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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.

onward

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.

onward

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.

onward

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.

onward

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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‘Cars 3’ Review: A Surprisingly Good Sports Drama, But With Cars

Is Pixar’s Cars franchise worth another lap with Cars 3

One of the stark differences between the Cars movies and many of the other Pixar films is that there’s no explicit purpose for its own high concept…except to sell toys. There’s no real commentary on what it means to be a car or own one, and audiences are instead given a “human” comedy that replaces the characters with cartoon sketches simply for visual and experiential distinction.

Even Zootopia, a Disney film that appears to do the same with animals, allows its story to be controlled and guided by the real implications of a society governed by anthropomorphized animals in order to say something relevant about humans. Pixar’s magic has been to get away from that type of storytelling with films like Toy Story, which commit to the real differences between the plight of toys and the separate experience of being a human.

Go on…‘Cars 3’ Review: A Surprisingly Good Sports Drama, But With Cars

The Pixar Theory: How ‘Inside Out’ Fits In The Pixar Universe

inside out disappointing

Take her to the moon for me. Okay? 

The Pixar Theory, or “Grand Unifying Theory of Pixar movies” if you want to be more intense, is a fan theory I wrote in 2013 about how every single feature film made by Pixar Animation Studios is intentionally set in the same universe. Or unintentionally, if you believe in miracles.

pixar theory inside out
Dan O’Brien

I was inspired by an episode of the Web Series, “After Hours,” on Cracked.com. In the episode written by Dan O’Brien, the After Hours crew discusses, at length, how a few of the Pixar movies may secretly be about the apocalypse. They address Toy StoryWALL-E, and Cars before giving up because they can’t find a way to connect the films any further.

So I took that as a challenge.

Over the following year, I developed my own theory on how all the movies connect, and the results have been surprisingly epic. People from all over the world have read the theory, and many of you have been having ongoing discussions in the comments that go way beyond anything I first imagined (trust me, I read all of them).

Now, two years later, it’s time to see where we’re at as we welcome a new Pixar movie to the world: Inside Out.

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First, it’s important to point out that the theory itself has changed dramatically over the years. A lot of people have called out flaws and underdeveloped points of the theory that make it fall apart for them. I’ve read the feedback and spent the last two years writing a book that fully fleshes out my original theory. It addresses pretty much every major complaint and issue that “debunkers” have thrown at it. And it does this in about ten chapters.

Every chapter follows a specific movie (some are lumped in together, like the Cars franchise). I talk about the context of the movie as it relates to this theory, where it fits in the grand timeline, and how each movie contributes to the idea that these movies exist in the same narrative. And yes, I go way beyond the easter eggs.

My book is available now on paperback and all e-book stores. Hope you guys like it!

pixar theory book

But let’s get back to the main task at hand. Let’s talk about how Inside Out masterfully fits within the idea that all of these Pixar films are connected. What you’re about to read is set up like how I wrote the chapters for my book, so if you like what you read, then that may be a sign that the book is for you. Consider this your sample chapter, if you will.

Obviously, many spoilers are ahead, so read at your own risk. I highly recommend that you watch the movie at least once before reading this, especially since it’s pretty fantastic. You’ve been warned.

THE SET UP.

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Inside Out is the story of a young girl struggling to grow up, seen through the eyes of her emotions as literal beings. Yes, Pixar made a movie where feelings have feelings.

The movie opens with the birth of Riley Andersen. The first thing you may notice is that she shares the same last name as Bonnie Anderson from Toy Story 3 and the subsequent shorts based on that movie. That may tempt you into believing that Riley and Bonnie are connected somehow, but that’s definitely not the case since their names aren’t spelled the same way.

For context, Pixar named Bonnie after two people: Bonnie Hunt (a frequent voice actor for the Pixar films) and Darla K. Anderson, the producer of Toy Story 3. Darla actually has easter eggs for her name dating all the way back to A Bug’s Life, where you can catch her first name on a box in “Bug City.”

