Pixar’s poetry lies in the mixing of pain with sweetness. What I love about some of their films is that there’s a true sense of heartache that fuels them underneath the mirth. Across fourteen feature films there have been several narratives they’ve explored, occasionally more than once; love and loss, parenthood, religion, self-improvement. The theme that strikes me as the most inherently interesting—and the most unusually brave considering its status as children’s fare—is the ongoing musing of talent vs. mediocrity.
Believe in yourself and you can achieve anything.
How often have we been fed this particular notion as children by our media? It’s the kind of affirmation that aligns with a popular vogue in America for increasing narcissism. Despite increasing international competition and stagnating test scores, we never fail to score highly in assessments of confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth.
This is dangerous. This mindset leaves us ill prepared to deal when we encounter our failures and shortcomings. When. Not if. We will fail in life. It is inevitable. To be taught that we are capable of absolutely anything we set ourselves out to do is a falsehood that harms us. Nevertheless, it’s a mythology so ingrained into America’s manifest destiny that to see Pixar regularly return to this well to teach children that someone is better than them or that they may be better than someone else is nothing short of remarkable.
Someone is better than you. There may ALWAYS be someone better than you. What truly matters is how you meet that realization and how you adapt. Mike Wazowski’s lifelong dream is to be a scarer, a monster renowned for his ability to frighten children. Of course the problem is that he isn’t scary. This is a tried and true setup for an underdog story, but Pixar doesn’t flinch. Mike will never be very scary. He will never accomplish his life’s dream because he doesn’t have the god-given talent for it. He isn’t talentless, but his childhood dream, his original raison d’être, will forever be out of reach and he can do nothing about that. All he can do is control how he eventually meets that realization.
The Incredibles began the exploration of this theme in earnest. That movie was an ode to the talented, saying that there is no shame in rising above others but that we must exercise responsibility and sound judgment in equal measure as well. The Incredibles is a brave film for adding a nuanced layer to familiar ideas of extolling the virtues of differences. We can celebrate our differences, but the sad truth is that these differences will make some more special than others. It is sympathetic to the resentment we can feel toward the talented, and treats it with the dignity it deserves. When we hear “when everyone is super, then no one will be” there is a real and true pain that laces it.
Ratatouille is more egalitarian in its views on talent. Yes, it begins with the more familiar idea that “anyone can cook” but it contradicts this when the human protagonist Linguine is shown to be culinarily clueless. Instead, we are shown that a common rat is the genius instead. This is a balm to The Incredibles and its celebration of the few, because Ratatouille asserts that while “not everyone can become a great artist, a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Monsters University is for the un-talented. It’s here where Pixar addresses everyone else. For the majority of the film we are treated to Mike Wazowski’s determination and focus and resolve to become a scarer, bordering on bullheadedness and delusion and mania. The movie heads towards its inevitable conclusion with grace and charm, lingering on his acceptance of the truth that while everyone’s differences can be utilized to surmount gaps in talent, not everything can be achieved through diligence alone. Talent is necessary in this world, and not everyone has it. The real beauty in this film and the culmination of the heartache of all the great talents at Pixar comes out in one of Mike’s lines towards the end.
“I’m ok with just being ok.”
It’s there where we can learn that the world doesn’t end when we give up our dreams. We may never be the best, we may not even really have a shot, but we don’t have to let that define us and we can still find salvation in each other. The world can be a harsh place, but it doesn’t mean we can’t meet it.