Why is Pixar so brilliant at death?

From Up’s moving life story to the father-son parting of Onward, the animation powerhouse has never shirked from profound contemplation

There comes a time in the life of a writer, director and, perhaps, a company when the days shorten, the shadows lengthen and contemplating the inevitable must begin. The guy in the cloak with the retro lawn equipment can’t be ignored any longer: Death. In Pixar’s latest film, Soul, mortality springs itself with supreme bad timing on protagonist Joe Gardner, a New York jazzman about to play the gig of his life when he falls down a manhole. After 2017’s Coco and this year’s Onward, this is Pixar’s third film about death in as many years. Is this fixation the Californian animation giant’s midlife crisis in multimillion-dollar CGI form?

Soul, directed by Pete Docter, is a classy offering with smart colouring-book metaphysics in the vein of his 2015 film Inside Out, as Joe attempts to escape the “Great Beyond” and return to his body, via the “Great Before”. This is the realm where nascent souls must find their spark – their animating passion in life – and are then dispatched to Earth. Visually drawing on Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, broaching the dark subject for children with life-affirming insouciance, and – featuring the company’s first black lead character – a big diversity coup, it’s a typically slick, four-quadrant-pleasing, stock price-boosting entertainment package. This is what Pixar do.

Soul … with a strong nod to A Matter of Life and Death.
Soul … with a strong nod to A Matter of Life and Death. Photograph: Disney/Pixar

But the company has been showing its age lately. A run of almost uniformly dazzling films culminated in 2010’s Toy Story 3. But under Disney’s management, a weariness set in: too many sequels, and originals that didn’t have the conceptual snap of that brilliant first spree. Perhaps the injection of morbidity is how Docter – also Pixar’s chief creative officer since 2018 – has planned to startle the studio out of its corporate lull, reconnect it with weighty themes and get its mojo back.

Maybe it isn’t that premeditated. Perhaps it is a natural consequence of where Pixar’s top personnel are in life: Docter is 52, entering the decade where, as parents die and ageing really kicks in, death starts to become more than theoretical party-poop. Lee Unkrich – director of Coco, set in the Mexican “Land of the Dead” – is 53, though last year, in a very mid-life decision, quit Pixar to spend more time with his family. Onward’s director Dan Scanlon is only 44 but definitely, to use a golfing metaphor, moving on to the back nine. His film – set in a kind of Dungeons & Dragons-flavoured suburbia filled with centaur cops and a manticore restaurant manager – is the one that deals most directly with death in the form of loss. Its teenage elf brothers try to complete a “visitation spell” that will bring back their dad – a story inspired by Scanlon’s own life, as his father was killed in a car accident when he was one.

Profoundly moving … Ellie and Carl, from Up.
Profoundly moving … Ellie and Carl, from Up. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Death, though, has always lurked in Pixar’s filmography in the sense of the creeping passage of time. Docter’s second film, Up, was roundly praised for its initial 10-minute sequence: a wordless prelude charting the years of lead character Carl’s marriage to Ellie, their inability to have children and her eventual passing. It was a stunningly sombre opening to a kid’s adventure romp. The driving motor of the Toy Story films is Woody’s fear, and struggle to accept, that he may become redundant as his owners Andy and Bonnie grow older. In toy terms, this is death – haunted by the prospect of dispatch to the refuse heap or, in the fourth film, the junk shop; decrepit, sad afterlives that are the opposite of being alive in the hands of a child.

This fear of obsolescence – of being cast into shadowlands unlit by the imagination – is as much a part of Pixar’s identity as the cute anglepoise lamp. It’s also there in Wall-E’s vision of planetary landfill, a pile-up of defunct human objects and history. Or another oubliette: the Memory Dump in Inside Out, where Riley’s childhood imaginary friend Bing Bong must be jettisoned in order to allow her to grow up.

Pixar understands this theme so well because the birth of the company itself signified a moment of pop-culture obsolescence, of the old pre-90s analogue world, in order to give way to the new digital age of infinite play. “Memento Woody” could be its motto. Toy Story is suffused with nostalgia, for the era of wholesome postwar entertainment that the likes of Woody and Bo-Peep represent. But however lovingly it evokes that feel of that world, down to the stitching on a cowboy’s friesian waistcoat and the cheap plastic snap of Buzz Lightyear’s wings, it did as much to kill it off as anyone.

True potential … would-be musician Miguel, right, in the Day of the Dead-themed Coco
True potential … would-be musician Miguel, right, in the Day of the Dead-themed Coco. Photograph: Pixar/AP

Consumers expect far more these days, and Hollywood’s digital CGI wizards can conjure up anything to match our expectations. Their boundless ability to encompass all eras of past pop-culture and simulate any reality, from a Lilliputian toy’s paradise to a bone-clattering Dia de los Muertos fantasia, only reflects our culture’s hunger for non-stop entertainment and distraction. Pixar is part of the same San Francisco Silicon Valley elite that, elsewhere with companies like the Google-backed Calico, is busy trying to “cure” death. Maybe depicting that great intangible is the one remaining frontier for its entertainment arm to conquer, irresistible to those with a nagging sense of ontological horror: that if you have the godlike ability to create anything, does that mean that, underneath, is really … nothing?

No wonder Pixar metaphysics only come in primary colours. Dealing with death in its recent films, it has preferred to hew close to JM Barrie’s “awfully big adventure” line, with Coco and Soul making death just another big playground for kids to explore. Soul was inspired by Docter’s realisation, in the seconds after his son was born, that his innate personality was already formed. But, fundamentally rooted in Joe Gardner’s quest to return to Earth, play his gig and prove to himself that his life hasn’t been a pointless waste of time, the film is very much the adult’s perspective on death. It’s another mark on the side of the ledger that says Pixar secretly aren’t in the business of making films for children.

Search for self-esteem … Onward. Photograph: Allstar/Disney/Pixar

Docter is also a practising Presbyterian who gives interviews to church media, but neither Soul, Coco or Onward have an obvious faith agenda; he has said the company is not about converting people. But there is nonetheless a kind of theology to this run of work, a subtle individualism visible in Soul’s search for a personal spark in the Great Before, which looks very much like a soft-play Silicon Valley campus. Or, co-existing with the Latino family values veneer, Coco’s insistence that its young mariachi Miguel must not ignore his musical calling. Similarly, searching for his father allows the young elf Ian to ditch the self-esteem issues and grow into a true spell-caster. That is Pixar’s corporate-evangelist meaning of life: to live your true potential.

Whether that message is strong enough to act as a form of solace in a year in which death has been more close by than most remains to be seen. And Covid-19 could just be the 21st-century’s amuse-bouche for even greater environmental catastrophe that would mean le fin for possibly hundreds of millions more people. Wall-E sounded an early warning about that, but Pixar’s articles of faith – play and the imagination – are strong in the face of such darkness. Even in the valley of death, there was an inspirational videocassette and a comedy cockroach.

  • Soul is available on Disney+ from 25 December.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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