Sunday, September 14, 2008

Pixar and the Stranger: A Walk With Woody, Remy, WALL-E, and Friends

Reading a political column on Slate the other day, I came upon a sentence utterly unrelated to politics, yet so full of wonderful implications that I left the article and went scouring the Internet like crazy. The sentence – written, along with the rest of the column, by Dahlia Lithwick – went as follows:

“If Palin stands for anything, it’s that when it comes to both the presidency and Pixar movies, nothing good ever happens until the stranger comes to town.”

What in the world? I am the biggest Pixar fan in the world, and I had no clue what this was referencing. A stranger coming to town? Is this some kind of central motif I, the film fan, am somehow clueless about? After 13 years and nine movies, have I yet to pick up on a blindingly obvious trend? Is everyone in on this except me?

After trying to find something else online with any mention of this, my searches have come up nil. However, it’s fully possible that it remains a fact fully explored and dissected elsewhere, or at least known and acknowledged.

Regardless, in reflecting on Pixar’s filmography, I realized how true, and profound, Lithwick’s comment was. Not only does nothing good ever happen in a Pixar film until a stranger comes to town, the central conceit of almost every Pixar movie is built upon the idea of an outsider messing up the established normalcy of a given community.

Now, upon further reflection, I realized that, in a way, this description is true about most stories worth telling. What is the name we give for what every story needs? Conflict. And what is conflict? The unknown/abnormal/different rubbing up against the known/normal/same, compelling drama/hilarity/suspense/horror/adventure ensuing, and resolution concluding the dissonance. (Thus the tripartite structure so inherent in good stories and, moving out, trilogies; and, pulling out even further, theological truths: land/exile/restoration, and crucifixion/death/resurrection.)

All that to say, I realize that the “outsider arrives/community reacts/resolution is found” structure is not groundbreaking. What is groundbreaking, or at least worth considering – given the enormous popularity of Pixar’s films with children and families, along with their unparalleled record of critical acclaim – is the consistent emphasis upon a specific, identifiable stranger as the crux of the movies’ narratives.

Think about it:

· Toy Story (1995) – Buzz shatters Woody’s settled world of being Andy’s favorite, and coolest, toy; Buzz and Woody both enter the terrifying world of Sid’s bedroom, though the “freaks” they encounter are more than what they seem.

· A Bug’s Life (1997) – Flik must enter the wider, more dangerous bug world (“the city”) in order to save his colony from starvation; Flik’s troupe of (fake) warrior bugs arrive at the colony, which eventually comes face to face with the troupe's deception.

· Toy Story 2 (1999) – After being stolen by a toy collector, Woody must deal with being the outsider in a community of toys in which he is supposed to belong (but doesn’t desire); Buzz is an outsider to his own “people” – the new line of Buzz Lightyear, none of whom know they are toys; the “Woody’s Roundup” group is fearful of leaving their established community for the outside world.

· Monsters, Inc. (2001) – Mike and Sulley, professional scary monsters, respond to Boo, a human child (!), entering Monstropolis. (This is literally the whole of the story: an entire city responding to the intrusion of a “toxic” foreigner – whose terror makes possible their way of life – into their settled, unblemished world.)

· Finding Nemo (2003) – There are so many possibilities here: as father to Nemo, Marlin insulates him from the outside world as a reaction to a barracuda attack which took his wife and other children; Nemo is captured by humans and dropped into a foreign fish tank; Marlin sets out to find his son and happens upon Dory, and meeting a colorful host of strangers along the way. (Note: Dory is perhaps the quintessential Pixar character: hilarious, welcoming, adventurous, undeterred – namely, a good friend. More on this some other time.)

· The Incredibles (2004)– Once the envy and celebrated hero of the world, Mr. Incredible (along with his family and, by extension, all superheroes) lives a repressed life of quotidian anonymity, until a mysterious stranger offers a chance to be “super” again; each member of the Incredible family must learn what it means be true to him or herself in spite of the world’s hostility, and the world must learn to accept them as they are.

· Cars (2006) – Upon being separated from his transport truck, Lightning McQueen, rookie star of the racecar circuit, must adapt to the seemingly mundane life of Radiator Springs, an old-fashioned community in the desert; Doc Hudson, the town judge, deals with issues from his past that Lightning’s unwanted presence revives.

· Ratatouille (2007) – Remy, a French rat who loves to cook, upon separation from his home and family, finds himself braving the perils of a human kitchen for the sake of his love; Linguini, jobless and clueless, finds himself employed by said kitchen but ostracized by much of the staff; evil food critic Anton Ego has made himself an outsider to both human contact and his original love for food.

· WALL-E (2008) – Garbage robot WALL-E, alone for 700 years, falls in love with EVE when she arrives on Earth looking for life; humans, bloated and isolated from one another, realize their lonely estrangement.

(And, just for fun, let’s look at Pixar’s upcoming slate to see if the trend continues:

· Up (2009) – Carl, 78-year old man, and Russell, 9-year old boy, fly away in a balloon-lifted house to adventures in foreign lands and, one assumes, the trials of being so different from each other.

· Toy Story 3 (2010) – Woody, Buzz, and the gang are dropped off at a day-care center as Andy heads off to college, presumably being forced to deal with an alien and potentially hostile environment/community.

· Newt (2011) – Newt is one of the last blue-footed newts left in the world, living in a cage in a community college science lab, preparing his mating ritual for when he finally meets a female; however, upon her entrance into his strange world, they end up not getting along, and eventually find themselves in a world alien to him: nature.

· The Bear and the Bow (2011) – Royal Merida gives up the family name to become an archer, but at some point makes a mistake that imperils her family’s kingdom.

· Cars 2 (2012) – Unknown, apart from it “going international.”)

Those descriptions were intended to be concise, one-sentence summaries ... but they grew organically simply because there seem to be so many facets to the stranger motif in these films (and, possibly, because I love them so much). I’ll leave this as a stand-alone post, what with its unexpected longevity, but with so many unexplored dimensions, I hope to offer further commentary in future posts (or even a new series! I can see it now: The Theology of Pixar). However, I will share one more thought, the entire reason I have become so transfixed upon this idea.

The church speaks the language of what these films embody, known by a host of names – embrace of the other, Incarnation, love for enemies, “Not so with you,” ekklesia, suffering servanthood, baptism, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these,” the forgiveness of sins, shalom, the peaceable kingdom, Eucharist, “for you were once slaves in Egypt,” imago Dei, eschatology, gospel, “God is love” – but there is one word in particular that wholly names the thread connecting these wonderful stories of welcoming the stranger.


1 comment:

  1. Brad, you are a Pixar scholar. Thanks for your work. I am doing work on the stranger motif in biblical narrative for missional discernment. Pixar's a fun way to start that conversation. Thanks