Just Keep Swimming: A Semester of Teaching Pixar

Sometime during July of 2013, I was distracting myself from a writing project by scrolling through Facebook, when I started to see a bunch of my friends sharing a new piece by writer Jon Negroni called “The Pixar Theory.”  Since publishing his essay, Negroni has fleshed out the timeline a bit further, created a video describing the theory, built a website devoted to the theory, and is reportedly working on a book centered on the theory.  Essentially, Negroni argues that all of the films in Pixar’s body of work exist in the same universe and are contributing a small piece of a much larger story.

To be frank, I disagree with much of the Pixar Theory, in large part because I think it takes leaps of logic that are simply not possible without the presence of direct evidence.  For many of these points, such evidence either does not exist or has yet to be found.  Most of all, Jay Ward–the Art Department Manager at Pixar for 9 years–has indicated that not only was this sort of conjoined timeline never intended by the studio, but also the films were made over so many years by so many different people that it’s just not feasible to think that they fit into this sort of elaborately conceived schema.

Lest it be said of me that I have rained upon everyone’s Pixar parade, I will admit that Negroni’s idea is a cool one and some of his evidence (like the easter egg in Brave) is very, very intriguing.  What the piece ultimately did for me that July was to convince me that there was enough commonality among the films to teach an integrated course on Pixar.  I knew it would take some time, so I started collecting films and planning the course.  Finally, this semester I launched my first-year writing intensive seminar called The World According to Pixar.

My students have been fantastic, and I have enjoyed teaching the course immensely.  They have adopted the mantra of Dory in Finding Nemo (“Just keep swimming!”) as they have worked through essays, blog posts, reading responses, and Twitter assignments. Final projects, with presentations, are due on May 2nd.  Students will either be responding in depth to Negroni’s theory or creating their own unified theory with respect to the ways in which the larger body of Pixar films work together to forge a broader commentary about the world.** What I have loved most about the course, though, is the excitement felt by students as they have been constructing a new body of knowledge.  Beyond blog posts, movie reviews, and the occasional essay, there is not much at all written about the Pixar films, so students have been creating their own field of inquiry as the semester has unfolded.  I’m grateful to them for the terrific intellectual journey we have all shared.

Below I describe what are, for me, some of the highlights of the course–ideas, discussions, and new ways of viewing the films that I think are fascinating and significant:

Highlights from the Finding Nemo/Incredibles Unit (Supplemental text: selections from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces)

One day we spent an entire class period discussing one student’s hypothesis that the bulk of Finding Nemo is largely a narrative constructed by Marlin in his mind to cope with the loss of his wife and children. At first, I thought “No way,” but I wanted them to understand the process that scholars undertake when we evaluate arguments, so we looked at 1) evidence that might support this reading; 2) potential pitfalls; and 3) the kinds of evidence we would still need to find to make it work.

I wouldn’t say I was completely convinced by the end of class, but I began to find the argument much more plausible. Some of the evidence they came up with:

  • Nemo is Latin for No one/Nobody/No name (I helped on this one). Thus, the title is literally, “Finding No One.” We also considered the Captain Nemo connection, of course, and one student even pointed out that the letters “nemo” are found in the middle of “anemone,” which is where Marlin builds the home for his family.
  • There is a break in the film after the barricuda knocks Marlin unconscious and another one after he discovers the death of his family and the lone surviving egg.
  • Dory appears out of nowhere in true “deus ex machina” fashion. She can never remember Nemo’s name and often has no idea why they are going on a journey. She does, however, seem to exist to provide Marlin help when he most needs it, particularly in the emotional realm.
  • When trapped in the belly of the whale, Dory, ostensibly translating whale-speak to Marlin in reference to their physical predicament, has the poignant line, “He said it’s time to let go. Everything’s going to be alright.”
  • Once you start down this path, the entire ending changes a bit. There’s far too much to explore in this brief space, but Nemo and Dory are never in the same physical space once they all return to the anemone, and there is an inexplicably serious moment where Nemo and Marlin say good-bye to each other.

