Pixar and the Aesthetics of Nostalgia
Allison Burris | Spring 2019
Cowboys and cars, robots and rats, monsters and musicians: Pixar films are profoundly digital objects, but they evoke utterly human feelings of nostalgia through their subject matter. These feelings are explored here through images, sounds, and text as I share my own memories of Pixar and of my childhood, which are linked in ways that cannot be totally disentangled. I hope these recollections and fragments spark your own.
Allison Burris earned her Bachelors degree in English with a writing minor
from Oregon State University. After university she spent a few years pursuing
writing & calligraphy in Idaho before continuing her academic career in
Cinema Studies at SFSU. Her academic interests range widely: literature
adaptation, fairy tales & folklore, gender performance, & science fiction
and fantasy on screen. Her current favorite Pixar film is Coco.
“In some instances, I sensed a hint of disapproval that the course would subject Disney and Pixar to the kind of analysis that might require students to reevaluate much-loved films associated with cherished memories of childhood. I reiterated the argument I make every time I teach the course, best encapsulated by Giroux and Pollock, that the pleasures of scopophilia notwithstanding, ‘it is as important to comprehend and mitigate what gives us pleasure as it is to examine what elicits our disapproval.'”
Haseenah Ebrahim in “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?”
Toy Story - 1995 - John Lassseter
The scene is disorienting to the viewer from the beginning, with the camera moving up and down to simulate Andy jumping on his bed with Woody. This helps the viewer adjust to Woody’s own disorientation as the scene progresses.
Andy wears a t-shirt that features Woody, and much of the decor around the room bears the toy’s image. Soon, he is set down and Buzz appears. Buzz symbolically kills Woody with his laser during this play, and Andy knocks Woody over to underscore this death. Slowly, all the objects that used to bear Woody’s likeness are changed or covered up by images of Buzz Lightyear: Andy’s costume, the posters, his drawings, and finally we see that the very bedspread has been pulled from under Woody.
As Andy’s room changes, Woody’s relationship with the other toys and his status as leader is called into question, and Woody is usurped by Buzz in this realm as well. This information is delivered to the viewer without dialogue, using juxtapositions of older views of Andy’s room with the new ones emblazoned with images of Buzz. The color palette of this scene also changes, with the muted cowboy colors of mustard yellow and burnt sienna replaced with bright blues and greens, suggesting a tonal shift on this level as well.
Close-up and point of view shots of Woody’s reactions to the changes taken place are foregrounded in the scene, and the music playing over the top further explains his reaction: these things are happening not just around him but to him. He is being symbolically replaced by another toy. At the end of the scene he spends the night not in Andy’s bed, but in the toy box, which is vaguely coffin shaped and shows yet another kind of symbolic death of Woody’s reign.
Feeling Out of Place
"Strange Things Are Happening To Me" - Randy Newman
Is it more tragic to think
That you can fly
And then fall,
Or never to believe
“Aesthetic experience, grounded in feeling-based judgments, indicates a plural world full of new encounters and phenomena that are open to unique, individual judgments. This quality can disrupt social order and convention, but it can be mobilized to reproduce concepts and tropes within popular culture–commodity and technology fetishism, fantastic bodies and spaces, and the championing of individual talent and identity.”
– Eric Herhuth in Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination
A Bug's Life - 1998 - John Lasseter
Princess Atta has regularly derided and devalued Flik’s potential contributions to Ant Island society, but in a moment of desperation she applies one of his inventions, a telescope so that she can see what is happening to her sister. That her sister would become a bridge between the two characters is foreshadowed by Dot’s and Flik’s relationship and relatively similar status at outsiders.
As the elders panic, Atta looks around, and the camera cuts to a shot of a blade of grass with a drop of dew before cutting back to Atta. She recognizes what this combination means and creates the telescope. Her use of one of his inventions signals a shift in her thoughts about Flik, a change in her views that coincides with the literal camera perspective, which the audiences sees as a distorted fish-eye lens within a circular frame.
Although Flik has continually disappointed her by stepping out of line, his ingenuity saves her sister and enables her to see this literally through the telescope. She may often disagree with him, but this scene will also foreshadow the end of the film, in which the safety of the collective is ultimately more important to Princess Atta than her own fears and prejudices.
How do you remember what you've learned?
"Flik Leaves" - Randy Newman
Women in my life taught me
How to apply blush,
To make the perfect pie crust
And string daisy chains,
Sew a button,
Write down how I was feeling,
Paint in oils,
Bandage a cut.
Men in my life taught me
How to weld
To measure twice and cut once,
Finish out the season,
And see vulnerability
In people who
Rarely show it.
“Rather than using animation as a means of fantasy escape, both innocent and sophisticated readings of the films deal with grim realities—of obsolescence and death—and both render a complex philosophy of the posthuman value of the object. These films imagine the possibility of love, beauty, community, and meaning through object surrogates, and in the face of apocalyptic circumstances.”
