Inside Out is the newest feature film released by Pixar Animation Studios, a company that has now been making fully computer-animated movies for twenty years. The studio’s theatrical releases have encompassed quite the eclectic collection of protagonists to date, be they old-fashioned toys, closet-dwelling monsters, middle-aged superheroes, futuristic robots, or even just a regular eleven year old girl (in the case of Inside Out‘s protagonist, Riley).
However, just as Disney Animation Studios has certain fairy tale tropes it revisits over and over, there are certainly tried-and-true elements found in all of Pixar’s films to date, not least of which is the “What if [thing] had feelings?” (human-like feelings, that is) premise that has served as the basis for a fair chunk of the company’s projects.
There are, of course, exceptions to that rule (The Incredibles and Brave), but even some of those deal with related ideas (the collars that reveal dogs’ thoughts in Up). It’s interesting to note how that ‘Pixar formula’ has evolved and changed from film to film, in accordance with the story being told – culminating to date with Inside Out, a movie that asks the question: “What if feelings has feelings?” To coincide with Inside Out‘s debut in theaters, we’re going to take a look back and examine the different psychologies and feelings of non-human Pixar movie characters over the course of the studio’s history.
The Toy Story Movies (1995, 1999, and 2010)
Stories about inanimate playthings springing to life have been around since long before the world was introduce to Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and their plastic peers, yet Toy Story (and its sequels) is able to provide an inventive variation on the concept. The film’s toys are neither fully childlike in terms of their emotional maturity and outlook (a la Pinocchio), nor are they completely adult in their mindsets and personalities either. Instead, the franchise’s characters fall somewhere in the middle, psychologically-speaking; able to comprehend difficult issues such as their own disposability (read: mortality), yet at the same time subject to emotional impulses more on the level of kid-thinking than grown-up logic.
What makes the Toy Story franchise so good (and relatable to filmgoers of all ages) is that the characters’ behavior is ultimately rooted in concerns that toys would logically have – being ‘replaced’ in their owner’s heart by a shinier new toy (sibling rivalry), being thrown out because they are old and dilapidated (aging concerns), and so forth. These issues speak to kids and adults in different ways, of course, and that allows the Toy Story movies to continue resonating with people of all ages, even years after they’ve seen them for the first time. This also makes for quite the bittersweet moment, when the toys’ longtime owner Andy finally leaves his old friends (and, symbolically, his childhood) behind, to be loved by another. That’s assuming that you the reader has feelings yourself.
A Bug’s Life (1998)
A Bug’s Life, when you think about it, deals with some heavy subject matter (class-based social inequality, the hierarchical tendencies of nature, etc.), considering it’s a family-friendly movie where one of the running jokes is that everyone thinks the Denis Leary-voiced ladybug is a woman. Nonetheless, this tale of oddball circus bugs teaming up with an ant colony to fight a bunch of mean grasshoppers offers a fairly insightful look at some intricate concepts – such as, how being (in essence) enslaved can shape a group’s psychology, to the point where their members never question (even when alone) their masters’ argument that the disparity in standing between them is “One of those ‘Circle of Life’ kind of things” (as Kevin Spacey’s Hopper puts it).
Compared to A Bug’s Life, the original Toy Story is (arguably) more innovative in terms of concept execution; case in point, DreamWorks’ Antz released the same year as A Bug’s Life (1998, to be exact) and perhaps delves even deeper into the psychological outlook of its insect characters, while at the same time exploring similar narrative themes. Regardless, Pixar’s story of Flik the Ant and his friends is a fine piece of animated cinema – one that does something interesting with the idea of bugs who suffer from many of the same concerns (about their work and/or their place in the grand scheme of things) as many a human does.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)/Monsters University (2013)
Family-friendly movies about the existence of secret worlds populated by monsters were around well before Pixar introduced filmgoers to James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski (see Little Monsters, released back in 1989), but Monster, Inc. certainly takes the concept of a monster society that is powered by children’s screams in a creative and unique direction. However, because the Monsters universe doesn’t necessarily function that differently from the human world (its citizens grow up, have jobs, and carry on their lives much like regular humans do), the characters featured in Monsters, Inc. and its prequel Monsters University have personalities and behavioral traits much like a person of a similar age would.
Characters in the Monsters franchise may not be quite as interesting to psychoanalyze as those in the Toy Story movies (for that reason), but at the same time this allows those films to explore issues that are more immediately relatable. For example, whereas a character like Woody often ends up in situations where he must deal with more generalized existential issues, ‘Sully’ and Mike struggle with achieving their career ambitions, examining the morality of their work, getting in touch with their parental instincts, and so forth. The final result: the Monsters movies are different, yet in many ways just as thoughtful as other Pixar films when it concerns having emotionally multifaceted characters.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo, similar to Pixar’s Monsters films, addresses a number of easily accessible (but, at the same time, complicated) emotional dilemmas, albeit thorough the lens of a narrative about fish, sea turtles, and other assorted creatures that inhabit the ocean. Marlin’s immediate attempts to rescue and protect his son Nemo (as well as his internal struggle to accept that Nemo is growing up) is the sort of thing any parent could relate to, as is Nemo’s youthful desire to push his boundaries and expand his horizons typical of your average human kid (the same goes for Dory’s need for some emotional/familial stability so that she might better handle her mental condition).
