Last week, I had the pleasure of catching Toy Story 3 at the local multiplex. For those that don’t know me, I am a huge Pixar fan ever since Ratatouille. There is no question that Pixar is the king of animation right and their storytelling prowess has drawn favorable comparisons to the best work of Walt Disney. But what is that makes Pixar’s stories so compelling? When so many of their contemporaries are making movies that are leaving their audiences cold, Pixar is continually telling stories that leave their audiences overjoyed. Pixar movies are timeless classics that hold up to repeated viewings over years. The only comparable record of excellence would be Disney’s animation Renaissance from 1989 to 2000.
The fact that Pixar has been making excellent movies for the past fifteen years is not a surprise. What is surprising is how continually excellent storytelling has been. For us writer’s, what lessons can we draw from Pixar’s films? What is the secret behind Pixar’s Storytelling magic?
The first thing that is apparent about the Pixar films is that they are based on High-Concept ideas. The Toy Story Trilogy is based on the idea that toys are alive. Monster’s Inc. takes the idea of monsters in the closet and makes them working professionals. Then it reverses the monster concept when the little girl enters their world and causes mass panic. Finding Nemo views the world through a fish’s eyes. The Incredibles combines a super-hero story with a domestic drama. Cars imagines a world of sentient cars. Ratatouille tells an ironic tale of a Rat who dreams of becoming a chef. WALL-E tells the story of a robot looking for love. Up tells the story of an old man flying his tale to America.
The High-Concept film has been prevalent in the Movie Industry since Jaws exploded into theaters in the 1970’s but history is replete with high-concept failures. Just compare Toy Story with Small Soldiers. One is a cultural icon for a generation of children where the other has been thankfully forgotten. So if we are to learn one thing from the Pixar run of excellence, it’s that while a high-concept idea is necessary, it must be matched by excellent storytelling.
The second element that Pixar movies excel at is they pass the three rules of dialogue as described by Terry Rosio and Ted Elliot (Pirates of the Caribbean). These three rules are simple: writing must (a) move the plot forward, (b) develop character, (c) make the audience laugh, or preferably (d) all of the same time. The Pixar films excel at doing (d) again and again. Compare Toy Story again with Small Soldiers. Toy Story is a constant joy that creates lovable characters and moves quickly. Small Soldiers is slow, contains characters we don’t really care about, and thinks fun is a four-letter word.
The resonance that I love the most recent run of Pixar films is that they are more daring in what they expose their audience to. In Ratatouille, Remy gets separated from his family. In WALL-E, WALL-E is alone on a polluted planet but still yearns for love and companionship. In Up!, the first ten minutes are perhaps the most emotionally devastating ten minutes on film.
In a montage, we see Carl’s entire relationship with his wife Ellie. We see their courtship, their marriage, their hopes for the future, their discovery that they can’t bear children, the dream to travel to South America, and Ellie’s tragic death. This montage, full of sadness and sorrow, sets up the rest of the film. It establishes Carl’s obsession with getting his house, a representative of Ellie, to Paradise Falls. It also makes the absurd adventure more believable in an emotional sense. In the DVD commentary, the creators admitted that for such an incredible adventure, the story must be grounded in something that the audience can identify with. A similar montage is used in Toy Story 2 to establish the emotional motivations (far superior to rational motivations) of Jessie who has been abandoned by her beloved master Emilie. By introducing an element of sorrow and tragedy into your stories, you can get the audience to identify with your characters while establishing motivation.
However, it can also be used in the finale of a story. In Toy Story 3, Woody and his gang are trapped in a trash incinerator with no avenue of escape. Facing oblivion, all the toys can do is to hold hands and face death together. It is an extremely powerful scene that still causes me to well up when I think about it. The remaining scenes also contains elements of sadness as we along with Andy say goodbye to the toys, thus bringing the trilogy to an appropriate close.
It is for this third reason, their boldness in appealing to emotions of sorrow and sadness, is what makes Pixar’s films so powerful.
Pixar’s films contains storytelling magic that is hard to understand or explain. But by combining high-concept ideas, entertaining storytelling, and bold appeals to the full range of human emotions, all of his prospective writers can hope to capture some of their magic.