Pixar Movies Like 'Inside Out' Teach Us To Expect A Spoonful Of Comedy With Each Hefty Serving Of Heart
It isn't only Pixar's visual tenacity or enviable track record for bringing its audiences to tears (which anyone who has seen its latest record-breaking film, Inside Out , likely knows all too well) that separates it from other animation studios, but also its sense of humor. While a lot of contemporary animated films rely on pop culture references and smarmy adult-directed gags, Pixar has proved itself a bit more thoughtful in the realm of comedy. In fact, we've seen the past two decades of Pixar movies build on an evolving comedic model that has made use of a wide variety of humorous styles and influences that come together to make an entertaining whole.
The studio's films have drawn from a number of classic wells to inspire laughter, showcasing influences ranging from Buster Keaton to Tex Avery to Robert Altman to Steven Spielberg, and beyond — and the type of comedy adopted by a selected film says a lot about what the movie wants to say and how it intends to make you feel. We've taken a look at some of Pixar's best, and funniest, pieces of work to date. Each one has a special sense of humor that is applied to a lot more than just more than just the task of making us laugh.
Monsters, Inc. is a great place to start not just because it's one of the earliest entries into the Pixar release chronology, but also because of its standing as the studio’s most zealously wacky piece of work to date. It's not cut from the same cloth as the works of Walt, but, instead, as those of Tex Avery. The movie’s characters are delightfully oblong in body and mind; they operate at a steady extreme, hooting and hollering with comic panic and fury through the tumultuous Rube Goldberg that is their day-to-day.
Abetting the winning lunacy of Peter Docter’s first Pixar endeavor is Billy Crystal, who shows a clear understanding that he's not operating in the same world as Toy Story. (It’s interesting to note that Crystal was the original choice for Buzz Lightyear — a match we can be thankful for never having come to be. It’s obvious why: Crystal is a vaudevillian. His talents are not tailored to the warm tragedy of the Toy Story universe, but of the silly slapstick holding Monsters, Inc. together.) John Goodman's Sully might be the movie's heart, but Crystal's Mike Wazowski is our inlet to the world at large — a fact that keeps Monsters, Inc. the beautiful Looney Tune it is.
After playing with a tonal muse born of the ’40s and ’50s in Monster’s Inc., Pixar steps forward a few decades to cook up a voice for Finding Nemo: a movie reminiscent of the tender, wet-eyed jaunts lining the filmography of Barry Levinson. It isn’t only plot schematics that allow comparison between the underwater road comedy and 1988’s Best Picture Oscar winner Rain Man; Finding Nemo falls in step with the cinematic decade’s earnest and affectionate embrace of sap.
The studio’s most sentimental movie by a few thousand leagues, Finding Nemo’s voluminous beating heart doesn’t exactly mute its sense of humor, but it does lay the rhythm for it; every punch line doubles as the impetus of a warm hug. Appropriately, Finding Nemo is also Pixar’s youngest-leaning film — excepting the Cars movies, maybe — explaining the inclination for a softer (albeit no less tear-inducing) edge.
Where movies like Monsters, Inc. manifest joy in laughs, and those akin to Finding Nemo do so in warm, misty smiles, The Incredibles is of the variety to favor thrills. One of the film’s funniest sequences, a ’50s-era newsreel parody, rides higher on the vivacity of a flavorful trope reinvented than it does on its ample offering of laughter (this on top of the fact that it operates principally as an expositional introduction to the rest of the story, not simply a merry aside).
Giggles that amount thereafter take way in the heat of fascination with majestic action scenes and clever superpower contrivances. In truth, we get the same kind of glee watching The Incredibles that we do from a Bond film or an Indiana Jones adventure: that of a special kind of thrill and magic that not only take advantage of but truly celebrate the art of cinema.
By and large the square peg among the Pixar pictures, Ratatouille is the sole Pixar movie that cannot be classified as a true “adventure.” It’s a character piece, examining both the effusive dreamer Remy and listless nincompoop Linguini. It’s a culture clash satire, sparring the social ideologies that spawn the sorts of lifestyles such young men (and vermin) might opt to lead. It’s a workplace comedy, breathing as much a life force into the restaurant kitchen as it does into any of the kooks that inhabit it. And it’s an unremitting farce, complete with elaborate schemes, safeguarded identities, secret lineages, unlikely romances, and even the odd kidnapping ploy.
Borrowing the degree of sophistication innate to its Parisian setting, Ratatouille prefers to be clever that outright riotous. Whereas prior Pixar heroes distinguished as such with their stories’ purest hearts, Remy stands out instead with his brains. He’s not your classic Hollywood or glossy Reagan Era nobleman. He’s a descendant of the international New Wave: the antisocial, single-minded Fellini hero, or the perpetually frustrated outsider you’d find at the center of a Woody Allen film.
Though released in 1969, well past the fall of idealism, Hello, Dolly! takes place in the bright, idyllically ignorant 1890: an era we look at today as practically another world. The decade saw the inception of the performing careers of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Fatty Arbuckle, who’d turn to pictures some time later.
WALL-E owes the lion's share of its comedy to this lot. Our laughs and smiles, like those in The Incredibles, derive primarily from the merriment of watching pure spectacle. Where The Incredibles builds that spectacle on thrill, WALL-E does it on whimsy. We’re exploring this new, strange world right along with him, and delighting — often audibly — in all the magnificent surprises that pop up along the way.
The Toy Story Trilogy
Just as Toy Story's drama is embedded wholly in its characters, so is its comedy. The first Toy Story movie is, no doubt, littered with sight gags. When you have a Mr. Potato Head rounding out your cast, you’re going to do a few mish-mashed face jokes. But Toy Story 2 and 3 take great advantage of the familiarity we’ve developed with the polyurethane troupe. Almost every joke in these installments is character based: We get that Woody is kind of a narcissistic nebbish, though a sweetheart. We know Buzz is, though likewise well intentioned, a bit of a lunkhead. (A bro, if you will.) Potato Head’s a crank, Rex is uptight, Hamm’s a wiseass, Slinky is a good ol’ boy. Archetypes though they may be, they’re painted warmly, so we love each and every one of them, more and more with each film in fact. As such, we get a kick out of any and all in-character chuckles they allot.
Of course, character-based comedy is a tradition that transcends eras of cinema — Potato Head’s nightclub barbs and Slinky’s Midwest demeanor hearken an older sort of comedy, with Hamm’s hip sarcasm and Rex’s modern neuroses playing a bit more contemporary. Toy Story, though not necessarily everyone’s favorite, is likely agreed upon as the most iconic project Pixar has worked on. And it does as such feel, in its drama and comedy alike, timeless.
Some call Pixar’s latest venture its best ever; detractors argue that it’s just plain very good. But, despite a central cast composed of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, and Lewis Black, comedy is not this movie’s chief priority. Inside Out is mostly invested in its lesson. It has something to teach us and it wants us to walk away with a new understanding of ourselves and our children. It can’t be classified as the same kind of technical tragedy that you might call Toy Story, but it is, above all, a drama. A tender, empathetic, and terrifically enjoyable human story that involves laughter when it needs to, but only to hammer home the heart. And that makes it the greatest culmination of everything Pixar has been driving toward to this point.