Finding Meaning in Movies (and Why the Pixar Theory is Terrible)


November 6, 2015 by Devin

Introduction to Poetry by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Just a heads up: I am going to be using the term, “literary analysis,” about 10 times during this blog post. This sounds official and academic, but I really am just using it as a term to describe a deep analysis of something, even something that is not literature.

Also, when I say, “text,” that can be anything from a book to a movie to a video game to street performance.

I used to work in a writing center (well, I still do, but a different one) and once had a student come in with a paper arguing that Jay Gatsby (as in, the main character of The Great Gatsby) was a Time Lord (as in, the alien species the Doctor from Doctor Who is). I remember her nervously laughing to herself as she read it out loud, and when she was finished, she looked at me wondering how I was going to react.

I could tell that she was wondering if I was going to say her prompt was silly and needed to be changed, assuming that I knew what she was talking about in the first place. I said neither of those things.

Because I understood where she was coming from.

From her paper, I got a strong sense of frustration with literary analysis. To people not familiar with literary analysis, the various interpretations and arguments look esoteric and reaching. As someone who loves English, even I thought, “Well, they could argue just about anything from this! None of it actually matters,” which caused me to also write a sarcastic paper mocking literary analysis for an assignment (it wasn’t funny).

Most people at some point in time learn that with interpreting literature, there is often no one correct right or wrong answer. Students who look further may also find that literary analysis is often not even concerned with being true to the author’s intent or not. I had a friend who wrote a paper arguing that Hamlet was black, and it is really hard to imagine that Shakespeare actually believed that.[1]

The flaw students often make in understanding literary analysis is that because adhering to the literal truth of the text is not as important, any interpretation is just as good as the other one because what does it really mean anyway? However, to paraphrase Richard Rohr, literal truth is the lowest form of truth. In this scenario, what a text is is so much less important than what a text means.

To quote Devin Faraci from a similarly-themed post[2]:

A few years ago I wrote a thing about how Inception is actually about filmmaking, with the members of the team mapping out to members of a movie production. The movie isn’t actually about that – it’s about dream heists and shit – but it’s about that. The analysis doesn’t deny the text in any way, and it isn’t trying to find gaps in the text to fill in with fan glue. It’s getting to the deeper meaning of the text, and trying to understand it in a more full way beyond the literal narrative. Shit can get really weird when you accept Death of the Author – the idea that a work must be approached on its own, as you see it, not as it was intended. The author’s role ends when the work is distributed, and how you interpret the meaning of the movie/book is up to you. Again, it’s not about denying or supplanting the narrative but rather finding the metaphorical and allegorical underpinnings of the narrative.  [emphasis in original]

I am going to push back against this quote just a bit to argue that sometimes effective deep reading and literary analysis does stretch and push the boundaries of what the story says, but never with the intention of rewriting the text. My friend who argued Hamlet was black did not do so because he actually believed Hamlet was supposed to be black, but he was able to find evidence for it, and this perspective did inform him and give him new insight into Hamlet.

To use another example, I once had a professor who was only able to appreciate the teachings of Jesus when he read the sayings of Buddha. This comparison helped him realize that Jesus was, in many ways, an Eastern philosopher.[3]

I actually did not tell that student to change her theory or write a different essay. Instead, I posed the question, “So what does Jay Gatsby being a Time Lord say about him as a person? How does this perspective help us understand him?” Again, we both knew that Jay Gatsby was not a Time Lord, but through applying this perspective, I wanted to see what meaning we could get form it.

Pictured: probably not a Time Lord

Pictured: probably not a Time Lord

This is how literary analysis works: it stretches a text as far as it will go to see how it will bounce back. It is about asking the question, “If we look at this text this way, what insights into the text can we find?” Again, ultimately all effective literary analysis is focused on what a text means over what a text is.

Which brings me to the most frustrating fan theory on the internet.

How The Pixar Theory Fits Into This

For those unaware of what the Pixar Theory is, I have linked a summation video below. If you do not want to waste 10 minutes of your life watching it, here’s a quick summary: all Pixar films are in the same universe and detail a long and fairly bloody conflict between humans, robots, and mutated animals, which explains why the toys in Toy Story and the bugs in A Bug’s Life can walk and talk (because apparently these needed an explanation).

What is frustrating about this theory[4] is that it is not actually about the films. When we look at Pixar films, when we look beyond the literal and into the metaphorical, we see a lot of rich meaning that reflects back on humanity in simple and profound ways. Again, what the text means over what the text is.

Toy Story is about the lives toys live, but it is about non-traditional families. Woody is essentially a divorced dad who has to compete with a new stepfather for his child’s attention. Wall-E is about a robot that escapes from Earth to go to a human space cruise, but it is about the consumerist nature of humanity and our desires to have a life that rids ourselves of all the beauty of struggle. UP is about a man who goes to South America with a young boy scout in a flying house, but it is about how we hold onto dreams to the point where we miss out on the adventures of daily lives. Ratatouille is about a rat that cooks food, but it is about the creation of art through unexpected sources and the effects art can have, even commenting on the nature and use of critique.

