This Friday, Pixar releases its 20th feature film, and its second in seven months: Incredibles 2, the sequel to the 2004 smash from writer/director Brad Bird. I’m dreading it. Here’s why.
Pixar films — once defined by their unbridled joy and visual invention — now prey on the raw realities of family life. Consider 2016’s Finding Dory and last year’s Coco: the former confronts the challenges of raising a child with special needs, the latter the caring of a parent with Alzheimer’s. Both films, to be sure, handle these subjects with care. I love reading accounts from parents, like this one from Jason Hague, on how Finding Dory is “essentially the story of a special needs child.” Dory doesn’t have a learning disability, but her short-term memory loss means she requires more attention than the average child. As the 2016 doc Life, Animated showed, Disney and Pixar films can have a special role in the lives of children on the spectrum. For some, these movies become the gateway through which they learn to communicate. I’m sure Pixar know this, and with Finding Dory the studio made a feature that directly reflects the challenges of raising a child with special needs. It was a savvy, savage move designed to extract the tears out of us. It worked.
Coco riffs on this same formula: instead of a child-like fish with no short-term memory, we have an elderly woman with no long-term memory. Like any sentient being, I was moved by the story of Mama Coco. Her big scene, the film’s emotional climax, destroys people; it’s designed to destroy people. Pixar can pulverize your heart with a climax you even saw coming. Many of us knew Mama Coco would hear “Remember Me” and, as the song urges, remember him, but that knowledge did little to prepare us for the scene itself. As Mama Coco recounted memories of her youth, I felt the tears practically syringed out of my eyeballs. How could I not? There’s an almost clinical precision to what Pixar does now. Like doctors, they know just where to tap to get the desired reflex. I like Coco and Finding Dory; they’re exquisitely calibrated tearjerkers. But some of us are tired of crying.
What might a less weepy Pixar look like? The answer was there from the beginning: Toy Story gave generous screentime to a singular, gleefully sadistic presence. Yes, I’m talking about Andy’s deranged neighbor, the kid with a gift for taking toys apart and putting them back together. I’m talking about Sid. Before Pixar preyed on our familial fears, the studio had room for such outré voices. It’s hard to imagine the team that now churns out finely crafted weepies once gave us this god-level creation. With John Lasseter officially out at Pixar, can we give Sid the keys to the castle? Just imagine what delightfully strange things he could do with the toys at Pixar. If only the studio would follow this impulse again: a little more chaos, a little less crying. Tears aren’t the only way to our hearts, after all. Sometimes a Hellraiser-looking spider baby will do just fine.
Pixar’s lust for tears began in earnest with Up. In 2009, the opening act of that film felt like a revelation — a gut-punch so hard most of us needed the remaining 75 minutes to recover. My friends still speak of Carl’s wife in the hushed tones of a funeral reception. Pixar must have noticed the reverence for this sequence and developed a taste for tears. Nine years later, it goes for the jugular every time, and its boner for making us bawl has gotten a bit boring. Pixar has long proven it can reduce us to puddles. No one doubts this. Will it continue to harvest our tears every summer and the occasional Thanksgiving? Americans are a sentimental people — commercials about sharing a Coke can make us cry — so no doubt we’ll keep showing up to get our tears drawn by these master clinicians.
“I love movies that make me cry,” Lasseter once said, to the surprise of no one. Maybe now he can serve in an unofficial capacity, chopping up onions at select screenings of Toy Story 4. At this point, I’m unsure what more the studio could do to devastate us. Coco felt like an apotheosis; Pixar mastered its formula to a fault. Heading into Incredibles 2, I anticipate the emotional devastation the way I would, say, the twist ending of an early M. Night Shyamalan movie. And that can’t possibly be what a filmmaker wants. Pixar has the tools, the money, and the talent to surprise us again. It can start by breaking its addiction to watching its audience ugly-cry. Our puffy eyes could use a break.