It’s Time for a New Pixar Theory


Image description:  WALL-E and EVE hold hands as they gaze out into the existential abyss.

In 2013, Jon Negroni published a post called “The Pixar Theory” on his blog, and it quickly went viral.  Essentially, Negroni suggests that “every feature-length movie made by Pixar Animation Studios since 1995” takes place “within the same universe” and can be precisely placed chronologically into a connected timeline with Brave as both the first and the last movie in the sequence (it’s complicated–you’ll want to read the original).  Furthermore, in a later continuation of the theory, Negroni goes as far as to say that the films even comprise “a single, overarching narrative.”

The original post was immensely popular, and it led to further commentary, YouTube videos, a book, and something like celebrity status for its author.  When I first read it, I thought the piece was really enjoyable, and it made me consider the films more carefully than I had before.  Later, his ideas even inspired me to develop a course at Rice University on the Pixar films.  Jon himself was a guest speaker, via Skype, during my students’ presentations of their own Pixar theories, and he was very gracious in his comments.  To be clear, he has also said in numerous venues that his intention is to provoke thought, not to give the final word on the meaning of the Pixar films.

You probably sense that there is a “but” coming.  And you’re right.  Jon’s Pixar theory is a lot of fun, *but* in the end I just don’t buy it.  As a reader, you have to stretch the limits of logic to their breaking point in order to accept that all Pixar films are pieces of one big story and that they somehow occupy the same universe at different points of time.  In order for the theory to work, all of these statements also have to be true:

  • The writing teams, directors, producers, animators, and all of the other influential groups at Pixar had to develop this idea before they made their first feature film and then carried it through every other film they have ever made.  That alone strikes me as next to impossible, but when you add to it the fact that some Pixar folks themselves have disavowed the one-narrative part of the theory and that the films were not immune to production shake-ups, then it becomes even more difficult to find evidence to support the Grand Master Plan behind the Pixar Theory.
  • Easter Eggs like the Pizza Planet truck, which appears in many of the films, have to be more than just fun-to-spot allusions and homages to other Pixar movies.  The Pixar Theory invests the Easter Eggs with great symbolic weight–making them go beyond nifty, but surface-level, connections between films and instead forcing them to serve as the glue for the larger narrative that Jon pieces together.
  • Finally, for this theory to work, the meanings of individual films cannot stand on their own but must also serve the all-encompassing story of the BnL company’s technological machinations and the effect of their efforts on the earth, animals, and humankind.  As a teacher of literature, I’m always willing to admit that more than one meaning can exist at the same time, but the theory promotes the importance of the bigger narrative oftentimes at the expense of the beautiful, powerful, individual messages of the films themselves.  As a fan of Pixar movies, I think this is what gets under my skin the most.

Jon often defends these inconsistencies by saying that we shouldn’t take the theory “too seriously.”  We should just have fun, he says, and enjoy the fan theory.  This strikes me as a defensive move more than anything else, particularly because of the number of words he has written expanding on the theory.  Also, this explanation raises two questions for me: a) why shouldn’t we be able to analyze fan theories with the same kind of intellectual rigor that we apply to anything else that exists in popular culture? and b) if Jon believes what he says about not taking fan theories too seriously, why is he more than happy to pick competing theories apart so carefully in his nicely written, and pretty darn funny, Snarcasm posts?

I think it’s about time for a new Pixar Theory–one that takes the individual films on their own terms and then works outward from there to find connections rather than going the other way around.  If we do this, we find that the films do not necessarily work together to form a cohesive narrative. Instead, they operate as a collage pointing us toward an important theme.  Going further, I don’t really see them existing in the same physical universe as much as I do a consistent philosophical universe.

Yes, the Pixar films are linked together all right, but they are connected by ideas.  All of the films, in some way or another, work with the twin themes of loss and rebuilding, and by exploring the degree to which the movies wrestle with these ideas, we begin to see the contribution of the Pixar films as contemporary works of artistic importance.

For some of the films, the concepts of loss and rebuilding are simply drivers of the plot, whereas in others they are the springboard for more sophisticated reflections on our lives and what we value most.  In what follows, I briefly go through each film to discuss how it explores these themes.

Toy Story (1995):  The first film of the Pixar dynasty has a pretty straightforward approach to the concept of loss, and I would argue that it provides a template in this regard for some of the films that follow it.  Due to the introduction of Buzz Lightyear into the toy community, Woody *imagines* that he has lost the love of Andy, and he *actually* loses the trust of his fellow toys.  (In addition, Andy quite literally loses both Buzz and Woody at the gas station midway through the film.)  Through their journey together, Buzz and Woody build a new respect for and relationship with each other, and they realize that they can co-exist rather than compete for Andy’s affections.  It should be noted that the story of the toys’ loss and rebuilding is subtly framed by transitions in Andy’s world.  First, he is moving, and that is bound to trigger feelings of loss.  Perhaps more importantly, (and as Jon himself has written about), Andy’s dad is absent from the entire Toy Story trilogy.  The father’s exact whereabouts are unknown–are they divorced? has he died? did he just leave?–but there is a sense that we are to understand the interactions between the toys in all three of the films as a metaphor for Andy trying to reconcile important losses in his own life.

