Idealism Wins at the Oscars

UP_Carl.JPGThere is an old joke that has all the Studios bringing an Anti-Trust lawsuit against Pixar for Unfair Competition— because all Pixar’s movies are so good!

Pixar won the 2009 Oscar for Best Animated Feature with Up. All seven Pixar films released since the creation of the category have been nominated. Five have taken home the Oscar: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. Three of those five Oscar winners— Up, The Incredibles and Ratatouille are Power of Idealism films.

A character driven by the Power of Idealism wants to stand out from the crowd, to be extraordinary, unique and  special. Power of Idealism stories are about youthful rebellion, heroic sacrifice, loss and transcendent love.

The protagonist in Power of Idealism film wants to stand out from the crowd, to be unique or special or to live an extraordinary life. These characters often play the role of the rebel, the romantic, the outsider, the iconoclast, the artist, or the maverick.  Power of Idealism stories are about rebellion, loss, longing and transcendent love.

The protagonist in Up is curmudgeonly Carl (Ed Asner), the last stubborn holdout in a large urban renewal scheme.  His beloved wife is dead and he seemingly has nothing to live for.  When he defends his home with his cane, actually drawing blood from a construction worker, Carl is legally ordered into a retirement home.  Instead, he makes an extraordinary and dramatic escape.  But let’s back up a little.

The film begins in the era of newsreels and the amazing derring do of movie serials.  These 1930’s stories are filled with exotic adventures and handsome heros who conquer far-off lands to bring back strange and exciting discoveries.

As a little boy, Carl is mesmerized  by fantastic tales about the famous explorer, Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).  The newsreels show Muuntz celebrated and lionized and then humiliated.  The skeleton of Muntz’s greatest discovery, a large flightless bird from the wilds of South America, is denounced as a fake. As Carl walks home from the movies, he longs to be a legendary explorer.  He imagines a crack in the sidewalk to be a yawning canyon and leaps it in a single bound while an imaginary newsreel breathlessly narrates his “great adventure.”