At the same time, though, the film’s aquatic setting is more in line with pre-Monsters, Inc. Pixar movies universes, in terms of how little it structurally resembles human society. So, in that sense, Finding Nemo marks a key development point for Pixar, with regard to how it evolved the studio’s “formula” at that stage; blending very relatable emotional issues (and psychological responses form the characters), but within the context of a very different world. It’ll be interesting to see how the forthcoming sequel Finding Dory plays out and deviates (or doesn’t) from that approach, all things considered.
Cars (2006)/Cars 2 (2011)
The Cars movies certainly have their supporters, but they’re also generally singled out as being Pixar’s weakest film offerings to date. That might in part be due to the characters of the Cars franchise are the least inventive in terms of their psychology, compared to other Pixar creations. Whereas the toys of Toy Story have a very unique mindset (again, somewhere between child-like and adult), for example, this series takes a straight-forward and less inventive approach to anthropomorphizing its vehicular characters. As such, Mater is basically a tow truck who acts like Larry the Cable Guy (in a kids’ movie), Doc Hudson is essentially Paul Newman’s onscreen persona in the form of a 1951 Hudson Hornet, and so forth.
That’s not to say characters such as Cars protagonist Lightning McQueen are lacking in emotional depth and/or struggle with issues that aren’t universally accessible. The Cars films simply don’t wrestle with the complex psychological matters that other Pixar movies tend to incorporate via their own respective universes. The upside is that the emotional obstacle and problems faced by the automobiles of the Cars franchises are perhaps the easiest for members of the juice box crowd (the films’ target demographic) to relate to; as they get older, though, these movies may become less interesting for them than other Pixar titles, for that reason.
Multiple Pixar films have featured human characters and non-human protagonists alike, though Ratatouille is unusual in that it comes much closer to devoting equal time to exploring the psychologies and thinking processes of both character types (here, people and rats) with its narrative. Rat society in the film resembles that of the insect world in A Bug’s Life; protagonist Remy is a bit like Flik too, in that both characters are closer to being human personalities trapped in the bodies of non-humans, whereas their peers have a decidedly different emotional outlook. Both protagonists also have similar creative drives, imaginations, and desires to break convention that fall more on the adult (if somewhat naive) scale of emotional complexity.
However, Ratatouille goes further than A Bug’s Life, in that it uses rat society as a mirror for the human world (and vice versa). Humans have generally been present (if only as parts of the backdrop) in most Pixar film universes save for Cars, but in Ratatouille there are multiple humans who possess fleshed-out personalities and dreams/desires, paralleling those for the different rat characters. Combined with certain other aspects (like the sequences where Remy interacts with his imagined version of Gusteau), this elevates the film well above being a simple variation on tried and true Pixar tropes.
Post-environmental collapse robot love story WALL-E contains a handful of references to the work of Stanley Kubrick (specifically, 2001: A Space Odyssey), while in many ways the film itself almost feels like a Kubrick sci-fi vision brought to life by the more humanistic storytellers at Pixar. As such, the robots of WALL-E are largely rudimentary and grounded in their emotional desires and expressiveness, yet there’s a complexity to anthropomorphized machines like WALL-E and EVE that recalls the Toy Story characters (read: they’re somewhere between adult and child-like in personality). Similarly, the robots of WALL-E are very much driven by the same basic, yet meaningful, desire as Woody and company: the need (or want) for love.
The human players in WALL-E don’t really come into play until the second half of the film, and thus aren’t imbued with the emotional complexity that the people in Ratatouille had (or those in more human-oriented Pixar films, like The Incredibles and Up). However, the human story thread of WALL-E revolves around the idea of people in the future reclaiming their humanity, which allows the non-robots players in the narrative to undergo their own emotional journeys – and thus, shows that in a world where robots can have feelings, there’s always hope for their human inventors too.
The question of “What if [thing] had feelings?” is one Pixar has explored many a time over the course of the two decades since it began making feature-length animated films. The studio’s original stories about non-humans that are capable of thinking (and, in particular, feeling) have provided worthwhile insight into everything from the fundamental emotional need for love (the Toy Story films) to what it even means to have feelings and emotions in the first place (WALL-E).
Inside Out continues to explore that premise in new and intriguing ways, and 2015’s second Pixar release (The Good Dinosaur) could well manage as much with its own variation on the same concept (as should future Pixar offerings). Don’t worry, though, there will always be room for us silly humans in the picture, too.
Inside Out is now playing in theaters. The Good Dinosaur opens in theaters on November 25th, 2015.