For The Incredibles, we began by exploring the historical, religious, and socio-cultural significance of superheroes. As a case study, we looked at the evolution of Superman and the range of interpretations of his character. We then unpacked one of the images from “The Death of Superman” and discussed why the demise of superheroes often creates such a buzz in popular culture. We used all of this as a backdrop for our discussion of the film and its use of superheroes.

We also discussed Brad Bird’s (the director’s) explanation of the ways in which the Parrs’ superpowers are both assets and also metaphorical reflections on their characters, e.g., Violet’s powers of invisibility and force fields reflecting teenagers’ desires and emotional responses to the world.

We even had a great conversation about the film’s exploration of nostalgia and the role the past plays in shaping our identities. Bob, for example, is trapped in the past to the detriment of his family life; Helen, on the other hand, refuses to think about the past, thereby cutting off an important part of her identity.

Highlights from the Toy Story 3/Up Unit (Supplemental texts: A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking)

For our unit on grief and loss in children’s literature and media, we used Up and Toy Story 3 as our primary texts, but we added the supplemental texts listed above for context.

In the course of our discussions, students argued that The House at Pooh Corner and Toy Story 3 fundamentally say the same things about the loss of childhood, but because Andy is older in TS3, we are able to come to more of a resolution at the end of the film. Christopher Robin can only hesitate, stop, pause, redirect at the end of the book. They suggested that this is because he is much younger than Andy, so the momentous transition from childhood is ineffable for him, while Andy can articulate exactly why saying goodbye to Woody and others is so hard. Also, the more serious adventures in TS3, including the possibility of the toys’ destruction in the fire, mirror Andy’s internal struggles as he matures and gets ready to leave home.  As a bonus, the last thing we see in TS3 is Andy’s car driving off to college and then we get a shot of the blue sky, which is exactly the image with which the first Toy Story began. Brilliant.

Side note:  When you get a chance, watch Toy Story 3 again and take note of the look on Woody’s face early in the film when he hears Andy answer the phone. Unexpectedly poignant.

Then we turned to Up and mapped out, shot for shot, the ways in which Carl’s journey with his house in Up serves as an allegory for his efforts to overcome the loss of Ellie. Students were particularly drawn to the house, and the changes it undergoes, as a symbolic key.

One element of the film that we kept coming back to was Russell’s comment that it’s “the boring things” about his time with his dad (before his dad moved out) that he’ll remember.  This resonated with many in the class, and it may very well be these “boring things” that serve as the foundation for our most cherished memories.

Highlights from the WALL-E Unit (Supplemental texts: Edward Humes’s Garbology:  Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, Henry David Thoreau’s “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” from Walden, and Genesis from the Hebrew Scriptures)

Easily the jewel in the Pixar crown, WALL-E was a gold mine for class discussion.  We looked at the film through the lenses of environmentalism and philosophy, but we also paid some attention to the religious allusions in the film.  By this point in the semester, students had fine-tuned their skills in criticism, and I was very impressed with their readings of the movie as both a dire warning about our habits of consumption, while at the same time being a kind of love letter to humanity, suggesting that even with our flaws and wasteful behaviors there will always be something redeeming about the human spirit.

I am teaching the course again next semester, and I look forward to the insights those students will bring to the material.  There is always something about the first run of a course, though, and I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time to come.

**Jon Negroni has been good enough to agree to Skype in for our presentations to talk about his Pixar Theory and to give feedback on my students’ interpretations.

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2 thoughts on “Just Keep Swimming: A Semester of Teaching Pixar

  1. Hi Josh, it’s so great to see my theory being discussed and talked about among fans, students, and even teachers like yourself! I just want to add a couple of things, though. You mention that I built the website and created the video for the Pixar Theory, but that is not true. These were built and created by fans of the theory with far more talent than myself. Just wanted to make sure that’s clear!

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