Abridged from The Wisdom of Pixar, new from InterVarsity Press.
Pixar movies and their themes resonate with us not just because of the attention-grabbing animation, but also because of their stories and characters. Whether it's toys or cars brought to life, or monsters or even rats, these characters contain a quality of reality to which we can relate. Moreover, in our often dark world, Pixar films offer hope, imagination, beauty, and a degree of purity and innocence that is countercultural in our age.
Human nature's dark side is capably depicted—in much detail—by many gritty, non-Pixar films. But Pixar calls our attention back to the almost forgotten world of virtue. We sympathize and perhaps even empathize with the characters because we relate to their struggles. Pixar's characters help us understand how to better build our own characters—morally speaking, that is. But Pixar doesn't preach to us; there is no First Church of Pixar to offer us sermons, pews, committees, incense or flowing choir robes. Instead, we come to better understand virtue through entertaining and engaging stories—the kind of stories that Pixar tells, stories that have the power to wholly engage us, heart, soul and mind.
Characters and plots need not be overtly Christian to instruct us in virtue. Christ engaged his listeners by telling parables, not by preaching or delivering dry lectures. He shared stories that have, at their center, practical moral lessons that stick with us. We remember the tales of the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son not because they sound like they come from a textbook on ethics, but because they are stories that resonate with us as human beings.
'Just keep swimming'
In Finding Nemo, after they have escaped from a hungry shark and massive minefield explosions, the fish Marlin and Dory are exhausted. Marlin is anxious to find his missing son, Nemo, but now he has lost his best clue for finding him—a scuba mask inscribed with the address of the diver who captured Nemo.
Discouraged, Marlin says, "That was my only chance at finding my son; now it's gone!" But Dory is not so easily deterred. "Hey, Mr. Grumpy Gills," she says. "When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim." Dory continues joyfully singing about swimming, while leading Marlin into the dark ocean depths in search of the mask. Dory remains hopeful in the face of adversity. Pixar films do that, moving us to "just keep swimming" no matter what our circumstances.
Pixar films are also full of imagination. In their first, 1995's Toy Story, toys come alive when humans aren't around. Woody the cowboy doll climbs onto a bed and sees an imposing action figure—Buzz Lightyear, a Space Ranger. Buzz, who doesn't know he's a toy, attempts to contact Star Command and is puzzled by their silence. Distraught over the damage to his "ship"—the cardboard box he came in—Buzz makes a voice recording in his mission log, noting that he has crash landed on a "strange planet." Woody greets Buzz, as do the other toys in the room. When Woody refers to Buzz as a toy, the Space Ranger is not amused, resulting in some banter as to whether or not Buzz can really fly. Buzz sets out to demonstrate his flying prowess and as he prepares to jump from a bedpost, he utters the now-famous phrase, "To infinity and beyond!" Buzz's words may well be a call to creativity and imagination too. That's certainly been the case for Pixar, as the studio continues to dream up fantastic adventures that are also grounded in realities to which many can relate.
Trends in filmmaking come and go, but there's always room for hopeful films, such as the classic It's a Wonderful Life. Some films, however, emphasize the ugly reality of a world ripped apart by sin (The Dark Knight is a good contemporary example). While it's important to understand depravity in the world, it's also important to affirm its joys, opportunities, and hopes. Pixar films excel in this—to the point that some might consider them countercultural in their positive affirmations. This does not mean that Pixar avoids challenging topics; rather, the studio handles them in such a way as to leave hope intact.
WALL-E, for instance, is about a polluted earth. Human-produced garbage is everywhere, even in space, where thousands of discarded satellites orbit the planet. After trashing the planet and departing to space, humans leave the messy job of cleaning it up to robots like WALL-E, the main character, a Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class. Nevertheless, the opening song from Hello, Dolly!—"Put on Your Sunday Clothes"—immediately sets an optimistic, hopeful tone. Despite playing over images of a trashed earth, the hopeful song praises the wonder and joy in the world. Skyscraper-sized piles of garbage are not enough to dampen the spirits of WALL-E, a film that is, in the end, primarily about love.
Up, true to its name, is also uplifting. While including the realities of human suffering, in the end Up is hopeful. Through a fantastic adventure, grumpy old man Carl Fredricksen befriends a boy in need, learns to enjoy life again, and realizes that even though the love of his life, Ellie, is gone, she'd want him to enjoy the adventure that still awaits.
