For anyone who has weathered the pandemic while simultaneously raising a toddler: I feel your pain. In my house, toys are no longer organized by function or size; they’re relegated to piles, tossed in corners, buried beneath other things. And yet, despite pangs of homesickness for our beloved Brooklyn, we have found solace in our newfound suburbanization: backyard, vegetable garden, washer/dryer … even a second kid on the way! As we settled into our new routines in the land of sprawl, the pandemic struck and, like countless parents, we subscribed to Disney+. And although I was familiar with Pixar, watching the studio’s movies in this unprecedented context felt like experiencing them anew.
Although Pixar films do exist within a common cinematic universe, their connective tissue is loose. Interestingly, two elements that do manage to tether the films together are the corporations Dinoco (oil/gas company) and Buy n Large (global conglomerate in the vein of Amazon), which appear in several movies. It’s no coincidence that these corporate entities are of dubious character. They also help frame what amounts to a rather grim prophecy. As it turns out, Pixar is preoccupied with the urban condition, and we’re all just poisoning and consuming ourselves to the brink of extinction.
Let’s begin with Cars, the characters of which, if you are not familiar with it, are sentient automobiles. Our protagonist, Lightning McQueen, is a race car new to the circuit. As rookies go, he’s par for the course: flashy, headstrong, a bit of a prima donna. While en route to California for his next race, he inadvertently detours to Radiator Springs, a dusty, one-road town along Route 66. Through trial and hardship, and with the help of new friends, Lightning discovers the rich and storied history of the town: Once a beacon in the desert, with its glowing neon signs beckoning travelers far and wide, Radiator Springs fell on hard times, largely due to the construction of Interstate 40 in the early 1960s. One day, Lightning is on a ridge overlooking the town when he notices the band of highway just beyond it, cars whizzing by. “Look at that: they’re driving right by, they don’t know what they’re missing,” he naively says. It’s at this point that the history lesson comes into focus. “Back then cars came across the country a whole different way,” says Lightning’s companion, waxing nostalgic about pre-highway countryside. “The town got bypassed just to save 10 minutes of driving.”
Then there’s Carl Fredericksen in Up. Carl, voiced by Ed Asner, is in a bit of a bind. For more than a half a century he has lived in the same house, a quaint two-story Victorian with scalloped shingles and a modest front porch. Once upon a time it was just a boarded-up hovel consumed by overgrowth, not unlike 320 Sycamore from It’s a Wonderful Life. But it has good bones. Carl and his wife Ellie bought it for a song and quickly got to work on their fixer-upper passion project, sawing and hammering and shellacking away to realize their slice of domestic bliss. Today, Carl is a widowed octogenarian with a resting scowl face who gets around using a cane. The house still stands, just a bit the worse for wear, but the neighborhood has been transformed by rapid development and upzoning. Scaffolding and steel girders now cast long shadows, making way for office towers and luxury condos. A tanning salon and sushi restaurant have opened across the street, clear markings of an urban development boom in full swing. The busy thrum of jackhammers and construction trucks has supplanted singing birds and rustling leaves as the soundtrack to Carl’s waking life. But Carl holds fast to his property, no matter how much money or airborne toxins are thrown in his face. It is only when his removal by force becomes inevitable that he turns creative, stringing thousands of helium balloons to the andirons in his fireplace, lifting the house off its foundation and escaping once and for all the soulless urban sprawl that lies below.
And, finally, there’s WALL-E. A pint-sized robot, WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load-Lifter: Earth-Class), is programmed to collect and compact trash as part of a global effort dubbed “Operation Clean Up,” an undertaking with no end in sight. It’s 2800, and Earth has been reduced to an unvegetated wasteland of rubbish, the product of centuries of environmental imbalance, unchecked pollution, and corporate overreach. No humans are around; they’re wandering the solar system on luxury starliners, content with a life of lethargy in an artificial environment, seemingly unaware of the sins committed by previous generations. In fact, the only carbon-based life left on Earth we see is a friendly, trusty cockroach who keeps our robot company. What WALL-E doesn’t know is that Operation Clean Up is a fool’s errand. The planet is a lost cause, and Buy n Large, the corporation that effectively triggered mass extinction, is all too aware of this. But so long as people keep drinking their slushies and watching their infomercials, that secret is safe. It’s only when WALL-E stumbles upon a tiny green sapling does it become clear that all is not lost on earth. Thus ensues a wacky interstellar adventure to topple a fascist regime and restore human civilization.
It’s not all doomsaying and proselytizing in Pixar-land. Ratatouille and Soul are implicit love letters to Paris and New York, respectively, their underlying moral being: city life can be rough, you’ll take your lumps, but in the end it’s all worth it because moments of genuine beauty and inspiration are always a heartbeat away, or just around the corner. In Inside Out—which, incidentally, is a master class in screenwriting—the saga of a little girl’s coming-of-age is framed within the context of her family uprooting their life in pastoral Minnesota and moving to the busy streets of San Francisco, where life is anything but simple and something as pedestrian as a slice of pizza comes with broccoli.
It’s not only some romanticized version of Americana that’s on Pixar’s mind; it also has a bone to pick with the suburbs. In The Incredibles, a husband-and-wife duo who once headlined a confederation of superheroes have now been cast out, relegated to live the life of “an average nobody.” After an unfortunate incident resulted in superheroes—and all superhero fandom and culture—being outlawed, Bob and Helen Parr (aka Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl) simply pick up their life in the city, move to a subdevelopment, make babies, and assume the banal routines of suburbia. (It’s also no coincidence that certain artistic elements in the film are an ode to the futurist stylings of Miroslav Šašek.) And in Onward, a pair of adolescent elfin brothers, Ian and Barley, dwell in what amounts to the mythic equivalent of Suburgatory. In their world, rampant consumerism and technological advances have rendered the need for magic moot. As a result, history has turned to legend, which gradually becomes the stuff of fantastical fiction. But legends die hard, and the brothers set out on a quest to reconnect with their familial roots and, essentially, shed the doldrums of their suburban existence.
One evening, recently, while observing the chaos that was our living room floor, with WALL-E playing in the background, I remarked to my wife that any attempt at our own Operation Clean Up was likely futile. Notice to parents and educators: there are teachable lessons therein, the intricacies of which can be explored every which way. Look to the likes of Baudelaire and O’Hara, Olmstead and Gehl, and countless others who have shaped how we interact with the world we’ve built for ourselves. Like wine and cheese, pair together excerpts from The Power Broker with a viewing of Up, or Lewis Mumford’s The Myth of the Machine with WALL-E. If the likes of Lightning McQueen, Carl Fredericksen, and WALL-E are all somehow tied together by a common fate, then their collective thread paints a stark picture. But, as with any good folktale, glimmers of hope are often hidden in the subtext, and making a better world never means going back to the ways things were. It means reinventing the world, sometimes in ways that are extreme.
All images via Pixar Studios.