Every Pixar Movie Is Really About How We Tell Stories

From "Toy Story" to its most recent offering "Onward," the studio makes films about trying to figure out what kind of narrative you're in

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At the heart of every great Pixar movie is a story about storytelling. Films like Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Up, and most recently, Onward, aren’t just master classes in what intricate character-driven plotting can look like. If you study them closely, you can see they are also stories about the very act of creating a narrative — about how stories help us understand our past and guide our future. Hidden in these colorful tales about toys and monsters, fishes and emotions, widowers and wizards, are lessons about how we tell stories not (or not just) “in order to live,” as the oft-quoted line from Joan Didion goes, but in order to make sense of our lived lives. 

Pixar’s entire oeuvre began with a story about a toy. No, not that one. Toy Story would come later, but in 1986 John Lasseter directed Pixar’s first short film about a Luxo lamp playing with a small beach ball. With its playful and photorealistic take on an office lamp, Luxo Jr. kicked off decades’ worth of computer-generated tear-jerking tales. Except when Lasseter first began working on the film that launched Pixar as we know it, he was focused almost exclusively on making the pair of Luxo lamps at the heart of the short (one big, one small; one obviously a parent, the other a little kid) look as real and move as realistically as he could. It was only when he showed it to a number of animators at an animation festival that he was informed, quite simply, that he needed to have some story driving the short—otherwise it would all just be an impressive if rather dull motion study.

Buzz Lightyear’s realization that there’s no script he can follow, that he’s now in charge of his own story, is a profound one.

The drive to focus on story became a guiding principle at the Emeryville-based company for decades to come. Luxo Jr. taught Pixar that it was only through story that inanimate objects, no matter how expertly rendered, could truly be brought to life. Toy Story was both an extension and a self-conscious examination of that same idea. Plot-wise, that 1995 film is about how a Space Ranger named Buzz Lightyear has to learn he’s not, alas, a leading character of an intergalactic sci-fi plot but a toy stuck in a child’s bedroom, subject to a young boy’s whims rather than some action-driven script. His inability to cope with such a revelation, despite cowboy ragdoll Woody yelling “YOU—ARE—A… TOY! You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear! You’re… you’re, you’re an action figure!” in exasperation, is what drives much of the comedy and the pathos of the film. Buzz’s realization that there’s no script he can follow, that he’s now in charge of his own story, is a profound one. 

For 25 years Toy Story has served as a template of sorts for many of the projects that Pixar has produced. From Marlin and Dory swimming their way to Sidney in Finding Nemo to Miguel and Hector traveling through the Land of the Dead in Coco, there is no more common a Pixar trope than a double hero’s journey, one obviously first put forth by the buddy comedy duo of Buzz and Woody trying to find their way back to Andy in Toy Story. But those pairings, which now also include the Lightfoot brothers at the center of Onward, are prime examples of Pixar’s most enduring storytelling concern: these are all self-aware narratives about how difficult (and funny and emotional and heartbreaking) it can be to be to figure out what kind of story you’re in. A film like Monsters Inc. is, at its core, about what it takes to decide you’ll no longer be a monster in a nighttime horror but a jokester in a comedy instead. The Incredibles, borrowing as it does from comic book lore while subverting it, centers on whether a superhero story can be shoehorned into a family comedy. The clashing of genres is at the heart of Pixar. It’s not just Woody’s Western versus Buzz’s Space Opera but Marlin’s drama to Dory’s comedy; it’s WALL-E’s retro romcom to EVE’s dystopian sci-fi.

The key understanding that stories rule our lives, and that genres help us figure out who we want to be, sounds like too lofty a tenet for an animation company. But Pixar’s films bear this out over and over again. Take Inside Out. Boasting arguably Pixar’s most conceptual premise, the film imagines a world inside our head where five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear) jockey for control of our every move. In Riley’s head and for much of her life, it’s been Joy (Amy Poehler) who’s had control of her life and her memories. But coinciding with a move to San Francisco, her inner life takes a turn when Sadness (Phyllis Smith) inadvertently disrupts her “core memories” (which were all joyful; yellow in the film’s visual parlance) and risks turning her into a moody, emo teen. Much of the film concerns Joy and Sadness’ journey back to Riley’s control room where Joy hopes to return the young girl back to the sunny, playful daughter she used to be. In the process, though, the film advances a fascinating theory about how the stories we tell about ourselves inform who we are. In a key moment in the film Joy looks back at several of Riley’s joyful memories only to find out that were you to let one play for longer, or re-frame one in light of her move, they’d become sad memories. 