– Ellen Scott in “Agony and Avoidance: Pixar, Deniability, and the Adult Spectator”
Toy Story 2 - 1999 - John Lasseter
Jessie’s flashback scene, with music by Sarah McLachlan, is quite long at two and a half minutes for a scene in a children’s film with no dialogue and little action. The sequence starts off with golden lighting and Jessie moves across the frame on a toy horse in slow motion, suggesting that she is savoring these memories. This is the general rule for the first third of the sequence before we hear the giggling of girls and Jessie slides onto the floor, under the bed.
The lighting immediately changes, become darker and the colors are more muted whenever the camera is on Jessie. However, Emily’s room becomes more colorful, tan and brown horses changing to pink and green posters, makeup, and record players. The frame also becomes more crowded, as more and more objects share the space under the bed with the cowgirl. Finally, Emily rediscovers her after she drops her purse, spilling the contents, but this is not the reunion Jessie hopes for and though they drive towards the place where they used to spend special days together, the colors have changed, and the trees with their autumn leaves reflect the phase of Jessie’s own life. Instead of being granted a new season of play, Jessie is instead donated and left on the side of the road.
"When She Loved Me" - Sarah McLachlan
When I say I’ve cried for every toy
I’ve left behind,
What I mean is that I’ve cried
For the part of me
That went with them.
“While habit and cognitive memories have an obvious value to survival, personal memories do not. Yet personal memories are intimately influential. Personal memories provide continuity, accretion, and, as groups of individuals remember, social identity, authority, solidarity, and political affiliation. People act on narratives of the past, and beliefs about the past produce social norms.”
– Janet Staiger in Media Reception Studies
Monsters, Inc. - 2001 - Pete Docter
Her first night in Monstropolis, Sully tries to lure Boo over to some newspaper on the floor using a sugary cereal as if she was a puppy. Unsurprisingly, she hops into his bed instead. He concedes to defeat, despite concerns about her toxicity, and leaves to sleep in his armchair. Before he can leave, Boo stops him pointing at the closet. Though she is preverbal, she is clearly fearful and communicates to him using one of her drawings. The drawing is a both a method of communication and a form of tangible memory. It is imbued with some of the same emotions that she would feel when confronted with the monster in question, Randall. Unable to convince her that it’s safe, Sully tells her he will sit in front of the closet until she falls asleep.
What scared you?
"Monsters, Inc." - Randy Newman
I remember the spider crawling across my mother’s back
I couldn’t tell her it was there–
only shake & point & grimace, wide-eyed.
She understood my mute terror
while my father glowered because I did not
save my mother.
I couldn’t say it’s name–
to say a thing’s name makes it real
“[Pixar’s] plots frequently evoke or even flash back to, some poignant version of the past, and even their contemporary settings are populated by vintage decor, art, and artifacts, visually celebrating an earlier moment and generally lamenting the passage of time. Though only The Incredibles is actually set in an identifiable historical moment […] just two of the thirteen films resist conspicuously looking backward. These, A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo are also the only two animal stories, told largely outside of human social time.”
– Shannon R. Wooden in Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age
Finding Nemo - 2003 - Andrew Stanton
The first time we see Dory really remember something is during a time of stress. Her struggle in reading the text is juxtaposed with Marlin’s struggle to not be eaten by the angler fish while simultaneously using its light to allow Dory to read. Although she reads the text aloud, Marlin isn’t able to concentrate on what she’s saying as he’s fighting for their survival.
He asks Dory what it said and she tells him, reciting the information perfectly. Though the audience sees Dory forget and forget, this moment of triumph allows her meaningful contribution (the ability to read) to shine through and speaks to the unpredictability of memory even when it’s supposed to be predictably faulty. Though this information means nothing to her, she is able to remember it, and this becomes a source of pride for her–overshadowing their near escape from death even though the terrifying teeth of the angler fish are still in the frame.
How does it feel to remember something?
"Fronds Like These" - Thomas Newman
Lies at the back of your mind
& the tip of your tongue,
& the year it came out
& the director’s name
Is all up there somewhere
& you knew it a second ago
& it’s there
(Please let it be there)
And your mind drifts–
And there it is
& you look it up
Or you let the moment pass
Or you spend the rest of the night
“the proliferation of nostalgic modes, markets, genres and styles may instead reflect a new kind of engagement with the past, a relationship based fundamentally on its cultural mediation and textual reconfiguration in the present”
– Paul Grainge quoted by Alistair Swale in “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away“
The Incredibles - 2004 - Brad Bird
Mr. Incredible visits Edna Mode to ask for a repair job on his super suit. She leads him into her palatial home, which is built on a monumental scale (almost a comedic juxtaposition to her own stature) and decorated in an odd mix of neo-classical white and brown stone and modern styles in black and red. She fills in her old associate on her current lack of job satisfaction, saying “I used to design for gods.” The camera shoots a modern, yet clearly classically inspired fountain of a Greek or Roman warrior from a low, heroic angle. She asks if maybe he’s brought her a challenge.
