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The Pixar Theory: How ‘Onward’ Fits In The Pixar Universe

onward

When the first trailer for Onward dropped, I was immediately hit with a flood of questions about how it could possibly share the same universe as all of the other Pixar films from Toy Story to Coco. As soon as I watched the trailer, I had more than a few ideas and predictions, but I of course wanted to wait and see the film for myself before drawing any conclusions. Well, that time has come.

In case you’re new here, The Pixar Theory is a fan project I started back in 2013 in an effort to connect all of the Pixar films through a single, all-encompassing timeline. Since then, the theory has really taken off and I always get a real kick out of the branching theories people come up with and contribute to this site and elsewhere. The idea is simple: every Pixar film, according to this theory, exists in the same universe. Going deeper they share a strong narrative about what it means to be human in a world where anything is possible, including the apocalypse. Fun right?

I published a book called The Pixar Theory in 2015, which fleshed the whole fan theory out in a more meticulous fashion. But a couple of years ago, the book switched publishers, and I went to work revamping the theory into a brand new book that will include plenty more Pixar films, including Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Coco, and soon, Onward (maybe Soul, too, which comes out in June).

But I don’t want to keep fans of the theory waiting long. Though I’ll certainly need more time to finalize the Onward chapter of the theory with all of the easter eggs and narrative connections you’d expect, I can at least give a sneak preview right now into where Onward fits in the timeline, plus maybe a few extra details.

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Don’t worry. I’m not spoiling any of the story elements of Onward. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can keep reading without having to worry about having any surprises ruined for you. But you will get a sneak peek into the world of Onward and what it’s like on a basic level.

Directed by Dan Scanlon (Monsters University), Onward is about two brothers who go on a quest to find a magical gem that will bring their late father back to life for one, single day. You see, Ian (voiced by Tom Holland) never got a chance to even meet his father, who died right before he was born. His brother Barley (Chris Pratt) only has a handful of memories about their dad, because he too was very young when this tragic event took place.

Here’s the catch. These brothers aren’t human, and the world they live in has more in common with “Dungeons & Dragons” than it does a world like ours today. Ian and Barley are elves, and the opening of the film explains that their world once contained many of the fantasy elements (like magic and dragons) that we’d see in a book written by J.R.R. Tolkien. The big difference is that there are no humans whatsoever in this world, not even in the visual history shown onscreen. And all of these fantastical creatures like unicorns, gnomes, trolls, and centaurs discovered the modern conveniences of electricity and indoor plumbing all on their own, making their world a parallel to the human one of 2020.

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The premise is a fun one. We get to see these traditionally old-school fantasy characters living in a modern world with cities, freeways, and themed restaurants. But lurking in the background is a hint of the magic that was once commonplace, only to be replaced by the perceived convenience of lightbulbs and automobiles. Centaurs don’t need to run 70MPH anymore because they have, well, cars.

So…how does this work for a Pixar movie? You might be wondering how it’s possible for a modern version of “Middle Earth” to exist anywhere close to the same one containing superheroes and Andy’s toys. This world has two moons, even! Is it another planet? Another dimension? What’s the deal?

THE DEAL.

Onward takes place in a section of the Pixar Theory timeline we’ve been curious about for years: in between the events of WALL-E and Monsters Inc. (also A Bug’s Life, which is shortly after WALL-E). As you may remember from the original theory, WALL-E ends with the humans of Earth returning home after centuries of being in space aboard the Axiom. While gone, the cars of Cars roamed the planet until running out of fossil fuels. But we’ve had little to go on when it comes to how humans were replaced with “monsters,” the animal-hybrid creatures who have their own modern society allowing them to go back in time to steal human energy (or…magic?) from the emotions of children, as we see in Monsters Inc.

Monsters University shows us that the monsters have been honing their scaring skills since at least 1313, when the university itself was founded. Onward hints at what this time might’ve been like for these diverse creatures, which aren’t very dissimilar to monsters. Remember, the timeline was reset for these creatures at some point in the far future, so 1313 for them would be thousands of years in the future for us.