A Bug’s Life (1998):  Flik loses his reputation and ends the film a hero.  Flik is captured by Hopper and returns to his colony a hero.  This one is pretty basic.

Toy Story 2 (1999):  In this first sequel, Woody is physically lost when Andy leaves him behind and the devious Al takes him from the garage sale.  Eventually, Woody finds himself at a crossroads and must choose whether to remain forever in a museum or return to Andy with his friends when they come to rescue him from Al’s.  Woody hesitates because he knows that Andy is growing up and will not be interested in toys for much longer.  Although he sees this loss in his future, he makes the poignant decision to return and enjoy whatever time is left with Andy as much as he can.  There is a loss of innocence among the toys here, as they begin to understand philosophically what growing up really means for Andy and for them, but with this comes an acceptance of their true purpose as toys–they are meant to be played with and derive their meaning from their connection to the child who plays with them.  Toy Story 3 will pick this idea up and run with it.  In a similar storyline, the newly introduced Jessie tells a story about how she was given away by a child named Emily.  Jessie is angry and bitter (understandably) at first, but then she too finds a new life with Andy’s toys.  In the end, the toys draw closer together as a community and their bonds of friendship strengthen as they begin to recognize what the future will bring.

Monsters, Inc. (2001):  They lose Boo for a short time, and they struggle to find her closet door at a key moment, but what Sulley and Mike really lose is their limited worldviews.  After Boo enters their lives, they are never quite able to see things in the same way.  She expands their capacity to care more for others (and less about their own egos), and she challenges their identity as “monsters.”  Sulley’s return to Boo’s closet at the very end of the film suggests that she has changed him in a fundamental way.  Her laughter and joy have taught him what is most important in life, and he has moved away from who he was at the beginning of the film.  As the father of a little girl, this film really rings true to me in that sense.

Finding Nemo (2003):  I think that Finding Nemo is the film where the Pixar gang really found their groove and began to develop films that were not just fun but serious and meaningful as well.  Coral’s death and the loss of all but one of the eggs haunts Marlin for much of the film.  His grief affects not only him but also the way he interacts with his remaining child Nemo.  Marlin is so afraid of losing Nemo that he is stiflingly overprotective, which–in turn–leads Nemo to push boundaries and ultimately get captured. Sadly, Marlin has inadvertently caused that which he feared the most.

Shortly after he begins his quest to find Nemo, he meets Dory–a fish who has lost her short-term memory.  Dory and Marlin form an unlikely friendship, and she is able to help him in ways that are both surprising and touching.  Her so-called deficiency–what she has lost–also turns out to be a key strength at opportune moments.

Marlin’s journey to find his son, and Nemo’s journey to get back to his dad, reminds me a lot of Homer’s Odyssey, particularly because they grow to understand and appreciate each other’s perspectives as they endure their trials.  But Marlin’s journey is also a metaphor for coming to terms with the death of his wife and children.  It is Dory who helps him take the steps to overcome his grief, little by little.  He must “just keep swimming,” and eventually she and the whale tell him that it is time to let go.  This moment in the film is a turning point for him.  When he and Nemo are reunited, he is gentler with his son and is able to let go of his past in order to help Nemo move forward.  The three of them form a new family, forging bonds that are only possible after acknowledging and healing from the pain of the past.

The Incredibles (2004): Loss in The Incredibles is framed as the tension between the world that was and the world that is now.  In the present moment of the film, superheroes are no longer trusted and no longer wanted.  In the face of this change, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl have tried to remake their lives as Bob and Helen Parr.  Along the way, they have had a family and have tried to make the best of their refashioned lives.  When duty calls, they have to reconcile their nostalgia for their superhero past with the realities of their powers, their bodies, and their family obligations.  In order to defeat Syndrome, they band together as a family, leaving behind their individualistic, bravado-driven approach to heroism and reconstructing what it means to be a superhero for their current moment.

Cars (2006), Cars 2 (2011), and Cars 3 (2017):  Do I absolutely need to talk about the Cars trilogy?  Because I really don’t want to.  They stand out, in all honesty, as the bottom of the barrel when it comes to Pixar movies.  I suppose if I am forced to do so, I’ll take a look at Cars 3, which I recently saw with my daughter.  As is the case for every athlete, Lightning McQueen can no longer keep up with the newer cars on the circuit and begins to face the probable end of his career.  He meets Cruz Ramirez, a female training car with a lot of potential but thwarted dreams of being a racer.  They end up training together, but the writing is on the wall for Lightning.  He makes a key decision at the climax of the film, and says goodbye to his athletic career at the same time as he opens the door to a new life as a coach.  Cruz, too, gets her moment in the sun, which leads to important changes for her as well.  If nothing else, it is an interesting film about transitions.

