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Pushing at Boundaries: The Two-Faced Ideology of Pixar

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Pushing at Boundaries: The Two-Faced Ideology of Pixar

“YOU. ARE. A. TOY! You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear! You’re… You’re an action figure! You are a child’s plaything!”

“You piece of dirt! No, I’m wrong. You’re lower then dirt. You’re an ant!”

In Pixar’s first two feature length films, Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998), after a violent confrontation, two of the main characters are face to face. One of them berates the other in defense of an age-old system of master and servant, a system that the other character actively denounces because this system gets in the way of his lofty ambitions. In both films, the plot centers on this conflict of those who wish to uphold boundaries and those who wish to break through them.

However, there’s one main difference. In the film’s ideologies, Buzz Lightyear is wrong, and Flik is right.

The fact that the films were made so close together and were both directed by John Lasseter makes the comparison even more jarring. It’s the perfect example of what appears to be an internal ideological struggle throughout Pixar’s filmography, a ten-film ping-pong battle between boundaries and boundary-breakers, with neither side having the clear advantage.

These ideas go all the way back to 1987 with Lasseter’s short film Red’s Dream. Red, a discount unicycle in a bicycle shop, spends a rainy night dreaming of upstaging a circus clown, freeing himself of the boundary of needing a rider, and finding success. However, Red awakens to realize that he is neither wanted nor capable of upstaging anybody, and submitting to his fate, returns to his lonely corner, dejected.

The short Knick Knack, made in 1989, followed similar themes, though in a far less depressing manner. A tiny snowman in a snow globe tries to escape the literal plastic boundaries to get some tail, but after several failed attempts grudgingly gives up.

The physical boundaries of these shorts would be transformed into a more metaphysical form for Toy Story. No actual reason is given for why the toys aren’t allowed to move when people are around; it’s simply an unwritten rule that they follow to the letter. It’s not like in Jim Henson’s 1986 made-for-tv special The Christmas Toy, in which the toys would more or less die if caught out of position. When Woody and Sid’s army of mutant toys break the rules to save Buzz, there are no negative consequences to their actions. The toys simply follow the rules because it’s what they’ve always done.

This makes the conflict between Woody, a walking symbol of traditionalism, and Buzz, whose own catchphrase is about reaching beyond “infinity” (the ultimate boundary), all the more ideological. Eventually, it takes forces greater then Woody (a Randy Newman song and the almighty god known as television) to make Buzz submit. Unlike Red and Knack, Buzz does find peace in this much more humble position.

Then A Bug’s Life showed up, and everything was turned on its head.

The boundaries once again became physical, as unwritten dogma was replaced with a violently enforced life of servitude. Like Buzz Lightyear, the character who dares to break out of these boundaries, a worker ant named Flik, actively attempts to advance his people, in this case with technology. However, unlike Buzz, Flik doesn’t give into the system. In fact, his resolve against it becomes so strong, it manages to convince everyone else to break free in a violent upheaval. This change in ideology is so sudden that it’s hard to attribute it to simply Lasseter or the whole of Pixar simply changing their minds on the issue, and Lasseter’s films to follow don’t help to clear things up.

Toy Story 2 (1999) seems to be a reevaluation of the system presented in the first film. In it, Woody is given the option of being observed constantly in a museum, which would mean giving in fully to the system and almost certainly never moving again (unless Woody is going to a cheap museum that can’t afford security cameras). However, after some soul searching, he realizes that this isn’t what he really wants, pulling back from the system just enough.

However, while on the surface Toy Story 2 may be about finding a happy medium within the system of toys and children, on a deeper level it’s just as much about giving in to boundaries, but this time the boundary of mortality. Like the “don’t move when people around” rule, there are ways for toys to beat mortality, but to do so would be wrong. The roles are reversed, and now Woody has given in as Buzz once did, and he too has found peace with it.

Cars (2006) isn’t all that concerned with boundaries as it is with values. Selfish racecar Lightning McQueen finds a satisfying life in giving to a near-dead Route 66 community, putting his own dreams of fame and victory behind him to give the underprivileged their chance. McQueen is a lot like if Buzz Lightyear actually WAS a space ranger, but decided to play the role of toy anyway. There are no boundaries stopping McQueen from getting what he wants, but getting it would still be wrong. We are asked to reevaluate our own desires and decide if they have real value to us. It’s a confusing matter when it’s all put together, and short of asking the man directly, it’s hard to determine how Lasseter feels on the subject of boundaries and boundary-breakers.

However, this matter is hardly confined to just Lasseter. Brad Bird’s two Pixar films are also in direct opposition with other.

In Bird’s The Incredibles (2004), there are two kinds of people, those with powers and those without. While it’s never clarified, it’s implied that these powers are a matter of genetics, and those without them will never get them. This leaves to a worldwide racial conflict that forces those with powers into hiding. The film follows one family’s attempts to be able to reapply their abilities and break the boundaries set up the other side.

While it seems like a clear-cut case of boundary breaking in terms of the hero’s story, things are murkier on the side of the villain. Syndrome was once Buddy, a hero-worshipping non-powered kid who, through technology, attempted to rise to the level of those with powers. His rejection from the other side made him only more determined to match them, and eventually decided that the whole world should be on the same level as those with powers. An evil scheme for racial equality.

Which side is it in this conflict that’s establishing the boundaries? In the end, the wall of separation is rebuilt, and equality is vanquished. Those with powers finally have what they want, and nobody else can take it from them. They are the boundaries.

Ratatouille (2007) has a different take on the matter. Whereas in The Incredibles the character who wanted to bridge the gap between two kinds of people was the film’s arch-villain, the character who wishes to do the same in this film is its hero. The film concerns a rat that wants to break the racial boundaries and bring the world of rodents and fine dining together. “Great artists can come from anywhere,” states food critic Gusteau, declaring all boundaries null and void. I wonder if he’d feel the same about superheroes.

Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and WALL-E (2008) are more ambiguous on the matter. Like Cars, they’re largely about self-reevaluation. They’re about Sully discovering that laughs are more energy efficient then screams, Marlin realizing that his son is more capable then he thought and the people of the Axiom finding a world outside their consumer lifestyles aren’t so much cases of boundary breaking as they are boundary redefinement. Personal boundaries have been replaced by less-confining real life boundaries.

If Up (2009) was Pixar’s final film, it’d be a fitting microcosm to this issue. Carl Fredricksen lives his life with his wife wanting more then their simple existence allowed. After the death of his wife and the threat of his home being taken away, Carl decides to finally break from his boundaries and seek the adventure he’d always wanted. When his house rises into the atmosphere, Buzz Lightyear goes to infinity and beyond. Flik overthrows the grasshopper’s rule. Lightning McQueen becomes a superstar. Remy becomes a world-class chef.

But it turns out, this is not what Carl really wants. He wants his simple existence back. He wants to be loved by Andy, to help his friends in Radiator Springs, to keep Nemo safe, to win the Most Screams record. So, Carl goes and exorcises his demons. First, he throws away his dreams in the form of the trinkets he collected over the years. Then, he defeats the man who inspired him. Finally, he says good-bye to the ghost of his wife, his whole reason for doing this.

But he keeps the zeppelin. Because you never know. Like Pixar, he might just change his mind and break some more boundaries.

D.W. Gardner is an amateur, who is way too star-struck to be writing at The House Next Door to write anything interesting about himself.

Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.