Anyway, we learn early on that Riley grew up in Minnesota, but her family moves to San Francisco when she’s 11 years old. Now it’s true that Bonnie lives in Tri County, around the corner from Andy, and Tri-County does take place in the Bay Area of California. But that’s really just a coincidence. Riley’s family never mentions that they have relatives around, and they only moved to San Francisco for her dad’s job. For that reason, all signs point to this being a coincidence.

WHEN DOES THE MOVIE TAKE PLACE?

pixar theory part 2

Moving on, we get to know Riley through a montage of her early life. When we get to the point where she’s 11, it appears to be modern day. Much of the technology we see throughout the movie — like a Skype surrogate that closely resembles the one used by Trixie in Toy Story 3 and the presence of smartphones — point to this being a film set in 2015.

That means Riley was born in either 2003 or 2004, depending on her exact birthday. Interestingly, that would mean the movie opens during the same year as Finding Nemo. 

We also know that this has to be some time after 2007, which is when Ratatouille takes place. In fact, Inside Out actually confirms that Ratatouille takes place in 2007 instead of 2004, which is a conundrum I ran into while writing the book. It’s all based on the blurry date seen on Gusteau’s will and…eh, don’t worry, it’s not important.

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Anyway, the reason we know that this is some time after Ratatouille is because you can see Colette Tatou on the cover of a magazine in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it easter egg. Judging by the prestige of this magazine, Colette has done well for herself during her years learning from Remy and working at La Ratatouille, the bistro she started with him and Linguini.

After all, why would she be on the cover a magazine before her adventures in Ratatouille? Before she met Linguini, she was just a hardworking chef trying to build a career at a failing restaurant. I find it much more plausible that she’s created a name for herself under the tutelage of the best chef in France.

(DONALD GLOVER VOICE) MY EMOTIONS!

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So as we get to know Riley in the film’s early montage, we meet her emotions. The film immediately takes us inside her head, where we watch Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Fear, and Anger team up to influence Riley’s actions. They work in “Headquarters” (get it?) and use a mysterious console to control Riley’s decisions.

When an emotion manages to elicit a meaningful experience in real life, a memory is generated and sent to Riley’s long term memory. If it’s a specifically powerful experience, then it will create a core memory that will stay in Headquarters.

It’s somewhat confusing, but Pixar does a great job of explaining this better than I can. They use subtle techniques and cleverness to make the inside of Riley’s head immediately unique, while also incredibly believable.

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For example, the memories are shaped like “marbles” because without them, Riley would lose her marbles.

This is a fun movie.

The plot of Inside Out focuses on Riley being uprooted to a new home in San Fransisco and how this negatively affects her emotions. She misses her friends, never sees her dad anymore because of his new job, and feels pressured to just “be happy” all the time. This causes her to repress her sadness, which eventually causes even more problems.

CONNECTIONS AND MISFIRES…

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There’s another fun cameo during this part of the movie. We see a rat that looks a lot like Remy, which is just a fun reminder that Pixar animation transcends the multiple stories they tell. And we also see memories that feature other Pixar characters. You can see Carl and Ellie’s wedding from Up for example.

A good reason for that could be that Riley saw a tape of this wedding at some point, though that would have to be a very old home movie. It could be a picture, since we see a camera in the first frame of that scene in Up. In that case, Riley could have seen that picture and imagined the wedding herself. This has led a lot of people to think that Riley could somehow be related to Carl and Ellie, which would be quite a stretch.

That’s because Carl and Ellie sadly never had kids, so Riley would have to be a distant relative. If she knows about the wedding, then she’s probably met some of this family, but we know in those early scenes of Inside Out that Riley is visiting California for the first time. She thought the Golden Gate bridge was actually golden, after all.

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You could argue that people from this family went to Minnesota to visit her, but I’m not really convinced. Personally, I don’t think we’re able to know just yet, though one theory I have is that she had a teacher or friend’s parent who is somehow connected to Carl and Ellie. A future Pixar movie may shed light on this.

