It is late November in lower Manhattan, three days before Thanksgiving. At the Urban Outfitters in SoHo, beyond an entranceway strategically crackled with confetti, past a greeter, gaunt and sparkling from sleek beret top to sequined peep-toe shoe, a center table is crushed beneath the weight of holiday décor. Santa suit beer cozies, pooping reindeer candy dispensers, and jewel-encrusted dreidels pile into makeshift pyramids beside walls of tinsel-strung Polaroid cameras, $15 Wayfayers, and ornamental 80s kitsch. I stride quickly across the lower foyer, past the mustache-molded lollipops and faux-record player iPod docks, only to halt, pull back, and pause. On a table full of regurgitated culture, a new addition rests: Linus’s blue blanket.
“Cute,” I think, disenchantment softening. The classic Peanuts image of Linus wrapping his prized blanket around Charlie Brown’s devastated Christmas tree makes me think of my younger sister—a blanket baby turned blanket kid.
She still sleeps beneath its deteriorating blue fabric, I discovered on a recent trip home, her blonde curls spilling beneath its ragged pills like a sleep-flushed Holly Golightly filtering out the morning sun. I flash back to the little girl who once carried a basket of newborn birds to school, sheltering them with her original baby blanket because she thought they had been abandoned and wanted to keep them safe. Now a young woman who rotates a nine-to-five position at a dermatology clinic with a hospital graveyard shift, she constantly shows signs of self-sufficiency and maturity, and yet the sleep-worn scrap has endured—a familiar nest for her own quiet fragility.
With this glimpse of Linus’s fluffy blue blanket, I was reminded how timeless the need for nostalgia, and comfort, can be. Across Urban, through constantly restocked retro gifts and repackaged revival gear, this pull towards the familiarity of the past pervades our present in different forms each season. But somewhere between the towering displays of Kermit dolls, the recently rereleased Atari game sets, and the ironic iPhone housing 80s cell phone cases, I began to see a larger question about the cultural imprint of my entire generation, when seemingly every item freshly minted for us—from blockbuster films to mannequin merch—looks so retroactively familiar.
It is October 2, 1950. In a straightforward, ink-set comic appearing in seven syndicated newspapers, Shermy and Patty sit at the edge of their neighborhood curb: “Well! Here comes ol’ Charlie Brown!/ Good ol’ Charlie Brown…Yes, Sir!/ Good Ol’ Charlie Brown…/ How I hate him!” Shermy scowls.
Charles “Sparky” Schulz will later question the acerbic quality of this statement, unable to remember why he wrote the young Shermy so darkly. “I would never have drawn that now,” he said in a 1985 interview with The Washington Post’s Cynthia Gorney. Thirty-five years later, he could still recall a letter he received from a Lutheran minister about the early comic: “Don’t we have enough hatred on the front page without having it in the comic section?” the minister asked.
At the time, though, Schulz was a gangling cartoonist living with his father in a tiny St. Paul apartment and teaching at a Minneapolis correspondence school similar to the one that had taught him to draw by mail. The cartoon made its debut with moderate attention in seven newspapers, under the name Peanuts.
“What an ugly word it is,” Schulz spent much of his life professing. “I can’t even stand to write it,” he told Barnaby Conrad in a 1967 interview for The New York Times Magazine. His original title, Li’l Folks, spoke more to his appreciation for the clean musicality of word pairings—sounds like “Peppermint Patty” (a character created exclusively to utilize this name) and Schroeder’s Beethoven (because while Brahms may have been Schulz’s preferred composer, Brahms “isn’t a funny word”).
Somewhere between the sprightly beat of Schulz’s language, the liveliness-meets-melancholy realism of his characters, and his translation of childhood memories like blackboard embarrassments and playground exchanges into clean, four-paneled comic strips, exists the emotional totality of Peanuts. Universal enough, according to Conrad, “to touch chords that remind us of things and homely events we thought we had forgotten”; iconic enough to endure.
Once an eighth-grade academic failure, Schulz would rate as one of the nation’s ten richest entertainers by 1988, alongside Stephen Spielberg, Bill Cosby, Sylvester Stallone, and Michael Jackson. By the time he retired for health reasons in 1999, Peanuts appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries; Charlie Brown’s afflicted shrub and Linus’s closely slung blanket had become renowned.
