the secret Pixar formula

The One Moment That Pops Up In Every Pixar Movie

If you watched Pixar's Up when it first came out, its big emotional moment must have surprised you. Throughout the film, old guy Carl is on a quest to travel to a special spot in South America, since he and his wife had always wanted to go there but never managed to while she was alive. Then comes the twist: By looking through an album, he learns his wife was satisfied with their life and never really regretted missing out on this trip. 

His quest was misguided—he didn't really need that thing he'd been fighting towards over the course of a whole movie's worth of wacky hijinks. That's quite a twist. It's a twist Pixar would use in just about every movie for the next decade.

In Inside Out, Joy discovers that Riley doesn't have to always be happy. In Onward, the elf discovers he doesn't need a final moment with his dad. In Brave, Merida discovers she doesn't need to mend the tapestry. Sequels adhere less to this formula, but in Toy Story 3, Woody discovers he doesn't need to stick with Andy and in 4 discovers he doesn't need to reunite with the other toys and Bonnie. Coco was going to have the big twist be the main character discovering he doesn't need to hold on to his dead grandmother, he can let her go, but they rewrote the whole script when they learned this contradicts the message of the actual Día de los Muertos.

By the time Soul came out, you could guess the twist within the first 90 seconds. The teacher would discover he doesn't need that job as a jazz performer; he's happiest teaching music to kids. You'd actually be only half right. This movie departs from the formula by splitting the twist across two scenes, and he discovers he just enjoys life in general rather than specifically teaching. Still, it's remarkable that you could get that close, since at this point, the movie hasn't even introduced its central premise (that the character dies then seeks to return to Earth). 

Many, many character-based stories do their own version of this twist. It's called "want versus need." The main character must gain something from their experience, something different from whatever they originally sought. Otherwise, the story feels too superficial. Pixar, however, stands out with all these examples by making the want into a full-fledged quest instead of just a theme, and by compressing the revelation dismissing it into a single moment. Plus, in many cases, this moment is the one moment that adults remember when thinking back on the Pixar movie. 

Pixar may be leaving the formula behind. In Turning Red, for example, though Mei discovers she doesn't need to shed her panda form, and this moment comes complete with its own montage, they don't treat it like such a twist, and it's not the movie's emotional climax. The Pixar Moment was a powerful formula, but they can't keep returning to that well forever.  

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