Some people even want to believe that Riley is Boo from Monsters Inc.,or Andy’s mom. Seriously. Look, Riley is Riley. She’s not anyone else, and trying to force these connections is missing the point. For example, the primary reason people think Riley is Boo is because when she’s shown as a toddler, she’s wearing the same hair tie/scrunchy thing that Boo wears in Monsters Inc. 

riley boo

They both even have pig tails. If you’re fixated on them being one in the same, then you miss the cooler reveal, which is that Riley was growing up around the same time as Boo (Monsters Inc., takes place in the early 2000s), so of course that style and those hair ties were popular.

As for Riley being Andy’s mom…I mean that’s way too much of a stretch, even for a limo.

riley andy's mom
Besides the eyes, nose, time period, and basic facial structure, they’re exactly alike! Sigh.

HUMANS ARE BATTERIES…

A main theme of the Pixar Theory is the idea that humans emit this strange energy that we see all throughout the films. In Monsters Inc., we learn that the laughter of a child can be harvested as energy for a society of creatures that mysteriously know how to use it. In The Incredibles, this energy is seen tangibly through the exploits of super-powered humans who can do amazing things.

Part of my Pixar Theory (the updated version) is that humans power the toys in Toy Story because they’re built to collect energy by the machines from The Incredibles. The book goes more into detail, but the basic idea is that the machines know how to use human energy as a battery, which carries on as a strategy all the way to the future, when monsters have to go back in time through doors to access this energy because no humans are left thanks to WALL-E. 

But all this time, I’ve wondered why Pixar seems so infatuated with this idea of imagination being a raw power. And Inside Out addresses this pretty head on. The whole premise of the movie is that our emotions (as seen in Monsters Inc.,) are what truly power our actions. And the most powerful emotion for a child is Joy, as seen by Joy being the de facto leader of Riley’s emotions. Most of Riley’s memories are positive, and this is because Joy is inherently a strong emotion for many children.

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The monsters of Monsters Inc, use fear, which can be another strong emotion for some kids, to power their society, but they eventually learn that laughter from joy is far more effective. And why is that? Well, Inside Out explains that joy is one of the first emotions we experience. Joy, the character, is a literal light source. She’s fast, tough, and clever. And she’ll do anything to make Riley happy. The other emotions in comparison are much more passive.

A lingering question in Monsters Inc., is why adults are so difficult to scare. Inside Out sort of answers that by showing how the inside of adults’ minds work. They’re more emotionally balanced, for example, so you don’t see one emotion overpowering the others. When we see inside the heads of Riley’s parents, the emotions don’t bicker like they do in Riley’s head. Instead, they all work together to accomplish the same goal.

But that’s not all. No, no, no. There’s something even better hiding in the dark of this movie that serves as the biggest “Aha!” moment I’ve had since I carefully re-watched Brave and Monsters Inc., back to back.

And it has to do with this guy, Bing Bong.

BING BONG! BING BONG!

pixar theory part 2

Bing Bong is Riley’s imaginary friend. Joy and Sadness meet him halfway through the movie, and he helps them navigate Riley’s mind as they try to return to Headquarters. When Riley was three, Bing Bong was her best friend. He’s part cat, part elephant, and part dolphin. He’s made of cotton candy and, naturally, cries candy. He even has a wagon that can fly when powered by songs…

(humans=batteries).

So what’s the big deal? Why is he important?

Simple. Bing Bong is an imaginary friend, yes. But he’s based on a monster. Riley’s monster from when she was three.

At the end of Monsters Inc., Sulley and Mike decide to make kids laugh instead of scream because it generates more energy and is less messed up. We even see Mike go through a door and perform standup comedy for a child.

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But wouldn’t this leave a kid feeling traumatized? Imagine a monster coming through your door, making you laugh, and then disappearing forever. This would make no sense unless…children perceive these new monsters as their imaginary friends.