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Simply put, the monsters of Monsters Inc. and Monsters University are part of the same society as the fantasy creatures we see in Onward. In Onward, we only get to know a small corner of this world, and it likely takes place many years before Monsters University, because it still contains many remnants of folklore, like wizards. But the Monsters films show us Monstropolis, which is more similar to a human society with little hint to the past. That’s because their world is more closely influenced by human society, as this is where Monsters Inc. is located, so this part of the world has a close connection to the human world of the past, which may have influenced the customs of this particular city.

For all we know, many of the towns and cities outside of Monstropolis are more similar to the one we see in Onward, which is clearly located closer to where magic was at its strongest. Put another way, Monstropolis resembles America because of its “new world” energy. But in Europe, it’s easier to find historical landmarks closely tied to the legacy of the past, which we see laid out a few times in Onward.

Of course, there are plenty more clues to consider and dissect. We see in Onward that magic does still exist, like the magic we see in Brave, in fact. The elements of the dead coming back to life are an obvious callback to how Day of the Dead works in Coco, and at various points in the movie, you could consider the magical action seen onscreen as something out of The Incredibles. The running theme, however, is that these powers are governed by emotion. In order for elves to perform magic effectively, they have to use their “heart’s fire” as a means of channeling magic. And as we see in the movie, only elves and other humanoid creatures appear to have the ability to use any kind of magic at all, hinting at the possibility that they are in fact the descendants of the humans who were aboard the Axiom and “re-inherited” the Earth.

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Humans are batteries in the Pixar universe. Their emotions can power toys, cars, and entire cities ( as seen in Toy Story, Cars, and Monsters Inc., respectively) But what happened to them after WALL-E and A Bug’s Life, when there were barely any humans to be found? Well, it’s possible they gradually changed into a new species, or bred into what would eventually be known as elves. And over time, they’d die out all the same, because we learn in Onward that not all elves have “the gift” of using magic. Eventually this ability would apparently disappear completely, forcing “monsters” to go back in time to harvest the energy needed to power their world. Perhaps these creatures evolved into scary monsters out of necessity, because it would be the only way for them to effectively scare children for centuries, weeding out all of the “nice-looking” creatures in favor of the scarier ones.

That’s not to say some of the creatures of Onward are helpless unless they have some connection to the humans of the past. Dragons breathing fire and pixies being able to fly can be easily compared to the heightened abilities of some monsters, like Randall, who can turn invisible. But when it comes to outright magic, the source always seems to come back to humans.

There’s a lot more to figure out with Onward, like why there are two moons, as opposed to just one. I have a few theories about this, but I’d like to see the film a couple more times to finalize my thoughts on how this is possible. It’ll also be fun to revisit the Monsters Inc. movies to find more direct comparisons between the world of Onward and the one where we meet Mike and Sulley. I’ll also be scouring the film for more easter eggs and cameos revealing all of the clues we’ve come to expect from these movies, so please stay tuned for the new and improved book, The Pixar Theory. I promise it’ll be worth the wait.

Before we part, I definitely want to praise the incredible work of Dan Scanlon and the fine folks at Pixar who did an incredible job making Onward. It’s as wonderful and heartwarming as many of Pixar’s other recent work, like Inside Out and Coco. The core message of the film pertains to brotherhood and how memories carry us through tragedy and toward the adventures of the future. I hope you all like crying in public, because yes, this is another Pixar tearjerker. I simply can’t wait to see it again and again.


Thanks for reading this. Be sure to say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni

All images courtesy of Disney/Pixar

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The First Trailer For Pixar’s ‘Onward’ Imagines A Magical World Without Magic

I should’ve known Pixar had a few hidden tricks up their sleeve for this one. We’ve known for some time that Onward centers around two elvish brothers on a quest to find some trace of magic left in the world connected to their deceased father, which is a relic of an idea that traces back to director Dan Scanlon’s real life experience of finding an old object containing a memory of his own dad.