A little gap-toothed tomboy, Ellie, bursts into Carl’s dreamy but solitary world.  Their long life together unfolds in a beautiful wordless montage— friendship, young love, wedded bliss and the slow dissolution of their dreams; first to share their life’s adventure with a child and then to share an adventure together in Paradise Falls, South America, where the great explorer Muntz mysteriously disappeared.
When Ellie gets sick and dies, the elderly and embittered Carl is left with nothing but his memories and Ellie’s scrapbook, “My Big Adventure,” which she kept to fuel her hopes through-out the years.  Carl keeps Ellie’s book but can hardly bear to look at it.  He believes it stands in silent reproach for dreams so long denied or deferred that they turned into dust and nothingness.
Stripped of everything he holds dear, his house about to be demolished, Carl escapes at last to South America.  His house is born aloft by thousands of helium balloons, which he used to sell as a park vendor.  A chubby little stowaway and faithful Wilderness Explorer, Russell (Jordan Nagai), tags along for the sake of a missing merit badge.  Russell has all the good humored resilience and tenacity (as well as the shape) of a Weeble, the iconic children’s roly-poly toy.  “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.”
Near the famed Paradise Falls, Carl finally meets his childhood hero, Muntz. The elderly explorer lives with a army of dogs who talk via their bark-activated electronic collars.  The eccentric and still dashing adventurer continues his obsessive search for a live specimen of the rare bird species that discredited and ruined his career so many years ago.
Up is a delightful adventure story for kids and a powerful adult story about how regret, loss and grief are, at last, resolved.  Over the course of the movie we see Carl cling to his belief Ellie was denied her “Big Adventure.”  He feels responsible and is determined to plant the house he promised her at Paradise falls.
Carl and Russell slowly and painfully drag Carl’s heavy empty house behind them.   When the house is nearly in place Carl finally reads Ellies “Big Adventure” book.  In it she says her ordinary life with Carl was the very best and very biggest adventure of all.  At the end of the movie, Carl is able to sacrifice the dead house to save the living Russell.  Carl finds his next “Big Adventure” with Russell and his mom as a treasured part of a new family.
Increbiles_060914013253431_wideweb__300x322Pixar’s The Incredibles, tackles some of the same themes about what it is to be ordinary and what it is to be extraordinary. Stripped of his status, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), is in the government equivalent of the witness protection program for decommissioned super heroes.  He is stuck in a boring, dead-end desk job.
Mr. Incredible chafes at having to hide his super powers and pretend to be ordinary. Finally, he is tempted out of his enforced “retirement” by the lure of one last assignment.  It is a trap.  The villain of the movie, Syndrome (Jason Lee), created himself when Mr. Incredible rejected him as a sidekick years earlier.  Mr. Incredible, haughtily said at the time:  “Like most heroes, I work alone.”   This rejection festered in Syndrome.  With evil in his heart, a cunning wit and brilliant technology in his hands, Syndrome grows up to turn the tables on all super heroes.  In the end, after defeating Syndrome, Mr. Incredible finds that his most extraordinary adventure of all is the ordinary love and support of his family.
6Ratatouille is about an adventurer of a different kind— a rebellious and artistic mouse gourmet.  “There’s something about humans, they taste. . . . They discover!” realizes Remy (Patton Oswalt).  Rejecting the usual diet of garbage, French country rat Remy decides that in order to eat as well as humans he needs to learn to cook.
Early on in the film, Remy is separated from his family.  In his imagination he mets his hero Gusteau, a famous chef.  Gusteau teaches Remy the lesson that Carl learns in Up.
Gusteau: (appearing as illustration in a cookbook) If you are hungry, go up and look around, Remy. Why do you wait and mope?
Remy: Well, I just lost my family. All my friends. Probably forever.
Gusteau: How do you know?
Remy: Well, I…  You are an illustration. Why am I talking to you?
Gusteau: You just lost your family. All your friends. You are lonely.
Remy: (sarcastically) Yeah, well you’re dead.
Gusteau: Ah, but that is no match for wishful thinking. If you focus on what you left behind. You will never be able to see what lies ahead. Now go, get up and look around.
The lesson of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, imparted in both Up and The Incredibles, is delivered by Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) the famous food critic in Ratatouille.  Remy serves the difficult to please gourmet the most simplest and most humble dish— ratatouille, a dish of mixed cooked vegetables.  The meal sends Anto Ego back to his childhood, remembering the fragrant, comforting and flavorful dish his mother used to prepare for him.  The critic concludes:
… (T)here are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, and the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: “Anyone can cook.” But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.
The themes in Power of Idealism films:  childhood heroes often are not what they seem; to resolve loss we must look beyond the surface, cherish the positive and let go of the rest; longing for what you don’t have (or what you are missing) prevents you from experiencing and enjoying what you do have in life; and the secret to happiness is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.  Power of Idealism characters must learn to find the sparkle and passion in the small details of life like family, friends and the magical but mundane moments of living and loving (and cooking).


  1. Reply John 4th April 2010

    Thanks for your insight into the well-crafted story world of Pixar. I enjoyed your article!

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 12th April 2010

      Thanks so much for writing John. It’s nice to know there are readers out there!

  2. Reply Nancy Raven Smith 4th April 2010

    Hi Laurie,

    Thank you for another great newsletter. I have a question please.

    When a character accomplishes the steps of Idealism –

    “The themes in Power of Idealism films: childhood heroes often are not what they seem; to resolve loss we must look beyond the surface, cherish the positive and let go of the rest; longing for what you don’t have (or what you are missing) prevents you from experiencing and enjoying what you do have in life; and the secret to happiness is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Power of Idealism characters must learn to find the sparkle and passion in the small details of life like family, friends and the magical but mundane moments of living and loving (and cooking).”

    Is he/she still a character of Idealism or do they become a different character? I was thinking of a supporting character who had learned to appreciate the things listed above.

    Thank you.


    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 12th April 2010

      Thanks for taking the time to write Nancy! Your question is a good one. When a character resolves issues they remain the same Character Type. They just live a more balanced life.

