We might look back on the Pixar films and find them very weird. Weird that a studio known for family films was also infamous for making people cry. Lots of family films have emotional moments, sure, but none like Pixar. It seems that almost all of their films have at least one moment designed to make the audience misty-eyed. That's not to say that Pixar films are manipulative in a cynical way, just that they are very skilled at what they do. One of their best films is even specifically about the value of sadness.
So with that central philosophy in mind, let's look back on some of Pixar's most emotional moments.
Spoilers for several Pixar films below.
10 You Don't Belong Here (Cars 3)
This entry might make you skeptical about this entire list, and that's easy to understand. The original Cars was the first truly mediocre Pixar movie, and the second is maybe the worst movie ever made by the studio. If you stuck it out to the third film, however, you were probably surprised by the overall jump in quality.
Injured in an intense racing accident (dramatized in this bizarrely serious teaser), racer Lightning McQueen is forced to train with a new character, the peppy Cruz Ramirez. As the movie progresses, Lightning realizes his racing days may be numbered, and that Cruz deserves a shot at the big leagues.
Essentially a story of a (coded) white guy stepping back to make space for a (coded) Latin woman, Cars 3 wrings surprising emotion out of Cruz's final race. Hit with taunts that she is not a born race car, Cruz insists that she "belongs on the track" and pulls off an impressive stunt to prove it once and for all. Obvious? Maybe. Effective? Definitely.
9 I'm Proud To Be His Family (Coco)
This list could easily be filled with only scenes from Coco, but there is one, in particular, that does not get enough attention. After a shocking revelation that leaves them both at their lowest, musicians Miguel and Hector are dumped into a deep pit with no hope of escape. Then, something beautiful happens. Miguel and Hector realize they are related.
Still stuck in a pit awaiting imminent death, the pair are overjoyed at this revelation and seem to forget about everything else. After all, they have finally found someone who is proud of who they are. As "I'm proud to be his family!" echoes around the cave, Pixar makes us reflect on those who encouraged us and sets up a bigger emotional gut punch to come.
8 Bing Bong's Death (Inside Out)
Flexing their storytelling muscles, Pixar showed us they could make us cry over the goofiest character imaginable. Bing Bong seems, at first glance, to just be disposable comic relief. Instead, that perceived disposability makes him one of the most empathetic characters in the entire Pixar canon.
Adult audience members may have seen what was coming, but Bing Bong's sacrifice was moving nonetheless. Helping Sadness and Joy escape a pit of forgotten memories, Bing Bong quickly realizes he is weighing the team down. In a heartbreaking, silent shot, Bing Bong dives from their makeshift aircraft, allowing the pair to escape. It's the natural conclusion for any story about an imaginary friend. Bing Bong realizes he isn't going to cut it as a coping mechanism anymore, and he would only be holding Riley back.
So many of Pixar's films are about leaving childhood behind, and no character articulates that better than Bing Bong.
7 Sea Shells (Finding Dory)
For a studio that ostensibly makes children's films, Pixar films seem to have a lot of scenes of straight up existential horror. Still, even with their impressive back catalog, the opening of Finding Dory has them all beat.
Dory, a young fish (fish child?) suffering from short term memory loss, is separated from her family, and frantically searches for them. This would be disturbing enough if it was a short scene, but it fades into a montage, implying Dory has been searching for years at a time. Adding to the horror, it seems Dory is unable to stop or make any progress due to her disability. It's legitimately horrific stuff, but it's all set up for a sob-inducing moment the third act.
Escaping from the marine society she's spent much of the film in, Dory finds a trail of shells that leads her back to her parents home. It takes a second to put everything together but... it means they never stopped looking for her. Cue sobs.
6 Jessie's Story (Toy Story 2)
While Toy Story and A Bug's Life had plenty of ups and downs, it wasn't until Toy Story 2 that Pixar began to show off their talent for putting their audiences through the emotional wringer. Setting up themes explored further in Toy Story 3, Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl outlines her story of being loved, but ultimately abandoned by her original owner. Set to Sarah McLachlan, of course.
The first of many emotionally devastating montages to come, Jessie's story centers around that ever-present Pixar villain; the passage of time. While many of the studio's films reflect a fear of abandonment, Jessie, like Bing Bong, represents something more specific. That the ones who love us won't just leave us behind, they'll outgrow us.