By the way, all great films are like this with rich meaning below literal events. I Love You, Man is about a man seeking a best man for his wedding, but it is about the loneliness of modern life. Snowpiercer is about a train that travels around the world because of global warming, but it is about how humanity places its hope in the systems that sustain us rather than the systems that allows us to explore and thrive.[5] Perhaps the best example of this literal-metaphorical analysis is Cloud Atlas, which features 6 completely different genres and stories that are only really connected in theme, but the themes are so strong that it still gives the film a sense of unity throughout.

Now what is The Pixar Theory about, and what is it about?

It is not about any of that. It does not offer any real insight on the human condition or even develop any themes from any of the films. It is just there, stuck on the skin of the movies’ details. To go back to that other Devin:

The thing about fan theories is that they’re always shallow – always. They’re basically ‘wouldn’t it be cool’ stoned ramblings presented with a sheen of semi-academic rambling. They’re always slightly less clever than the dumb guy who says “When you think about it, Jesus was a zombie.”

In other words, fan theories do not say anything about the texts they are supposedly about.

What the Pixar theory really is about is a desire to have order beyond reason. If all the Pixar films connect, it instills in us a sense that everything in life is connected and disparate events actually mean something. Which is a fine theme to have for a film (certainly worked for Signs), but it is so completely disconnected from any of the themes in any of the films. This theory is really about the authors rather than the texts.[6]

This is also apparent in the newest completely BS theory floating around, that Batman v Superman: Dawn of This Universe that Hopefully Won’t Be Terrible takes place in the same universe as The Dark Knight. Ben Affleck is not playing Batman, this theory says, but actually Deathstroke dressing up like Batman. Ultimately, it is just a theory to desperately connect The Dark Knight with the newest films to make the movie universe seem less like the complete mess it is. Here’s a link to the full theory if you want to read it (you don’t).

... ugh.

Just… ugh… really?

Why This Matters

Stories are important. They give life meaning. There is a reason religious texts are built out of stories. Figuring out and connecting to stories may sometimes seem silly, but it is an essential part of being a human. The reason we watch movies, read books, even play video games is because of the narratives we identify with and connect to.

Sometimes the texts we connect to are dull, lifeless, and offer little value beyond taking up time, but sometimes these texts are rich and full of meaning and matter to us long after we have finished them. These texts are worth pursuing and digging into, and sometimes the approaches look ridiculous at first glance, especially to people who are not familiar with critical lenses. I bet we all turned a skeptical eye when we were first introduced to queer theory or a feminist lens, but then when we apply them to a text like Frozen, we find a sense of connection and meaning that would have been lost without these lenses.

Literary analysis can bring us to find such deeper meaning in the movies, poetry, literature, and all other forms of art, but the longer we stick on conversations about, “What if everyone was dead the entire time” or, “What if this character who says he is this one thing is actually this completely other thing,” we dilute the conversation of any real meaning. More importantly, we make everything seem trivial, as if none of this actually matters.

But it does matter because stories matter.

I remember watching The Truman Show after I graduated college. I had seen it before, but that was a long time ago, and I had changed so much since then. I had left my religion, graduated college, and watched a lot of my friends move away or become disconnected. To be honest, it was tough. I was in a place where I was not sure what I was doing with my life or if I had made the right choices.[7]

Watching Truman talk with Christof at the end of that film brought forth so many revelations about my own life. While I had seen it before, I had only ever understood the shallow, surface level meanings of the film. This time, though, I tapped into the deeper, metaphorical meanings of the text: that this film was ultimately about a man leaving his faith.[8] Truman is leaving a world that he cannot stay in anymore because he knows that it is manufactured, and no amount of pleasantries or comforts in that world will make him better suited for it. Christof offers this comfortable metanarrative for Truman, but Truman knows that despite the world being difficult, harsh, and unforgiving, that is where he needs to go.

That moment contextualized so much about my own growth. It had felt for so long that even though I believed in my decision, I still felt like the tough times I faced were because I was doing something wrong. Due in part to The Truman Show, I was able to understand those troubles as part of a growing process that was necessary to my life.

I went off on that tangent because it shows how important those deep, metaphorical connections can be to us as human beings trying to make something of ourselves on this floating rock.

Art affects us.

It matters.

It brings out our best qualities and makes us more connected to each other as people. And it does so through metaphor, imagery, and things that mean something beyond themselves, not through creating convoluted universes that explain how superheroes exist in the same world as talking toys.

“You… are… a… metaphor!”