Now intrigued, the camera follows her more closely, and she fills more of the frame as she examines his suit. Edna tosses the suit in the trash and tells him he can’t be seen in the suit, walking away from him as he fishes it out. He reminds her that she designed the suit, but she is dismissive. The camera follows her from behind, which reinforces her line “I never look back, darling, it distracts from the now.” Her need for a creative challenge leads her to dismiss and disavow her old work.
Once, Now, Next
"The Glory Days" - Michael Giacchino
I’m not sure if the past distracts
From the now
Or if it informs it,
Throwing away the photographs,
Donating the gifts,
Getting rid of the clothes
Only means that next time
You think back you’ll remember
“Cars illustrates the structure of a nostalgia narrative in which ‘the past cannot be revisited, [but] the memory of it as imprinted upon mnemotopic sites can function as a utopian model for the future’ (Sprengler 74). Indeed, the film follows the conventions of nostalgic narratives in which an ideal past is threatened, appears to be lost, and is mourned before being successfully restored.”
– Deitmar Meinel from Pixar’s America: The Re-Animation of America’s Myths and Symbols
Cars - 2006 - John Lasseter
The flashback scene is presented in hazy pastels. Sally, who tells Lightning the story of the town’s transition after the interstate was built, doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of the event. The haziness can partially be attributed to this and to a sort of innocent quality filtered over the scene. The music, “Our Town” by James Taylor, contributes to these feelings of nostalgia with its soothing, melancholy notes. The song also feels strangely filtered or muffled in the scene compared with the volume of the dialogue that occasionally intrudes. As the scene goes on, the town fades progressively, first from the literal map, and then in successive images of shops going out of business and growing dark. After some of the townspeople exchange sad glances, they retrench into their homes and the town appears completely empty.
Are you nostalgic for a past you may not have experienced?
"Our Town" - James Taylor
My papa drove
The whole of Route 66
to Santa Monica boulevard
With his PT Cruiser club,
Nana in the front seat.
They drove the old highway
As much as they could, stopping
When the road ended
In someone’s driveway,
At a defunct bridge,
When there was car trouble.
In Galena, Kansas,
A couple purchased a whole town
That they were doctoring up,
Which is where the tow truck is
That inspired Mater in the movie.
At every 50s diner along the way
They’d eat, occasionally
Sharing banana splits &
Befriending motorcycle gangs.
They met wild donkeys who came over
To be pet, and one
Laid his head in Nana’s lap.
They saw the Grand Canyon
And Oak Creek Canyon,
Swearing the former
More gorgeous than
And then they drove through Los Angeles,
Where they’d been young,
And watched the sunset
Over the pacific ocean.
“That the Pixar films’ lovable, nostalgic stories would further the interests of the giant marketing machine that has produced them, and they they could do this by the counterintuitive vilification of marketing and manufacture like that they will themselves perpetuate in the merchandising campaign of the film, is a paradox foundational to the ideology of Disney Inc.”
– Shannon R. Wooden in Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age
Ratatouille - 2007 - Brad Bird
When the food is placed down in front of Ego, the first reaction we see is from the antagonist, Chef Skinner. He immediately recognizes the dressed up version of the peasant dish for what it is: ratatouille. Skinner dismisses it out of hand, and the camera moves over his shoulder as the viewer watches him watch Ego’s reaction. At first, Ego is inscrutable. He is so pale he is nearly purple, and he picks up his pen to take notes, presumably on the aroma and plating of the dish. He stabs a piece, brings it to his lips, and then the camera suddenly moves to his eyes, which widen. Then the scene audibly zooms away from the present so fast it’s as if we have time traveled.
The shot of Ego sitting is replaced by a young Anton with a skinned knee and a quivering lip, framed in the doorway and backlit in the golden light of the setting sun. His mother places the dish in front of him, he takes a grateful bite, and immediately the view whooshes back to the present. An out of body experience has taken place.
Ego is stunned and his pen falls in slow motion, with a crash. His color has been restored, as if, in this one bite, he has been renewed or reborn in some way. He blinks, dazed, and then consumes joyfully. The camera pans quickly to Skinner who struggles with his emotions–extreme pleasure in what he’s eating and detestation for where it comes from.
"Anyone Can Cook" - Michael Giacchino
When I’m sick I make
Chicken noodle soup,
Or if I’m lucky
My mom will make it for me
Because hers is always better.
I always keep kielbasa in the freezer
Because my dad taught me
Kielbasa, egg, and rice
Is what you cook
At the end of a long day
When you don’t want to cook anything.
When a long day becomes
A long week, I crave
macaroni and cheese,
Box is fine, baked is better,
Real stovetop is best,
When everything becomes
A gooey, stringy mess of carbs.