Now, we see this “quest” has a few curveballs, as shown in the trailer. Looks like the “magic” object is a staff, and there are some cartoony rules that dictate how and when their dad can actually come back to life. So it’s a blend of Brave and Coco in that respect.

At first glance, this familiarity worries me. How many times have we seen kids in Pixar movies trying to beat a deadline to save their parent, or the other way around? It’s well-worn plotting at this point for the studio, but this is a unique enough setting to keep me interested, plus the two main characters (voiced by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) have no shortage of charm and chemistry to make this one a proper Pixar feels trip.

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The “modern mythological” setting is still a blast to discover and learn new details about, including the gag of pixie bikers harassing the dad corpse. Speaking of which, said corpse is a fun nod to Weekend at Bernie’s, which is one of many references to 80s pop culture in the movie we can connect back to Scanlon’s work on Monsters University. There’s a reason that “Quests of Yore” spell book closely resembles a Dungeons and Dragons manual, which for me is just brilliant world building.

The look, feel, and energy of this movie is just so Monsters University, down to the humor itself. As a lot of you know, I absolutely adore that film despite its baggage as a prequel, so this familiar tone only boosts my expectations for a road trip movie with enough twists and turns to make the latest original story from Pixar a positive step forward for their brand.

Pixar Theory stuff:

  • The voiceover narration says that “in times of old, the world was filled with wonder and magic.” This might squash any early speculation that Onward takes place in the future, post Monsters Inc., but all that said, it’s hard not to notice a lot of similarity in design between some of these characters and “Monsters.” One era Pixar has never really covered is the long stretch of time between WALL-E and Monsters Inc., so take that as you will.
  • The “Visitation Spell” sounds pretty similar to the rules of how the dead can visit the living for “one day” in Coco. And we see the same sort of thing in Brave with how the “wisps” are implied to be spirits of dead ancestors.
  • At minute 1:29, you can just barely spot an ad in the gas station referencing Poultry Palace, a fast food restaurant seen in Toy Story 4 and the Toy Story short “Small Fry.”
  • In the gas station scene that follows, you can clearly see “Triple Dent Gum” being held by the pixie uttering “you got a problem, Shades?” This particular gum brand traces back to Inside Out, of course. Don’t act like you forgot the theme song…
  • At minute 1:38, you can see a formation of rocks that resemble not just Stonehenge, but the rock formation where Merida encounters the wisps for the second time in Brave.
  • The tavern is full of creatures that resemble monsters, as noted before. Worth considering if this movie shows us an early inception of how the monsters came to be, but it’s hard to square that sort of assumption with the movie’s established vibe of European folklore. Plus, we would have to explain those two moons, and writing it off as some sort of alternative universe just seems boring to me.

Did I miss anything? Of course I did. Let me know what stuck out to you in this trailer by commenting below.

How Did ‘Toy Story 4’ Do At The Box Office Compared To Other Pixar Films?

toy story 4 box office

The results are mixed.

It’s been nearly 16 weeks since Toy Story 4 opened in theaters, and though the Pixar fourquel is still playing in a handful of second run theaters nationwide, its box office destiny is more or less set in stone, especially with the film now available to rent on demand.

How did Woody and the gang do? As I noted in the weeks following the film’s releaseToy Story 4 fell a bit under expectations for a Pixar sequel when compared to the opening weekends for Finding Dory and Incredibles 2. Nevertheless, it had a strong summer in light of few other animated family films coming out to play.

The results speak for themselves. Toy Story 4 made $1.068 billion worldwide, which is just $2 million higher than Toy Story 3 earned in 2010 (unadjusted for inflation). It’s now the second highest grossing Pixar film of all time behind Incredibles 2.

When you do adjust for inflation, however, the results are murkier. It’s not an exact science but films like Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 easily breeze past Toy Story 4 despite having smaller releases worldwide.

