No film studio has made me cry as consistently as Pixar. It sounds a little silly, considering they make children’s cartoons, but I know I’m not alone. Their latest film Brave came out last week, and while it’s getting mixed reviews, some have admitted to not making it out dried eye. I’ve asked myself, what do these storytellers do that allows them to pull on my heart strings like no other? The answer, I believe, is that they are masters at creating empathy. They allow you to put yourself in their characters shoes and identify the emotions they are feeling.
One way Pixar creates empathy is through simplicity. Because these are stories that are supposed to be understood by children, the characters and the plots can’t be too complicated, but this helps the situations become more identifiable for the adults in the audience. Everyone can see a bit of themselves in these characters because they don’t have a lot of specifics getting in the way of making a true connection. In the Toy Story series, all the toys have the same goal- to be loved by their kid. This need drives all the action in each film. It doesn’t really matter that Woody is a cowboy, Buzz is an astronaut, and Lotso is a bear that smells like strawberries, their need for love from their kid is what defines them, and love is something everyone has experienced in some way and, sadly, so is the loss of love. You don’t have to know any specifics about the characters or the plot of Toy Story 2 to feel the emotional impact of Jessie’s Song. All you have to do is hear Jessie explain that Emily was once like Andy and then watch her face as Emily outgrows her and later discards her. Tom Hanks admitted that he found himself bawling at the premiere over that little cowgirl doll! It’s a scene so powerful, I tear up just thinking about it! Great, now my keyboard is all wet!
Also, the themes they touch on are universal. In Finding Nemo Marlin is an overprotective father who just wants to keep his son safe. Nemo is a son who wants independence but gets in trouble when he bites off more than he can chew. Almost every family has experienced this dynamic and can empathize with Marlin’s anguish as he searches for his son.
Pixar is also the masters of showing not telling. In Up! decades fly by without a word but we completely understand the depth of Ellie and Carl’s love for one another. By showing us their love, instead of having them explain it, the audience is forced to connect the dots, allowing them to feel more invested. Also, when filling in the blanks, the situation becomes more personalized for the audience. Each person is thinking about how they would feel if the love of their life died, with so many unfulfilled dreams because in this world, love is, sadly, not all you need.
While a lot of filmmakers waste their energy constructing dramatic act three declarations of love to finish their complicated storylines with their dynamic characters, I will know that as long as Pixar is telling simple stories with their patented skill and heart; I will still have to bring a pack of tissues when I see their newest release.