But then there’s tandoori chicken,
Lamb vindaloo, and palak paneer,
And the spices make me feel
Like what I’m missing is just
The perfect combination,
And that everything comes down
To just tweaking the recipe,
Gulping down masala chai,
And heaping every good thing
“Pixar operates with a nostalgia that is both regressive (in its reliance on traditional notions of gender, class, and morality) and liberating (in its embrace of an ironic, detached view of the present) […] But these sentimental moments are not only derived from Classical Hollywood films but consciously mimic them, hinting at a nostalgia not only for a lost humanity but a lost cinematic world. Nostalgia is one of the central pleasures of the Pixar films, which not only focus on ‘classic,’ vintage objects […], but also on a nostalgia for Hollywood.”
– Ellen Scott from “Agony and Avoidance: Pixar, Deniability, and the Adult Spectator”
WALL-E - 2008 - Andrew Stanton
WALL-E has just gotten the Captain’s hand dirty, and to find out what the substance is, the Captain asks the computer to analyze it. A globe is prominent in the background. The computer begins rattling off a scientific analysis of the elements that compose soil. Rather than looking over the Captain’s shoulder at the screen, the camera is placed behind the translucent screen, which almost obscures his yawning face. Bored, he rolls away until the computer gives the common names for the substance: soil, dirt, earth.
At the mention of the word ‘earth,’ he rolls back and the camera, still positioned behind the computer’s screen, shows the dirt as a superimposition over his face. It appears as though he and the earth are now inseparable, are now one. The camera position changes to a side view, and the Captain looks at the globe. He asks the computer to define earth. The shot changes, now over the shoulder showing the images multiply on the screen. As the images populate, the Captain’s head moves to track them, as the new information overwhelms him. The camera is again behind the screen and the last image to appear is a picture of the Earth as seen from space, once again perfectly aligned with the Captain’s face. It is from this moment in the narrative that the Captain’s goals and motivations change and the need to go home, for the first time, sweeps over him.
"Put On Your Sunday Clothes" - Michael Crawford
Some things I have collected:
Fairy tales, panda bears,
Books, cupcake liners,
Ladybugs (not real ones),
Pictures carefully cut out of magazines,
Stamps, Pokemon cards,
Cards I’d received,
Cards to be given away,
Things people left in library books,
Postcards & paper pads,
Small ceramic dishes,
Antique brooches, cocktail rings,
The tiny toiletries from hotel rooms,
Concert t-shirts, musical programs,
Lists of books to read, ticket stubs,
Notes from friends & recipes,
Pictures my cousins drew for me,
Journals–filled and waiting to be
Filled, old movies, vinyl recordings
Of musical soundtracks, tea sets,
Pouches of loose leaf tea, soaps,
Refrigerator magnets, glass jars, and
“Memory consequently implies a poetics – the practice of putting the bits and pieces into meaningful constellations and therefore creating discourses that will foster images and stories about the past triggered by the present. Such a poetics is dependant on both the material in the sense of technique and in the sense of object or thing, that is; the material that is used as a technique for remembering (in my case, film and its aesthetic means), and the very material that is depicted as objects filled with memories.”
– John Sundholm in “‘I Am a Rhinoceros’: Memory and the Ethics and Aesthetics of Materiality in Film”
Up - 2009 - Pete Docter
After Carl alienates all of his companions, he trudges back into his house, which is now almost colorless and shabby feeling. He puts his and Ellie’s chairs to rights and the camera cuts frames them symmetrically as he sits down, sighing. He places Ellie’s vision of their home in Paradise Falls (a picture ripped from a library book with an image of her playhouse pasted on top) back into the book. He turns the pages, slowly, and they fill the screen as melancholy music plays quietly in the background. His eyes well with tears, but before he can put the book down without looking through the rest of it (again), the page slips and he sees that images have been pasted into the rest of the book.
The shots cut between the photos and Carl’s reactions to them, and the tears change from ones of sadness to something more bittersweet. The music builds. She writes at the end of the book that it is time for him to have a new adventure. When he looks up from the book, the light in the house has brightened, showing his mood altered and spirit lightened. He reaches for Russell’s badges, lying on the arm of the chair as if Ellie is giving them to him. He looks at her empty chair and crosses his heart. This message is the impetus for Carl to let go of the past, symbolically throwing out large pieces of furniture that were holding the house, and him, down.
"Carl Goes Up" - Michael Giacchino
Scrapbooking starts off
As a simple idea
And becomes a beast–
Eating everything in its path
Demanding more food
More pictures, more glue,
More glitter, more originality,
More layout ideas,
More keepsakes, more bulk,
And then, inevitably,
Is a shadow of what it could be,
Disdain dripping from every
Lifting edge and crooked placement,
Resents you for making it,
For having the gall to try
In the first place.