While I’ve never been an overwhelming Peanuts fan, the legacy of the cartoon and the humility of Schulz—a man more interested in his budding existentialism and his daily cartooning routine than the financial success of his product—always impressed me. When I saw the Linus blanket showcased at Urban Outfitters, I assumed, in ignorance, it was a byproduct of these straightforward cartoons’ enduring appeal. It wasn’t until I caught the Peanuts gang revived in the 2011 holiday special Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, that several synaptic light bulbs burst.
Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich, a self-proclaimed “serious Peanuts aficionado,” recently reviewed the film for EW.com in an article called, “Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown is terrible. Will kids care?” The title itself speaks to my own brimming question about the good ol’ Peanuts gang I saw at Urban Outfitters, and the extent to which a generation raised on SpongeBob and Hannah Montana can relate to Snoopy’s Red Baron-inspired adventures, or Schroeder’s unilateral insistence on perfecting Beethoven.
In the article, Franich enthusiastically confesses to his deep, primordial love for Charlie Brown—how growing up watching Peanuts specials morphed into local library visits and high school speeches devoted to the gang. He also cites the original televised specials’ energy, creative iconography, and jazzy rendition of Schulz’s more wry comic strip (due greatly to the stylistic vision of animator Bill Melendez) as reasons for the agony ignited by the new lackluster performance, and why the question of it mattering, matters.
The new film, produced by Charlie Brown newcomers W!LDBRAIN, attempts to bridge this gap with a frame-for-frame algorithm of early Peanuts storylines designed to elicit a pre-established emotional response. Unfortunately, as the first Peanuts special that has nothing to do with either Schulz or Melendez, who have both now passed on, the result seems more contingent on familiar sound bites (Good grief!) than on substance or authentic Schulzian musings. The film’s overarching story centers on Linus’s need to rid himself of his “blanket habit” in anticipation of a visit from his grandmother, who detests that he is her only remaining grandchild still carrying one. Interjected into this weak, socially confused plot are fragments lifted directly from Schulz’s cartoon strip, though without the necessary set-up to give them significance.
Some clips, mainly those featuring Charlie Brown, succeed at evoking familiar laughter over the eternally bumbling but well-meaning character’s efforts at simple tasks, like flying a kite. But most clips, taken out of context, make for disjointed, spiritless montages with little cohesive resolution. By weaving these sound bites into the larger story, W!LDBRAIN creates a fumbled marriage of old and new. In one scene, Sally awkwardly—and anachronistically—professes, “Linus, I really like you—you’re my sweet baboo—but I’d like you even more if you give up your blanket.” In a later scene, Linus receives word that his blanket has been found via telegram—not a text message, kids, not even mail, but telegram, making for an allusion of yore certain to boggle young minds to no end.
The result is flat, oftentimes oddly vitriolic, and generally disappointing. Stitching together Schulz clips leaves out the writer’s linguistic rhythm and completely undercuts his knack for turning downtrodden events into uplifting endings. The characters—now with adult talent voicing children, rather than actual children—scowl more often than they laugh, and the flaws that once might have been used comically now venomously take center stage. Linus’s hallmark monologue, rather than inspiring collaborative action from his friends (as is historically the case), rails them, one-by-one, for their own faults and insecurities, concluding with the message, “I need this blanket. It’s the only real security I have.”
If Schulz thought Shermy was unnecessarily biting (in a scene that interestingly enough makes a cameo in this generally jaded film), he’s nothing compared to the new, blanket-jonesing Linus. Rather than finding comfort in the new adventures of a familiar cast, I felt duped. Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown was made to sell blankets, I realized with remorse. Despite the film’s attempts to replicate Schulz’s creative achievement, little of Schulz’s original spirit remains.
Nostalgia-centered remakes like this have now become seasonal fixtures, and happiness—particularly in its nostalgic mode—is an enterprise that shoppers lap up by the bagful. Last season, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh reemerged on the retro-revival scene; word is 2012 will feature the revival of 80s cartoon series Thundercats, retelling of classics like The Lorax and Dorothy of Oz, and rehash of a few more turn-and-burn storylines like Ice Age 4, Madagascar 3, and Enchanted 2. In this context, it’s helpful to contrast the newest Charlie Brown film with another Schulz special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
To briefly jostle your memory, the 1965 production features Charlie Brown at his most melancholic, searching for the original meaning of Christmas in the increasingly consumerist holiday. His disillusionment is only magnified by his failure to pick a socially acceptable Christmas tree, until Linus—the wise, empathetic Linus, not the angry, emo echo whose “security blanket” is now on sale at Urban—saves the event with a sincerely spoken scriptural passage that’d bring an atheist to tears.