      The key to Character Type is Worldview. A character doesn’t change how he or she fundamentally perceives the world just because some emotional issues are resolved. Power of Idealism characters will still see the world as Grand Opera and value the passion and intensity in their lives.

      In a continuing drama these emotional issues WILL resurface again in different ways. When you resolve a loss initially you might deal with some major issues but other issues keep resurfacing and re-triggering fear-based behavior. That’s why life is a journey!

      Hope this helps.

      • Reply Nancy Raven Smith 18th October 2010

        Hi Laurie,

        Thank you for your very clear answer. That’s helps a lot.


  3. Reply Caroline Lawrence 5th April 2010

    Thanks for your brilliant summaries of these great films which have helped me see something new.

    When I talk about writing at schools, I always say “Pixar are the best storytellers around.” I talk a lot about the archetypes found in myth-based films (in which the hero goes on a quest): The Hero, The Sidekick, The Funny One, The Wild One, The Mentor & The Opponent.

    I love the way Ellie is Carl’s Mentor, even though she’s dead, and her Big Adventure book is the talisman.

    I love the way the rejected Sidekick becomes the Opponent in The Incredibles.

    And I love the way Gusteau is the Mentor WITHIN the talisman (another book!)

  4. Reply Laurie Hutzler 12th April 2010

    Hi Caroline–

    Thanks so much for being such a faithful reader and correspondent. I think Character Type is key to making an archetype work. I wrote this about the wizard archetype as it relates to Harry Potter:

    “There is no one way to be a wizard. There are lots of different ways to play that role in a story. Different wizards view their role or job differently, believe different things about the world and frame their responsibilities very differently. In a story, a character’s job or role is much less important than how the person sees the world, understands that role and fulfills his or her duties in the story.”

    “That’s where Character Type comes in. Character Type determines how a person views the world, sees his or her place in it and develops a philosophy of life and love. Character Type creates innate strengths and weaknesses and determines the lessons to be learn over the arc of the story. Different Character Types are concerned about very different aspects of their role or job.”

    The same could be said about the mentor role, the sidekick role, the opponent role, etc. There is no one way to fulfill any of those functions in a story.

  5. Reply Edna 6th May 2013

    Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing some research on that.

    And he

    just bought me lunch because I found it for him smile Therefore let me
    rephrase that:

    Thanks for lunch!

    • Reply Kevin 9th June 2013

      In response to Prairie’s quoteisn about why Pixar aren’t hiring women I’ve checked into statistics for the UK and the proportion of women going on to 3D animation, digital cinema, and media related courses is pretty low – around 22% or so. This may explain it.I’ve also had a look through the credits of all the Pixar features and counted the number of jobs done by women and the number of jobs done by men. The figures matched up with the number of students – about 22% as an average over the 8 films.This kinda suggests that Pixar hires people on merit and ability rather than gender. Hmmm . sounds familiar, rather like the topic of quality of character over gender.Admittedly my figures aren’t 100% accurate as I couldn’t determine the sex of some people’s names – Konishi, Narottama, for example, or even Alex and Kelly.Also, I found that over time there has been a slight proportional shift toward a higher male % of crew – but this is negligible, particularly after you consider the % for crew of indeterminable gender (no offense meant).On the whole though I’m loving the discussion. I find my reaction sways as I read posts and investigate facts. On the whole though I have to say that I don’t think Pixar would intend any sexism which is based on nothing more than my own hopes I think they are just writing about what they know and identify with. Perhaps they are just taking the easy way out by not challenging themselves by doing a female lead, but hey, the quality of the stories and the sheer joyful experience of watching these movies, the morally sound handling of good and evil, gives Pixar a get of jail free’ card.But then, what if. What if they made a film with a female lead? It could really settle some arguments. Or then, as Michael suggested, if it was Ratatouille that had a female lead the outcry could have been incredible! Pixar finally do a movie with a girl as the main character and what’s it about??? COOKING!!!’Sometimes you just can’t win.