Part of Pixar's genius is that it makes movies that work for children and adults alike. Kids will watch Cars and laugh at the funny antics that take place in a world populated by sentient cars and spend years playing with toys that look like Lightning McQueen. Adults (or older children, to be more accurate) will instead spend those years deconstructing why and how an existential nightmare world of living cars ever came to be. Ka-chow!
Not every Pixar movie has us slightly older folk questioning the very nature of life itself, but a lot of them do. Some of them have moments that are so dire, so dark, and so incredibly loaded that they're tough to shake. These moments, to borrow and paraphrase a line from a completely different work of genre entertainment, definitely have us questioning the nature of our realities.
When it comes to dealing with the psychological issues inherent in these movie moments, talking (repeatedly) with friends will only get us so far. Sometimes these movies make us want to call in a professional or talk to one that we may already meet with.
What kind of professional? A therapist, of course. True Pixar moments of dark imagination can have us searching for one on the internet after every single exasperated friend has said, "Seriously, shut up about the Cars thing." Some of us may already see therapists, and in this case, it's astounding how often Pixar movies come up. For the record, I myself have seen therapists (I'll give you a moment for the shock to subside), and one of them mentioned Bing Bong (from Inside Out) long before I ever did.
What are the Pixar moments that make us want to book appointments for therapy immediately when we watch them or think about them? If you're a Pixar fan, very little here will surprise you. If you're less than familiar with the Pixar canon, then welcome to hell.
Afterlife confirmed, Coco (2017)
Here's a fine place to start — according to Coco, there is some manner of existence of life after death. This movie proffers the notion that we don't just blink into nothingness in the moment we die. There's a huge, colorful, and somewhat creepy afterlife waiting, and it has almost as many rules and regulations as the world of the living.
This is more than just a moment, as a great deal of this movie takes place in the afterlife and a lot of the film’s plot revolves around it. It’s also less troubling than many other entries here. The possibility that there is something, anything waiting for us after we shuffle off this mortal coil is actually comforting.
Comforting to a point, I should say. Coco has incredible depth and beauty, but it's made by a company that built its empire from the success of a movie in which toys come to life. Coco is just a fantasy, and in reality, we probably won't get to travel to a musical afterlife and reconnect with past loved ones after we snuff it. We're just dead.
Or are we? Book an appointment.
Soulmates confirmed, Up (2009)
The marriage montage, yay! This is a notorious Pixar moment, an obvious one, and also one of the most potent. The montage depicts the ups and downs of a pair of true soulmates, and it ends with the wife dying. The husband is left alone with a single balloon. What riotous fun for the whole family!
In terms of storytelling, it is staggeringly effective. We know Carl Fredrickson intimately after this, and we completely get where he's coming from. In terms of breaking your heart? Yeah, no problem there. Are there bigger issues at play? Bet your bottom there are.
Much like the fantasy confirmation of the afterlife in Coco, this movie incepts us with the notion that soulmates are real. It's something that many of us would love evidence of, and the movie gives us this hope. Then again, Carl and Ellie's marriage-via-montage is so strong and their relationship is so sweet, it may make some people unwilling to settle for anything less. Anything short of this perfect soulmate symmetry is not worth the effort. To go one further: even if soulmates are real and even if you do find yours, they're just gonna die at some point.
Talk about setting an impossible bar. Once again, this is not real life... but the movie is crafted with such love and care that you trust the beating heart that is spinning you what is, in all likelihood, a lie. Throw in 'hero' Charles Muntz charging at a kid with a shotgun in the finale, as well as Carl finally letting go of the house that he and his wife shared (and then watching it fall to Earth), and this movie is a master class in making you confront things that you probably do not want to confront.
Book several appointments.
Crisis on Desolate Earth, WALL-E (2008)
Talk about being alone! The entire opening of this movie is as masterful as it is wordless. We’re on a future Earth that is completely overrun with trash, it's been vacated, and there's just one little trash-compacting robot left. He’s still doing his job.
Every now and then, the little guy looks to the stars with wide eyes. Sometimes he watches Hello, Dolly! and other times he takes old bras out of the garbage and puts them on his face.
He should watch Hello, Doomsday! instead because this little guy is lonely. He just wants to hold someone's hand, but his only friend is a cockroach. His soulmate (soulmates again, bridge may or may not be for sale), comes around fairly quickly, but slick white robots don't land in everyone's dystopian yard. Some people may go through life just like WALL-E in the first 10 minutes of this movie, waiting, endlessly waiting, on a planet full of trash. With a cockroach. WALL-E still does his job at least, and he does it well — how many of us can say the same?
Appointments? Book 'em Tack.
Life is not a dream, Bao (2018)
Woman makes dumpling. Dumpling comes to life. Woman raises dumpling as a child. Dumpling child grows up and eventually demands independence. Woman eats dumpling.
I loved Incredibles 2, but it was this short that played before the film that haunted me for the rest of last summer. My only solace was that it was surely some kind of dream sequence... if not the entire short, then certainly the end.
This was not the case. The creator of the short, Domee Shi, was interviewed by the New York Times about it. It was revealed that none of it is a dream sequence. All of it is real, and the very Brothers Grimm-like tone was intentional. Cute, horrifying, and Oscar-winning all at the same time.
Eat up as many appointments as you can.
