“We make the kind of movies we want to see, we love to laugh, but I also believe what Walt Disney said, ‘for every laugh there should be a tear.”
Pixar director of Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life
“Come in! Come in, you’ve nothing to fear!”
The old lady in Hansel and Gretel
Several reviews of Toy Story 3 talk of the darker nature of the movie. The film just opened yesterday and I haven’t seen it yet, but I wonder if many have just forgotten the darker corners that Pixar has treaded in the past (and Walt Disney before them).
One of the whole themes of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 is the fear of outliving your purposefulness and being replaced. Of ending up in the broken toy bin, or even worse— being sold for 25 cents in a yard sale. That’s pretty dark stuff. And it’s set up early in the first film when Buzz Lightyear arrives and Woody fears literally being put up on the shelf.
Here are some of the lines from those first two films:
“No one is getting replaced.”
“Yes sir, we’re next month’s garage sale fonder for sure.”
“Toys don’t last forever.”
“You’re broken, I don’t want to play with you anymore.”
“I hate yard sales.”
Facing your own demise is pretty dark stuff. And don’t forget in Toy Story there is the bad boy next door, Sid, who likes to dismantle and destroy toys and dolls. In Toy Story 2 there is a kidnapping and a threat of Woody being sold and shipped to a collector in Japan. Dark stuff.
Remember conflict is the life blood of movies and the gang at Pixar understand this very well. (Maybe I shouldn’t use “blood” and “gang” in the same sentence when talking about family friendly Pixar, but in the spirit of this post I think it’s okay.)
Being old, forgotten, and left behind is addressed in Cars. (“I’m in this little town called Radiator Springs. You know Route 66? It’s still here!”) Roger Ebert wrote of Cars, “It tells a bright and cheery story, and then has a little something profound lurking around the edges. In this case, it’s a sense of loss.” Cars is all the more poignant since it was the great Paul Newman’s last film. (Cars also happens to be Newman’s highest grossing film.)
And how gut wrenching is that montage of Carl & Ellie’s life in Pixar’s Up? They meet and have hopes and dreams of a life adventure together. But their savings are depleted time and time again as life problems intrude—a car repair here, a house repair there. Finally, later in their life Carl buys tickets for a trip to South America, but before he can surprise Ellie she gets sick and dies. Dark stuff.
In the opening scene of Pixar’s Finding Nemo, Marlin’s wife and large family are killed by a barracuda. And soon afterwards his only son, Nemo, is captured by a scuba diver. Dark Stuff.
Fortunately the gang at Pixar also know how to balance some of their darker, somber themes by cloaking them with humor. They understand stand that life is a mixture of sadness and humor. They simply understand human emotions—even if their creations aren’t always human.
Certainly part of the magic of Walt Disney was not shying away from harsh and dark conflict. Think of Bambi’s mother being shot (“Mother we made it. Mother…”) or of Cruella De Vil who abducts puppies with the hopes of making a dalmatian coat. We’re talking Silence of the Lambs creepy.
Of course, Disney was just tapping into the tradition of fairy tales before him. Stories of a big, bad wolf who has eaten grandma, a witch who desires to put Hansel and Gretel in an oven, and a giant who yells to a poor, fatherless boy;
I smell the blood of an Englishman?
Be he ‘live, or be he dead,
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.
In real life we may be scared to go into the woods, but as writers (even writers of children and family stories) into the woods we must go.
But don’t forget to pack a flashlight.
Post tenebras lux.
Related post: Everything I Learned in Film School
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connection
Screenwriting Quote #129 (Bob Peterson)
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way
Update 6/21/10: I was one of the people who helped make Toy Story 3 a record Father’s Day weekend. It continued the same theme of the fear of being discarded, of outliving your usefulness. Overall it is a super film with the best ending of the three movies. Had a little water in my eyes at the end and it wasn’t from wearing those 3-D glasses for an hour and a half.
I can’t help wonder how hard it is for people who are unemployed to watch that film with their kids as they face uncertainty of work in the future. Just read an article where 40 is considered old at Google. I could help but think of Woody, Buzz and the gang when I read the following rely in the comments section of the post:
My husband has been coding since 1980 and was plucked from college his junior year by IBM because of a shortage of programmers. He can code rings around most newbies who weren’t born when he wrote his first lines of PL1 and cobalt. The main problem as I see it, is that he doesn’t look shiny and new while he does it and that turns off a lot of employers.
Scott W. Smith
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