“While any aspect of the Toy Story movies could still remain emotionally powerful in the years ahead, the specific generational effect that Andy’s decision to let go of his toys (his childhood) had on teenagers and twenty-somethings today could never be repeated for another generation, nor for the parents who also followed the trilogy through the years and who see in Andy and his mom the same pain of having to let go. The Toy Story trilogy is a useful demonstration of how historically specific audiences’ relationship to media texts can be.”
– Jason Sperb in Flickers of Film: Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema
Toy Story 3 - 2010 - Lee Unkrich
A note written by Woody prompts Andy to give his old toys to Bonnie, whose mother works at the daycare, and who engages in the kind of imaginative play that Andy did when he was little. Bonnie, shy for the moment, hides behind her mother as Andy introduces his favorite toys to her, eventually surrounding her with them. After he gives Buzz Lightyear to her, she crawls over to the box and looks inside, saying “my cowboy!” Andy looks inside the box, and there’s Woody, hat beside him. Andy picks him up and Bonnie predicts what he’ll say next when his string is pulled, showing the pair of them that he’s already changed hands. Bonnie reaches for him, excited, and Andy pulls away possessively. Bonnie’s hurt reaction causes the shot to change to Woody’s face, and he passes down his favorite toy, telling her why Woody is so important. The shots cut between the three of them, zooming in towards Woody’s face, which gives the impression that the currently inanimate Woody is taking in every compliment Andy is giving him. During this exchange, there are more close-up and medium two-shots than any other time in the scene, making it feel especially intimate and special. She hugs the doll and then the moment shifts and she and Andy play with the toys together, sealing the bond between them.
What happened to your old toys?
"Going Home" - Randy Newman
Andy surrounds Bonnie with
The artifacts of his childhood–
The fiercest dinosaur,
The evil Dr. Pork Chop,
The madly in love couple,
Jessies the toughest cowgirl
Who loves her loyal horse, Bullseye
& the coolest toy ever–
Buzz who can fly & shoot lasters,
And Woody who will always
Be there for him
And now for her.
What Bonnie gives
resides in the abstract
an opportunity to play,
a relief for an uncluttered
future, a sense that he’s done
the right thing by letting go.
“Nostalgia is the renewable fuel of modern popular culture; it is an invisible perpetual motion machine. As long as there’s another movie, TV show, book, comic book character, toy, or videogame on which one of us can look back fondly, it’ll never run out. We often don’t care if the actual experience of some piece of culture doesn’t align with the memory concocted around it; innately knowing that we enjoyed something when we were children is enough to allow us to don rose-colored glasses about the quality of what we enjoyed.”
– Josh Spiegel from Yesterday is Forever
Cars 2 - 2011 - John Lasseter
After Mater is captured, he is gassed and knocked out. While unconscious, he enters a kind of dream space. He is suspended high over the scenes from earlier in the film, given a bird’s eye view of his own actions. Everything is dark, and he hears the voice of the spy car, Finn McMissile, in head saying that everyone sees him as a fool. The first thing he sees is an image of himself in the mirror, upset and hurt, clearly meant to be a moment of introspection and even confrontation with his own actions. The mirror swings open to reveal overhead shots of past events where Mater embarrassed himself without fully realizing it.
The sounds in this scene are very far away and echo, which emphasize the distance Mater needs from them to examine his behavior and to understand why his friend treated him poorly. Each of the moments shown are dark (as if presented in some kind of tableau) before they are illuminated with a spotlight, suggesting that his memory is highlighting the most important, or at least most memorable features of the scene–his friend’s words and reactions–and cutting out extraneous background details. From here the dream enters a sillier and yet slightly creepy phases where images of cars laughing at him are juxtaposed with the clanging of a gong. Besides simply cutting back and forth, the camera also swings like a pendulum. Ultimately the combination of the sound and motion wakes Mater, the motion in the real world having informed the dream space.
"Turbo Transmission" - Michael Giacchino
The icy path,
The bark chip covered hill,
With unsightly laughter,
In clumsy high-heeled steps
Take a spill–
Stumble after spilling
A drink where more was drunk
than had been spillled,
Since the tears cannot wait,
A graceful belly flop,
“It has often been suggested that innocence is a quality that adults project onto children – something adults feel themselves to have lost. Children, it is claimed, do not see themselves as innocent, nor relate to its significance as a category. No doubt there is some truth in this. But to see childhood innocence as simply a symptom of adult nostalgia, or lack, is to fail to engage fully with the transformative power it is accorded in many of our most popular and important narratives.”