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[1] Side note: I’m convinced that the main reason literary people love Hamlet so much is that nothing in that play makes any sense which means every type of analysis yields something interesting.
[2] The post that one links to is also worth reading.
[3] I mean, he was Asian.
[4] Besides the fact that the original author has a book out that he is getting paid for. No, I’m not linking to it. Don’t buy it.
[5] I would even argue that, thematically, Snowpiercer is a more accurate depiction of humanity’s space struggles than The Martian, but that’s a conversation for another time.
[6] I guess you could argue that, from a certain perspective, all theories and reads of a text tell more about the critic than of the text, which is fair, but fan theories seem to go out of their way to disregard the text entirely.
[7] Some things never change.
[8] Is it just about that? Of course not, but this lens makes a lot of sense when applied to this film.

2 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in Movies (and Why the Pixar Theory is Terrible)

  1. megpie71 says:

    Fan theories, to me, seem to be about a combination of raging plotbunnies (i.e. someone had a great idea for a story, and it’s taken over their brain) and what I call “hammer logic” (“when all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail”). The plotbunny demands the creation of a certain story, and the hammer logic is used to force things in where they don’t fit. It’s the sort of logic which, over in the fan-fiction realms, results in things like mpreg (male pregnancy). The theory author has an idea, and they are, by George, going to make the facts fit their theory even if they have to break everything in the actual story canon to do it.

    (And now I’m seeing literary analysis as sort of a cousin to fan-fiction, or vice versa).

    The Pixar Theory sounds to me more like the sort of over-thinking which is common to conspiracy theories – linking together various elements, thinking of gaps as silhouettes of significance, and again, using hammer logic to force things where they don’t precisely fit. It’s definitely a “what if” – “What if all the Pixar movies ever were set on the same world?” – but it doesn’t work for precisely the same reason things like the corresponding “what if” in the Final Fantasy series of video games (“What if all of them were set on the same world?”) doesn’t work[1]: there’s just too many little inconsistencies which have to be hammered into place (or hammered flat) in order to get things working right.

    Of course, the fun thing about fan theories in this day and age is that there’s a lot more interconnection between the fanbase and the content creators – and it’s perfectly possible for content creators to troll their fanbases by throwing in things which will link in with particular fan theories, and an equal amount of things which make said fan theories completely impossible. I would argue at least some of the writers and artists for Pixar would fall into the category of creator for whom “playing with the more nerdboi elements of the fanbase[2]” is practically compulsory – so I suspect the proponents of this particular “theory” are finding more and more “evidence” for their theory in the later Pixar movies.

    Occam’s Razor for fan theories: can your pet theory be explained away by the phrase “the creators are trolling their fanbase”? If so, your fan theory needs some work.

    (The Death of the Author sounds good, but when the author is actually alive and well and interacting with their fanbase – and face!palm-ing at some of the dafter hares the fandom starts from conversation – one has to consider this aspect of things as well).

    [1] This is not to say the creators of the Final Fantasy series didn’t have some fun with this one. There’s a Word of God statement the Spirans of FFX are the ancestors of the Gaians of FFVII (based heavily on applied handwavium), and they played into it heavily by hiring some of the same voice actors who’d worked on FFX-2 to do voice work for certain significant FFVII characters in related products such as Kingdom Hearts.
    [2] In the “cat with something small and squeaky” sense of “playing”.

  2. Fiona Fire says:

    It’s interesting how these fan theories are usually invested in the “geeky.” I’ve had so many conversations with fans of nerdy properties, often Game of Thrones, who could not see beyond the literal interpretation or who could not grasp the idea of death of the author. It was like there was one right answer and no others would be accepted. IMO, death of the author is important because we all have subconscious biases and we don’t realize we’re instilling them in our work. I’ve had many critique partners, editors, and beta readers point out things in my work that I never consciously intended.

    I’ve been seeing an unfortunate trend in the discussion of the latest THG movie where people try to dethrone it by robbing it of meaning and focusing on the literal. I got into an argument (a theme of my life!) with someone who was claiming the movies/books were crap because the political future of Panem was rocky (I’d argue that was the point). It was as if the series failing to achieve X or Y literal criteria meant it couldn’t work on any deeper level. The same people argue that because THG can be interpreted to be about high school or about reality TV means it can’t also be about politics or war. Of course there’s garden variety misogyny on display here– how could a series aimed at teenage girls possibly me about anything important?

    My roundabout way of making a point– I wonder if there is something in the sci-fi, high fantasy, comic book world that attracts people who vastly prefer the literal to the figurative. Certainly, it makes sense that genres with extensive rules and world building would attract people who are more interested in rules than characters or themes.

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The Good Greatsby

Paul Johnson's comedy blog: I didn't get into comedy to be rich or famous. All I've ever wanted was to be somebody rich and famous.

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