After “Cars 2” and “Brave,” Pixar Animation Studios’ unprecedented, unbroken streak of classic children’s films seems to be over. But even if the last few years have seen a (slight) dip in the quality of Pixar’s movies, the company still holds other traditions that date all the way back to its very first feature, 1995’s “Toy Story.” All thirteen subsequent films, for example, feature a vocal performance from “Cheers” star John Ratzenberger; all thirteen also include some kind of reference to classroom “A113,” where Pixar directors like John Lassseter and Brad Bird learned their craft at the California Institute of the Arts. And though it’s less frequently discussed than those famous easter eggs, all of Pixar’s movies, from “Toy Story” to this weekend’s “Monsters University,” are basically about the exact same thing: the value of friendship and teamwork.
Although each Pixar movie (besides their sequels and prequels) exist within its own universe with its own unique characters — living toys, futuristic robots, superhero families, college-aged monsters — each follows essentially the same basic story arc. They all start with a character who is talented and smart, but also, in some way, a loner. Flik from “A Bug’s Life” is a clever inventer, but an outsider in his colony of ants. Merida in “Brave” is a free-spirited 16-year-old girl who refuses to listen to her parents and doesn’t have any interest in marriage. “Cars”‘ Lightning McQueen is one of the best race cars in the world, but he’s cocky and self-centered. “Up”‘s Carl Fredrickson is still reeling from the death of his beloved wife, and just wants to be left alone in his little house.
No Pixar hero wants help, but they eventually realize they not only need it, they enjoy working with others. Flik recruits a group of circus bugs and together they defeat a band of evil grasshoppers. Merida’s adventure in the woods makes her realize how much she loves and needs her mom. With the help of the friends he discovers in the community of Radiator Springs, Lightning McQueen realizes that good sportsmanship and loyalty are more important than winning. With he help of his new friend Russell, Carl finds a reason to keep on living after his marriage. The theme song to “Toy Story,” Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend In Me,” could be the theme song to every single Pixar movie.
I first noticed this trend back in 2009, when I was commissioned to write a piece on the best buddy duo of “the naughts” as part of a retrospective series on the decade in film. I picked “Finding Nemo”‘s Marlin and Dory, and as I rewatched the movie and considered its story I realized that this great story of friendship had a lot in common with other Pixar movies. Many of them have quirky, curmudgeonly protagonists who discover the value of companionship.
In the four years and four films since, nothing has changed. It may not be the studio’s most brilliant or creative production, but by this rubric, “Monsters University” is easily one of the Pixar-iest Pixar movies ever. Mike Wazowski is an ambitious college freshman at Monsters University, Monstropolis’ greatest educational institution devoted to the the art and science of scaring children. Since he was a young monster, Mike has dreamed of becoming a great scarer (the monsters who enter the human world and frighten kids so their screams can be harvested as the energy that powers Monstropolis). He arrives at MU eager, cocky, and brilliant — and immediately begins a rivalry with laconic, lazy, naturally gifted monster Sulley. But despite his ample knowledge about the world of scaring, he quickly gets in trouble with the college dean — and the only way to get back in her good graces is for Mike and Sulley to put aside their differences and work as a team.
In 2009, I speculated that Pixar was making movies about Pixar — a place where talented, singular artists like Lasseter, Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and others combine their vision and passion with the skills of hundreds of animators to create great works of art. Individuals are important at Pixar, but without teamwork, their contributions are worthless. And so each Pixar movie celebrates the sort of working environment that produces Pixar movies.
What has changed since I wrote that earlier piece is Pixar’s reputation. The studio is still the golden child of the animation world, but their image has been tarnished just a little bit. They’re increasingly accused of losing a bit of their great creative spark, and of relying too heavily on franchises rather than original properties (“Monsters University” is the company’s third sequel in four films). Meanwhile, many of Pixar’s most talented artists have begun working elsewhere. Stanton and Bird made live-action films; Lasseter expanded his job to include Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios.
So while the Pixar message has remained unchanged, the message’s meaning is beginning to look very different. Now teamwork isn’t just important to Pixar’s continued success; with the loss of some key personnel, it’s absolutely vital. If the company wants to maintain its dominant position in Hollywood, it will need new artists to rise to the occasion. But that’s why you have a team. Like the Randy Newman song says, you stick together and see it through.