– David Whitley in Learning with Disney: Children’s Animation and the Politics of Innocence
Brave - 2012 - Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman
Previously at odds with each other, the fishing scene allows Merida to teach her mother something and allows each to see the other in a new light. At the end of the scene, Eleanor walks out of the river, and Merida follows. The lighting, which has been steadily fading, is meant to represent the golden hour right before sunset that soon yields to darkness. As Merida follows and the trees close in, the scene gets darker, foreshadowing the events to come. She jogs past the rock where her mother had set down her crown, and the camera lingers on it in a close up before cutting to Merida continuing to follow her mother deeper into the forest. Without saying anything, the audience knows that a very important part of Eleanor’s identity has been left behind. When her mother turns, she is not Eleanor, but a true bear as the spell has foretold. And it is not until she raises her claws to swipe at her child that she realizes that this change has taken place.
"Fate and Destiny" - Patrick Doyle
It’s all in the eyes,
Drawn curtains and all:
It resides in the corners
At the tear ducts,
In the creases
In the sheen and gleam
Of eyes in the darkness–
The last thing to disappear
Like a Disney villain’s.
Eyes glossy with tears,
Eyes dull or dark or light or quick,
Eyes that burn,
& eyes that trick.
“Pixar is clearly aware of the increasing centrality of nostalgia to its long history of critical and commercial success. At the same time, the studio struggles to call attention to it in ways that avoid simply repeating the company’s worst indulgences instead of creating a space for creative potential that moves beyond the usual patterns of consumption that sustain the company.”
– Jason Sperb in Flickers of Film: Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema
Monsters University - 2013 - Dan Scanlon
Even before Dean Hardscrabble appears on the scene, the atmosphere in the room is tense and everything is dark. The professor announces she is in the room before she enters the frame, giving both the class of monsters and the audience the eerie feeling that she’s been lurking in the shadows for a while. She enters, chin held high, unconsciously (or consciously mimicking the marble bust in her image. Her trophy, the record-breaking canister, is on a separate, adjacent plinth. As she enters, she brushes the top of the canister for dust, her talons scraping gently across the surface as she brushes the fate of the students away with a flick. The scene progresses until a confrontation between Mike and Sully results in Sully accidentally knocking the canister off of its stand. The camera moves up to show the marble bust of Hardscrabble, reminding everyone that she’s there watching.
There are gasps as the canister falls. After a moment’s pause, it lets out a scream and steam propels it throughout the room, causing the lights to surge before falling at Mike and Sully’s feet in the light from the window that looks like a spotlight. Mike reaches toward it, and then, to further emphasize the damage done, the ends pop off and the springs break loose. Hardscrabble alights in the background, her wings outspread and filmed from behind so they fill the scene, signalling the reckoning to come. She is obscured and blends into the darkness in a way that the green Mike and blue and purple Sully could never hope to achieve. She picks up the broken canister without looking at them and walks into the center of the room, into and then through the light so that Mike and Sully are now illuminated behind her. She seems supremely unconcerned about the destruction, but this easy attitude belies her brutal examination which follows.
"First Day at MU" - Randy Newman
The moment before
The cup shatters
Is worse than the crack
The broken glass,
To fetch the broom, vacuum,
Dust pan, thick soled shoes.
The moment you know
That it’s out of your hands
And onto the floor
And that you can’t save it,
All you can do is watch it fall.
“[A]nimation in all of its production contexts has the capacity to subvert, critically comment upon, and re-determine views of culture and social practice […] More than any other means of creative expression animation embodies a simultaneity of (creatively) re-constructing the order of things at the very moment of critically de-constructing them […] every line drawn, object moved, and shape changed is a destabilisation of received knowledge, and in the case of animation in the United States reveals what it is to be an American citizen and how the ‘melting pot’ has figuratively and literally become the ‘kaleidoscope’ of nation and nationality. In enunciating itself, animation enunciates America: history, mythology, freedom.”
– Paul Wells quoted in Pixar’s America: The Re-Animation of American Myths and Symbols
Inside Out - 2015 - Pete Docter
In order to prevent the installation of a new core memory, Joy captures it, but knocks out all the other core memories onto the floor of headquarters. The camera moves to an exterior shot of headquarters, and the connections between the the memories and the different aspects of Riley’s personality have been deactivated. The islands go dark. There’s a cut back to Riley who stops crying only to sink back into her seat, her personality seemingly erased. Then the camera cuts to the headquarters interior. Tension in the scene mounting, they are sucked into the memory tube for long term storage, landing in a kind of ball pit after they exit from the pipe. The scene progresses, Joy clutching the happy core memories to her–the unhappy memory neglected in the ball pit. Although Joy, Sadness, and the core memories are central to Riley’s understanding of herself–they are still pictured as small next to the enormity of Riley’s long term memory–suggesting that we can get lost in ourselves emotionally. This journey is one of growth and nuance, as the emotions are not only helping Riley but exploring in their own right.
"Bundle of Joy" - Michael Giacchino
An exploration of the 27 emotions identified by and
I admire my mother,
adore my husband,
Nina Simone’s voice
and the way the ocean rolls along the shoreline.
My brother amuses me,
makes me worry about him,
leaves me in awe of him.
New people make me awkward,
but never bored.
