We've all got our list of favorite movies, followed perhaps by sub-lists of favorite animated movies, favorite family-friendly movies, and favorite "message" movies. But thanks to the never-failing quality of Pixar studios, increasingly, films are being made that simultaneously straddle all categories and conform to all lists.
Which Pixar film is your favorite? Monsters, Inc. for reminding us how weak fear is compared to laughter? Finding Nemo because of the tireless search for the lost son? Or maybe you prefer the nostalgia for the journey over life's roads that is Cars, or the drive to use your God-given talents that shines through in Ratatouille.
Regardless, chances are you have chosen your Top 5 Pixar films, whether you realize it or not, because of the specific virtues any given movie explores, virtues that author Robert Velarde (The Heart of Narnia; Inside the Screwtape Letters) examines in greater depth in his latest book, The Wisdom of Pixar: An Animated Look at Virtue. Velarde was recently "Incredibles" enough to hook "Up" with Crosswalk.com to talk about his oh-so-fun book (sorry, couldn't resist)…
(For the Video version of this interview click below)
Crosswalk.com: Robert, since your book released at the same time as Toy Story 3, what did you think of it, and what lessons and virtues did you find in this most recent film?
Robert Velarde: I enjoyed Toy Story 3. You know, it is the third film in that series, the first one having come out 15 years ago. I think they did a great job continuing the story. I found some really good messages in there about courage, family, and loyalty—just sticking together as a family unit was a very powerful message in there.
CW: One of the things that I thought was so interesting about Toy Story 3 was it seemed like there were a couple of scenes that were just so heavy, almost more relatable to grown-ups. One that struck me hardest was when Lotso climbs up the ladder of the trash compactor and you think he is going to push the stop button and save the toys, but his past gets the best of him (he is still so angry), and he pulls out the line, "Where is your Kid now?" It punched me me like an atheistic, "Where is your God now?" type of statement. Who gets more out of these movies, Robert, the children or the adults?
RV: I think it is an equal share. I think the kids can really get a lot of good messages about family and friendship and things like that, but I think adults, too, can get a lot out of a Pixar movie. The creators and the folks behind the Pixar movies really know how to tell a good story that can appeal to a broad range of people, so they do not end up talking down to kids or making it too juvenile for adults. They have a good balance there.
CW: It is incredible the way they manage to do that. In the book, you take the ten films that had already come out [prior to Toy Story 3] to talk about virtues like justice, courage, and love. Can you take us through a couple of examples, and how they related to the films, and how you decided which virtue should go with which film in the book?
RV: Sure. Well, I think the main thing for me was watching the movies over and over and over again, which my kids loved because my kids got to watch them too. I ended up literally making a list of maybe 30 or 40 different virtues that I saw in some of these films. Then I narrowed that list down to say, "Okay, let's pick ten of them."
So for A Bug's Life, for instance, I [focus on] justice because you have, of course, these bully biker gang-type grasshoppers picking on these ants, and it really appeals to our sense of justice, having to make what is wrong, right.
Then with something like The Incredibles, I thought, "That is a perfect one for courage." And my chapter on that opens with Frozone, voiced by the great Samuel L. Jackson, and he is just getting ready for an evening of dinner with his wife and, instead, he sees this giant robot out there. He instinctively knows what to do because he has got courage and virtue in him. He does not have to pull a book off the shelf about ethics or philosophy, and that appealed to me, instilling those kinds of virtues in kids.
CW: That's a good point about Frozone, even though it has been many years since he has put on his "super suit." When you were writing the book, which film and/or virtue was your favorite to write about?
RV: You know, I tell people I wrote the book as a fan and a father. The one that strikes me the most impressively is Finding Nemo. And I think that is just the whole theme of the father and the son and their separation and trying to get to him and trying to find a good balance between being protective of your children, but not overly protective, and helping nurture them and their faith in life to get them through what they are going to face. In fact, the director of Finding Nemo is a Christian, Andrew Stanton. And he has said that Nemo is really at its heart about faith overcoming fear and how we can do that as parents.
CW: One of the things I appreciated in your book was that you also explore the truth of how many virtues can have a negative side—a vice side—if taken to the extreme. Can you talk a little bit about how that looks in some of these films? In particular, the one that struck me was how you looked at that side of ambition in Ratatouille, but feel free to expound on the vice concept with any other films if that is what comes to mind.
RV: Sure, and that is a good point. I write about in my book that virtue has its opposite, which is vice. And virtue is sort of this excellent thing we are supposed to pursue. We are even told biblically in 2 Peter 1:5 to make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue. And the vice side is something that is good that has sort of been spoiled, and it is now missing the good that should be there.
As far as the films are concerned, I think there are a number of good examples there. In Ratatouille, I write about godly ambition, which is something that is good, as opposed to selfish ambition, which is not. The character in there, of course, is Remy the rat who wants to be a chef, and he has a very good ambition there. He admires human beings for their creativity, their artistry, and their ability to make things, not just consume things.
CW: As moviegoers in general, or as Christians who are appreciating culture specifically, it is easy to look on G-rated films like these fantastic Pixar movies as something we can use as teaching tools or to emulate virtues. Can we extend these principles from your book into any bit of popular culture that we encounter? And if so, how? And if not, why not?
RV: I think we can, because the book, at its root, is about what we call "virtue ethics." It is a system of ethics that goes back to thinkers like Augustine and C.S. Lewis and others that really focuses on building our character instead of trying to follow a list of do's and don'ts, which would be more of a legalistic approach.
"Virtue ethics," which is what you find in Pixar films, is really about building our characters so that when we have to make a choice, ethically speaking, we know instinctively what that choice is going to be because we have sort of trained ourselves morally to make that right choice. And the ideas that you find in this book, The Wisdom of Pixar, would apply to anything really.
CW: You mentioned C.S. Lewis, and I know you have done a lot of study of his works. When you were studying all of the Pixar films, and when you go back to Lewis and what a good allegorial storyteller he was, did you find any kinship through your studies of Lewis and what you found in Pixar?
RV: Definitely. I think that the fact that Lewis himself was a proponent of "virtue ethics" is something that I found in the Pixar stories—that they appeal to these common moral themes and also that the movies are not preachy. I compare them to Christ's parables where he did not pull a textbook off the shelf and start lecturing. He told people stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, and they were memorable, and they had good moral messages. And that is what, I think, you find in Pixar movies.
RV: Top five... that is a tricky one. My top one is Finding Nemo. I think second to that is probably The Incredibles, just because I love the whole superhero theme.
CW: That is my top one.
RV: I would have to put Up there as well. That was just the whole message about love. And I think Wall-E is up there as well. The more I think about it, Ratatouille really struck me as giving us a good message as Christians as to how we can make a difference in culture through the arts...
Robert Velarde is a writer, educator, and philosopher. His books include The Wisdom of Pixar, Conversations with C.S. Lewis, The Golden Rules of Narnia, Inside The Screwtape Letters (forthcoming), and more. Twitter: @robert_velarde and @wisdomofpixar. Follow his blog here.
Publication date: September 17, 2010