Domestically, these numbers are similarly salt-graining. Adjusted for inflation, Toy Story 4 (which has made $433.3 million) is only the fifth highest grossing Pixar film in North America behind Toy Story 3Finding DoryFinding Nemo, and Incredibles 2 at #1. It’s also worth pointing out that Toy Story 4 wasn’t even the highest grossing animated film of the summer, because The Lion King ended up grossing $1.6 billion (which makes it the highest grossing animated film of all time).

Now this may all seem like silly numbers to parse out. Who cares if Toy Story 4 wasn’t the best box office success of all time? Beyond general curiosity, I find these numbers incredibly important, because they signal a limitation for these Pixar sequels. They’re still successful, don’t get me wrong, but Disney and Pixar have to see what is clear and obvious.

They can’t keep banking on films like Incredibles 2 and Finding Dory to be massive, billion dollar films with more sequels churning out, and the studio has to reaffirm their commitment to original films in the coming years. We already know the studio has seen this coming as an inevitability, because their next four films are, in fact, originals. That fresh intellectual property will prevent Pixar’s roster from growing stale with what feel like cash grabs, even though Toy Story 4 was a well-received film by and large.

But Toy Story 4 feels like the minor dip pointing to a larger trend. Because it didn’t outgross the last major Pixar franchise sequel (with a decade or longer wait in between), Disney and Pixar have no choice but to double down on bolder, richer films based on new stories. The kind that made this studio a trusted, household name in the first place.

 

Everything We Just Learned About Pixar’s ‘Soul’

In less than 10 months, a new original Pixar film will hit theaters, and we’re only just starting to get a detailed glimpse into what Soul is really about.

The film was announced this past June with scant explanation. We’ve known since then that Pete Docter would direct the film with Dana Murray as producer, and the vague synopsis hinted at a story about “what makes you YOU” and “a journey from the streets of New York City to the cosmic realms to discover the answers to life’s most important questions.”

Aside from false rumors about the voice cast, we’ve had almost nothing else to go off of when it comes to Pixar’s followup to Onward, which will release next March. Soul comes out June 19, just three months later, which is the same release date as Docter’s last film, Inside Out. And that’s not the only clear comparison between both films, as we now know a bit more about Soul coming out of the D23 Expo.

First, there’s the voice cast (for real this time). Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a middle school teacher with “a deep passion for jazz.” Tina Fey voices 22, a “soul” who has been stuck at the “You Seminar” for 100 years. Questlove voices Curly, a drummer in Joe’s band. Phylicia Rashad voices Joe’s mother. And Daveed Diggs voices Paul, Joe’s neighborhood nemesis.

Here’s a new description of the film by The Wrap:

The film will explore the You Seminar, an academy where souls learn how to build passion within themselves before graduating and inhabiting a newborn child. Foxx plays Joe Gardner, a man with a deep love for jazz, who is stuck as a middle school music teacher. After years of longing to perform onstage rather than teach, Joe finally gets his big break after an open mic at the Half Note Club that impresses the other players so much that he gets a gig.

But as he celebrates, an accident separates Joe from his soul, and his soul travels back to the You Seminar, where he meets other souls-in-training that help him find his way back to Earth. Among them is 21, played by Fey, a soul who has spent eons at the You Seminar and has a dim view of human life.

I have to admit, I feel a little bit silly for not making the connection between the movie title Soul and “soul music” (aka jazz) when we first heard about this film taking place in New York City. Also, The Half Note Club is a real location there, but other media reports have called this setting “The Blue Note” or just “The Half Note.” Another discrepancy is disagreement over whether or not the character is named “22” or “21,” but “22” is likely the correct name.

The premise above certainly rings of familiar Pixar, as it centers around two mismatched characters having an existential adventure in a fantastical setting. Only this time, both the setting and the themes are existential. This movie is essentially “full Pixar,” or as Docter put it at D23: “who would make a cartoon about metaphysics?” Jacob Hall from SlashFilm has also noted that Docter asked the question: “Have you ever noticed that babies already have a personality?”

