Positively Pixar: The lessons learnt from Disney Pixar films

The films made by the animation studio Pixar (in collaboration with Disney), hold a very special place in my heart. Toy Story came out when I was 4 years old, and I remember being absolutely amazed by the incredible visuals, the loveable characters and that wonderful relatability. Sure, my toys never actually came to life (as far as I know!), but at 4 years old, I wished (and pretended) that they did, so Toy Story really resonated with me.

20 years later and I still love these films, not just for the sense of nostalgia that they give me about my childhood, but also because watching them again (and again, and again) over the years, I have noticed new things about them. I have a greater appreciation for some of the jokes that would have gone over my 4 year old head, and I can now look at the deeper meaning and underlying messages of these films, which adds another level to my enjoyment.

I recently reviewed Pixar’s latest film, Inside Out – possibly their most thought-provoking film yet. It explores the complexity of a young girl’s emotions, told through the characterised emotions in her head. Made by anyone else it would just be your normal run-of-the-mill zany comedy which is fun for all the family. Made by Pixar it is incredibly deep and emotional and leaves the audience with some long-lasting positive messages.

This inspired me to write this blog in which I will be picking some of my favourite Pixar films and looking at what messages they convey. Please share your thoughts in the comments: what are your favourite Pixar films? Are there any messages you got which were different? Please let me know.

Toy Story (1995)

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The story: Woody the Cowboy rules the roost as Andy’s favourite toy, until the new sheriff (or rather Spaceman) in town, Buzz Lightyear, threatens to take this away. Woody’s jealousy towards Buzz puts them both in mortal peril, and they must work together in order to make it back safely to Andy’s room.

The bits that makes you think: After Andy receives Buzz as a birthday present, we see the change through Woody’s eyes. The drawings of him are replaced by Buzz, a new shiny Buzz Lightyear duvet replaces the old Woody one, the crayon scribbles go from horses to rocket ships, and Woody is no longer the first toy Andy reaches for. We suddenly feel that pang of guilt for all the toys we forgot about when we were children, but also realise this is just part of growing up. We change, and so do the things around us. As the film goes along and Woody accepts that Buzz isn’t the enemy and that they have to work together to make it back home, this positive message of change is also reinforced.

The message: Change is natural and should be embraced rather than fought.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

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The story: After trying to save another toy accidentally leaves Woody on the table at a family garage sale, our cowboy hero is “toy-napped” by a collector who needs Woody to complete his prized collection of cowboy memorabilia, which he plans to sell to a Japanese toy museum. The other toys must work together to save Woody and bring him safely back to Andy’s room (sound familiar?).

The bits that make you think: Jessie the cowgirl tells the story (set to a truly beautiful song) of how she used to belong to a little girl and then she was unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road to be collected by a charity. Jessie has a much clearer worldview than Woody, and fails to see why he would want to go back to Andy when in a few years time the same thing could happen to him. This makes the audience see just how fleeting childhood is, and also emphasizes the message of change which runs through all three Toy Story films.

The message: Things don’t last forever, and sometimes clinging onto the past can be dangerous in the long run.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

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The story: The city of Monstropolis and its monster inhabitants harness children’s screams to create a source of power. When a child accidentally makes her way into their world, top scarer Sully and his assistant Mike Wazowski must return her back to her bedroom before they get caught.

The bits that make you think: Basically any scene involving Sully and Boo! Boo sees Sully through the pure eyes of a child and doesn’t see the scary monster everyone else sees; she just sees a friend. Sully also learns that the children are not to be feared as everyone thinks. Their acceptance of each other and their heart-warming friendship is beautifully portrayed.

The message: You can’t judge on appearances alone. Scary things might not really be scary after all!

Finding Nemo (2003)

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The story: Marlin the clownfish is incredibly overprotective of his only son Nemo. When he is captured by divers on the edge of their reef home, Marlin must go on a treacherous journey in order to find Nemo. Along the way he encounters sharks, turtles and the forgetful Dory.

The bits that make you think: Seeing Marlin go massively outside of his comfort zone and put his trust in others for the first time is really thought-provoking. His relationship with Dory in particular is really interesting, and she proves invaluable on his journey. After a run-in with some jellyfish leaves Dory injured, Marlin realises that whilst Dory may be forgetful, she has a surprising amount of common sense.

The message: Nothing is stronger than the love between parent and child. Also stepping out of your comfort zone might be strange and scary but is necessary in order to develop and grow.

Ratatouille (2007)

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The story: Remy the rat has aspirations of becoming a gourmet chef, and his dreams come true when he ends up working in a kitchen in Paris using his human puppet, Linguini as a disguise. As you can imagine, a rat chef isn’t an appealing idea to most people. Remy must overcome adversity and prove that the mantra of his hero Gusto, “anyone can cook” can include rodents as well!  

The bits that make you think: The final review given by critic Anton Ego, in which we see that Remy is able to change the opinions of even the harshest critics, is really heart-warming. Having been so offended for so long by the “anyone can cook” idea, Ego sees that Remy’s background (and the fact that he is a rat!) doesn’t matter when he is able to create something so beautiful.

The message: Your background doesn’t determine your potential, and you can achieve anything if you set your mind to it.

Wall-E (2008)

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The story: Humans have destroyed the planet and started a new life in space. Back on earth, clearing up the mess they left behind, is the robot Wall-E.

The bits that make you think: The whole film? Seriously, all 98 minutes of this beautiful film will make you think about how lazy and rubbish us humans are!

The message: The environmental message is just one part of this film, and shows the danger of what could happen because of our wasteful living. Through and through though, Wall-E is about not taking things for granted, and being respectful of the world we live in.

Up (2009)

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The story: Retired Carl Fredricksen honours a promise he made to his wife Ellie before she passed away, and attaches enough balloons to his house to fly him all the way to their dream destination, Paradise Falls.

The bits that make you think: The opening 5 minutes of Up are possibly the most heart-wrenching scenes you will ever see in an animated film, and will make you think about all the ups and downs that life throws at you.

The message: In the beginning Carl is selfish and a bit of a grump, but by the end he has softened and that’s all because of the friendship he forms with eager wilderness explorer, Russell. Up teaches that it is these relationships we build that make life meaningful, and that you’re never too old for adventure!

Toy Story 3 (2010)

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The story: Andy is leaving home and starting college, which leaves the toys in a world filled with uncertainty. Torn between staying loyal to their owner, and not wanting to be forgotten in the attic, our heroes find themselves in a daycare centre run by a bear who smells like strawberries. Unfortunately though, their furry new companion is not as sweet as he seems!

The bits that make you think: The scene at the end where Andy says goodbye to the toys will really resonate, especially if you have grown up with these films like I have.

The message: This film says a lot about growing up and moving on, but also about sharing and passing things on. Andy realises he can’t play with his toys forever, and it is best to share them with someone else who will really appreciate them.

Agree with everything I’ve said, or am I a terribly misguided idiot who has got it all wrong? Please let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to share as well.

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