Affective Animation: How Disney Pixar Movies Make Us Cry
‘Did Up make you cry?’ is basically a rhetorical question. Whether it is a story about toys, robots, animals, monsters, or humans, Disney Pixar is amazingly good in leaving you in tears at the end of the movie. How does Pixar manage to make even adults cry their eyes out for animated characters?
I score a 10/10 on crying at Pixar movies. Up, The Good Dinosaur, Coco – you name it and I cried. Of course, this can just be my personal emotional incontinence. But it is remarkable how many adults will admit that they had a hard time holding back their tears during Pixar animations. In sketch titled ‘The Science of Making You Cry’, Pixar ‘explains’ that their main goal is to make people sad. Although the video is obviously sarcastic, the fact that it is amusing to watch indicates that there is some truth in the tear inducing effect that Pixar movies have on their audiences. Besides, the video refers to the commonly held idea that a movie is good when it makes you cry.
While Disney animations are successful in moving their audiences, their subsidiary Pixar excels in creating tear-jerking movies. At first sight, it is remarkable that these movies make us cry: the main characters are cartoon characters, in most cases not even human beings, who do things that could evidently never happen in the real world: toys come to life, monsters being are to scare sleeping children, and helium-balloon-powered houses travel the world. How can a story so unrealistic make us care so much about their animated main characters?
In the Disney+ documentary Inside Pixar E11, the Pixar creators explain that their stories often reflect their own personal lives. Whereas the animated characters are far from real, their lives are relatable. The magical ingredient is the realistic portrayal of the complex emotional lives of the characters. According to the upcoming field of ‘affective narratology’, a sequence of events that is emotionally coherent is key to effective storytelling. To make a story plausible and moving, the most important element is not that we can understand how events came to pass but rather that we can assimilate these events to the characters’ relatable emotional experiences. As Pixar director Pete Doctor explains: ‘What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.’ While this is true for storytelling in general, it is especially important in Pixar movies, given that the basic plots of their movies cannot happen in real life.
What makes Pixar’s highly unrealistic stories believable is the fact that they address issues that are central to our own lives. The characters live through real-life human experiences and address the big questions of life. Wreck-It Ralph is not just about a videogame character who is done being the villain but teaches us not to judge others and to accept who we are. Soul explores ideas about the afterlife. Inside Out teaches us how (we believe that) our emotions determine our behaviour. Onward addresses the extreme difficulty of coping with the loss of a parent. Such situations, problems, and difficulties evoke a set of complicated emotions in the characters with which anyone can identify. Pixar addresses real human matters such as family, friendship, death, loss, and the highly realistic emotions that such events evoke in our life. The animated characters are vehicles to see real emotions at work – quite literally in Inside Out.
The effect of the story thus depends on the human capacity to empathize with others: to recognize which emotions others experience, and to understand why others feel how they feel. The fact that empathy is learned and developed through life may well be the reason why these movies are entertaining for kids but rather devastating and heart-crushing for adults.
Apart from the emotional logic of the plot, other factors add to the empathy inducing effect. In Inside Pixar E15 it is explained that, besides music, color and light are essential for the effect of scenes. Light and dark generate ‘a different kind of feel’ in the audience, and, so, colors are a significant part of conveying the emotion of the animated characters. Besides, the ways in which the characters themselves are animated seem to be important for the success of making us cry as well. Their magnified eyes and mouths and their chubby cheeks supposedly heighten their perceived vulnerability. The cuteness of the characters automatically evokes tender feelings and the motivation to care for them. Also, the exaggerated emotional expressions help us to understand more clearly which emotions the characters convey.
Besides the fact that these unrealistic traits appeal to the ‘baby schema’, it seems to be important that the characters are not too realistic. We accept what the humanized cars and toys do in the animations, because they remain in the realm of a fantasy world. Yet when such characters are made hyper-realistic, display of emotions break the illusion: cars, animals, and toys simply cannot express emotions. This appears to be part of the reason why the live action version of The Lion King is less tear inducing than the animated 1994 version: ‘By making its characters hyper-realistic, a disconnect emerges between the emotions the movie tells us they feel and what we see.’
Every Pixar movie has the ‘Pixar moment’ – the moment when we cry. Along with the characters, we learn what the main character’s experience has been all about. Pixar tells a story of how we learn a lesson and why the journey was worth taking. We learn and feel with the characters through the terrifyingly realistic portrayal of their emotional lives. The stories appeal to our deepest emotions and, thus, make us cry. Because, essentially, Pixar stories are about us.
So, when you go to the cinema to watch the next Disney Pixar movies, you better bring the tissues (besides the popcorn).
- Inside Pixar, documentary series on Disney+ (especially episodes 11 and 15).
- Hogan, P.C. (2011) Affective Narratology. The Emotional Structure of Stories. Lincoln NE.
- Velleman, J.D. (2003) ‘Narrative Explanation’, The Philosophical Review 112, pp. 1-25.
- Vingerhoets, A.J.J.M. (2013) Why only humans weep: unravelling the mysteries of tears. Oxford.
Top 10 Saddest Pixar Movies according to CBR.com:
2. Toy Story 2 & 3
4. Finding Nemo
5. Monsters Inc.
9. Inside Out
10. The Good Dinosaur
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