I love Pixar. Who doesn’t? The stories are magnificently crafted, the characters are rich, hilarious, and unique, and the images are lovingly rendered. Without fail, John Ratzenberger’s iconic voice makes a cameo in some boisterous character. Even if you haven’t seen every film they’ve made (I refuse to watch Cars or its preposterous sequel), there is a consistency and quality to Pixar’s productions that is hard to deny.
Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity.
Buried within that constant and complex goodness is a hidden message.
Now, this is not your standard “Disney movies hide double-entendres and sex imagery in every film” hidden message. “So,” you ask, incredulous, “What could one of the most beloved and respected teams of filmmakers in our generation possibly be hiding from us?” Before you dismiss my claim, consider what is at stake. Hundreds of millions of people have watched Pixar films. Many of those watchers are children who are forming their understanding of the world. The way in which an entire generation sees life and reality is being shaped, in part, by Pixar.
What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind. I have uncovered the skeleton key deciphering the hidden message contained within the Pixar canon. Let’s unlock it.
Before we begin, I ask you to watch the video below. Leandro Copperfield stitched together this seven minute tribute to “The Beauty of Pixar.” Full screen. HD. I dare you to not be moved.
People love these films. They are a part of our lives and of our culture. Pixar has artfully built a universe of beloved critters and beings that populate our popular consciousness. The analysis that follows is in the spirit of reverence and respect for the great contribution Pixar has made to our world.
To understand Pixar films, one must first to go back to Disney before Toy Story was released – to be precise, The Lion King. On top of being my favorite Shakespeare adaptation, The Lion King is the only Disney film to date with zero references to the existence of human beings. Disney and Pixar rarely have humans as the sole intelligent entities in their movies. Excluding plots requiring magic, non-human characters in Disney films are either anthropomorphous animals (e.g. walking upright, wearing clothes, drinkin’ out of cups) that take the place of humans (e.g. Robin Hood or The Rescuers) or are animals with a preternatural awareness of and ability to interact with feral human beings (e.g. The Jungle Book or Tarzan). The Lion King stands out in that the universe is animal only. There is no trash on the Serengeti, no airplanes flying over, no animals in hats or walking unnaturally on hind legs. You can’t even date when the story takes place, because there are no human references from which to calculate an approximation. Save for the fact that Zazu knows “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts,” there is no evidence that the characters within The Lion King even know humans exist.
The Lion King gives us a clean slate. We know what a non-human world looks like. Now we can tackle how Pixar handles people.
The relationship between humans and the non-human characters is critical to understanding Pixar’s movies. There are certain rules in Pixar movies that make things far more interesting than the average Disney fairy tale. The first is that there is no magic. No problems are caused or fixed by the wave of a wand. Second, every Pixar film happens in the world of human beings (see why I excluded Cars? It’s ridiculous and out of character for Pixar). Even in films like a A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo, in which humans only exist as backdrops for the action, humanity’s presence in the story is essential. The first two rules are pretty direct: the universe Pixar’s characters inhabit is non-magical and co-inhabited by humans.
The third rule is that at least one main character is an intelligent being that isn’t a human. This rule is a bit complex, so let’s flesh it out. There are two types human roles in Pixar films. The first is Human as Villain. In films like the Toy Story 1, 2, & 3, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo, the protagonists are all non-human. Ancillary characters like Sid, the Collector, and Darla are not main characters. A more accurate description would be that they are pieces of the environment and, on occasion, playing the role of supporting antagonist. The second type of Pixar film is Human as Partner. In these films, the main character befriends a human being as part of the hero’s journey: Remy, Colette, and Linguini; WALL-E, EVE, Mary and John; Sully, Mike, and Boo; Russell, Carl, Kevin and Dug. These are the heroic teams of their respective films.
In each Pixar film, at least one member of the team is human and at least one member is not human but possesses human levels of intelligence.
You can see where I’m going here. Particularly in WALL•E, Ratatouille and Up! there is no ambiguity about the reality of intelligence in the non-human characters. Each Pixar film asks us to accept one deviation from our reality. While it seems like the deviation is different in every case (e.g. monsters are real, robots can fall in love, fish have a sense of family, Kevin is a girl, a rat can cook), the simple fact is that Pixar only asks us to accept one idea over and over and over again:
Non-humans are sentient beings. That is the central difference between Pixar’s universe and our current reality.
That idea alone would suffice to show that Pixar films are all but propaganda for the concept of non-human personhood. But that is where the hidden message begins.
