Adventure, Identity and Love: Virtue in Pixar


Do we plan adventure, or does it happen unexpectedly? How does our identity make us who and what we are, and what can we learn from it? What sorts of forms of love exist between the people of this world? Many virtuous themes are portrayed in the famous and popular computer-animated movies by Pixar, like ambition, friendship, family, courage, and justice, but these three have, in my opinion, a stronger impression than any of them. And in many of the Pixar films, these themes are explored in unique ways that can bring a lasting impression on even the youngest and least mature viewers, some of whom are the intended audience for the Pixar franchises.

Let's start with adventure, a theme that is virtually ubiquitous in all the Pixar films. In the film Cars, Lightning McQueen has planned an adventure for himself: he wants to race for the Piston Cup, win it, become the best of the best, and upgrade his sponsor from Rust-eze, an embarrassing medicated bumper ointment company, to Dinoco, which is much more prestigious. But on his way to California, he's accidently left behind en route, panics, and speeds and bungles his way into the quiet town of Radiator Springs after being chased by the town's Sheriff. There, he causes extensive damage and winds up having to get fixed and subsequently pay for all the damages he caused. It doesn't seem like much of an adventure to him, but as he stays there, he becomes acquainted with the inhabitants of the slow, thoughtful city, who are all cars just like him, obviously. Everyone from the aforementioned old police Sheriff and Red the friendly fire truck, to Flo the diner owner and her paint job-loving husband Ramone, to a potential love interest in Sally the Porsche, and of course, Mater, the rusty tow truck with a heart of gold, as well as others, gradually become friends with Lightning and even support him in his desire to win the Piston Cup, even as he continues to act somewhat selfish in his desire for victory.

It isn't exactly what Lightning had intended, but he has encountered an adventure in his journey nonetheless, through ordinary everyday occurrences with his girlfriend, his new best friend, his pit crew, some of the authorities, and a couple of old folks who just like to cater to the other cars in a friendly sort of way. And of course, there's the race where the wicked Chick Hicks cheats and bullies his way to the Piston Cup, but receives no fame or applause due to his brutal tactics. Cars brings to life the spirit of adventure communicated in the film's tagline, "Life is a journey. Enjoy the trip."

Other Pixar movies explore this theme too. Up is almost the quintessential Pixar adventure movie because it's about the adventure of Carl Fredricksen taking the journey to Paradise Falls in his balloon-propelled house. However, it's explored even more deeply here than in Cars. Carl and his late wife, Ellie, had always dreamed of going there to enjoy the sights and sounds, not to mention the wild creatures, especially the exotic birds, and to have their house right next to the Falls. They never realized their dream, or at least not together, but later, when Carl, as an old man, finally made the journey with a young stowaway and a talking dog, but felt unfulfilled at the end, he looked into Ellie's old Adventure Book and found pictures of their long life together. It was only then that he realized what Ellie had known all along. Life is an adventure, and virtually anything can be seen as an interesting occurrence, whether it be journeying to a faraway, exotic locale, reading and looking at material that talks about it, or even just sitting on a curb eating ice cream with a friend and counting cars that are certain colors.

Perhaps Up has the message of adventure down even better than Cars does. But both movies show that you don't have to go to a faraway place to enjoy your life, and they also show that adventures can sometimes be the most unexpected things in life. One doesn't have to actually go to France, Germany, India, or the rainforests of South America to experience them if they can't do so or don't want do. This is one of the reasons that many people find armchair travel so satisfying, because everyday things at home can provide them with what they need to learn about their dream vacations. And of course, things that have nothing to do with travel at all, like quiet games with family and/or friends, conversations about almost any topic, watching a movie, reading a book, or even going through a personal spiritual journey, are just as much things that can, and in most cases, should be remembered. Who ever said that adventure has to be a risk-taking or death defying mega event, or an event that could change the whole world?