Even in 1965, it was a hard sell. At CBS headquarters in New York, feedback like “It seems a little flat; Too slow; The Bible thing scares us” poured out after the initial screening. Despite this, when A Charlie Brown Christmas aired later that season, everything from its “flat” leading character to Linus’s poignant final line (“That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”) instantly added up to a “Yule classic.” “Fascinating and haunting,” said Weekly Variety. Its simplicity, and risks, worked.
And over 50 years later, it still works—now perhaps more than ever. The film itself is an early byproduct of a consumer boom that has only accelerated in the years since. In 2011—good grief!—I learned of the new Peanuts film from a pile of blankets at Urban Outfitters. Schulz may have foreseen this, which is why if you have not seen A Charlie Brown Christmas in the past five years, you should watch it next holiday. Beneath of the piles of Snoopy ornaments and clearance bin Charlie Brown Christmas trees, beneath the glitter-coated holiday prints and decorative holiday paraphernalia, Schulz’s central message endures: It will be OK.
When asked what he would wish most for young people, Schulz once replied, “I would wish them to be tied strongly to some kind of family tradition. I think that today we are bursting so many bonds we are becoming a country with no traditions.” What Schulz taps into here is not so much family as an organizing unit (he goes on to stress his equal wish for a young person’s autonomy, self-sufficiency, and ability to “make a life for himself without clinging too much to his family and his old ties”) but a desire for youth to remain strongly tied to tradition as a grounding virtue—that beyond the bursting bonds, posterity might believe in something immutable and unyielding.
The shame is, of course, this is the very thing Warm Blanket is missing. Without the Schulzian authenticity and soulfulness of vision, the Charlie Brown gang exist (appropriately enough for Urban) as ironic shadows of themselves—all quip, no content.
Where Schulz emphasized deep, authentic ties to tradition, the new film turns his vision into a cheap commercial product, sacrificing real tradition for the easy pull of nostalgia. And to return to Franich’s question about whether kids care that this new Charlie Brown is terrible—the answer appears to be no. Last I checked, Linus’s blanket is sold out on UrbanOutfitters.com, and the reviews rave about the product and its connective emotional response. Security blankets, even in semblance, still sell.
“Don’t your children deserve to be intrigued by something better?” Franich rightfully concludes. But even if pulling out old copies of A Charlie Brown Christmas (as Franich suggests) may provide a quick antidote to this commoditized nostalgia, there are still larger issues that need to be addressed: our media culture’s deference to pre-established creative values, our struggle to add contemporary relevance or even maintain the integrity of the original, and whether fixating on nostalgia, at the risk of stunting idea evolution, is worth the cultural cost.
It is 1968, and times have changed. Three years after Charlie Brown first bemoaned the rampant commercialism of Christmas, Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of Children’s Television Workshop, envisions a different future for children’s entertainment: a show that plays into this commercialism itself. Feedback and ratings have shown that children respond well to the catchy jingles of TV, the lively hosts of game shows, and the humor of cartoons. She approaches Jim Henson, an eccentric puppeteer with several years of experience selling products through his own bombastic styling. The stars of these short 8- to 30-second clips include an eclectic mix of up-and-coming icons: a furry brown dog called Rowlf, a gigantic yellow bird with a feathery plume, a heart-warming and humorous frog named Kermit. Despite his desire to keep his newly developed Muppets in a more adult-focused arena, the prospects of a show so innovative excite Henson. He signs on to the project, and Sesame Street is born.
Sesame Street changes Henson, and in turn, Henson changes the way children will be educated for the next three decades. A focus on cultural diversity, community, and elementary education ground the show in larger values; lively puppets, catchy songs, and Sesame Street’s own game show host, Guy Smiley, keep the messages fresh. Despite Henson’s history in the financially rewarding enterprise of commercials, he pulls the plug on cross-promoting his characters. “You develop a sense of responsibility,” he later said. “You realize the importance of what you’re putting out there to young kids.”
Perhaps it is Henson’s ability to straddle roles, compartmentalize interests, and both honor and inspire his audience that made the 2011 film The Muppets such a success. While Henson died in 1990, the latest film—written by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller—promotes this legacy in every frame. To short-wind the story, twelve years after their last curtain call, the Muppets gang gets back together to raise the $10 million necessary to save their old Muppet Theater—though whether anyone will still care about the retired gang becomes a thematic undercurrent.