For another spin on the synopsis, here’s a version by Polygon:

The main character is Joe Gardner, a middle school band director with a love of jazz. He dreams of playing at the Half Note, New York’s prestigious jazz club. Then, after 20 years of trying, he gets his wish. In a trailer, we see him emerge from a subway and rehearse on the piano at the club. When he nabs the gig, he’s beaming, and walking back down the city street … where he falls down a manhole and dies. His soul separates from his body and goes to the great beyond.

The film revolves around You Seminar, a otherworldly location where souls are trained with quirks, abilities, and interests. “All the things that make you, you,” Doctor said at the presentation. Once ready, the souls graduate from You Seminar.

Finally, here’s Jacob Hall’s take on the clip shown at D23, writing for SlashFilm:

In the clip, Joe runs through the streets of New York City, making his way to a jazz restaurant to play piano. Joe believes his purpose on this planet is to play, declaring, “It’s what I was meant to do, and nothing’s gonna stop me.” When he finally gets the gig of his dreams, Joe gets on his cellphone to brag, narrowly avoiding getting hit by cars and construction, only to fall down a sewer opening. When he opens his eyes, he’s surrounded by blackness and finds himself back in the You Seminar and himself colored all blue. “If this place looks familiar, it’s because you’ve been here before,” someone tells Joe, as the place becomes filled with pavilions where different personality traits are held.

Here, Joe meets a new soul named “22” — the last digits in a number in the billions. Because 22 doesn’t yet have a person, she looks like a big green creature with a big head, no body, and white buckteeth. Joe discovers that in order to return to Earth, he must travel to the impossibly vast cosmic realms. Through this journey, he will learn what it’s like to have a soul.

A Pixar film with a ton of music also needs some talented musicians behind the scenes, so it’s heartening to see Jon Batiste from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert writing the jazz songs, plus Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are composing the score. Just listen to The Social Network soundtrack for an introduction into what those two are capable of when it comes to film scores.

Overall, Soul appears to hit all the right notes for an original Pixar film with heartfelt ideas and lovable characters. It also happens to be the first Pixar film to be led by a black character, and much of the cast we know about so far includes people of color, similar to 2017’s Coco.

I’m still feeling a bit cautious about the film’s quick release after Onward, but my hope for now is that the film was simply delayed from 2019 due to the shakeup of John Lasseter’s departure from Pixar (and Pete Docter’s subsequent promotion as his replacement). We can certainly see from its release date that Pixar and Disney have high hopes for Soul being another Inside Out. That is, an original animated film beloved by critics and audiences alike in a heated summer full of sequels and franchises.

Soul will be born on June 19, 2020.


What do you think? Comment below or @me on Twitter.

Disney+ Is About To Be Your New Home For All Things Pixar

Is that a good thing?

We’re still a few months away from the full release of Disney+, a brand-new streaming service that will start at $6.99/month (with just one ad-free option, similar to Hulu). It’s like Netflix, but with tons of newer Disney and Pixar films, short films, new original content, and the entire Disney Vault.

I’ve mentioned the service plenty of times before on this site, but it’s worth reminding just how enticing this service will be for Pixar fans. Next year, Disney+ will debut Monsters at Work, a spinoff series of Monsters Inc. with some of the original voice cast returning (of course, Mike and Sully aren’t the main characters).

Upon launch, it looks like some new short form content from Pixar will debut, including Forky Asks a Question, a series of clips highlighting the confusion and curiosity behind everyone’s favorite utensil from Toy Story 4. Later, the service will release Lamp Life, a short film about what Bo Peep was up to in between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 4. It’s probably safe to assume Disney+ will also contain Pixar’s entire collection of short films and maybe even SparkShorts.

But what about all the movies? The service will include 18 out of 21 Pixar films at launch, excluding the three most recent ones: Toy Story 4, Incredibles 2, and Coco. According to Disney, those films will come along later. And there will be two more exclusive streaming series in addition to Monsters at Work, but we don’t know much about those yet.

