Why do all Pixar movies have the same story?

Reflections on Coco, cash, and children’s narratives

Last weekend, I took my son to the cinema. It was a gesture to make me feel like a good father, albeit one £40 less rich by the time tickets and treats were bought.

He’d seen the trailer for Coco in between the mindless videos of American kids throwing stuff at each other and/or unwrapping expensive toys that he enjoys on YouTube. He was a little worried that the skeletons might be scary but I assured him that any such fears would be put to bed by the huge portion of popcorn that we could share.

As it turns out, we were both right. He was scared, initially at least, but the popcorn made him feel a lot better. And me a bit sick.

I zoned out. I watched the film. I zoned out some more. There’s a lot of exposition. Which is fair enough because, essentially, the whole point of the film, as well as explaining the Day of the Dead, is back story, what with its focus on dead ancestors.

The eventual story was, essentially, this:

A lost kid finds his way home.

(And, in doing so, also finds himself.)

Here’s Wikipedia’s first paragraph synopsis for 2015’s The Good Dinosaur:

Set on a fictional Earth in which dinosaurs never became extinct, the film follows a young Apatosaurus named Arlo, who meets an unlikely human friend while traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape.

Do you know why Arlo’s travelling through this ‘harsh and mysterious landscape’? Because he’s been separated from his father and must find his way home.

Monsters Inc came out so long ago (2001), I was almost a child. But not quite. If you’ve not seen it, here’s what Wikipedia says about the plot:

In the film, employees at Monsters, Inc. generate their city’s power by scaring children, but they themselves are afraid that the children are toxic to them, and when one child enters the factory, Sulley and Mike must return her home before it is too late.

Notice any similarities? In their defence, Pixar have modified the plot here, making the child that needs returning home a supporting character.

And then there’s Finding Nemo (2003). If you’re the one person in the world not to have seen this film, Nemo is a young fish, lost far away from home. The point of the film, as signalled by the title, is for him to be found and so returned safely to his family.

Cars (2006), Wall-E (2008), Inside Out (2015), Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010) all follow similar stories to some degree. A character is lost (or trapped) far away. This character must find their way home.

It’s Homer’s Odyssey but with more talking potato heads.

Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots states, as the title suggests, that the Pixar writers have a whole six other storylines to choose from.

Booker’s seven plots are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy.

Five of these plots have the happy ending a children’s movie requires. In this sense, Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, the Quest, Voyage and Return, and Rebirth are all comedies. Order is restored at their conclusion and the hero has learnt an important lesson about themselves.

So why is it that Pixar have plumped for ‘Voyage and Return’ for most of their movies?

There are two answers. One is charitable, the other less so.

Let’s begin with the mean hypothesis. Toy Story was their first feature film. And it was incredibly successful. Not only did it almost make $400 million at the box office, but it also provided a licensing opportunity for the titular toys. The combined worldwide box office for all Toy Story films is almost two billion dollars.

Toy Story, therefore, was a good thing for Pixar.

Studios like their audiences to be ‘preaware’. It’s too risky to introduce new stories with too many surprises. If the ‘Voyage and Return’ plot worked for Toy Story, why change it for subsequent movies?

That’s the cynical conclusion. More generously, you might consider the target audience. Kids and parents. What’s the most profound conflict this audience could imagine? Being separated? Being far away from home? What’s the warmest resolution? A family reunited.

By the end of 2017, Coco had made $500 million globally. This suggests that not only do parents welcome an alternative to talking to their kids about mortality but also that the ‘Voyage and Return’ narrative, unlike Coco’s great-great-grandfather, isn’t dead yet.

Remember this next time you’re out pitching your children’s screenplay in the lavish offices of Hollywood producers. And give me an executive producer credit if you’re successful.