Ratatouille (2007):  In order to embrace his artistic talents, Remy must reconcile two different losses.  First, he is alienated from his rat family, because they cannot understand either his ambitions or his desire to interact with humans.  Second, he can never truly be recognized as a great chef, because, you know, he’s a rat.  He eventually finds a way to straddle both of these worlds, but it only comes after a reconsideration of his identity.

WALL-E (2008):  I once considered WALL-E to be the undisputed classic of the Pixar films–the one that should rightly be remembered as the singular contribution of the studio.  A colleague and friend of mine named Daniel Goldberg recently pointed out to me, though, that the film engages in some problematic body critiques in the latter part of the narrative, so the prize will have to go to Up for now.  Still, WALL-E is a brilliant film that has much to say about loss, redemption, and our capacity to rebuild.  When the film opens, the earth has been lost due to environmental pollution.  Human beings have fled the scene and now live on a space station.  Only WALL-E–the diminutive, garbage-collecting robot–remains.  As he goes about his programmed task of picking up all of the trash that overwhelms the planet, he gathers trinkets that humans have left behind and takes them to his make-shift shelter.  The wonderful thing about these objects (like a videotape of Hello, Dolly!) is that they capture the essence of humanity in all of its whimsical, joyful, beautiful glory, which contrasts profoundly with the large-scale pollution they have caused.  We see the best and worst of people, then, from the outset of the film.  At their most negligent, humans have the capacity to destroy their planet.  But at their most brilliant, they produce works of art like the classic musical.  WALL-E is drawn to this aspect of people, and his collection serves as a kind of love letter to a species he has never met but one that he imagines to have had noble aspirations.

Shortly after he meets EVE and the two begin one of the most endearing relationships in any of the Pixar films, WALL-E finds a plant that holds the key to rebuilding human civilization on earth, and the two of them (for different reasons) take it to the space station.  Once we see what has happened to human beings since leaving the planet, we are given insight into a profound kind of loss.  People have lost any sense of meaning in their lives.  They are whisked along on machines, technology serves their every need, and they never interact face-to-face.  Only when Mary and John take the brave steps of abandoning their machines and looking outward is there a realization as to what they have been missing.  Slowly, the people on the space station become the humans WALL-E imagined them to be, and he sacrifices himself (rather savior-like–there’s a lot of religious imagery in the film) to give them the opportunity to fulfill their collective purpose.  The film ends on a very hopeful note, with people returning to earth to build civilization anew.

Up (2009)Up is a masterpiece for many reasons, not the least of which is its depiction ofUp 1 loss and grief.  There is, of course, the death of Ellie and Carl’s attempts to move on without her (and I’ll get to this in a second), but there is another powerful moment of loss to talk about first.  I honestly think that the scenes depicting Ellie’s miscarriage at the beginning of the movie belong on a list of the most important film moments of the 21st century.  To my knowledge, no animated film has dealt with the subject before, and the way the filmmakers handle it is both beautiful and sad.  To the right, you see an image of Ellie and Carl finding out the news that they have lost their baby.  Ellie is clearly grieving, while Carl is supporting her, grieving himself, but unable to fully understand the depth of Ellie’s sadness.  Like the rest of the opening, this scene is wordless.  Only a melancholy variation of the movie’s score plays in the background.  The absence of dialogue is used to great effect here, because a loss of this magnitude cannot ever fully be expressed in Up 2words.  Some emotions transcend our abilities to describe them.  The image of Ellie, eyes closed, in her yard after returning home from the doctor remains one of the most poignant of the film.  She is deeply affected, but also stoic and brave.  Carl sees her through their door, and comes out to comfort her.  Silently, they turn to each other and begin the process of moving forward–resolute in their intention to maintain their family even if it means they will not have the children they had hoped for.

They fully embrace the life they choose to make with each other, and it is only cut short by Ellie’s tragic and unexpected death.  The main narrative picks up at this point, as Carl begins the process of trying to make sense of a life without Ellie in it.  He decides to travel, via balloons, to Paradise Falls, which is where he had always promised he would take her.  Carl’s journey with his house is an extended metaphor for the grieving process.  The house where they spent their life together is a convenient symbol for his memory of Ellie, and his inability to be separated from the house (he tethers it to himself) is indicative of his incapacity to let go of his grief and move on.  As the film progresses, though, his connection to the house wanes, and after a key scene where Carl views a message Ellie left for him in her Adventure Book, he understands that he can both live a new life in her absence and at the same time remember the love the two of them shared.  He is not cheapening her memory by making the courageous choice to live his life.  Shortly afterward, the house falls from the sky after Carl rescues Kevin, Russell, and Dug.