Along with faith and love, hope is one of three important Christian virtues (1 Corinthians 13:13; Colossians 1:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8). The Bible refers to "the God of hope," linking "joy and peace" to hope that is founded on belief in God (Romans 15:13). Christian hope requires faith in God and his goodness. His love is foundational to hope.
Paul refers to "Christ Jesus our hope" (1 Timothy 1:1 ). The primary example of the hope Christ offers is the reality of his resurrection from the dead. This, in turn, gives us hope in the future healing and restoration of creation that God has promised.
While hope in general is about having a positive attitude about the future, the biblical dimension adds God as the focal point of hope. Consequently, hope is not a technique; it is not to be placed on a particular field of inquiry such as science and technology, or in politics or individuals, no matter how influential they may be. Christian hope, rather, is God-directed. If God exists, there is hope.
And with hope comes an opportunity to leave behind despair in exchange for the meaning found in the Christian worldview. Here, imagination can help us along.
Our creative spark
Imagination is part of human nature; the creative spark is hardwired into us. Imagination drives times of leisure, artistic creativity, and escape into fantastic realms, whether through literature, music, painting, film, or other human expressions. Every Pixar film is creative and imaginative. But where do creativity and imagination come from? What is their role in daily life?
Pixar clearly values creativity and imagination. A film about a rat who wants to be a chef, Ratatouille clearly shows its admiration for the imagination. As the main character, Remy, explains it, "I know I'm supposed to hate humans, but there's something about them. They don't just survive, they discover, they create!" The human character Chef Gusteau underscores creativity when he compares the making of a gourmet meal to the artistry of music: "Good food is like music you can taste, color you can smell. There is excellence all around you. You need only be aware to stop and savor it."
Imagination is also valued in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Both feature Andy imaginatively playing with his toys. Toy Story begins with an old West bank robbery, spearheaded by Mr. Potato Head no less (aka "One-Eyed Bart"). But Woody saves the day (and also his dinosaur, Rex, who happens to eat force-field dogs).
In TS2, Andy is undeterred by the fact that he's supposed to leave for cowboy camp in just five minutes, turning those minutes turn into an opportunity for imaginative play: Bo Peep is held captive by evil Dr. Pork Chop, complete with black bowler hat and an army of toy soldiers. In order to save Bo from being eaten by a shark or "death by monkeys," Andy brings in Buzz to join forces with Woody and save the day.
The extent of creativity expressed by people is unique to humans. We tell stories, play with toys, create visual artwork, compose music, and write books; we imagine and bring to life ideas rich in creativity, and we delight in such things.
But where does imagination originate? Biblically speaking, it derives from the fact that human beings alone are made in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27). The so-called imago Dei drives us creatively, imaginatively, intellectually, morally, spiritually, and more. In her chapter on imagination in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, Cheryl Forbes observed, "Imagination is the image of God in us." Or, as Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible, "The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars." Why? Because the Christian worldview offers us a firm foundation for creativity and imagination. As God is creative, so to a lesser extent are we. The Bible itself is rich in imagery, vivid word pictures and captivating storytelling. The extent of creativity in human beings may even be used as one line of argumentation for the existence of God. In a world that is supposedly the result of blind chance and time, why should we consider anything to be beautiful or creative or imaginative in any sense?
Our hope is placed in God, supported by his love and grasped by our faith. Hope is pointless unless something behind it ensures that our positive outlook is grounded in a reality we can trust. Moreover, imagination is God's image at work in and through us. He has bestowed us with incredible amounts of creativity. Properly directed, our imagination can contribute positively toward making a difference in the world.
I'm not seeking to turn Pixar films into Christian parables, or even to suggest that Pixar's films are somehow secretly Christian. But I think we all can find something in their movies as they relate to virtue, and apply those insights practically to the Christian life.
Robert Velarde, author of The Wisdom of Pixar, is a writer and editor for Sonlight Curriculum. He also wrote The Heart of Narnia (NavPress, 2008), The Lion, the Witch and the Bible (NavPress, 2005) and Inside the Screwtape Letters (Baker, forthcoming).
Taken from The Wisdom of Pixar: An Animated Look at Virtue by Robert Velarde.
© 2010 by Robert Velarde. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.