It’s still hard to beat Pixar for the best happily-ever-afters

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
Pixar's Up is an inversion of Disney's traditional happily-ever-after.
Pixar's Up is an inversion of Disney's traditional happily-ever-after. Credit: Disney/Pixar

No studio should ever get a free pass but it’s hard to argue that even with its shine a little less lustrous, Pixar isn’t one of the most consistent creative forces in Hollywood.

The Disney-owned powerhouse is on the eve of releasing its biggest film in five years, Inside Out 2, a sequel to the popular and acclaimed 2015 feature Inside Out.

Pixar needs Inside Out 2 to work after years of soft box office results, fuelled by COVID-related cinema shutdowns and the former Disney chief executive Bob Chapek’s mandate that streaming service Disney+ be prioritised over cinema releases.

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In the same way that philosophy damaged Marvel, it also didn’t do Pixar any favours.

Pixar hasn’t had an unequivocal commercial hit since Toy Story 4 was released in June 2019. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t made great, albeit underseen, movies in the interim.

That’s the thing with Pixar, it almost always delivers on a creative level. And it understands that its stories need to delight and enchant kids and their parents.

That balance of nostalgic heart-tugging (or, in many cases, full-on heart-wrenching) and complex emotional layers with the dazzling visuals, kineticism and playfulness is what makes it a Pixar movie.

Disney'sPixar's "Inside Out" takes us to the most extraordinary location yet - inside the mind of Riley. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions - Anger (voiced by Lewis Black), Disgust (voiced by Mindy Kaling), Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), Fear (voiced by Bill Hader) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley's mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. Directed by Pete Docter and produced by Jonas Rivera, "Inside Out" is in theaters June 19, 2015.
The sequel to Pixar's acclaimed Inside Out is about to drop. Credit: Pixar

If you look back at Pixar’s 27 released movies, there are maybe a handful of underwhelming titles.

The Good Dinosaur didn’t change anyone’s life. You could take or leave the Cars sequels and Monsters University was a bit meh. But that’s all only compared to the rest of the Pixar stable.

The studio doesn’t treat its audience like mugs, as if flashy lights, fast-editing and a pop soundtrack could compensate for a dumb story with no real emotional anchor.

Movies such as Inside Out and Soul aim for the abstract – Inside Out’s characters are actual emotions and it gives you a parable on toxic positivity while Soul was, among other things, an entreaty to take joy in the small wonders of living.

There are earnest family fables such as Brave, Coco, Turning Red, Onward and The Incredibles, where learning to be compassionate and being open to someone else’s perspective is the end goal.

Toy Story gave everyone insight into camaraderie, purpose and being OK with change – and the third movie famously made grown men openly weep in the cinema as they were confronted with the aspects of their inner child they rushed to shed to be an adult.

Friendships were key to Monsters Inc and Luca, learning to slow down in Cars, and a spirit of adventure in Finding Nemo.

Feature film Monsters, Inc.
Friendships were key in Monsters Inc. Credit: Disney/Pixar

What the Pixar movies did differently, certainly from most the movies in what is widely considered Disney animation’s second coming in the late 1980s and 1990s, starting with The Little Mermaid, is that a happily ever wasn’t finding your prince and soulmate. Being coupled off wasn’t the end goal.

Up was the ultimate inversion of Disney’s happily-ever-after template.

In Up, it starts where other movies might’ve ended – with Carl and Ellie’s meet-cute and marriage. After decades together, Ellie dies and Carl tries to hold onto their home and the dream they had together of visiting Paradise Falls.

What follows is an adventure where Carl meets Russell, an intrepid young boy with an absent dad and Dug, a “talking” dog.

At first, Carl only wants to accomplish the one thing he and Ellie couldn’t afford to do when she was still alive. But eventually, he has to accept that he can be someone to other people who want a connection to him.

Up is a testament that you can’t tether yourself to one other person or even the idea or memory of them, and expect them to be the thing that fulfils you. You must find contentment and even happiness from many different sources, including within.

In Carl’s case, he is literally tethered to his house and it’s only in letting go, can he arrive at a better place. For a so-called kid’s movie, it’s incredibly sophisticated storytelling. Not every child will understand, but adults do.

FIRE AND WATER – Set in a city where fire-, water-, land-, and air-residents live together, Disney and Pixar’s "Elemental" introduces Ember, a tough, quick-witted and fiery young woman whose friendship with a fun, sappy, go-with-the-flow guy named Wade challenges her beliefs about the world they live in. Featuring the voices of Leah Lewis and Mamoudou Athie as Ember and Wade, respectively, "Elemental" releases on June 16, 2023. © 2023 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Elemental is a triumph of multiculturalism. Credit: Pixar/PIXAR

Pixar rarely ventures into romance territory. Only Merida from Brave is in the official Disney “Princess” line-up (a clever marketing ploy that also reinforces problematic gender tropes) and her story revolves around her resistance to being married off.

The most recent film, Elemental, is ostensibly about two elements (fire and water) who connect despite the obstacles that separate them.

But the happily-ever-after here isn’t that they end up together (they do), it’s that Ember has a newfound appreciation for the sacrifices of her immigrant parents and that a formerly semi-segregated Element City are much more mixed. It’s a triumph of multiculturalism.

Before that, WALL-E is the Pixar movie that is closest to a romance, a fever dream of two robots who spark and end up pushing humanity to accept more than just a lazy existence aboard a space-liner.

Its happily-ever-after is hope for a species that allowed its planet to be decimated by consumerism and ecological disaster.

The last page is still to be written. The book is not closed.

Wall-E
WALL-E is the Pixar movie that is closest to a romance. Credit: Supplied by Subject

Pixar isn’t the only studio making great kids’ movies.

Dreamworks had Shrek and Illumination had the found family-focused Despicable Me, but most of those studios’ outputs are aimed more squarely at children with a few winky jokes thrown in for the adults. It wasn’t trying to be equal to both – or if they were, they failed.

Others franchises (ahem, Trolls) are so kaleidoscopically deranged that no one over the age of 15 could expect to survive with their zen intact.

Obviously, there’s Japanese animation legends Studio Ghibli, who also rarely puts a foot wrong, and many individual features that could be considered masterpieces, among them, Kubo and the Two Strings, Wolfwalkers, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and Robot Dreams.

But when it comes to consistency and a commitment to serving adults with a story with depth and thematic significance, it’s still hard to beat Pixar.

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