These are all self-aware narratives about how difficult (and funny and emotional and heartbreaking) it can be to be to figure out what kind of story you’re in.

For all intents and purposes, the film depicts memory (here, colored orbs that taken together make up a person’s personality) as a storytelling machine. Joy may wish to make Riley’s life a laugh-filled, happy comedy, but her time with Sadness teaches her that such an endeavor is not just impossible but implausible. In order to tell a coherent story about one’s life, you need both laughter and tears — and sometimes some anger and disgust and some fear for good measure. Above all else, Inside Out is a story about what writing a good biography entails — not just choosing what memories to cull and exult but how to frame and edit them to better make sense of the person you’re trying to capture. But the same can be said of a film like Up, which is both about what it means to grieve and to move on as it is about what it means to realize your own domestic life with your wife was an adventure all along. Seeing Carl (Ed Asner), towards the end of the film, look at the photo album his wife left him is to see him recast his life with her anew, to retell their story together to himself in a different light.

With its blue-skinned, pointy-eared protagonists, Onward is set in a world that seems to already exist within a storybook. But the more the film explains its inner workings, the clearer it becomes that the story of Barley and Ian Lightfoot follows not a storybook but a rulebook. For Onward is quite openly structured like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Chris Pratt’s Barley is obsessed with “Quests Of Yore,” a fantasy tabletop role-playing game that, in his eyes, merely documents the kind of magic that was once all over his world before centaurs and wizards and cyclops and the like (all of whom populate the film) left all of it behind to lead a thoroughly modern life where highways and skyscrapers have replaced winding paths and magic castles. For Barley, the “Quests Of Yore” cards carry with them a history many others, including his family, would rather ignore. It is through them that he figures out where he and his brother Ian (Tom Holland) are to go should they wish to correct the spell that was supposed to bring back their dad for a day, but which left them with just their father’s lower body to bond with. 

Ultimately, as with many a Pixar film before it, Onward reveals that this was a story about the stories we tell ourselves.

Barley treats their situation like a quest, one he’s trained for his entire life. He encourages Ian to let him take the lead as they hunt for an adventure map, seek out a rare gem, and try to fend off a dragon to hopefully get the rest of their father’s body to reappear in time before the spell wears off. In the film, “Quests Of Yore” structures the storytelling: with every new twist in their adventure Ian slowly levels up his wizarding powers while Barley’s increasingly bizarre hunches about where to head next (based off of “Quests Of Yore” cards) eventually do land them exactly where they need in order to fulfill the spell’s specifications. Together they’re player and Dungeon Master; the one following the other’s lead, all the while acknowledging that they are in a campaign that’s invisible to everyone around them. This latter bit is what constantly gets them in trouble; only they know the rules of the game they’re playing, everyone else (including their mom) thinks they’re crazy. But ultimately, as with many a Pixar film before it, Onward reveals that this was a story about the stories we tell ourselves. The movie’s tear-jerking third act depends on Ian revisiting his early childhood memories and framing them anew. Echoing Inside Out and Up, the film reminds viewers that one’s memories are stories for the taking. What you choose to remember and, more importantly, how you do so is ultimately what decides what kind of story you’re in: Ian’s flashbacks force him to reconsider what it means to think of his personal narrative as an orphan story rather than, as Onward initially frames it, a brotherly tale. 

During Pixar’s early years there was one motto repeated by its filmmakers: “Story Is King.” Taken on its own, this sounds like the kind of pithy platitude often spouted at (but not by) creatives. But over its 25-year run, Pixar has proven time and time again that story really is king—not just for the filmmakers, but for all of us. In films like Toy Story, Inside Out, and Onward audiences have gotten to see what a crucial role storytelling plays in all of our lives. The reason a space toy, an embodied emotion, and now a wizard-in-the-making have so endeared themselves to us is because the question that drives their stories is not too different from that which drives our lives: what kind of story am I writing for myself?

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