In Toy Story, as well as Toy Story 2 and, to a certain extent, Toy Story 3, there is another theme to the Pixar stories at hand. That virtue is identity, and it was something that the three primary toy characters struggled with. In the original Toy Story, Sheriff Woody was Andy Davis' favorite toy, and they were like best friends. But when Andy's birthday came and one of his gifts was a new Buzz Lightyear action figure, Andy became infatuated with it, making Woody a bit jealous of the space toy's notoriety. However, what bothered Woody more was that Buzz thought he was a genuine Space Ranger on an important mission, and kept acting foolish in his attempts to prove his genuineness to Woody and the other toys. It wasn't until well into the movie, when he saw a Buzz Lightyear TV commercial, that the truth dawned on Buzz, and even after he discovered it, he was still unwilling to accept it. But instead of Buzz being left in despair, Woody stops berating him for his stubbornness and helps him realize the importance of being a toy: toys are playthings that are used by a child to make him/her happy. When Woody and Buzz, who had been separated from Andy's other toys, finally make it safely back to Andy's arms, Buzz allows himself to be played with like a toy, and he finally realizes his true identity as a "living" toy.

In Toy Story 2, the theme is repeated, but with Woody as the disillusioned toy this time, along with a female cowgirl toy named Jessie who is disillusioned not only with her identity, but with kids in general. At the beginning, Andy accidently rips Woody's right arm while playing with him, and when Woody gets in a mix-up at a yard sale while trying to save another toy and gets stolen by an unscrupulous toy collector, he begins to wonder if Andy will still want to play with him, especially since his ripped arm made Andy decided not to take him to Cowboy Camp with him. Then, in Al the toy collector's apartment, he meets Jessie, a toy horse named Bullseye, and a toy Prospector who secretly hates children, and discovers that they're all part of Woody's Roundup, a classic kids' TV show involving adventures in the wild west. Initially, Woody wants to go home, but Jessie has had a hard life after the girl who previously owned her gave her up to charity and forgot her. She believed that she was better off as museum property than with another kid who would give her up and store her in the dark again, and after some smooth talk from the Prospector, Woody wonders about that, too. He decides to go with them to the museum, but then Buzz and some of the other toys show up to rescue him, and after some argument, Buzz reminds Woody of his own wisdom he had once told Buzz before and persuades Woody to embrace his identity as a toy again. Then Woody convinced Bullseye and (ultimately) Jessie to do the same and join Andy's gang of toys, thought the Prospector had other ideas, which, of course, failed. And in Toy Story 3, all the toys fear that they'll lose their identities forever if they are put in the attic or, worse, destroyed in a garbage dump or an incinerator, after Andy is almost ready to go to college. But in the end, after they have made it back to Andy's room, after accidently being left out with the garbage previously, Andy pulls through for them, and he knows another little child who has some toys of her own and is happy to play with more of them, Bonnie Anderson. The toys Bonnie already owns welcome Woody, and later the rest of the toys, to their little group, and they show Andy's toys how to be like Bonnie's toys. Some of them even form new friendships with each other. Woody, who lost Bo Peep at some point in the past, finds another girlfriend in Dolly, Jessie and Buzz Lightyear form a cute couple, and Andy's toy Tyrannosaur dinosaur, Rex, bonds with Trixie, Bonnie's toy Triceratops dinosaur. The toys retained their identities as child's playthings, and they look forward to a bright future with a new little mistress who loved toys.

Basically, in the Toy Story trilogy, the identity of each toy wasn't just his/her own individual appearance, imagined voice and personality. It was the meaning of life for these cloth and plastic creatures. They showed that all people must know what they are in life in order to make a difference not only to themselves, but to the people around them, too. Just like identity for those toys, identity for us means meaning, purpose, and real identity. The toys, just like toys in the real world, existed to make children happy in their free time. We humans, in turn, exist for a variety of purposes, like contributing to charity, leading a spiritual life, running an important (or less important) business, or simply supporting and loving our families and being there for our friends.

