Walking out of Coco, sniffling and wiping my eyes, I found myself thinking “Damn it, Pixar! Stop doing this to me.” To be honest, I had little to no expectations for Coco. I didn’t know anything about it aside from it being a more musical Pixar endeavor about Dia de Muertos which made me think “Didn’t we just have The Book of Life?” Then out of nowhere, Pixar hits me with their signature blend of beautiful animation, interesting characters, larger than life set pieces, and, of course, emotions. All you have to do is mention Up, and people instantly tear up a bit thinking about Carl and Ellie. Or Inside Out ripping out your heart and literally showing you all the emotions you have inside you. Pixar is very effective at what it does. So how do they do it 70ish% of the time?

When I decided to investigate Pixar’s grip on my emotional core, I chose to compare it to another studio that produces beloved animated classics – Disney. Please don’t misinterpret anything I say about Disney films as signs of my dislike or disapproval. I love Disney movies, probably a little too much. However, I don’t know of many Disney movies that have moved me to actual tears the way Pixar movies do. Why is this? They produce some quality movies like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and recently Moana. There’s serious emotion in those movies, so why am I unable to fully empathize in the same way? I have a theory. When Disney constructs a story, it uses archetypal characters which can limit the emotional range of the story. Meanwhile, Pixar writes three dimensional characters—with their own baggage, emotions, and goals–allowing for greater relatability as well as deeper emotional resonance. Rather than archetypes, Pixar’s characters reflect people.

An archetype is a recurring symbol in stories, usually a person, action, or thing that is universally understood. In other words, everyone has them and they’re usually the same. Disney movies typically follow what’s referred to as the Hero’s Journey, but way more simplified. Some typical parts to the Hero’s Journey include: a strong parental bond/struggle, a call away from home/safety, a mentor, allies, enemies, and a return to home with greater wisdom or knowledge. Does any of that sound familiar? For now, we’re going to focus on the archetypal characters within a Hero’s Journey and how they appear in Disney films time and time again. For a quick and easy reference, I’ve made a chart to give you some examples of these archetypes from various Disney movies.

Moana The Little Mermaid The Lion King The Jungle Book Aladdin
Hero Moana Ariel Simba Mowgli Aladdin
Mentor Grandma Sebastian Rafiki Bagheera Genie
Villain Te’Ka/Kakamora/crab Ursula Scar Shere Khan/King Louie Jafar
Sidekick friend Maui, Heihei Flounder Timon & Pumbaa Baloo Abu

 

Archetypes can be an effective way to instantly insert an audience into a story. Because these are universal symbols, everyone can identify them immediately and begin relating to whomever they are supposed to relate to. The trick is to slightly adjust things so that the characters feel different each time. Usually, the adjustment is in the setting. For example, The Princess and the Frog uses 1920s New Orleans and Frozen uses a medieval Nordic setting. Another way they make it different, especially nowadays, is to subvert your expectations. If you know how a character usually behaves or how a plot usually goes, then they can flip those expectations upside down. That’s one of the main reasons that Frozen took over the world for a brief period of time. It subverted our expectations about who was the hero, the villain, and even the love interest. Different cultures, fantastic music, and amazing voice casting help all of these movies to be beautiful in their own ways.

One thing doesn’t really change in these movies, though. If you take a look at the chart and really analyze those characters, then you will notice something about motivations and relationships. All of the characters in a Hero’s Journey story exist either as an obstacle or an assistant to the hero. They have little to no characterization outside of their relationship to the main character. For example, in The Little Mermaid, her father only exists to warn her about humans. He’s only there to be an obstacle to her goal in the beginning and an assistant to it in the end. Other than that, we get no information about him. In The Lion King, Timon and Pumbaa have little characterization outside of being social outcasts who take in Simba.

When filmmakers structure a story this way, it narrows the relatability of the characters. As an audience member, I really only care about one or two characters in the story. When you watch The Little Mermaid as a parent, maybe you start to empathize more with the father, but you’re still very restrained by the story. Typically, when watching these movies, we will all find ourselves identifying with the hero. This makes sense, since the ‘hero’ a universal motif found in every culture. However, the motif has emotional limitations because that’s not what real life looks like. In real life, you may be the hero of your story, but that doesn’t mean everyone else exists as an ally or enemy to your goals.

