Disney, Pixar, and the Joy of Creation

Recently, there were some rainy days in my week where I didn’t have a whole lot to do (that’s a lie, there’s so much productive work I could have been doing). I ended up basically hanging out around the house watching movies, and I noticed something interesting – some of the movies I watched were actually inspiring me to get my ass back to work, some significantly more than others. The movies in question? Ratatouille, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Toy Story (yeah, whatever, you’ve never had an all-day Disney/Pixar marathon?). Now, some of those movies certainly have themes about the importance of hard work, or perseverance, but it’s more than that. All of these movies focus, at some point, on the joy of creation.

Ratatouille focuses almost entirely on the joy of cooking and making food; The Princess and the Frog shows Tiana’s love of cooking and several characters’ love of making music; Tangled features Rapunzel as a prolific painter; and Toy Story showcases both the innovation of stories with Andy and of toys and physical objects with Sid (oh yes, we are going to talk about Sid). And these are just the ones that I watched recently. It’s a recurring theme in Disney and Pixar works that not just creativity, but creation, is key to a character’s growth and development.

Sometimes, a character is denied by external forces or is denying themselves their love or passion or gift for some kind of creation, and their character arc is about learning to accept or embrace it (or getting others to accept it). Remy’s arc in Ratatouille is about him shaking off the stereotypes of his species and not only acknowledging his talent as a chef, but using the products of that talent to make others accept it. If Remy’s creations are denied by external forces (both rat and human), there’s a certain famous Disney character whose creations are denied by herself – Elsa, from Frozen. There’s certainly external pressure to hide her gift, but the way she internalizes it puts all of the pressure on herself – she’s told “conceal it, don’t feel it”, and by the time she’s an adult, she’s turned that into “conceal, don’t feel”. As in, don’t feel anything. Don’t make anything. Don’t do anything. And we all saw how well that worked out. As such, the first time we see her really happy as an adult is when she finally cuts loose and creates her massive ice castle. At the end of the movie, we see her finally feeling fulfilled and accepted as she turns those powers and her creations into things that are useful, or beautiful – and appreciated by others.

Other times, a character’s penchant for creation is shown as a means of escapism for them. Rapunzel, locked away in her tower, is constantly creating – she bakes, she sews, she knits, etc. But her special love is painting. Look at the backgrounds of the tower, especially her bedroom – she’s painted everything. Obviously, the events of the movie let her escape from the tower, but let me ask – when she (presumably) moves into the castle with the king and queen, and starts living as a princess – do you think that she gives up painting? I’m willing to believe that maybe she stops making her own candles, or sewing tiny dresses for her chameleon companion, but I can’t imagine that she’d ever stop painting. It was her means of escape for so many years that by now it’s a potent coping mechanism for her, and I always envisioned Rapunzel using it to deal with the obviously positive, but no less abrupt and stressful changes in her life at the end of the movie. And although this is never shown directly, it seems obvious to me, because of the detail and attention given to her when she’s painting, and how well that’s portrayed. Interestingly, Ariel from The Little Mermaid can be seen as doing a lower form of this, with her collection of things from the land, artfully arranged and carefully curated. Less attention is paid to this unfortunately, so we get the impression that it’s not so much a passion as it is an emotional crutch (which I tend to see as a mistake on the part of the movie, but that might just be me). At any rate, I have no difficulty seeing her on land, now collecting and displaying random mementos from the sea, and I’m vaguely upset that I’ve never seen a modern AU with her as a museum curator or something.

Of course, sometimes that act of creation symbolizes a bond between two characters (no, no, no, get your head out of the gutter). In The Princess and the Frog, from the very first scene, cooking shows Tiana’s connection with both her father and her community. In the prologue, she and her father make gumbo together and it’s a wonderful cute family bonding scene, and then they announce to the whole neighborhood that there’s gumbo, come and get it! And everyone gathers and we get a nice little monologue from the father about how good food brings people together. As an adult, Tiana keeps that connection alive by not only building her restaurant in the spot her father always dreamed of, but also by always presenting her vision of the restaurant as a gathering place, where people from all walks of life can come together. Throughout the movie, cooking for or with someone is shown as an act of love, whether its Tiana making her “man-catching beignets” to help her best friend Charlotte get the prince, or Tiana teaching Naveen to mince in the swamp. In Pixar’s Brave, the massive embroidered tapestry of the royal family is symbolic of the bond between Merida and her mother, Elinor. At first, only Elinor is seen working on it, and to an extent, she’s making the most effort to maintain any kind of bond with her daughter, whereas Merida would rather just follow in her father’s footsteps. Merida slices it nearly in half with her sword, but in the climax, she has to fix it (on a horse, in the rain – there’s a deadline) and it’s her effort with fixing both the tapestry and her relationship with her mother that resolves the main action of the movie. In the epilogue, both Merida and Elinor are shown working on another tapestry, together. The symbolism is strong in this one.

I know a lot of people don’t necessarily see it this way, but to me, certain scenes in Toy Story are symbolic of a conflict between two different kinds of creation – the idealized and the actual. The toys are all used to Andy’s style of play – highly imaginative and creative, but not necessarily involving any actual creation. He tells elaborate stories with his toys, in a way that leaves them in close-to-perfect condition. Imagine the toys’ horror when they arrive at Sid’s house, and see how he’s been mutilating his toys. Sid is, obviously, villainized from the toys’, and thus the audience’s, perspective, but I’d argue that he’s no less creative than Andy, and possibly more so. One of the anecdotes often told about the creation of Toy Story is that most of the people working on the movie were much more like Sid than Andy, and I think I was the same (I distinctly remember my brother and I performing a “tribal sacrifice” on some of my barbies). So it’s interesting to me that Sid’s distinctly physical style of creation is portrayed as lesser than Andy’s more spiritual/emotional creation. Maybe it’s because the people working at that level of the story saw themselves more exclusively as storytellers, not movie-makers – they saw themselves as the kind of people who create the very metaphysical concept of “story” as opposed to the more tangible “movie”. Because otherwise, it’s weird to me that the extremely creative Sid, in the third movie, is made the butt of a joke for being a garbageman, while the more cerebral Andy goes to college. The conflict between “lesser” and “greater” creation is seen again in The Incredibles, albeit briefly, in the character of Edna Mode. In her introduction, she describes how tired she is of designing for fashion models and such, something that most of us would consider to be a “greater” or superior form of creation. High fashion is undoubtedly an art form, impractical to the nth degree, but beautiful and evocative nonetheless. But no, Edna vastly prefers the work of designing superhero costumes, which many of us have likely given little thought to. But those uniforms are the epitome of form meeting function; the suits have to be extremely practical (durable and protective but not restrictive or in the way) but still evocative enough to carry across an image, even a brand. I wish we had gotten a little more exploration of her character in the The Incredibles, but I’m holding out hope for more Edna in the sequel that is allegedly happening.

I think the main reason that Disney and Pixar so often have themes of creation in their works is because not only are they constantly engaged in the act of creation, but they are viewed by the public as the top tier creators. Because plenty of other studios (in fact, all of them) are also fully staffed with creative people who love the work they do and love the act of creating (otherwise, why pursue it as a career?), but Disney and Pixar have more of an image to maintain than say, Dreamworks or Bluth Studios or Illumination or Warner Bros. As such, it is perhaps only natural that these ideas would be at the forefront of their minds when they create their own stories.

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