But here’s why, as reviews have proven, we do still care: because Henson cared so much, and the new film (particularly Segel) captures just that. The opening scene, featuring the 31-year-old Segel dancing with open-armed, wide-eyed earnestness, hint of a belly surfacing beneath his powder blue suit and no wink at irony in sight, reminded me of what humor felt like before it was all shrouded beneath the safety net of tongue-in-cheek antics. It felt optimistic and committed, making me believe in a world of make-believe where imaginary characters reign and chickens sing backup vocals, temporarily suspending my adult sensibility that it could ever be impossible, or foolish, or dumb. I accepted and embraced these risks, and the homage they paid to Henson’s artistic career.
The legacy of Jim Henson is particularly fascinating. Both creative visionary and innovative puppeteer, Henson was the mastermind behind the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and the cult classics Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and my personal favorite, the Academy Award-nominated 1966 short film Time Piece. Beyond the titles, though, existed a man monumentally good. “Jim was the most giving man I’ve ever known,” his partner for nearly three decades, Frank Oz, once said. “He had a great generosity of spirit, of time, and of money for other people. He valued quality work, but being a good human was just as important to him.” These virtues, combined with a tremendous amount of curiosity, momentum, and optimism, create Jim Henson’s enterprise; stories like the time he and his team grew restless waiting to appear on The Jack Paar Show and decorated the pipes in the utility closet of the NBC dressing room with crossed eyes, nozzle noses, and plastic sunglasses color his repertoire further. “At some point, late in the afternoon, there was a knock on the door,” fellow puppeteer Jerry Juhl recounts, “and a voice outside said, ‘Hello, I’m Charlton Heston. Could I see your closet?’ Since practical jokes weren’t unknown in our world, we yelled back, ‘Yeah, sure, you’re Charlton Heston.’ And of course it was Charlton Heston.” (And for the record, somewhere in the network barrows of the NBC building, a Muppetized closet does still exist.)
In an interview featured at the recent Museum of the Moving Image exhibit in Queens, Henson references the ongoing political conflict weighing upon the country while the Muppets and Sesame Street were on air. Despite, or perhaps because of these depressing undercurrents, the need for optimism prevailed; Henson’s desire to create a safe world for preschool-aged viewers became steadfast. And while the 2011 film captures much about the original Muppets, it loses Henson’s desire to suspend his puppets in a bubble of their own idiosyncratic revelry. “I wasn’t happy with the script,” Oz said of the film. “I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.”
I was initially jarred by his negative opinion of the film, which seems to radiate comedy and feel-good giddiness. But Oz had a point:I was captivated by the film because it united my adult perception of how the Muppets felt with my childhood memories of how the original cast looked, not because it stayed true to Henson and Oz’s deeper understanding of who the Muppets actually were. The original Muppet team would never have been so referential, or so wallowing. They would have been more likely to pick up right where they left off—another day, another Muppet adventure. “Whenever [characters] become self-important or sentimental in the Muppets, then there’s always another character there to blow them up immediately,” Oz once said of the original team. The 2011 storyline rejects this approach, utilizing nostalgia as an entry point and adapting older characters to a modern audience by expounding upon who they once were, and no longer are, but hope to be again. Placing the Muppets in this new adult context, rather than having them constantly blow one another up in a more childlike fashion, creates a story both self-important and sentimental, affirming Oz’s apprehension.
Still, though Segel’s team may not have situated the Muppets in their eternal present where concerns like aging and irrelevance would never exist, what the new Muppets does capture, more than a perfect continuity of character, is Henson’s absurdity, wit, and commitment to good. And in a 2011 world where Muppets may or may not be as relevant post-Henson as they were during his reign, and entertainment and attention spans have undoubtedly changed, the move to a more self-conscious, self-referential film makes sense. While in the end, the Muppets regain their spirit, captivate their audience, and acknowledge their retro-morphosis as complete, the film nonetheless marks a transition to a different Muppet schema, and this is at the root of Oz’s disapproval: they question their existence, their capabilities, and whether they still matter. It might be marketed to children, but the film is largely an adult piece, with nostalgia taking precedence. Though infused with Henson’s trademark zaniness and wacka-wacka humor that children may still find entertaining, the larger questions of “Are we still cool?” and “Do we still have what it takes?” are not children’s questions; they are the questions of those old enough to reflect on an identity they have already developed. While adults may appreciate the way the way the new film rekindles a latent emotional connection originally formed with their childhood cast, it is largely due to the fact that as children, adults were given the opportunity to form such a bond. Whether 2012 kids, identities still in flux, will form the same connection with Muppets in this new, more self-aware context remains to be determined.
