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And Another Thing: Thinking Deeply About Pixar & Theme

May 19, 2011

Well… since I’m sharing links today, here’s one that might be relevant to readers of this blog.

I’m going to go out on a limb here – okay, I don’t really think I’m actually taking a risk here in saying this, because it’s probably true – and say that you, dear reader, probably enjoy Pixar films. 

I know I do.

One thing that always strikes me about Pixar films (I have now seen all of those currently extent, thanks to the magic of Netflix) is just how well-written and frequently genuinely moving and touching these films are.  Pixar films almost never fail to pull a heart-string or two along the way.  I think that’s a particularly valuable lesson for all creative folks.

But this article (“The Hidden Message in Pixar’s Films“) offers another perspective on Pixar films: not a bad one, but one that’s sort of an exegesis of the Pixar Corpus.  It’s a fascinating interpretation of their movies, and it revolves around the idea of “non-human personhood”.  I think it’s a little simpler than that: I think the Pixar mantra isn’t about personhood in some abstract sense, but is more about humanity in a more basic sense: that people are people, no matter who they are, and are worthy of respect. 

In the comments of that article another insightful question is asked: inasmuch as one accepts the theorem that there is a common theme running through Pixar movies, does Pixar do this intentionally, or does this running theme arise naturally as a result of their artistic process?  The questioner posits the belief that an intentional insertion of such thematic meaning tends to degrade the value and merit of an artistic work, and that the natural evolution of themes is more admirable.  I’m not sure I agree with that.  And in some sense, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the good folks at Pixar do think consciously about some of themes of their works, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’ve intentionally created a body of work that revolves around one or two consistent themes.

That said, I do think the article is a bit of a stretch, in terms of codifying the Pixar theme in terms of “transhumanness”.  I think Pixar’s primary goal is just to make movies that are brilliant and that resonnate with audiences – and one way to do that is to infuse your work with a human touch and to appeal to the moral, philosophical, and emotional parts of our brains that we sometimes don’t pay much attention to.  Pixar does that with fantastic aplomb and skill.  (Other commentators on that article reach the conclusion that the argument being made is, at least partially, made in jest.)  Regardless, I’m interested in the idea that is glossed over of how we, as creative people, touch on themes in our work, how we approach those themes and how we describe them.  And, of course, Pixar being the subject, I’m very interested in how they’re able to make us feel so strongly and so consistently, how they’re able to touch our emotional core.  That’s a powerful tool for a creative/storyteller.  It’s one I hope I can develop – indeed, the quest for this skill is part of the reason I became a writer in the first place.

As a final note, I’m going to draw my own line in the sand here and agree with one thing said by the author of the article (Kyle Munkittrick): I didn’t enjoy “Cars”, and I agree that it was an aberration from the normal, unimpeachable quality I’ve come to expect from Pixar movies.  It is for that reason that, although I have presently seen every Pixar flick, there will in the near future arise one that I most likely will not see: “Cars 2”.  (For a while I resisted seeing “Cars” because I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy a movie about a racing car, becaues I’m just not into racing, so when I finally did give it a chance I went in with pretty low expectations.  The movie still managed to underwhelm me with a derivative and unoriginal plot and pathetic pandering to and snide, not-so-hidden insults toward the “NASCAR” demographic.  It had some beautiful shots, to be sure, but the care usually given to plot and character development in Pixar films was noticeably lacking in “Cars”.)  To some folks, offering that opinion will be  unpopular – there are those in my extended family who loved “Cars” above all other Pixar flicks, which is fine for them – but the movie just didn’t work for me.

But I don’t want to end on a negative note… So let me just say this, instead: movies like “Up”, “The Incredibles”, “WALL-E”, and “Toy Story 3” are among my favorite movies.  Each is, put simply, a masterpiece of creative vision, talent, and storytelling.  I can watch these movies again and again and never tire of it.

What do you think?  Do you work in moral, philosophical, or emotional themes into your work?  Do you do it intentionally?  How so?  Do you enjoy the work of others where you find clear moral, philosophical, or emotional themes?  Do you think they do it intentionally?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 9:54 pm

    Stephen, thanks for the kind words and the further analysis. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    • May 20, 2011 8:42 am

      Thanks for writing such an interesting piece. Of course I’m a big fan of Pixar films (Cars notwithstanding), so how could I not find an article that explores them a fun read?