5 Anton Ego's Speech (Ratatouille)
One of the best scenes in the entire Pixar oeuvre, Ratatouille's finale has aspiring chef Remy the rat hoping to impress notoriously harsh food critic Anton Ego. Remy makes a traditional dish for Ego, Ratatouille, and cements the film's place in the Pixar hall of fame.
It's a show-stopping moment, as the taste sends Ego into an emotional flashback. Demanding to see the Chef, Ego is forced to confront that the best meal he's had in years was made by a rat. This revelation leads to the film's most famous scene, as Ego writes a review that gets to the heart of criticism itself.
It's pretty high brow stuff for a children's film, but that's what makes it so beautiful. Ego's speech demands that the adults in the audience (and more specifically, the critics) pay attention, and challenges them to take the animated rat movie seriously. It distills the mantra that Remy has pursued throughout the film, that "anyone can cook", into it's purest ingredients. Anyone can make art, and everyone deserves to be taken seriously as an artist. Ratatouille asks us to ignore the barriers that keep us from our passions, and Ego himself argues that the passion we put into our work will not go unnoticed.
4 Saying Goodbye to Andy (Toy Story 3)
It's hard to pick just one moment from Toy Story 3. Almost every single character comes with a heartbreaking backstory. While the toys holding hands in the furnace is certainly moving, it's their final goodbye to Andy that feels the most worth noting here. From Buzz's arrival in the first film, Woody has always feared saying goodbye to Andy, and in this moment, he is finally forced to. Still, like most Pixar films, Toy Story 3 is about accepting the inevitable and moving on to new beginnings with open hearts.
3 The Opening Montage (Up)
A pretty obvious choice, but the montage at the beginning of Up holds a deserving spot in the movie cry hall of fame. Everything to be said about this montage has already been said, but it's worth highlighting the scenes that preceded this too. As gorgeous as it is, the famous montage would not work without the previous scenes with Carl and Ellie as kids. These scenes make us understand how much they care about each other, and what going to Paradise Falls means to both of them. Many movies start with a character who's partner has died, but the opening scenes of Up paint Ellie so vividly that her absence is felt throughout the entire film.
2 Remember Me (Coco)
The end of Coco is legitimately impossible to get through without crying. It's unsolvable.
Tween-age Miguel is an aspiring musician whose family doesn't approve of his chosen path. By the end of the film, Miguel has been on a whirlwind tour of the afterlife and must save one of his ancestors. In order to do so, he must make sure his great-grandmother can remember her father. Pulling out his guitar, he plays a song written for his Abuelita as a child.
If Ratatouille touches on art's ability to aid emotional memory, Coco rides that concept to infinity and beyond.
Pulling out all the stops, the final performance of "Remember Me" is beautifully bittersweet. Not only does it save Miguel's Great Great Grandfather from oblivion, but it's also filled with the pain of years of separation, and topped off with Miguel showing the family that his passion has value. "Remember Me" isn't just an emotional moment within the story, it's a reminder that art is one of the most powerful gateways to our memories, and the only way to truly preserve yourself through time.
1 I Miss Minnesota Too (Inside Out)
A lot of family films that deal with themes, if they deal with them at all, generally keep things pretty straight forward. A lot of family films are blandly about protecting the environment or being nice to your brother, or something simple like that. There's nothing wrong with that, but Inside Out is worth praising for a message that is not self-evident to most moviegoers. Digging into it, what Inside Out is saying is actually quite complex. That sadness, disgust, anger, and fear, are not bad emotions, but actually vital.
As young Riley shuts herself off from her emotions, she is only losing control of them, and her decision making becomes less and less rational. It feels quietly revolutionary that the connective moment she has with her father is one of shared empathy and sadness. In a way, this moment seems to make an argument for the entirety of Pixar's body of work.
So many family films only want to show joy in their films, in order for the audience not to get too upset. Pixar's films, on the other hand, know that moments of sadness are needed in order to contextualize true happiness. A life lived ignoring all "negative" emotions is a life of not understanding yourself, or why you do what you do. The reason people keep going to these films are not just because they provide happy moments, but they provide context for that happiness. Their best films become complicated experiences.
Memories that infuse both sadness and joy.