The magic that fills every Pixar movie begins with its ability to make us care so much about non-human characters. Be it toys, cars, monsters, robots, rats; whatever the creature, Pixar fills them with brilliant and unmistakable humanity. I’m sure the mechanisms behind this identification are complex and multifaceted, but I’m going to ignore all that and offer a single, simplistic explanation instead. I believe Pixar humanizes their characters primarily by endowing them with our deepest fears and insecurities.
The beginning scenes in Wall-E cripple us with his loneliness; Finding Nemo opens with a nightmarish scene of losing family; Jessie’s “When She Loved Me” is one of the most poignant scenes of loss and abandonment I’ve ever seen.
As Pixar’s flagship franchise, Toy Story, captures this strategy perhaps more than any other Pixar movie. Jessie’s mournful dirge is just one example of the existential conflicts at the center of every film and character.
I’m sure if we stop and think about it, almost all of our darkest times are caused by the loss of some identity-forming thing: be it a belief, relationship, job… these moments force us to examine our purpose and value. Toy Story taps into these excruciating insecurities to create a bond between ourselves and its characters. Despite the seemingly silly crisis, (“being played with” ranks as one of the least dramatic Existential moments in film history) the insecurity carries such power that we can’t help but be dragged into their world.
The foundations of Existentialism provide the most philosophical (and least personal) parallel between ourselves and the psyche of a green plastic dinosaur named “Rex.” The post-Darwin crisis of belief caused a consequent crisis of identity: As belief in God plummeted, we were left with a meaning-gap in our lives. Without this meaning-giving Being, who are we? Do we have any purpose or value? Suddenly the greatest minds of the time were forced to grapple with what’s left when God’s gone.
Andy functions as a God-figure to the toys. When he begins to vanish from their lives they’re forced to come to terms with a new way of life, and the alternative sources of meaning and value that must come with it. Although the toys find new purpose and value in their relationships, Toy Story 3‘s closing scene, where Andy plays with and comments on every toy to Bonnie, remains powerful because it mirrors the divine affirmation we spend our whole lives looking for.
(Andy’s existence even creates a simple and understandable world, much like the ordering influence of a belief in God. His imaginative scenarios involve clear moral boundaries between Good and Evil that religion provides. See: Woody and gang vs. One-Eyed Bart, One-Eyed Betty, and Mr. Evil Dr. Porkchop.)
Yes, Toy Story mirrors some of the classic post-theist existentialism, but that’s not its real punch. Take, for example, Toy Story 3. Andy’s departure for college doesn’t only throw the toys into an existential crisis, Andy and his Mom struggle with their new purposes in the periphery of the story, too. Andy’s about to leave behind everything he’s known and so much of what’s constituted his identity until this very point. Having graduated high school a mere weeks before the movie released, this storyline had particular poignancy with me. Likewise, Andy’s Mom struggles with her own value now that her child is leaving the nest. Recreating yourself after 18 years, when “Mom” no longer feels quite right, is a brutal search for identity that fills in the edges of the film.
The existentialist doubt functions at even another level. Remember that the last movie was released in 2010, at the Great Recession’s very bottom. Millions of recently unemployed workers were forced to reexamine themselves without employment providing a sense of purpose and worth. As silly as it may be, toys horrified at the prospect of “no one ever playing with us again” likely struck a very sensitive cord in the victims of a failing economy.
By situating the characters in a scenario of extreme doubt and uncertainty, Pixar forces us to identify our own insecurities. In the end, Pixar’s real magic isn’t giving life to inanimate objects, it’s making us care for them more than we do so many flesh-and-blood characters that look like us but lack our faults.