Pixar: The “Soul” of Storytelling

On Christmas day I watched Pixar’s new film “Soul.” Ever since it was announced in 2019, I had been eagerly anticipating the release of this metaphysical film. I sent the trailer to almost every person I know, merely sharing my excitement about a movie set in New York City, tackling the question, “what is your life’s purpose?” with jazz being the central theme. While I pictured watching “Soul” on the big screen in my local cinema, I ended up watching it on my laptop when it released on Disney Plus.

Pixar likes to go against audience expectations, and just like all their previous films the story “Soul” ended up being about was not what I thought it would be. The film left me with tears, once the story and its themes came together at that perfect moment. The moment when you realize that the message of the story is so much more meaningful than you thought. The scene with less dialogue, beautiful visuals,  racing emotions, and a mesmerizing background score: the Pixar moment. This animation studio has the formula for a perfect film, a story that can make almost every human being feel, well, their feelings. So, what do they do? Why do we feel the way we do? What makes Pixar’s stories so great?  

Storyboard artists at Pixar follow 22 rules of storytelling- something they stick to in almost every one of their films. The films can be examined through this lens, as every character, scene, theme, and dialogue is animated with intention. In almost every film, a character must overcome an unexpected change; reflecting the #3 rule which is, ‘what is your character good at? Throw the polar opposite at them.’ In ‘Finding Nemo,’ Marlin, the clownfish, is great at taking care of his son, Nemo. The turning point is when the father and son get separated and Marlin can’t do what he is great at doing anymore. In ‘Monsters, Inc’ Sully, the giant blue monster, is exceptionally talented at scaring children, but when Boo, a human child, comes into his life he has to care for her instead of scaring her with his scream.

The change that occurs during the journey is often what the character learns their lesson from. In Ratatouille, Remy, the protagonist rat, tells his dad, “change IS nature.”  Just like life, change is the only constant and the only natural thing. It is the only thing that we can learn from. Resisting the change that life offers is resisting growth.  

The reason we respond so emotionally to Pixar films is not because of the beautiful animation or the technology used to create it. We respond to these films because of the relatability factor. Pixar’s #15 rule of storytelling is ‘honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.’ Every character is written with honesty, reflecting our own daily lives and emotions. In ‘Cars,’ Lightning McQueen reflects people who might be blindsided by success and forget about real authentic relationships. In ‘Up,’ Carl represents those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, forgetting the adventures they had together. Characters are created with opinions. There is a reason for their dark side, a reason why they feel jealousy or insecurity. 

I feel like ‘Inside Out’ does the perfect job of creating an authentic story that keeps the audience entertained while leaving room for reflection. There are points where you relate to almost all the characters. Riley’s, the 12-year-old female protagonist, experience of leaving her hometown and trying to navigate a new stage of her life reminded me of coming to college. Joy’s, one of Riley’s five emotions,  immense insecurity of being neglected correlates to my own emotions. Creating such deep characters also raises the question of how children, Pixar’s target audience, are able to understand such complex characters. Business Insider published a study saying that when children between the ages of three and five watch movies, they leave with new impressions about the state of the world. “Even if those young viewers can’t understand or describe everything happening in the movies, they still perceive complex emotions” 

Pixar films can and should be compared to Walt Disney Animation Studio films when it comes to storytelling. As much as I grew up watching Toy Story, I also grew up with The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas and Aladdin. I admired Jasmine and Ariel, and I wanted to be like them. I aspired to have that perfect look and charming prince. When I watched these iconic princess films, it was like wishing for a dream and hoping for magic. That storytelling style is beautiful and effective, but it’s also the opposite of what Pixar does. When I watched Toy Story, I somehow understood Woody’s jealousy at the extremely young age of five. When I watched Finding Nemo at seven, I understood that through struggles and hardships in life, “just keep swimming.” I strived for my life to be like Disney princesses, but the life I actually lead was portrayed in these Pixar films. 

That moment in “Soul” when Joe sits, playing his piano, reminiscing on all his life has been, is when the film comes together. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s musical score, named “Epiphany,” starts playing and the protagonist realizes that the essence of life is not finding a purpose but living every moment- through all the ups and downs. Coming back to the cryptic phrase mentioned earlier, this is the Pixar moment. 

Pixar’s #5 rule of storytelling is that ‘you won’t know what the story is about until you are at the end of it.’ The twisted, meaningful moral of the story, essentially. Like “Soul,” other Pixar films also have that moment where you finally understand what the journey was all about. That is the scene that resonates with you for many years. The moment a father learns to let go, when a child understands that sadness has to be accepted to move on or that being there for others is more important than feeding your own selfish need. 

The Pixar moment that sticks out to me is in Ratatouille when Anton Ego, a world-renowned food critic, realizes that food is not just labeled brilliant when it is gourmet, but rather when it evokes a deep feeling like nostalgia. A line in that scene that still sticks with me is, “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” A mere rat in this film symbolized minorities in society and people who are not born with opportunities– telling us that greatness can come from anywhere. 

The storytelling rule that encompasses Pixar’s artistry process is the #13 rule, “why must you tell this story?” These films deal with universal themes and represent us in their characters in an unlikely way. They create a world that is only capable through animation, a medium that can extend to anything the creators want and use imagination to the fullest.  After 25 years, the studio is still creating brilliant films, making them more diverse and socially inclusive than ever. Whether I am watching a new release on the big screen or Disney Plus, I just know Pixar’s storytelling magic will always blow me away.

 

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