It’s easy to compare Disney+ to Netflix, but it will probably feel more like the experience of using Hulu, especially if you pay for the version with ads. It’s also strange to see Disney fully embracing Pixar as one of its crucial content branches, perhaps on the level of Marvel and Star Wars. Their in-house-mouse animation arm is still intact of course (lest we forget the release of Frozen 2 this year), but Pixar’s healthy catalogue of beloved characters and stories is looking more and more like a contained universe of branded content Disney wants to expand even further, perhaps in an attempt to bridge the gap between entertainment for kids and adults.

And we can already see the ways in which Disney+ might be impacting Pixar as an animation studio. Toy Story 4 didn’t have a short film attached to it, breaking tradition, and though this was downplayed by the filmmakers as incidental, it’s easy to wonder if resources for short films are being stretched to other places. Pixar isn’t producing the content for these new original series, but they are contributing, apparently.

This makes me curious. Would you rather see a short film from Pixar, or a season of a Pixar-adjacent show on Disney+? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, because until we see one of these shows, any guess is as good as mine.


A Great Podcast Can Come From Anywhere

Photo by Mohammad Metri

The rise of independent podcasting, explained by someone who lived it.

My podcasting story is similar to most, in the sense that it is mostly…unique. A lot of people start different podcasts of various shapes and sizes, usually with similar goals in mind. But they’re all working within the same ecosystem of a burgeoning, on-demand streaming platform that has taken over traditional radio in the last decade.

These days, everyone seems to have a podcast, or they at least want to start one. Celebrities have podcasts. Corporations have podcasts. Even characters from fictional movies have podcasts.

Recently, The New York Times did an entire story on whether or not we’ve reached “Peak Podcast,” whatever that means:

Like the blogs of yore, podcasts — with their combination of sleek high tech and cozy, retro low — are today’s de rigueur medium, seemingly adopted by every entrepreneur, freelancer, self-proclaimed marketing guru and even corporation. (Who doesn’t want branded content by Home Depot and Goldman Sachs piped into their ears on the morning commute?) There are now upward of 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with between 2,000 and 3,000 new shows launching each month.

For context, there were approximately 270,000 podcasts available just four years ago. In short time, podcasting has developed into a mainstream pastime, and one that is still seeing new adoption overseas. How did this happen, and so quickly?

The answer depends on the type of podcast you’re curious about. I can’t speak much about podcasts owned by corporations, or shows that exist on major networks. Their machinations are removed from my own experience. But I can speak to the phenomenon of seemingly ordinary people gathering around a microphone and reaching an audience far larger than they anticipated.

In other words, I can probably best explain the rise of podcasting by sharing my own story with the medium, and how it’s changed and grown over the years. Six years, to be exact.

Go on…A Great Podcast Can Come From Anywhere

How Bo Peep Became a Great Role Model For Young Girls in ‘Toy Story 4’

From  Alexandria Ingham, writing for Hidden Remote:

Throughout the movie, we watched Bo take charge. She gave orders, figured out solutions, and looked out for herself and others. There was still the story of lost love, but she didn’t just follow her heart. Bo proved that you can be smart, adventurous, and caring all at the same time — and these are all positive traits in a young girl.

In the lead up to Toy Story 4, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the writing for Bo Peep, a character who had been relegated to the background in previous films, now elevated to a major role in what is essentially a romantic comedy starring her and Woody.

Ingham perfectly outlines the core traits that bring out the best in this previously underwritten character, without making her feel like a totally different entity. This is still Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. She’s just grown up a bit, as have we.

While Woody and the gang had been so fearful of being lost toys, Bo found a freedom within it. There was excitement, and she shared all about the fun of the adventure. She offered this message that it’s okay to step out of the nest. It’s scary, sure, but there are so many reasons to head out and explore. You’re missing more by restricting yourself.

You can read Ingham’s full piece here.

Do you think Bo Peep is a good role model for girls (and boys?)


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