Bing Bong was a monster who went through Riley’s door and made her laugh when she was three. We know that monsters have animal characteristics, explaining his part-cat/part-elephant appearance. And of course Riley thinks he’s made of cotton candy. Why else would he be pink? I’d even argue that he makes dolphin noises to make Riley laugh, causing her to think he’s part dolphin, too.

pixar theory part 2

This all makes perfect sense if we’re to believe that well-adjusted kids in Pixar movies grew up meeting monsters in their rooms late at night. And it’s further helped by the fact that in Riley’s subconscious, she’s afraid of clowns, not monsters.

And think of it this way. Isn’t it pretty easy to picture Bing Bong living in Monstropolis?

I have plenty more to say about all of this, but those are the major points. If you want to keep digging, you can read another exploration I did of this movie that goes somewhat more into detail. The gist of it is that Bing Bong is life.

There are more easter eggs for the movie listed at the bottom, but that’s the basic rundown of how Inside Out fits into the Pixar Theory. If you think of something interesting to add or have a compelling question to ask, fire away! Just please…don’t ask if Big Hero 6, a Disney movie, should be in the Pixar Theory…

Ready for more?

The conspiring doesn’t end here. Check out my other Pixar Theory posts from infinity to beyond:

  • The Pixar Theory – the full book available on paperback and ebook via Kindle, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, or just a PDF. This will cover the entire theory and every movie in the Pixar universe, updated from what you just read.

EASTER EGG ISLAND!

  • There’s a globe in Riley’s classroom that has been shown in every single Toy Story film.
  • Some of the cars in San Francisco have bumper stickers from the Pixar movie, Cars.
  • Bing Bong disturbs a cloud person in Imaginationland, and he looks a lot like the cloud from the Pixar short, “Partly Cloudy.”

  • Also in Imaginationland, you can see a board game with a picture of Nemo that says “Find Me.”
  • One of Riley’s classmates wears a camo shirt with Toy Story characters on it. Well, their silhouettes, at least. It even looks like Arlo from The Good Dinosaur is on there as well. There’s even a popular girl at the school with a skull t-shirt in the same fashion as Sid’s from Toy Story, just in a different color. The 90s are making a comeback!

  • A banner in Riley’s hockey rink showcases a team from Tri-County, which is the setting for Toy Story. I explain this easter egg further in a different article.
  • Blink and you’ll miss a “For the Birds” cameo during Riley’s road trip to San Francisco in the beginning of the movie. It’s just like their appearance in Cars.
  • As always, the animators included ample A113 references. I’ve heard there’s more than one, but the only one I saw personally was A113 as the number of Riley’s classroom.
  • If you look closely at Riley’s Chinese takeout box, you’ll notice it has the same design as the one from A Bug’s Life (pictured below). Those familiar with the theory know that this could be because the same restaurant exists in both movies, so naturally there’d still be remnants of these takeout boxes hundreds of years later during Flik and the gang’s adventures.

inside out pixar theory


Thanks for reading this. To get updates on my theories, books, and giveaways, join my mailing list.

Or just say hey on Twitter: @JonNegroni

Every Easter Egg in the New Ant-Man Trailer

ant-man easter eggs

Reid Jones | Moviepilot:

Ant-Man’s daughter, Cassidy Lang, has been fully revealed as Scott’s main motivation for getting into the suit. Little did you know that in the comics, Cassidy grows up to be the superheroine known as Stature, who uses Ant-Man’s same powers, except in reverse: to grow to skyscraping heights. Could we end up seeing a fully grown Cassidy by the time an Ant-Man 3 film comes out? Ant-Man 2 won’t be coming out until at least 2019, leaving Cassidy around her teenage years should a third film ever make its way to the big screen.

A fellow writer at Moviepilot, Reid Jones, compiled a full list of even the most subtle references scattered in the first Ant-Man trailer, which premiered just last night during “Agent Carter.”

If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, you can still check out the article and stream the trailer at the top.

For those of you who have seen the trailer, what did you think?

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