Bing Bong, your friend is dead, Inside Out (2015)
This movie resonates as much as it does because the filmmakers really did the research — according to one therapist (who will go unnamed because they know way too much about me), this movie is now routinely brought up at conventions. This isn't an animated "Inside Herman's Head" like people were expecting. It's something far deeper and much more troubling.
Look no further than Bing Bong, the imaginary, colorful elephant entity that Riley, the girl whose head we're in for a lot of the film, has completely forgotten about. He helps Joy and Sadness along in their journey to get back to the command center in Riley's head, and he sacrifices himself to do it.
Growing up sucks and I guess imaginary elephants have to die for it to happen. Are we all supposed to banish our own personal Bing Bongs? If so, when were/are we supposed to do this? What if some of these Bing Bongs are more like demonic elephantine phantasms, and they refuse to accept banishment? This got even darker than I thought it would.
Need another moment from this head-spin of a movie to talk to a therapist about? Pause it at any time, and there you go. The entire notion of a "command center" in everyone's head has me wondering what other people's command centers look like. We see a couple of them in this movie, but what would a murderer's command center look like? What would Batman's command center look like?
Also, there’s no joy without sadness. Does 2:15 work for you, Doctor?
You’ve got a friend in the furnace, Toy Story 3 (2010)
How much crazier can it get than this: You're watching what was presumed (at the time) to be the final Toy Story entry, you get to the scene in which all of the hero toys are trapped in a furnace and are about to burn to death, and you think, "yep, they're gonna burn, this is how it's gonna end."
That's honestly what I thought when the toys started holding hands. I don't know how Pixar did it, but I truly believed that it would end a trilogy about talking toys by burning them all alive. Of course the claw (the claaaaawwww) came in and they were saved, but still... for at least a minute, I thought that Woody and his roundup were toast.
Of course they'd never end a movie like that, let alone a trilogy... but that logic escaped me. When rewatching the movie, I now know that the toys are gonna get a rescue. What haunts me is remembering my first viewing, when I was convinced that no rescue was coming. No claw, no Gollum slipping over the edge, no Arya Stark — just burning plastic. I would have accepted it, too. That's one strong choice.
There's also the moment in which Andy gives his toys away at the end, as he has officially outgrown childish things. It reminds me of the time I gave away my three laundry baskets full of Lego, but unlike Andy, I picked out some of my favorite pieces and minifigs and secured them in a drawer. Why? What the f**k am I ever gonna do with them? No idea, but the preciouses stayed with me. If Andy could have given his own Bing Bong away he probably would have.
There's a psychological breakdown in my boot! Clear the schedule, book all of the appointments.
Everything, absolutely everything, Cars (2006)
All of it. The whole thing. I question the Cars movies more than I question most of my own life choices. That said, I really can't distill my issues down further than the phrase, "what exactly is the deal here?"
People have brought up the world building of this movie before, so it's nothing new. Still, I repeat the now-familiar refrain: What happened to the people? This world that is populated solely by cars (and other assorted transports) must have had them around at some point. If not, why do the cars have seats? What is the point of the SEATS? Why do the cars even have doors???
Do these cars procreate, or are they manufactured? In either scenario, how exactly does that work? Do I want to watch, and if so, why? Why do I now have an image of two cars doin' it in a motel room in my head? Do you have it in your head now, too?
Seriously, I can't with this. It’s like a one-off Rick and Morty joke about a "car dimension" stretched out for over three movies and we get no answers. I don't just want answers, I need answers. Why do I need answers???
Forget the therapist, bring me a team of scientists and maybe Jeff Goldblum.
Forky (probably), Toy Story 4 (2019)
I haven't seen this movie yet but I can tell that it's gonna have my mind spinning. The trailers have introduced us to Forky, a 'toy' that Bonnie makes out of a spork. It gains that fabled toy sentience because Bonnie has decided that it is a toy. She plays with it like it's a toy, so it lives. It lives!
Many, many things to unpack here. First off: Does the power to determine what objects are toys and which ones are not toys solely belong to children? I hope so because that sounds like something that many an adult would mightily abuse if they became aware of it.
Even if it's only children that have this power, what if there was a child far crazier than Bonnie, who then became aware of this power, and decided to recklessly use it? We've seen awful kids in the Toy Story movies before. Say some morally horrible child straight out of The Omen found out the truth, and decided to turn every knife they saw into a "Knifey." Don't look now, but here comes devilish little Frank and his army of walking, talking knives.
Here's another scenario: somewhere in the world some kid (Frank again, let's say) decides that his father's car is a toy. Frank plays with it like it is. The car gains sentience and becomes the first car in the Car Universe. Frank teaches this game to his stupid group of friends, and they all decide to make toys out of their parents' cars. Little by little, you end up with tons of sentient cars... and perhaps they have scores to settle. Perhaps for the cars, "to infinity and beyond" involves wiping out humanity and creating a society made of nothing but themselves. Is that a movie? Would it be a basis for a Cars prequel? If it is, would the cars keep the seats?
For Forky and Frank, you'd better fly in a flock of freakin' Freuds.
All of this, and I haven't even mentioned Brave, in which Merida's mother turns into a bear. Cards on the table? I've brought up a lot of this stuff with a therapist. On two occasions, and I am not making this up, the "expert" response to the existential issues of these films was the following:
"Just keep swimming."
Good advice! But hey, do you know where that song comes from? Thanks to Finding Dory we do, and now I need to talk about it.
Toy Story 4 comes out on June 20. The men in white coats will come for me the very next day.