Rather than asking, “Do kids care about this?”, where “this” equates with the preceding generation’s established entertainment values, we should ask the more specific question that drove Henson’s original creations: “How do we create quality entertainment that today’s kids care about?” And moreover, how can current children’s media show the same commitment to quality, curiosity, and optimism as Henson’s creations while still reflecting modern interests?
It is 1995. Disney, the reigning animation king, has fallen into a slump. The company has been at odds with itself for decades, and nowhere is this more deeply felt than in the animation building at Mickey Avenue. Portraits of Walt Disney, the original innovator, visionary, and storyteller in feature film animation, may ubiquitously line the company’s corridors, but since his 1966 death the creative passion has idled. Across top levels, executives preach the importance of replicating Walt’s example without fully grasping the risk underlying his genius.
After all, Walt released the first American animation feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves—a $1.4 million stake (over $20 million present-day dollars)—in the midst of the Great Depression, and he managed to reconceive the dreary, hard-knock amusement park business as a captivating storytelling enterprise. But by 1995, this sense of ingenuity has dissipated entirely. Throughout the 70s and 80s, rather than embracing the talent of young animators like Tim Burton, or Don Bluth, or John Lasseter—the winner of back-to-back Student Academy Awards for animation from Disney’s own training program, California Institute of the Arts—Disney openly resents their eagerness and drive. “John’s got an instinctive feel for character and movement and shows every indication of blossoming here,” veteran Mel Shaw told the Los Angeles Times during Lasseter’s first year, though pointedly adding, “in time.”
But Lasseter wasn’t prepared to wait—an issue that soon got him fired—and the company’s inability to embrace this ambition keeps them treading dormant waters with films like Pocahontas and the forthcoming The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On the outskirts, a slew of equally unimpressive animation endeavors, like Balto, and forgettable experiments in multi-million dollar special effects, like Jumanji, Casper, and Babe, show little competitive threat. Though the Disney magic flickers low, in this weak creative climate, little seems primed to reignite the spark. Just as it begins to feel like all artistry has been lost to grunge and flannel, a new star in animation rises, clad in plastic and bellowing a now-familiar cry: To Infinity…and Beyond!
Pixar Animation Studios first approached Disney about supporting a larger animation project in 1991, originally pitching a television special. The “fraternity of geeks,” as they once described themselves, had dreamt of partnering with Disney since Chief Technical Officer Ed Catmull first invented texture mapping during his doctoral study at the University of Utah, presenting the new technology in a projection of Mickey Mouse. The group also included Lasseter, as impassioned as ever to make computer animated features, regardless of his previous termination. The deal grew, and in July the studio signed an official contract to turn its ideas into a full-length feature film, tentatively titled Toy Story. Their partnership with Disney, and the future that would define Pixar’s legacy, had begun.
A year after its release, Pixar will publish a concise five-page article in the Proceedings of the 41st IEEE International Computer Conference (COMPCON ’96), titled “The Making of Toy Story.” This article marks a first for understanding Pixar’s revolutionary approach to building computer animation, framing several artistic components that have now become legendary. It also provides insight into the psychological underpinnings of creating such tactile visuals, and the company’s desire—and struggle—to adopt traditional animation values to the still-developing world of computer graphics. “We are animators from beginning to end,” Lasseter has observed of their process. “The audience knows that it was not photographed with a real camera. But if you can make them look at it and go, ‘I know it’s not real, but boy it sure feels real!’—to me, that’s the goal of a Pixar film. Feeling like you can reach up and touch something even though you know it’s not real—that’s part of the entertainment.”
A section called “Shading” in particular speaks to this focus on creating a detailed, tangible world that kids can get lost in. “The shader on Sid’s window ledge is a prime example of layering,” the animators write. “In order to provide the withered, old look that has been painted multiple times, it is divided into more than five layers: a layer for the wood grain, a hand painted layer to indicate where the base coat of paint lies, another painted layer to describe where this paint is chipped and scratched, more layers of paint for color, and finally, a layer of dirt and scratches to provide the aged affect [sic].”
