the Vespa. There are various dream sequences in which Luca imagines flocks of brightly coloured Vespas soaring through the air, their riders yelping with happiness. My son’s eyes visibly widened in these moments. Pixar had seemingly created a replica of his inner life, his dreams made real.

And although I confess I didn’t really love the film — or rather, I didn’t love the 30 minutes that was released to the press — there was no denying that it made an impact on its core, and future, audience: my son. As we watched it, I reflected on the sad fact that most of our formative artistic experiences take place before we’re 20; that I would never again feel the way I did the first time I saw Toy Story or Monsters Inc. But thoughts of my impending death were interrupted by my son’s laughter, his eyes bright, fixed on the screen — a vision of total absorption — as magical Vespas took flight through the sky.

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