The third virtue discussed here, love, is almost as ubiquitous in Pixar movies as adventure. One Pixar movie where it's portrayed excellently is Up. The film opens with a sweet sequence involving two little children who like each other for who they are, as well as their passion for adventure. They grow up and get married, and they lead a life that is almost picture-perfect, only let down by Ellie's infertility. Unlike so many couples in the modern real world, their marriage remains strong to the very end. They have a beautiful little house, they work together at the local zoo with balloons and South American animals, they cherish picnics where they enjoy looking at the shapes of the clouds, and Ellie always ties Carl's ties for him without complaint, due to him never getting the hang of tying them himself. They stuck by each other through their troubles too, even though most of their troubles meant that their visit to Paradise Falls was repeatedly delayed. And later, as an old widower, Carl has his big adventure with Russell the little Wilderness Explorer, Dug the hound dog with a heart of gold, and the exotic bird Kevin, and by the time it's over, he realizes he's found new people to love almost the same way he loved Ellie, a dog that was loyal to a fault and lovable, and a boy who felt like the grandson Carl and Ellie never had. But perhaps Carl and Ellie's love is the most memorable of them all, because it's the sort of love that's becoming less common in many parts of the world today, not to mention Hollywood, mature marital love.

Three other Pixar movies show love almost equal to that of Up: Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Brave. In Finding Nemo, the love is between Marlin and Nemo, father and son. Because he lost his mate and all his other children to a barracuda earlier in his life, Marlin was overprotective of his one surviving child, Nemo, to the point where he wouldn't let him go on school field trips or try anything adventurous. Nemo grew to hate his father for that, and even said so, hurting his parent in the worst possible way. But when he got caught and taken to a salt-water aquarium by a dentist, Marlin risked his life to find him, because his bond with his son meant more to him than his fear of unexpected adventures. When he and his comical companion, Dory, finally caught up to Nemo, Marlin tried any possible means to save his son, with help from Dory and other fish in the aquarium. Then, after Nemo was free, but Marlin was in danger, Nemo realized how much his father had cared after all, and helped to rescue him. In the end, Nemo had learned that his father truly cared about him, and Marlin learned how to be a better father to Nemo, forging a bond that they had never had before.

In WALL-E, the trash robot WALL-E, who has learned about love and affection through his favorite songs, "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" and "It Only Takes a Moment," and his favorite movie, "Hello, Dolly!," as well as how to hold hands, longs for more companionship besides his cockroach pal, Hal. He desired love enough that he would do almost anything to avoid being alone, and when he met EVE, the probe robot who had come to search for life on Earth, he fell in love deeply, even though the feeling was not immediately mutual. But through his devotion to EVE, as well as his adventures on the Axiom and his helping to bring humankind back to Earth, he won her over, and she helped to save his life and make his jarred memory remember her again. Romantic love budded between them that could not be broken. And as for Brave, it's about mother-daughter love. As a little girl, Merida got on well with both of her parents, and Queen Elinor promised to always be there for her. But years later, after Elinor has pushed too many princess lessons on Merida and Merida wants her to change her mind, their actions cause Elinor to be transformed into a bear without speech. They were frustrated with each other, but Merida realized she had to break the spell, which the witch who had given her the spell in the first place told them how to. Merida, who didn't want to be forced into marriage, convinced the lords or Scotland and their sons that they should choose who to marry and when, rather than arranging it all, and when the demon bear, Mor'du, came and tried to kill Merida, Elinor-bear fought back and saved her life, resulting in Mor'du's death. Finally, Merida admitted her own responsibility for her mother's enchantment and begged her to come back, saying that she loved her. The spell was broken, and Merida and Elinor bonded again, with Merida promising to listen to her mother's wisdom, and Elinor promising not to pressure her daughter into doing something she didn't want to do. Finally, they ride off into the forest together.

Many themes are crucially important in the Pixar films, but adventure, identity, and love focus more on the whole point of what is Pixar than any of the others in my opinion, although humor is also pretty important, because whoever heard of a stoic Pixar film? The Toy Story films are mostly about the search for individuality and identity in life, because the toys did have their own distinct personalities, even though they shared the same identity. Cars and Up are portraits of how life is an innate adventure, and how there is nothing wrong with seeing adventure in an ordinary event. And Up, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Brave demonstrate how love between people can be realized not only through romance, but through parent-child relationships and marital adoration, too. Pixar is evidently not the standard type of adventure creating film corporation in Hollywood. It strives to show that the most typical of situations can lead to the greatest adventures. It makes us look at ourselves and learn who and what we truly are. It portrays love as a thing that can be achieved if we just care. The world needs more movies like the Pixar films, because often, it pays to embrace adventure, identity, and love.