In Pixar movies, the characters rarely fit into a chart like the one above. That’s because they’re not archetypes, they’re people. Well, not literally… Most of the time, they’re not people. They’re fish, or toys, or monsters, or robots. The point is that they don’t fit into that chart because they are individuals with unique motivations and feelings. Sidekicks are no longer inconsequential sources of slapstick humor; they are actual friends with their own feelings and motivations. In Finding Nemo, Dory is more than a sidekick. She is given a desire for family and a fear of abandonment – two things we can all relate to. So, when Marlin gives up near the end and leaves her in the harbor, we empathize with her. In Toy Story 2, Jessie is given deeper characterization so we can understand why she would rather spend her life in a museum than a child’s playroom. The pain she experienced with Emily informs her character. That scene will make me tear up every time. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a Sarah McLachlan song. By making each character more than an archetype, we can relate to more than just the main character. This strengthens the story.

By using characters that real people instead of archetypes, the story benefits in a second way. As I stated previously, when watching a Hero’s Journey story, you are instinctively going to relate to the hero. If, however, the other characters become real people with their own emotions and goals, then your focus will shift. Suddenly, it’s not only you, but your relationships that you start to recognize. The focus of the story shifts from being about one person, and instead becomes about a relationship. It feels weird to say Woody is the main character of Toy Story, right? Buzz kind of is, too. Who is the main character in Finding Nemo? Dory’s, Marlin’s, and Nemo’s journeys are all vital to the plot. That’s because the focus of the story is no longer on the hero. The focus is on the relationships. This is one of the reasons Coco works so beautifully. In the movie, Miguel begins very much on a Hero’s Journey. He has a dream, and he’s upset that his family is keeping him from it. So, he tries to be the hero and use the “sidekick” characters to help him achieve his goal. The problem comes when he realizes that these are people with their own struggles and their own dreams. This causes his focus to shift, and ours as well. He sets aside his own goal, and he works on repairing the relationships between the people in his life. And, yes, I cried.

By shifting the focus from a main character to a variety of relationships, Pixar enables the audience to identify more strongly and more extensively. For example, think about when you watched The Incredibles. Every member of that family has an individual goal, fear, and superpower. When those things interact and clash, the relationships are tested and strengthened in different ways and each character evolves as a result. We treasure this movie, not just because of the cool style or the catchy lines, but because we see our struggles and triumphs with family reflected back at us.

I found a Buzzfeed article entitled “19 Times Disney Totally Destroyed Your Emotions.” Something really stood out to me that I hadn’t considered. Most of the times Disney has affected us emotionally has been when a character dies: Mufasa, Bambi’s mom, Ray, etc. The storytellers want their main character/the audience to feel sad, so a character dies. Now, this is definitely effective, and death certainly plays a part in some Pixar movies. There’s more to it, though. In Up, we’re sad that Ellie dies, but we’re sad before that. We’re sad because she miscarries, because they give up their dream coin by coin, and because they get old. In a Disney movie full of archetypes, we can get sad when someone dies because death is sad, but that’s the limit of our emotional identification with the story. Because Pixar movies deal with more oft-felt struggles, we can experience more emotions and feel more deeply. Take the final scene from Toy Story 3, for example. Why does that scene affect us so much? It’s not just because we’ve gone through so much with these characters. In my opinion, that’s what the previous furnace scene is about. I honestly didn’t like that scene very much because it felt exploitative. The storytellers knew how attached we were to these characters, so they dangled their deaths as a possibility. Instead, I think the true emotional weight comes later when Bonnie waves Woody’s hand goodbye to Andy because we know that feeling of leaving something from the past behind. So how would you describe that emotion? It’s sad, but also nostalgic, melancholy, hopeful, and satisfying. Because Pixar is using real human struggles in the context of relationships, there are more emotional depths to explore. They don’t have to kill anyone to make you feel something.

As stated in the “What is a Movie Nerd?” page of this blog, movies are a way that we relate to this world. If you only watch movies with archetypal heroes, villains, and sidekicks, then you’re in danger of viewing yourself as the main character of your life and everyone else as secondary. You’ll only see people as either helpers or obstacles to your own goals. When you watch movies like Pixar’s, you’ll recogize the relationships in your life and how everyone has to work together. When you watch a Pixar movie, you’ll see the need to be vulnerable like Riley in Inside Out, or the need to set aside your own pride like Mr. Incredible, or even the need for love like Wall-E. These movies affect us so much because they show us who we are and what we struggle with, and that’s a very good and important thing.

If you would like more information about the Hero’s Journey, then be sure to check out Crash Course World Mythology’s episode #25.