Do You Pixar?

My son saw Incredibles 2 when it opened a few weeks ago. An instant box office hit, he declared it one of Pixar’s best on our family chat on his way home. His praise opened the floodgates to a flurry of texts ranking personal favorites and trading impassioned reviews. At an ever-accelerating pace, Pixar mania ensued.

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We are a big Pixar family. These master animators and storytellers have released twenty full-length features to date – garnering dozens of Oscar nominations and taking more than a dozen home. The movies are fun, clever, and charming. They also stand out for the fact that we watch them over and over again. Why? Because Pixar’s stories reach the depths of our human condition. Focusing on what matters most – like love, trust, play, friendship, belonging, family, loss, and dying – the stories speak to all of us, again and again.

My back of the envelope tally from our family chat produced these top five Pixar features:


Inside Out. I am just going to come out with it and say, this is my favorite.Taking us into the mind and emotions of 11-year-old Riley, Pixar’s 2015 film Inside Out brings an understanding of the brain and emotional development to all of us like never before. Inside Out translates complex feelings, memory making, and psychological experiences onto a figurative map of the brain and brain functioning in a way that makes our brains, and thus ourselves, a bit less mysterious. Michael Shadlen and Daphna Shohamy, from Columbia’s Mind, Brain, and Behavior Institute, were among the scientists who lent their expertise to the film’s creators. Most of the action takes place in Riley’s mind with the anthropomorphic characters of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust figuring out how to deal with each other, and ultimately, how to help Riley integrate and regulate her emotional world. Inside Out was the inaugural recipient of our Columbia Global Mental Health Award for Innovation in the Arts. We are proud to say filmmakers Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen accepted our award months before the Oscar at the Academy Awards.


Up. Also directed by Pete Docter, Pixar’s heart-warming 2009 animation Up traverses themes of death, loss, aging, love, friendship, and imagination. An elderly widower, Carl Fredricksen, is consumed with grief after his beloved wife dies. In his attempt to cope, he pursues a dream to visit the mystical land of Paradise Falls along with his young friend, Russell. His adventure is a breathtaking story of the growth and beauty that can follow in the wake of loss and grief. Up makes us reflect on the journey of grief – recognizing that it is highly personal, and often much less fanciful in real life. In fact, although grieving is a natural and healthy emotional response to loss, when it becomes protracted and/or debilitating, it is recognized as a mental health condition called Prolonged Grief Disorder. Even if we don’t get to fly away to Paradise Falls by tying thousands of balloons to our homes when we grieve (and may pursue therapy instead), Up provides poetic inspiration for all of us as we make our way in difficult times.


Toy Story. Released in 1995, Toy Story is Pixar’s first feature film. This masterpiece was also the first feature-length computer-animated film ever. Populated with the most iconic toys from the sixties and seventies, including Mr. Potato Head, Rex the Dinosaur, Hamm the Piggy Bank, and Slinky Dog, this story takes us back in time with compassion, humor, and wisdom to childhood and growing up. It is the quintessential story of relationships and friendships. Sheriff Woody and action figure Buzz Lightyear could not be more different. The drama unfolds when Woody, once Andy’s favorite, is displaced by Buzz, the new “it” toy. The messages conveyed as they find their way past the jealousy and competition to become the best of friends are kindhearted and wise. And how can you resist Mr. Potato Head?


Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Okay, so technically this entry is two movies. We put them together because Nemo and Dory are so closely related in spirit – and not just because all the action takes place under water. These two venturesome fish don’t let their different physical or mental abilities stop them from carrying out great feats of adventure and bravery. According to Dory, “When life gets you down, you know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming.” Theirs are the ultimate stories of resilience. In another post on resilience, I expressed wariness about our cultural obsession with resilience as a misguided strategy to address entrenched social injustices. However, there is no doubt that resilience has its place and is an asset we all want to cultivate. When personal adversity strikes (it does and it will), we would be well served to have a bit of Nemo’s and Dory’s spirits to guide us.


Incredibles 2. The newest Pixar film, it is the sequel to the 2004 original. It was worth the wait. A magnificent story of imagination and superpowers. Yes, the members of the Parr family each have special talents. As husband and wife, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl grow a family of three kids – Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack. Violet and Dash’s superpowers are apparent from the beginning, but for the longest of times, it looks like Jack-Jack is a mere mortal. A late bloomer, he proves himself to be a superhero endowed with gifts that surprise us and delight our imagination in Incredibles 2. Essential lessons on parenting and patience.


When you are selecting your next feature for movie night, you might want to consider one of the Pixar greats. I am fairly certain you could skip Psychology 101 if you watch them all. 

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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