The aroma wafting from a cup of tea
People dressing up their dogs
I’m craving seafood for dinner,
but nothing disgusting like mussels.
I feel empathy for my friend’s bad back.
A good film entrances
& a good book leaves me envious
of the writer’s skill.
Travel excites me.
Spiders scare me,
and I’m in horror
of making the wrong choices,
being a disappointment.
I’m interested in history
& my family brings me joy
as does a witty comeback
or the perfect piece of toast.
I’m nostalgic for a past
I never knew,
and I’m a romantic at heart,
which is the only place to be one.
Wasted potential makes me sad,
but repairing something gives me satisfaction.
I have a crush on Idris Elba &
the version of Gene Kelly that existed
in the 1950s. I want
to express my sympathy
for the family of the victims
of this week’s shootings
(and last week’s and next week’s).
And when I can master or accept
I will feel nothing
short of triumph.
“The capacity of anime to evoke “magic” in the sense of communal aesthetic experiences is perhaps one of its most underestimated affordances as a medium of creative expression. This can include very powerful imaginative evocations of a collective sense of the past and present, as well as an imagined future.”
– Alistair Swale in “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away“
The Good Dinosaur - 2015 - Peter Sohn
Arlo’s father fills the corn silo and steps back from it, admiring his handiwork. His wife tells him that he should make his mark on the silo. They both do so, and then tell their children that they must earn their marks in their turn when they accomplish something “bigger than themselves.” While he delivers his speech on the importance of earning your place in the family, the three small dinosaur siblings are shot from above, illustrating visually that they are too little to earn their place because there is such a big distance between the parents (and what they’re able to accomplish) and their children.
As the scene progresses, the young dinosaurs have grown a lot, and some time has passed before they’re able to clear and plow entire fields and put their own marks on the silo. Although Buck is shown in close-up, to show his strength, and Libby is shown in wide shot to emphasize the size of her achievement, both are shown with their parents cheering them on. Arlo is only shown as an observer in medium shots, which show how small he is, since he can fit in that size frame, and his brother cannot. He is usually alone or being reprimanded by one or the other of his parents, but his determination to make his mark only leads to him getting in more trouble.
"Make Your Mark" - Mychael Danna & Jeff Danna
In the end,
Everything turns out
When it’s written down,
Has a sense of being
When it’s only
Making sense of
“Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context— it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present.”
– Kathleen Stewart quoted in That’s All Folks? : Ecocritical Readings of American Animated Features
Finding Dory - 2016 - Andrew Stanton
The scene begins with an exterior shot of the tank with Sigourney Weaver doing a voiceover, saying “every fish we rescue will eventually return home.” Dory believes that’s what she’s doing now. She swims toward the floor of the tank and brushes sand (simulating dust) off the shell with her fin. Beside her appears an imprint of her parents and herself as a small child. Her father lays the ghostly shell over the one that Dory can see. They tell her if she gets lost, she just needs to follow the shells. She swims slowly after the imprint of her family, her movements emphasized by the slow pacing, the undulating water and the light dancing. At one point, the shot becomes wider, helping establish Dory’s place in the overall environment of the tank.
Every time she gets a little bit closer, she triggers another memory, some ghostly imprints, some full flashbacks. Playing with how Dory’s memories are represented in the film allows the audience to experience it with her, creating uncertainty for the viewer about what will be remembered and how the audience will see it. Some memories are represented more or less hazily than others, which is demonstrated through the imprints, which the audience watches with her, but which she reacts to much more slowly as if there’s a significant delay in her processing. Touching objects–the shells–and specific phrases seem to trigger her memory best. And by the end of the scene, Dory will remember, however briefly, how she lost her parents.
"Quite a View" - Thomas Newman
My childhood home
With imprints of my past
To be rediscovered
By the brush of a hand
Against a doorframe,
Or the way the light,
Plays against the wall
At a certain hour in the morning,
Or the way the coffee pot sounds
Splashing and gurgling–
The same even when
The pot breaks and must be
“Although Pixar’s management has effectively exploited the creative freedom of its employees, its productions remain opportunities for critical analysis capable of expressing how their world, too, is an aesthetic one with rules that are also subject to change. This formulation submits that aesthetics does not strictly refer to encounters with art but refer to our sensorial and thoughtful integration with an environment, which is also a political integration since it entails judging that environment alongside others.”