As outlined in “Animation,” Pixar follows a unique hiring strategy and seeks out individuals who, above all else, know their animation. Computer graphics literacy, they believe, can be taught, but “producing animation involves projecting personality, expressing nuance and emotion, using timing, staging, anticipation, and follow-through.” Important to this strategy, beyond its visible artistic excellence, is the origin of its criteria: the steadfast values of Walt Disney himself. Since his death, the most visible safeguards of these animation values were a group commonly referred to as the Nine Old Men—the remaining elite animators and directors from Disney’s golden era, the 1930s to the 1970s. They also emerge as some of the most vocally skeptical of Pixar’s early attempts to adopt these values to a digital medium. Following a viewing of one of Lasseter’s first Pixar animation projects, the iconic 71-year-old “old man” Frank Thomas wrote a lengthy essay shredding computer animation as a viable art form. “Even today there is no electronic process that produces anything close to ‘Snow White quality,’” he wrote, “and there is little reason to believe there ever will be…This kind of animation may simply not be suited to this new medium.” This dual-sided struggle to integrate “this kind of animation” to the new medium—to balance the old and new, and advance computer graphics while still winning the approval of the Nine Old Men—becomes the linchpin supporting Pixar’s progress.
But above all,the first maxim of Pixar is, simply put, story is king. Constant storyboarding and rewriting reinforce the idea that a film must work at a story level, or it won’t work at all. Unlike Disney, Pixar rejected inspiration from the fairy tale tradition, instead opening perceptive antennae into their own lives. In the creation of Buzz Lightyear, Lasseter combined his own childhood fascination with 1960s NASA missions with his sons’ love of action figures. It became, as animator Andrew Stanton put it, “every possible idea we could ever come up with for the doll we always wished we could have.” As with their animation, this amalgam of the classical and the new will become a recurrent theme in Pixar’s films, embodied in several complex dialectics: Old World Woody against futuristic Buzz; the clunking, antiquated WALL-E paired with the sleek, modern Eve; the Incredibles in their sedated, socially-defined roles versus their super-powered, actualized selves. This coexistence is not without intention. “We wanted to create a sense of nostalgia for the adults in the audience,” Lasseter has said of Toy Story. In his book Animated Films, James Clarke further analyzes the Pixar phenomenon, noting “like Toy Story, the subsequent Pixar features form something of a coherent whole, focusing on families and the fundamentals of childhood, and also what an adult might hold most special in their memory of growing up.”
Here, nostalgia assumes a new role: it advances the film’s multi-generational appeal without inhibiting its central story—one that focuses on the experiences of a child’s toys, and the toys’ devotion to their owner. Nostalgia thus becomes a layer that enhances this world—much like the wood grain or scratches—rather than the focus of the picture itself. Elements of adventure, loyalty, curiosity, compassion, and humor are not created retroactively, based on recognizable characters and catchphrases, but rather emerge organically and engage with the present. While inspired by Lasseter and Co.’s own fantasies of play, the toys of Toy Story never exist in a time and space that does not include their owner, the young Andy. Instead, Andy’s relationship with the toys validates their reality and supports their existence. “What if Andy gets another dinosaur? A mean one?” Rex, the plastic dinosaur, wails in one scene. “I just don’t think I can take that kind of rejection!”
The central conflicts of the film may take place on the toy box level, but they have Andy at the psychic forefront. Because of this, Pixar succeeds in piquing adult nostalgia without alienating their key audience: kids. The worlds and virtues of both the old and new coexist in progressive, compelling ways; instead of reverently recreating old characters adults will recognize, the film reshapes classic cowboy and spaceman archetypes with fresh perspective. By creating stories that explore identities relevant to contemporary audiences rather than relying on pre-established content, the team’s notions of tradition-meets-innovation develop throughout their films. Pixar’s protagonists have been described as “post-princess,” and equally as dismissive of the alpha male stereotype found in classical animation. Toy Story realizes Woody and Buzz’s strength through their discovery of how much they need each other, rather than through isolating their competitiveness or embracing their emotional disconnect. With heroes who not cut from a mold, but built from the team’s close attention to contemporary experiences and enhanced by their own childhood memories, the traditional and nostalgic readily intermingle with the modern and futuristic in Pixar, and neither value achieves superiority.
