When Toy Story premiered in 1995, many people were skeptical that Disney and Pixar could create an engaging and memorable film using only computer animation. Until then, feature films like Jurassic Park, Jumanji, and The Mask could only mix CGI effects with live action or animation. Animals might seem realistic, with taunt muscles and realistic hair, but their movements were often stiff or jerky. Human effects were iffy as well; studios often found they were better off putting fully CGI characters such as Casper into a film starring humans. Naturally then, the announcement of Toy Story made animators, fans, and critics think the film might be a stiff, poorly animated flop. In fact, the first film made entirely with computer animation was a huge hit.
The truth is, most of Pixar’s films since 1995 have all been hits to some degree. Some of their appeal remains in their use of CGI – in our technologically-driven world, computerized often means better. Yet Pixar remains enormously popular for several other reasons. Although their films are targeted at children, businesspeople in and outside the film industry readily admit adults can learn plenty from these films as well. With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the key reasons why, twenty years later, adults and kids still love Pixar.
Pixar Appeals to Adults and Children
If any business is going to be successful, the first thing it needs is a wide clientele. Your business might be known best for one item – Starbucks, for instance, is best known for its coffee. While selling that one item, though, you must make the effort to reach as many customers as possible. Pixar does this with aplomb every time it puts out a new film. Authors such as Kyle Munkittrick chalk this up to a “secret message” within the films. No, this is not “the standard ‘Disney movies hide double entendre and sex imagery in every film’ message”. Rather, Munkittrick argues that there are “certain rules” in Pixar movies that help them appeal to adults and kids, and keep the movies from becoming what he calls “empty popcorn fare.” Such rules include:
- There is no magic. No problems are solved by the wave of a fairy godmother’s wand. This is critical in that it separates Pixar films from the fairytale universe that often appeals to children, but not adults. Adults know there are no easy solutions to most problems, and so the fact that Pixar characters realistically deal with these problems is appealing.
- Pixar’s worlds are inhabited or co-inhabited by humans, even if the protagonists themselves aren’t humans. If the characters aren’t human, according to Munkittrick, “at least one possesses a human level of intelligence.” This gives the characters the ability to reason, to think beyond childlike worldviews, and to experience and respond to human emotions. The parents watching a Pixar film with their children may not be able to identify with a fish or a bug – but they can certainly identify with the creature’s survival instincts, the fear of being separated from loved ones, or real dangers from antagonists.
- Pixar deals with adult themes in a kid-friendly manner. In many films such as Toy Story or Monsters, Inc., characters are ostracized or forced to deal with an unfamiliar world. They must surmount realistic and sometimes dangerous obstacles to fit into or escape this world, and adults can relate to that as well as kids. Whether their hostile world is dangerous wilderness, a new work environment, or a kindergarten classroom, everyone has felt ostracized at times and has had to work to claim or reclaim personhood and confidence.
Pixar Isn’t Afraid to Get Complicated
Shakespeare once said there are only about 23 original plotlines a writer can choose from. While that may be true, Pixar succeeds because it isn’t afraid to take one of those plotlines and break new ground. Most Pixar characters go through the 12 stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey in some way, but its stages and how they complete the journey are unique to them. Toy Story, for instance, deals with some very familiar genre-driven plots – the buddy comedy, the rivalry between two toys who both want to be the owner’s favorite, and the creative idea that toys have their own life outside of the child’s playing with them. The story gets complicated when you realize it’s not about Buzz and Woody’s rivalry after all. The movie is more about our own fear of becoming obsolete and how we cope when something or someone new disrupts our world.
Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Brave successfully complicate old concepts, too. In these films, we have protagonists – an archery princess and a fish with a weak fin – rebelling against parental authority. We’ve seen this theme millions of times, but Pixar makes it unpredictable. In Brave, protagonist Merida’s main conflict is not that she would rather be shooting her bow than acting like a princess. It’s not even that she doesn’t want to get married, although that figures in. No – her main conflict stems from the inability to understand her mother Queen Elinor, who, for a change of pace, isn’t wicked or clueless about her daughter’s desires. Elinor is a strong willed mother whose stubborn nature is only matched by her daughter’s. Their challenge is to navigate toward a loving, peaceful relationship in which neither has to sacrifice their true self. The personal complications Pixar offers in these films give us some insight into the world of business as well. Although you may offer products or services that have existed for years, never be afraid to break new ground or put new twists on old themes.
Pixar Embraces the Future
Writers like Tim Robey of the United Kingdom’s Telegraph tout Toy Story and films like it as successful because “[they] invented everything.” As discussed, Pixar’s embrace of completely CGI films prove that these films have as much personality other, more traditionally drawn animated films. Yet, Pixar embraces the future in other ways, too. For example, Kyle Munkittrick writes Pixar has a unique take on personhood that will shape how humanity sees and interacts with intelligence. The fact that many of Pixar’s worlds include humans only as backdrops proves “humanity does not have a monopoly on personhood,” Munkittrick explains. Instead, Pixar films often place protagonists in “Human as Partner” relationships, underlining the fact that the world is changing to include previously non-sentient beings more. According to Munkittrick, this means that if human intelligence becomes super-intelligence, “we will need brave souls on both sides to defend what is right.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean businesses should prepare themselves for superhuman intelligence or begin treating animals as real people. Munkittrick’s real point goes back to the creative process. Pixar’s greatest triumph lies in its challenge to humans, particularly businesspersons. Pixar teaches us that creativity is a learned skill, a process, and a commitment. It also teaches us that everyone – even those of us with “bad fins,” stubborn personalities, or stiff limbs like toys – can be creative and contribute to the business world.