Among the many extraordinary things about Pixar’s brilliant “Inside Out,” now in theaters, is a quiet but important climactic moment: one that highlights what makes Pixar movies special, from “Toy Story” to “Monsters University.”
Without spoiling any particulars, the young heroine, Riley, who has made some gravely misguided choices and has started down a foolhardy path, comes to regret her choices and does an about-face.
In the context of modern Hollywood animated family films, the moral clarity and redemptive arc of this sequence are almost without parallel — with the notable exception of all the other Pixar films in which flawed protagonists make bad decisions and wind up on the wrong path, obliging them to face up to their mistakes and make amends to set things right.
From the outset, when “Toy Story” opened 20 years ago, Pixar marched to their own drummer. At the height of the Disney renaissance, in a family-film landscape dominated by romantic musicals, Pixar gave us an odd-couple buddy road movie with no love story and no show-stopping production numbers.
Above all, where the typical Disney hero or heroine was a soulful, misunderstood romantic whose headstrong choices might be opposed by others, but who was fundamentally vindicated in the end, “Toy Story” offered a protagonist who succumbed to vanity, selfishness and envy, escalating the central crisis with a shockingly malicious act. Instead of being vindicated, Woody must realize that he was in the wrong.
Compare that to Ariel in Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” who goes behind her father’s back and cuts a dangerous deal with Ursula the Sea Witch in order to pursue her heart’s desire: Exchanging her tail for legs and pursuing handsome Prince Eric, directly violating the command of her father, King Triton, to avoid humans and their world.
While the muddled, disappointing climax includes a fleeting moment in which Ariel cries out “Daddy, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! I didn’t know…” this is no searching moral cross-examination of Ariel’s mistakes. Ariel is horrified by the crisis resulting from her actions, but there is no thought here that Ariel should have listened to King Triton and stayed away from the human world. And Ariel isn’t obliged to do anything to make things right.
“The Little Mermaid” is not about how Ariel should have stayed away from the Sea Witch, as “Toy Story” is about how Woody should not have envied Buzz Lightyear, and certainly should not have acted treacherously against him. It would be truer to say that “The Little Mermaid” is about how King Triton should not have imperiously forbidden his daughter to follow her heart.
Similar patterns play out in any number of non-Pixar cartoons over the last quarter century. “The Lion King” is largely about how Simba thinks his whole life he did something terrible, but it turns out he didn’t. Simba, possibly the dullest protagonist of the Disney renaissance, makes no profound mistakes and has nothing to repent of. Neither does the titular ogre in DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” which is about how ogres are misunderstood, but there’s nothing wrong with being one.
The protagonists of WarnerBros’ “Happy Feet” and DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” are both resoundingly vindicated against the misunderstandings of suspicious, archetypically masculine dads who wish their sons were more regular guys and not into weird, unmanly stuff like tap dancing and understanding dragons rather than slaying them. Po’s unassuming father in DreamWorks’ “Kung Fu Panda,” while more sympathetic, is no more appreciative of his son’s passion for kung fu, and can envision nothing for Po but following in his footsteps in the family noodle business.
Sony’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” plays with the same trope, with a stereotypically manly father who wants young Flint to follow in the family bait and tackle business, and doesn’t understand his geeky son’s passion for inventing until he ultimately affirms it. On the other hand, “Cloudy” partially affirms the father’s concerns, and gives us a relatively rare non-Pixar protagonist who makes fundamental mistakes and must repent of them.
With Pixar, though, this pattern of temptation and repentance happens all the time.
In “Toy Story 2,” Woody finds solace from the fear of losing Andy only by turning his back on Andy and his old friends and embracing an ego-gratifying new world in which he is a superstar.
The dynamic is complicated in “Finding Nemo” by the fact that father and son are almost co-protagonists, but little Nemo brings grief to himself and his father Marlin by openly defying his father in a stupid stunt, while Marlin must learn to relinquish his overprotective tendencies and let Nemo grow up.
The idea of a flawed father who must stop standing in his offspring’s way is hardly revolutionary — except that Marlin’s protagonist status places the father’s emotional journey at the film’s center, inviting parents and children alike to empathize with his struggles. That was revolutionary.