  2. May 19, 2011 11:13 pm

    Pixar does seem to have an amazing knack for creating emotionally resonant stories. The Incredibles was definitely one of those films for me. And I loved Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life, as well. I didn’t care for Cars, either, and don’t really want to see the second movie.

    I think for sure I’m working moral, philosophical and emotional themes into my work, though for the most part it didn’t come about intentionally. I guess that’s because of the organic, first-timer figure-it-out-by-writing-a-bunch-of-would-be-first-drafts approach I’ve unwittingly taken, haha. (Not for the faint of heart, let me tell you.) Certain motifs and themes just emerged the more I explored my main characters; you just kind of learn to pick up on more of them as you go along and run with them. Only in the editing process, though, have I really been able to start bringing them to life and fully weave them into the story as a whole.

    Depending on the length and depth of your story, this can be a really complex process, I think.

    Also, I prefer when themes are more subtly revealed in novels. For me, when they are made too apparent it comes across as contrived and sometimes even heavy-handed—neither of which I think are attractive qualities to have in a novel; that way, imo, lacks grace. And it’s hard to say when people do or don’t work morality, philosophy and theme into their stories on purpose because I don’t know what their writing processes were. Likewise, I can’t predict whether stories in which these things are intentionally included from the get-go are going to turn out to be obvious or subtle because it will ultimately depend on how skilled the writer is and/or how they choose to handle these things. Maybe they want these elements to be slap-in-the-face, preach-to-the-choir obvious—and I guess that’s fine if that’s what the writer always intended; it’s just not an approach that appeals to me.

    On another note, I have to wonder if there are any stories in which (at least some of) these elements aren’t included–whether intentionally or unintentionally on the author’s part. Every human being, and I’d venture to say therefore every human-like character, is going to have their own philosophies and ideas about morality and life in general and will be emotionally affected by different things for and various reasons, depending on their life experiences; that’s just the nature of humanity. Even if these things aren’t the main focus of the story, it’s seems natural that they might emerge anyway.

    Does this make sense? lol (Sorry if that was all kind of wordy and hard to follow. That happens when I try to speak in broad terms.)

    • May 20, 2011 9:13 am

      No arguments from me: this can get really complex, definitely. One reason why I think it mostly helps to think consciously about theme and morality and philosophy in what we’re writing is that a failure to do so may result in the unintentional insertion of themes with which we ourselves are uncomfortable or unqualified to comment on or which might be negatively perceived by our intended audience if not handled with care. This can lead to a lot of confusion and difficulty on the writer’s part with how the work is received. That doesn’t mean that working themes in is an easy thing to do – it definitely requires skill and finesse. I agree that slap-me-in-the-face moralizing is not endearing – that’s more likely to drop-kick me out of my suspension of disbelief and out of the novel. Avoiding that problem also takes skill. Ultimately, you get to the real crux, for me, in your last paragraph. As a writer, you have to think about theme and morality and philosophy because of your characters – because if they’re realistic people, they’ll have an outlook and a set of beliefs and you’re going to have to address that, one way or another. And, frankly, you’re likely to disagree with some of the beliefs of some of your characters (if you didn’t disagree with somebody in your story, you’d have no conflict and no story). I think I may have a little more to say on the subject of theme, but I’m going to save it for another post next week. Because I’ve got to save myself something to blog about 😉

      • May 20, 2011 11:23 am

        Heh. Can’t wait for the next blog, then. (Or whenever you decide to blog about it.) 🙂

      • May 20, 2011 11:42 am

        First up I’m intending to blog about something a little more inane. Or at least, I’ve started on a slightly more inane post, one that’s totally unrelated to writing 🙂

      • May 20, 2011 2:29 pm

        “you have to think about theme and morality and philosophy because of your characters…Frankly, you’re likely to disagree with some of the beliefs of some of your characters”

        I’ve been thinking a lot while writing this book. I absolutely do not support every thought or action of my characters (in fact, some things they do horrify me), and often characters will contradict each other too. Their life experiences are not the same as mine, and though I need to understand them, their value systems are ultimately going to differ.

        Would love to hear your thoughts about this. I may have to blog some thoughts on theme as well…

      • May 20, 2011 2:37 pm

        I’m definitely going to queue up a more detailed post on the subject… but first I have to write it!


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