I love movies, and I love lists. So naturally I love the “Best Movies” lists in newspapers and magazines each December. And last month provided a double dip, with “Best Movies” lists for 2009 and for the decade of 2000-2009.
These lists are often widely divergent, reflecting the individual preferences of movie critics. But as I read through the lists of favorite movies for the decade, I noticed something interesting: Many listed at least one film from Pixar, the studio that has seemingly perfected the art of storytelling through computer animation.
Finding Nemo, for example, was rated the top film of the decade by a critic at the Washington Post. Entertainment Weekly listed Wall-E at number five, and the Daily Mail in Great Britain had The Incredibles at number four. Ratatouille was ranked number two by one of the critics at atthemovies.com.
I guess this would make Pixar the Studio of the Decade. It certainly is my favorite. I can’t think of another group that has put together a string of movies with more quality and creativity during the last 10 years. As Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News (who rated Wall-E at number two for the decade) writes, “no one makes movies with more heart, wit and staggeringly perfect execution than the Pixar gang.”
There are so many things I like about Pixar films: the incredible visuals, the focus on quality storytelling, the edgy cultural references, the consistent appeal to adults just as much (if not more) as to children, and the commitment to bringing a sense of wonder into their movies. Time and again I would read articles speculating that the next Pixar movie would be a bomb. How could they make a good film about monsters … or a family of superheroes… or French cooking … or a robot on a planet full of trash … or a lonely and crotchety old man … and make it appeal to both kids and their parents? But the same critics raved when they saw the final films, and each movie was a hit.
Recently I rewatched all of the Pixar films released in the last decade, and in the process I spotted another secret of the studio’s success: These guys understand human connection—the family relationships and friendships that define us. If one message comes through loud and clear in every Pixar movie, it is this: Each of us is created not for independence but for interdependence.
For example, at its heart Wall-E is about a lonely robot who finds a mate. Cars is the story of a conceited race car who learns that he needs the help of others to succeed—and in the process even realizes that true success is different from what he thought.
In The Incredibles, a father longs for adventure and respect, and in the process neglects his wife and children. Only when he thinks he has lost them does he realize his folly. “I’ve been a lousy father—blind to what I have, so obsessed with being undervalued that I undervalued all of you,” he admits to his family after discovering they are alive. “You are my greatest adventure. And I almost missed it.”
Last year’s Pixar film, Up, was probably its strongest statement yet on the value of relationships. It begins with an extended and emotional sequence about a married couple going through life together. In one sense it is depressing: Carl and Ellie long for adventure, and then for children, but their hopes and dreams are crushed by infertility, by financial challenges, and finally by Ellie’s death. Yet at the same time it celebrates marriage: Their love for each other brings deep joy to their lives.
As the story progresses, Carl clings to memories of Ellie by clinging to their house, even as the neighborhood gives way to modern high-rise buildings. He finally leaves on the trip to South America that he and Ellie dreamed about, only to discover a stowaway in a young boy named Russell. And by the end of the film Carl realizes that real adventure is found in his relationships. As his final note from Ellie says, “Thanks for the adventure—now go have a new one!”
You can tell that the filmmakers at Pixar have families of their own, because their experience is reflected in their stories. Just watch the overprotective father in Finding Nemo, so afraid to lose his son that he keeps him from experiencing life. Or study the portrayal of the toddler “Boo” in Monsters, Inc. Can you think of another movie that has done a better job of capturing the essence of a two-year-old child?
Or consider the heartbreaking sequence “When Somebody Loved Me” in Toy Story 2, about a girl growing into adolescence and forgetting about her favorite toy. You can feel the ache of parents who can’t believe their children have grown up so quickly.
I’m glad that the folks at Pixar have their priorities clear. Movies will always be about adventure, about self-discovery, about mystery, about the “human condition.” But the heart of life is our family relationships.