Robert Velarde: The Wisdom of Pixar
By Hannah Goodwyn
CBN.com - Pixar has the uncanny ability to create enjoyable, clean, outstanding animated films. The award-winning animation studio who brought us Toy Story, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., WALL-E, Up, and other favorites not only makes fun movies, they're also packed with uplifting messages that teach virtues to kid and adult fans alike. That ability to speak virtues through animated stories is the subject of Robert Velarde’s latest book, The Wisdom of Pixar.
Recently, Velarde sat down with CBN.com to chat about The Wisdom of Pixar, the impact of movies in our lives, and how Pixar films are doing it right.
CBN.com: What about Pixar films really inspired you to write your new book?
Robert Velarde: Well, I kind of approached it from the perspective of a fan and a father. And I think what inspires me is that Pixar is very much counter-cultural. They offer hope and just have a wonderful creative imagination. They make great family films that I thought had really good moral centers, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to communicate that somehow in a book.”
CBN.com: What is your hope for The Wisdom of Pixar?
Robert: I would hope that people would grow in virtue. I think it’s the main emphasis I’m trying to discuss and that would be: how can we improve our character? That’s really what virtue ethics is all about, and that’s how I approach the book. Virtue ethics is something that goes back to Augustine and Aquinas, and more recently C. S. Lewis that would say that you know it’s more important that we grow our characters morally speaking so that we can make the right choices when they come to us.
CBN.com: The Wisdom of Pixar covers all of Pixar's major motion pictures. Do you have a favorite?
Robert: My favorite is Finding Nemo. I’m a father of four children and that one really hit home. You’ve got the clownfish trying to re-unite with his son, and they’ve been separated through all of these series of events. And Nemo, I think, speaks to me as a parent, as the challenge of how protective do you want to be with your children and how much freedom do you need to give them. Actually the director of that movie is a Christian, Andrew Stanton. He had said that it’s really a lot about faith overcoming fear. And I think that’s a good point that he makes as well.
CBN.com: What are some of the other virtuous themes found in Pixar films?
Robert: Well one of my favorites is The Incredibles, the one they did a few years with a super hero theme, and that one I discuss in my book about courage. Courage is one of the four cardinal virtues, historically speaking along with things like justice, wisdom, and some others. Courage is one I discuss in the book and use the example of Frozone who is voiced by Samuel Jackson in the movie. He’s getting ready for an evening out with his wife and this giant robot thing starts attacking the city, and he immediately thinks, “Where’s my super suit? I’ve got to get out there and do something.” So that I think is a good example of virtue ethics. He already knows the response and what’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t have to grab a textbook on ethics to figure it out. He’s just ready to go.
CBN.com: In researching for the book, were you surprised by anything you found, maybe something deeper in the films you hadn’t noticed before?
Robert: Yeah, I think so. The one that surprised the most was Ratatouille. That was their movie with this rat in France that wants to be a chef. I really struggled initially with trying to figure out what theme to cover for that one. I ended up settling on ambition, and contrasting selfish ambition with godly ambition, and really turning it into a chapter that’s about our ability as human beings made in God’s image to create things. The movie is creating great food to eat, but it could apply to art, music, or literature and how we can use those God-given abilities.
CBN.com: What wisdom is found in the Toy Story franchise?
Robert: Toy Story was their big one that really started the whole computer-animated movement with Toy Story in 1995, and then Toy Story 2 in ’99 and of course more recently Toy Story 3. In Toy Story, I talk about identity. Because if you recall in that movie Buzz Lightyear, who’s voiced by Tim Allen, he thinks he’s a real space ranger; he doesn’t really know who he is. I think that applies to the Christian life how we can really have meaning and purpose if we know who we are in Christ. And then, it and Toy Story 2, of course, has a great theme song in both of them…“You’ve Got a Friend In Me” by Randy Newman. So I talk about friendship in Toy Story 2 and the meaning of friendship and the biblical foundations of friendship and how Christ befriended people who in today’s society we wouldn’t think we’d go out of our way to be friends with. But He did, and we should follow that example.
CBN.com: How have you taught your kids through these movies?
Robert: Well my kids, I have four of them and their age ranges are anywhere from four, eight, eleven and fifteen... they all have essentially grown up with Pixar. The one movie that we see over and over again in my house is Cars. Because boys love cars and my youngest now is almost four. In that movie, I’ve used some examples from just the whole scene if you know the movie at the end, where Lightning McQueen is initially this very prideful character who doesn’t really care about anyone other than himself and about winning. Along the way, he learns about friendship and some other virtues, and at the end of the race, he makes a choice to not win the race even when he could. He goes back to help another car that’s been injured and he ends up making a statement, about how he didn’t win the Piston Cup, which is what he would have won. And he says that it’s just an empty cup. I think that really speaks to what’s more valuable, relationships over things or over winning. You get that sort of thing in Up as well, in the end of that movie where the old man, Carl Fredricksen, says that it’s just a house, where throughout the movie he sort of prized this house as sort of a symbol of his wife. Teaching my kids that there’s a lot more that’s important to life than just having things or winning, but it’s more about relationships.
CBN.com: How would you encourage parents with regards to teaching their kids through movies, Pixar or otherwise?
Robert: Well, I think first off I would tell them not to see the media so much as a threat or a point of criticism, but to look at it from a Christian perspective and see the things we can learn from some of these stories. And Pixar has great stories to tell, so what can we gain from that, and make the comparison to Christ’s parables. He didn’t preach out of a textbook; he talked to people and told them stories. And we remember the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, because they’re great stories that have moral themes. So do that sort of thing. In my book, I have discussion questions and a movie guide to discuss each movie. They’re not homework assignment type questions; they’re more like “If you could be a car, what kind of car would you be?” or imagine a world like in Wall-E, this futuristic wasteland, and the questions like that get you thinking about different themes.
CBN.com: Of all the movies Pixar has done, are there virtuous themes that they haven’t covered yet that you want to see?
Robert: Well, if I were to add one on Toy Story 3, I would probably make it on loyalty. That’s the most recent one. As future ones, I’m not sure. I know they’re doing a Cars 2 and a sequel to Monsters Inc. It would be nice to do one on faith. Because faith, hope, and love are the three theological virtues from 1st Corinthians 13:13. And I do have a chapter where I cover hope and a chapter where I cover love, but it would be nice to do one on faith.
CBN.com: Any response from Pixar with regards to your book?
Robert: Yeah, they do have some copies. I don’t have any official work with them, but I do know a few Christians that work there. In fact, there are even some folks that used to work at Big Idea years ago with VeggieTales who are now doing work with Pixar. So the few people I have talked to are excited about the book and seeing how classic Christian virtues are in a sense embedded in some of these stories, and I think that has to do as well with some of the directors there. I mentioned Andrew Stanton who’s a Christian. He directed Finding Nemo and WALL-E. And Pete Docter who’s also a Christian; he directed Monsters Inc. and Up. So I think that there’s some certain level of Christian influence in some of the productions.
CBN.com: The clean and virtuous fun we get from Pixar movies is missing in a lot of other cartoons for kids.
Robert: Yeah, I think so. I think a lot of cases you get movies... Not to pick on Shrek too much, but where they try to appeal to the adults and hoping the humor will go over the heads of some of the kids. Or they’ll just appeal to the kids, so you end up having an imbalance of what kind of juvenile potty humor versus adult-type humor. And I think Pixar does a good blend of not talking down to children and not saying “Oh, this part’s just for adults.” They just tell a great story and let it speak for itself.
Hannah Goodwyn serves as the Family and Entertainment producer for CBN.com. For more articles and information, visit Hannah's bio page.
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