25 Years of Pixar Tears: Ranking The Top Ten Saddest Moments (10-6)

I wrote yesterday about the significance the Toy Story movies have had for me at various moments throughout my life, and the general reverence I have for the culture of creativity that Pixar has fostered. This list of the studio’s saddest ten moments was originally supposed to be attached, but because brevity is a skill I have not been blessed with, I thought I’d break it up in the interest of giving your reading/crying eyes break. In fact, two breaks. Please enjoy items ten through six today (as much as you can, considering we’re discussing moments of unfathomable sadness), and check back for five through one tomorrow.

10. Buzz Lightyear discovers he’s actually a toy, plunges into existential crisis (Toy Story, 1995)

Buzz Lightyear, one of the most iconic animated characters of all time, is introduced to the audience as a loveably delusional toy who believes he is really a Space Ranger on a mission to protect the galaxy. His majestic confidence is voiced by Tim Allen, and for the majority of the movie his puffery is played for laughs. Until the pivotal moment that Buzz bears witness to a TV commercial where the toy being advertised is… him. The Truman Show wishes it were capable of so deftly addressing issues of metaphilosophy.

In an instant, Buzz’s entire self-concept is undermined, as the words “not a flying toy” flash mockingly across the television screen, and while he’s able to briefly summon up some of his old bravado in an attempt to soar out of an open window, his efforts are futile. Ultimately Buzz lies in a broken heap at the bottom of the stairs, with an expression of heartbreaking resignation that is frankly too real for a cartoon. Because even if one’s delusions aren’t so grand as to assume galactic implications, everyone has had that moment in their life, where you have to confront the fact that maybe you’re not the person you thought you were; not so special, or talented, or destined for greatness. With Randy Newman’s plaintive “I Will Go Sailing No More” as a soundtrack, this sequence is an early look at of how perfectly Pixar could capture the magnificent pain of what it means to be human.

9. The opening scene of Finding Nemo, 2003

Looking back, you can see what an absolute flex it was for Pixar to set an entire animated movie underwater. The colors and textures and depth that they were able to capture were real feats of both imagination and techno-wizardry, but still you’d be forgiven for hardly noticing because the true focus of the film is its emotional storytelling. This is made immediately clear in the opening, where, as soon as Marlin & Coral have been established as typical suburban soon-to-be parents, (or as typical as they can be, considering they’re fish, and their suburbs are the Great Barrier Reef) their blissful existence is then promptly wiped out by a predator. Marlin loses not only his beloved wife, but the more than 400 little eggs he had been so excited about mere seconds before– all but one: Nemo.

Horrific accidents like this happen far more frequently than anyone wants to think about in real life, and so many people tragically have their lives pulled out from under them without any kind of warning. By making their characters suffer in a similar way, Finding Nemo doesn’t aim to exploit the shock of grief, but to understand it, to reconcile how life can be both wonderful and cruel, how it provides us with the people we love and sometimes takes them away too soon. Somehow this is a children’s movie that also features a turtle who says “dude.” Pixar, you contain so very many multitudes.

8. Jessie’s Story (Toy Story 2, 1999)

Woody, our pull-string cowboy hero of first movie fame, spends the majority of Toy Story 2 desperately attempting to make his way back to his beloved Andy and avoid being shipped off to the toy museum in Japan where he’ll be doomed to spend the rest of his days in a display case, never to be played with again. His cowgirl counterpart, Jessie, shares in none of his urgency, as she takes a much more cynical view towards children. Jessie’s backstory is revealed to us over the span of one wrenching four minute montage, with some narrative detail and additional anguish provided by Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me” as the backing track. It turns out Jessie too once had a kid she would’ve done anything to get back to, but eventually that little girl outgrew her, as kids must always do, and left the cowgirl to collect dust under her bed as her teenage interests evolved, before ultimately abandoning Jessie to a donation box.

This sequence should not hit as hard as it does, considering it revolves around the feelings of (in the immortal, exasperated words of Woody himself) A CHILD’S PLAYTHING. But it is precisely Jessie’s static nature as a toy that allows the scene to depict the painfully relatable experience of someone not wanting you anymore, even though nothing about you has changed. Worse, perhaps: because nothing about you has changed. That feeling of being cast aside and forgotten, and knowing you’re unable to do anything about it– that’s enough to make anyone think that maybe life is better behind a layer of protective glass.

7. All of the toys brace for certain death in the incinerator (Toy Story 3, 2010)

By now it’s clear that Pixar is unafraid to confront the big, dark, important questions in the movies they ostensibly are making for kids. Knowing this, it is still pretty incredible that a franchise for which one can purchase action figures emblazoned with the words “For Ages 3 and Up” once imperilled all their most iconic characters to such a degree that they are each given a cinematic moment to quietly reckon with the fact that their end is both imminent and assured. I don’t know if “quiet, dignified resignation to one’s unyielding and violent fate” is something they teach animators in art school, but it’s a blend they capture with nuanced perfection on every single one of our favorite faces.

In this scene you really feel the weight of the, at that time, fifteen years of history the characters had developed both with the audience and with each other. They all slide slowly down a mountain of debris towards the flames that will surely consume them, with no prospect of escape, and then– they all reach to hold one another’s hands, instinctively understanding that their doom will be okay as long as they’re together. I mean, come on, Pixar, what are you doing to me. And yet, this isn’t even the saddest part of the movie! That this devastation is interrupted by a rescue courtesy of the little green claw-worshipping alien cultists, by far the most absurd characters in these movies, confirms that this studio understands catharsis like nobody else.

6. The fundamental concept of being forgotten in the afterlife (Coco, 2017)

Having apparently exhausted all of the ways they could emotionally destroy their audiences with death itself (its possibility, its tragedy, its inevitability) Pixar chose to look literally beyond the grave with 2017’s colorful, music-filled Coco. One would think that in this eternal realm, where the worst has already happened, that one might be safe from the company’s usual emotional terrorism, but no. They just use it as a springboard for wholly new ways to make the viewer confront the universe’s coldest, harshest truths.

Coco‘s fantastical depiction of the afterlife is a creative marvel, a testament to what can happen when artists are empowered to follow their best ideas, no matter how complex or abstract. There’s nothing simple about the concept of a universe where, once you are forgotten in the Land of the Living you proceed to cease to be entirely in the Land of the Dead. It echoes a quote that the Internet attributes to Banksy: “I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” As if mortality isn’t difficult to grapple with enough, Coco asks us to consider our immortality, our legacy, how we’ll be remembered.

Maybe this is a particular concern of artists. There has to be something, after all, that drives us so relentlessly to leave our individual mark on the world, some kind of proof that we existed here. I guess this is why stories are born, that indefatigable hope that they might preserve the memory of both their subjects and their tellers. Coco is unblinking in its acknowledgement that none of us get to live forever, but maybe, in our art or through our families, we can still be a part of something that lasts.

The tearful countdown of 5-1 continues here.

5 thoughts on “25 Years of Pixar Tears: Ranking The Top Ten Saddest Moments (10-6)

  1. Verklempt much??? Beautiful series. And what a brainy concept.. Randy Newman’s awfully good at plaintiff, ain’t he? So are you.


    1. Ahh I’m so sorry for being a liar/fraud, but it’s up now! I underestimated the amount of emotional labour involved and overestimated my ability to adhere to a deadline. Thank you for reading/caring/keeping me accountable lol.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s