In “The Incredibles,” Dad is again the protagonist, and while Mr. Incredible is among Pixar’s most complex, sympathetic characters, he’s another flawed Pixar hero whose mistakes drive the story. His high-handed treatment of his young fan Buddy in the prologue leads to the emergence of the central antagonist, Syndrome; more importantly, his midlife crisis and preoccupation with the glory days of his youth become a strain on his marriage and lead to neglect of his family life.
“Cars” centers on a shallow, narcissistic hotshot, racecar Lightning McQueen, who spends the film doing penance for his mistakes and learning honest, small-town values. “Cars” is far from Pixar’s best work, but it’s far better than “Cars 2,” easily Pixar’s worst, in which the familiar redemptive pattern is subverted.
Here, Mater the tow truck is promoted from comic-relief sidekick to protagonist, and proceeds to make a series of blundering mistakes, frustrating and sabotaging Lightning. Yet in the end, instead of learning any lesson, Mater is vindicated, and a humbled Lightning accepts that if he has a problem with bungling Mater, it’s his problem, not Mater’s.
“Ratatouille” is a rare Pixar film that follows the common template of a misunderstood young protagonist whose traditional, prosaic, regular-guy dad doesn’t approve of his son’s creative specialness, until at last Dad comes around.
Yet a key crisis turns on our hero Remy giving into temptation and betraying the trust of his human collaborator Linguini, stealing food from the restaurant for his rat family and even leading his whole clan on a large-scale raid that almost ruins everything.
Like Sony’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” Pixar’s “Brave” partially embodies but also partially subverts the trope of a misunderstood young protagonist with a disapproving parent who learns a valuable lesson in the end.
Certainly young Merida commits a disastrous mistake, even a grave offense against filial piety, in her fractious relationship with her mother.
Intent on “changing” her mother, who means to force Merida to marry against her will, Merida obtains and surreptitiously administers a magic spell (in the form of an enchanted cake which Merida falsely claims she made for her mother) that has the unexpected effect of transforming her mother into a bear. In order to set things right, Merida must “look inside / Mend the bond torn by pride” — which she does in the end, weepingly telling her mother how sorry she is.
Even “Monsters University,” Pixar’s most recent underachieving sequel, comes down to Sully secretly cheating in a contest to help Mike — a well-meaning betrayal that leads to trouble and a climax in which Sully comes clean and faces the music.
Not all Pixar films follow this pattern. Woody messes up in the first two “Toy Story” films, but in “Toy Story 3” he’s as loyal and heroic as Andy always knew he could be. The protagonists in “Monsters, Inc.,” “Up” and maybe even “Wall-E” make mistakes and grow, but there’s no notable theme of yielding to temptation and repenting.
Does this pattern ever play out beyond the world of Pixar?
The protagonist of Disney’s “Aladdin,” lacking the self-confidence to follow the Genie’s advice and admit to Princess Jasmine that he isn’t really a prince, tells her that he was only pretending to be a street rat. All that comes of this, though, is that Aladdin is humiliated by Jafar when his true identity is revealed; there are no deeper consequences.
“The Emperor’s New Groove” is a rare Disney morality tale in which narcissistic, selfish Emperor Kuzco learns respect and empathy from a salt-of-the-earth peasant whose home life (beautiful, capable, very pregnant wife and two adorable kids) is among the most idealized depictions of family in the Disney canon. (This was perhaps, to borrow a line from Kuzco, “a one-time thing.”)
Now that Pixar and Disney animation are under one roof, perhaps the lines are blurring.
Disney’s recent “Big Hero 6” includes an almost Pixar-like redemptive arc in which the likable orphaned protagonist succumbs to dark temptations of selfishness and even murderous revenge before coming to his senses, in part through the influence of his reproachful friends.
For the most part, though, if you’re the hero outside the Pixar orbit, you’re basically in the right, and anyone who isn’t on the same page, including your parents, doesn’t get it.
Only Pixar regularly impresses on viewers that just because you’re the hero of your story doesn’t mean you’re right about everything: You may make serious mistakes, there may be consequences, and you must take responsibility.
In this way, as in so many others, Pixar takes the road less traveled, and family audiences are better off for it.