Like the lead characters it creates, the company unifies old and new at every level, understanding the importance of their dialectical coexistence but not isolating one. By combining the traditional animation values espoused by Walt Disney with new and constantly developing computer technology in order to create stories, Pixar proves that developing new forms is just as important as fostering a community where “old world” animators and editors can thrive. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, legends of the Nine Old Men, eventually experienced a turn of heart as Lasseter’s vision progressed. “John, you did it,” Thomas will shake Lasseter’s hand and say. Following the release of Toy Story, even Disney executives will acknowledge that Pixar had made a film “that contained more ‘heart’ of the traditional animated films than they themselves were making at that time.” In the process, a new tradition is formed.
In a 1979 review of The Muppet Movie, Robert Ebert hits upon a universal Muppet truth: “They turn out, somehow, to have many of the same emotions and motivations that we do. They are vain and hopeful, selfish and generous, complicated and true. They mirror ourselves, except that they’re a little nicer.” Obvious parallels between Muppets and children/adult-children exist; similarly, the toy-based characters in Toy Story were all adults, and Charlie Brown characters were children with adult musings. Regardless of the era, a ready pathway runs between childhood discovery and the adult desire for reflection.
Several commonalities unite Schulz, Henson, and Pixar, primarily when viewed in context of the eras surrounding their work. Chief among these are the artistic ethics underlying their creative vision and—just as importantly—the risks each was willing to take to bring them to life. Schulz become a career cartoonist in a world that generally rejected comics as art and where building a life around a self-taught skill scarcely seemed possible; Henson struggled with the possibilities available in professional puppetry before devoting his life to developing the materials and personalities to bring this passion, by way of the Muppets, to life. Likewise, Pixar built their field from the pencil shavings and programming codes up, working for decades to make possible their vision for full-length computer animated film of Walt Disney caliber. In each of these situations, the future was unknown and oftentimes bleak. (Pixar’s marketing team even questioned how they would even make toys for Toy Story, doubting the original characters’ ability to stand alone in the industry and pointing out that many of the classic characters, like Mr. Potato Head and Speak & Spell, already existed.) Yet each artist’s desire to create these worlds, marrying traditional values with never-before-seen characters, and their commitment to their vision never faltered.
Nostalgia undercuts this risk by aligning with an existing audience and the products they consume. Whereas tradition might represent a true connection to the past, nostalgia’s connection is mediated, fixating on the objects associated with the past rather than the authentic experience and reality of the past itself. And unlike tradition, nostalgia can never give way to anything new. As shown by Pixar’s rejuvenation of the Nine Old Men’s animation values, tradition possesses the ability to grow. Established values can constantly be expressed in new ways, or merged with new values to create a future tradition, or identity. But in clinging to the comfort of the familiar, rather than taking a risk and embracing the impact of the unexpected, nostalgia remains stuck in the past.
With nostalgia at the center, remakes and revivals replicate past worlds without understanding their parameters. Without context, these worlds become shells of themselves: walls become walls, rather than spaces shaped by impressions and experience. But to Pixar, Henson, and Schulz, just as important as the surfaces of these worlds are their inner nuances. From the focused eyes of the Muppets, the genuine outbursts and musings of the Peanuts gang, and the humanness of Pixar’s inanimate objects, details build into settings so deeply authentic, and with such emotional and psychic accuracy, the imagined worlds feel real. Instead of building upon this artistic realism, nostalgia relates these emotions to readily available relics that can be turned into easily consumable products. The past may remain elusive, but the selling power of Linus’s “security blanket” endures.
Though this comfort may prove an easy fix for adults, the need for comfort cannot be so great that it oversteps the equal need for innovation. Our culture depends on the impact of the unexpected as opposed to the easy alignment with the familiar, because without it, new emotional experiences become stunted—as explicitly demonstrated by the Disney model, pre- and post-Walt. In this way, from comic strips to computer graphics, the consequences of clinging to nostalgia, while detrimental to still-developing children, prove problematic to all.
Is living in the past truly the best representation of who we are at present? If so, then it makes sense to revel in remakes, wade through Urban’s revival bin slush, and embrace the stagnation they represent. But if not, perhaps it’s time to respectfully shroud the portraits of past visionaries once and for all. With a final nod of appreciation for their indomitable spirit and artistic contributions, establishing a palpable creative identity, both for ourselves and our future, means taking new risks and continuing to move art forward.
It is, after all, what they would have done.