– Eric Herhuth in Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination
Cars 3 - 2017 - Brian Fee
Triumphant music blares as the camera moves over Radiator Spring’s dirt track, and the scene cuts to Luigi, thanking everyone for coming out. Cruz comes racing into the frame, sliding into place next to Luigi bearing the name of her new sponsor, Dino Co. and with a new number, 51, which was the Hudson Hornet’s number. Her paint is also an homage to the great racer, a metallic Hudson’s blue over her lemon yellow. One of the older racers from the 50s compliments her paint, and behind Mater comes in with a new hat, a dinosaur with a 51 on it–in case the audience has missed the trick. And as if this wasn’t enough, there’s a brief explanation from the Hornet’s mentor. This scene shows clearly that the Cars trilogy is geared towards a younger audience than many other Pixar films because these kinds of visual homages are not usually so explicit. As they compliment Cruz, Lightning McQueen comes in, also supporting a new look. He’s Hudson’s color, but he’s kept his old number and his old sponsor, a record of where he’s been. In this way, his paint functions not only as an homage, but a way to visually mark his identity. Everything he’s learned from his career, from his mentor, from the town, and from training his protege is now emblazoned on his body. He is treated to a series of glamourous, moving close-ups to show off this new look as he joins Cruz on the track. The two banter and then race off, celebratory music playing. The end credits will continue this narrative thread, showing the relationship develop between the two cars.
"Run that Race" - Dan Auerbach
My grandfather’s dream car
That I never got to drive,
But Paul told me
The car wanted to go fast
And the excitement was contagious
As my grandfather grinned
Whenever the engine revved.
“When planning a new picture, we don’t think of grown ups and we don’t think of children, but just of that fine, clean, unspoiled spot down deep in every one of us that maybe the world has made us forget, and that maybe our pictures can help recall.”
– Walt Disney quoted in The Pixar Story
Coco - 2017 - Lee Unkrich
The film ends a year later with another celebration of El Día de los Muertos, and Miguel takes his baby sister up to the ofrenda or shrine, and shows her the pictures of their ancestors while preparations take place in the central courtyard. The colors in the courtyard are warm and vibrant, but inside the shrine room they deepen even more, and everything is bathed in orange and amber. This lighting gives the room a kind of aura of ritual and magic especially with the candles being used to illuminate the space.
The camera cuts from close-ups of the frames on the ofrenda to shots of Miguel and his sister, who reaches for them. He explains to her that these are not just old pictures, they are representations of their family. His grandmother comes into the room, pats her grandson, and places a new picture on the ofrenda, of Mamá Coco. The three look on and the moment becomes sad. But this emotion is fleeting. Miguel hugs his grandmother, the music tempo picks up, and the audience sees that new picture has been laid next to the oldest, and that symbolically there has been a reunion between parents and children. The photo of Héctor has been repaired, and the camera closes in, lingering on his face before dissolving into his skeleton. The reunion of the dead with their family is a literal echo of the photos on the ofrenda and shows the physical links between objects and memory.
What does music make you feel?
"Proud Corazón" - Anthony Gonazalez
I wonder how much of who I am
Can be traced to where I come from,
And what it means that I have never
Set a stone over the bones
Of my ancestors
Or walked where they walked
Because that country
Crosses the borders of history.
The stories are a jigsaw
And the box is missing pieces.
Booker, M. Keith. Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Films. Praeger, 2010.
Ebrahim, Haseenah. “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 66, no. 3, 2014, pp. 43–56 (cited pp. 54)
Herhuth, Eric. Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination: Animation, Storytelling, and Digital Culture. University of California Press, 2017. pp. 11, 54
Meinel, Dietmar. Pixar’s America: The Re-Animation of American Myths and Symbols. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. pp. 21, 188.
Murray, Robin L., and Joseph K. Heumann. That’s All Folks?: Ecocritical Readings of American Animated Features. University of Nebraska Press, 2011, pp. 212.
The Pixar Story. Directed by Leslie Iwerks, Walt Disney Studios, 2007.
Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Scott, Ellen. “Agony and Avoidance: Pixar, Deniability, and the Adult Spectator.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 42, no. 3, 2014, pp. 150–162 (cited pp. 153)
Sperb, Jason. Flickers of Film: Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema. Rutgers University Press, 2016. pp. 105, 112-13.
Spiegel, Josh. Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios. The Critical Press, kindle edition, 2015, pp. 137.
Staiger, Janet. Media Reception Studies. New York, New York University Press, 2005, pp. 187.
Sundholm, John. “‘I Am a Rhinoceros’: Memory and the Ethics and Aesthetics of Materiality in Film.” Studies in European Cinema, vol. 2, no. 1, 2005, pp. 45–64 (cited pp. 56)
Swale, Alistair. “Miyazaki Hayao and the Aesthetics of Imagination: Nostalgia and Memory in Spirited Away.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 2015, pp. 413–429 (cited pp. 414, 423)
Wells, Paul. “Animation and Digital Culture.” American Thought and Culture in the 21st Century, Edinburgh University Press, 2008, pp. 291-306 (cited pp. 293).
Whitley, David. “Learning with Disney: Children’s Animation and the Politics of Innocence.” Journal of Educational Media, Memory & Society, vol. 5, no. 2, 2013, pp. 75–91 (cited pp. 77)
Wooden, Shannon R., and Ken Gillam. Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age, Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, pp. 147.
All images are Pixar stills from https://animationscreencaps.com.