Before I finish this analysis of Up (can you tell I love the film?), there is one more loss to think about.  Like Andy in the Toy Story movies, Russell’s father is not involved in his life.  Russell at least talks about his dad, which makes the situation different from Andy’s, and it is clear that he misses the connection they once had.  Carl eventually serves as a kind of father to Russell, as we can see when Carl shows up at the end of the film to give Russell his Wilderness Explorer badge.

Toy Story 3 (2010):  Andy is getting ready to go to college, and many of the toys have grown old and unused.  That the movie, which is one of the gems in Pixar’s crown, begins with a “home video” scene of Andy as a little boy playing with his toys suggests that all of the characters feel the loss of his childhood rather keenly.  Andy decides to give his once revered toys to a day care where children will play with them and, presumably, love them.  It is Andy’s intention to take Woody with him to school, but Woody goes back to get his friends when he hears they are in danger.  The toys collectively have quite a few dangerous escapades and even narrowly escape incineration before they are finally able to make it back home.  Andy ends up giving all of the toys, including Woody, to a little girl named Bonnie.  He and Bonnie play with the toys one last time, and then he bids them a bittersweet farewell.  The loss here is powerfully felt.  For all three of these fantastic films, the toys have served as metaphors for the trials and tribulations of Andy’s childhood (much like toys often do in children’s literature and film).  Andy’s transition to adulthood is the most disruptive change we have seen yet, and the violence suffered by the toys at the hands of Lotso reflects this.  Everyone comes out all right in the end, just as Andy will, but it is not before coming to terms with the ending of this phase of his life.  Saying goodbye to his toys is one of Andy’s final acts as a child.  He drives off as an adult, and the toys are left to build a new life with Bonnie.  As the viewers, we are not meant to feel overly sad about all of this, however, because new adventures are on the horizon for both Andy and his beloved toys.

Brave (2012):  Merida’s mother is turned into a bear by a witch, so for a short time Merida loses her, but what is really lost and then rebuilt in this film is the mother-daughter relationship and the respect they have for each other.  At the beginning, Merida does not understand what she interprets as her mother’s willingness to take a subservient role in the kingdom, and her mother has no patience for Merida’s wilfulness and desire to break from the social norms of the kingdom.  Through the trauma of the bear incident, they learn to see things from the other’s perspective, and this brings them closer.

Monsters University (2013):  This is just a basic buddy comedy, so it doesn’t offer much in the way of complexity.  Mike and Sulley are kicked out of the Scare program and then they are kicked out of the entire university.  Through these losses, though, they bond and build the friendship that we see in Monsters, Inc.

Inside Out (2015):  Like Toy Story 3, this film is fundamentally about the end of childhood.  What makes Inside Out so interesting, though, is that nobody–not her parents, not her emotions, not even Riley herself–can accept that she is growing up.  They see themselves as losing the little girl that Riley was rather than gaining the amazing pre-teen that Riley is becoming.  This is why there is initially such a focus on “core memories” at headquarters and why her parents insist on interacting with her by using methods (like the monkey dance) that worked when she was little.  To be fair, even Riley herself has trouble understanding the changes that are happening to and around her, a fact mirrored by the quest taken by Joy and Sadness to make it back to headquarters before their world completely (and literally) crumbles.  However, beginning with Bing Bong’s sad admission that Riley is too big to fit in his imaginary wagon/rocket, and his subsequent sacrifice for her, the characters in the movie start to acknowledge that Riley is not a child anymore.  As they do so, they all gain a new appreciation for her and begin to look with joy (yes, pun intended) toward her future instead of miring themselves in the past.  The film ends on this positive note, although the specter of puberty looms on the horizon!

The Good Dinosaur (2015):  Another obvious one.  Arlo’s father tragically dies (although, c’mon: the whole scene is clearly a rip-off of The Lion King) leaving him a) without a source of wisdom and b) without the information he needs to find his way home.  In a classic quest narrative, he finds both by the end of the film and gains a new understanding of friendship through his travels with Spot, the “human” child he finds along the way.

Finding Dory (2016):  Another quest to find a family, more friends picked up along the way, and new lives built on the ashes of loss and pain.  This is a worthy sequel that continues the thread of the original, but it is not as good as its predecessor.

In the end, I think Pixar has achieved something remarkable.  As a production company, it has created a body of films that, taken together, teach us about the power of loss to shape human experience and–at the same time–how we rebuild new lives, new futures, both for ourselves and for our society through perseverance, courage, and love.

Now that’s a theory I can work with.



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