What makes these films so astonishing and the message so powerful is the story arc of the Human as Partner narrative. The story begins with a non-human living among a familiar setting. Be it WALL-E alone among the garbage, Remy with his massive extended family, or Sully and Mike Wazowski on their way to work, we are introduced to the hero in relative normalcy. Yet each of these characters deviate from their fellow non-humans. Remy wants to cook. WALL-E falls in love. In each case, the deviant non-human is ostracized. Dug is laughed at for his ineptitude and Sully and Mike are banished to live with the
Abominable Agreeable Snowman.
In being ostracized, however, the non-human encounters a human. Remy, lost in the kitchen, meets Linguini. Kevin and Dug both partner up with Carl and Russell. The deviant behavior acts as a catalyst for the first interaction. Furthermore, the human is also deviant. Boo is not afraid of monsters. John and Mary (the two people who help WALL-E and EVE) get out of their hover chairs and look away from the screens. Carl escapes the old folks home with a balloon-house airship. A team is formed when the mutual outsiders recognize a shared sense of purpose. Human and non-human rebels alike seek out each other. In combining efforts, however, the team doubles their opposition, with the non-human and human normative majorities rejecting and condemning their behavior. Remy is criticized by his father and alienates his friends while Linguini loses the respect of the entire kitchen and is at risk of having the restaurant closed for health violations. There is a high cost for non-conformity.
The new is seen as dangerous and therefore feared. Pixar’s Human as Partner films emphasize that should a non-human intelligence arise, be it a rat or a robot or a monstrous alien, there will be no welcoming with arms wide open from either side.
Victory in the battle for the rights and respect from both groups will come from an act of exemplary personhood and humaneness by those who dare to break ranks with their kind. Thus, the Human as Partner story arc ends with the capitulation of those who refused to recognize the personhood of the non-human and a huge reward coming to those who accepted the non-humans as fellow persons. In Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully discover that laughter yields far more energy than screams. In Ratatouille Anton Ego has an epiphany and gives one of my favorite speeches of all time in response to a Proustian flashback he experiences after eating Remy’s cooking. In WALL•E none less than the human race is saved from the brink of self-induced-extinction. In short, the benefits for humanity are tremendous in every case where non-human persons are treated with respect.
There is one Pixar film that does not fit either the Humans as Villains or Humans as Partner structure: The Incredibles. Instead of non-human protagonists, we are treated to super-human protagonists and antagonists. Yet the struggle from outcast to redeemer is the same, only this time, it is because the super-humans come together as a family. What enables the Incredible family to succeed is not that they are superhuman but that they are humane; that they love, support, and protect one another. As a result, the society that once feared and banished them sees the supers not as Others, but has fellow members of humanity.
Taken together as a whole narrative, the Pixar canon diagrams what will likely this century’s main rights battle – the rights of personhood – in three stages.
First are the Humans as Villain stories, in which the non-humans discover and develop personhood. I mean, Buzz Lightyear’s character arc is about his becoming self-aware as a toy. These films represent nascent personhood among non-human entities. For the viewer, we begin to see how some animals and items we see as mindless may have inner lives of which we are unaware.
Second are the Humans as Partners stories, in which exceptional non-humans and exceptional humans share a moment of mutual recognition of personhood. The moment when Linguini realizes Remy is answering him is second only to the moment when Remy shows Ego around the kitchen – such beautiful transformations of the Other into the self. These films represent the first forays of non-human persons into seeking parity with human beings.
Third, and finally, there is The Incredibles, which turns the personhood equation on its head. Instead of portraying the struggle for non-humans to be accepted as human, The Incredibles shows how human enhancement, going beyond the human norm, will trigger equally strong reactions of revulsion and otherization. The message, however, is that the human traits we value have nothing to do with our physical powers but are instead based in our moral and emotional bonds. Beneficence and courage require far more humanity than raw might. The Incredibles teaches a striking lesson: human enhancement does not make you inhuman – the choices you make and the way you treat others determines how human you really are.
Pixar has given those who would fight for personhood the narratives necessary to convince the world that non-humans that display characteristics of a person deserve the rights of a person. For every category there is a character: uplifted animals (Dug), naturally intelligent species (Remy and Kevin), A.I robots (WALL-E, EVE), and alien/monsters (Sully & Mike). Then there is the Incredible family, transhumans with superpowers. Through the films, these otherwise strange entities become unmistakably familiar, so clearly akin to us.
The message hidden inside Pixar’s magnificent films is this: humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood. In whatever form non- or super-human intelligence takes, it will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right. If we can live up to this burden, humanity and the world we live in will be better for it.
An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere. Through Pixar, we have opened ourselves to a better future.
Image of Dug seeking a squirrel via The Pixar Podcast.com