25 Years of Pixar Tears: Ranking The Saddest Moments (5-1)

{This list is a continuation. You can read part one here.}

It was partway through organizing this top five that it first dawned on me, what an absolutely insane task I had assigned myself. Who volunteers to endure this much consecutive emotional turmoil? And then decides the next step is to take all of that pain and analyze it, attempt to pinpoint exactly which pain levers had been pulled and how hard and why? Me, apparently, and you, thankfully, if you’re reading this. It took me longer than expected to gather myself up between making my sad, sad points. It took me more boxes of Kleenex than I expected as well. I can only nervously hope that reading it is a more pleasant experience. Godspeed

5. Dory reunites with her parents (Finding Dory, 2016)

In many ways, Finding Dory is a story about living with a disability. Dory’s chronic memory loss isn’t a source of comic relief in her movie, but of pain and hardship, not only for herself but for her parents. In flashbacks, we’re shown all of the ways they tried to prepare her growing up, the modifications they put in place and the strategies they practiced with her in case she ever got lost– specifically, how they would lay out trails of shells that would lead her home. It is at the movie’s emotional nadir that a panicked, spiralling Dory sees the first one of these shells. She follows their path, and she’s led to what appears to be an empty, abandoned brain coral– the audience feels sad. But two out of focus figures approach from the background, and are revealed to be Dory’s parents, both carrying finfuls of new shells, because they’ve spent years laying these trails in all directions, reaching out who-knows-how-far into the ocean, refusing to give up hope that one day they might lead their lost daughter home. The audience can’t see the screen in front of them, so fast and furious are their tears at such a display of undaunted hope and unconditional parental love.

4. WALL-E holds his own hand (WALL-E, 2008)

The character of Wall-E is literally designed to break your heart. With his searching, oversized eyes, his stout, boxy lil frame, and his general plucky demeanour, he easily engenders both our empathy and our sympathy upon his first appearance. He has a pet, for goodness sake, what could be more identifiably human than that? Granted his pet is a cockroach, but the visible compassion is still something to root for. Another thing about Wall-E that is immediately recognizable: loneliness. Immense and unceasing loneliness. His days are a rote routine of garbage compacting and attending to his own repairs, tasks that he can only take paltry amounts of joy in, mostly by filtering the trash for items to add to his personal collection– rubik’s cubes, zippo lighters, the occasional perplexing spork. And, like lonely people everywhere, he finds his escape in movies.

In his opening sequence, Wall-E chooses to relax after work by putting on the 1969 musical Hello Dolly. It’s obvious he’s seen it enough times to have the film memorized, and it first serves more as background noise as Wall-E settles in at home. But his attention is caught by one scene, wherein two characters sing adoringly at one another, and reach out to hold hands. The look of yearning that crosses our AI hero’s face just then is purer than any human expression could hope to be, let alone a robot, let alone an animated one. He looks down at his own tiny adorable metal hands, and proceeds to lace the two together, presumably imagining what it must be like to have someone else’s intertwined. This is objectively devastating, and the exact moment that the basic premise of “the last robot on earth” goes from fantastical concept to way too real.

3. The “Married Life” sequence of Up (Up, 2009)

If aliens ever arrive on this planet with an eye to understanding humankind and not conquering it, we could do worse than offering up this brief montage as our summation. It’s about life and love; buoyant dreams and bitter disappointments; the way days will pass by with a slow sameness yet somehow the years escape us. Carl and Ellie are instantly endearing characters, their love for each other steadfast and true even as life’s setbacks and sorrows pile up around them. Their ambition to travel to the mysterious Paradise Falls might be specific to their story, but there’s a universality to the ache of watching that dream elude them time and time again, until they’re grey and old and Carl’s last ditch effort to make it happen amounts to nothing when Ellie collapses and has to go to the hospital where she eventually passes away. Married life didn’t play out the way they imagined when they first wed as a couple of wide-eyed dreamers, but it’s also clear they didn’t spend their days together tallying all of their regrets. This, ultimately, is why having a handkerchief ready is mandatory for anyone who watches Up. Not because it’s about people to whom life was a letdown, a litany of dashed hopes and disillusions; but rather two people who had the rare kind of love for each other that meant that the simple act of being together was always more than enough.

2. Andy gives the toys away (Toy Story 3, 2010)

This entire scene treats the hearts of its audience like grist for the mill. From the wistful look of recognition Andy gives to young Bonnie when he first sees her immersed in the same kind of sprawling imaginative play that was a trademark of his childhood, to the loving way he introduces her to each member of his toy clan, to the full boyish enthusiasm he indulges in as he plays with Bonnie and his plastic friends for one last carefree afternoon.

Andy is off to college, well past his days of playing games of make believe, but even so he struggles when it’s time to pass down Woody, his lifelong companion. Andy had actually planned to bring Woody with him to campus, as some sort of nostalgic token, where the doll would likely have collected dust, wedged between text books or lost beneath piles of college boy laundry. But when Bonnie asks for the cowboy, Andy slowly realizes that his plan was never a viable one, that he can’t deny a little girl her chance at the same adventures that colored his childhood memories golden, just so he might cling to the ghost of the little boy he used to be.

Sometimes the most painful losses are also the most necessary. Sometimes there are parts of ourselves we never get back, that we can’t even keep a tether to, no matter how much we might want to. That might ultimately for the best, might mean there’ll be more room for bigger and better things to develop, but it’s still the end of something that was good and safe and known. What lies on the other side is hazy and uncertain, and watching Andy have no choice but to walk towards this unfixed future is at once hopeful and sad. An ending and a beginning. A goodbye and a hello.

1. Bing Bong sacrifices himself for Joy (Inside Out, 2015)

Bing Bong is the imaginary friend of Riley, the eleven year old girl whose head the movie is premised upon being inside. He is first presented to us as a blatantly ridiculous character, a cat-elephant-dolphin hybrid who Riley first imagined up as a toddler and who has since experienced a significant decrease in his playing time. Now he spends his days wandering around Long Term Memory, sustained only by the hope that Riley might one day call on him again, like a post-Cowboys Dez Bryant. This is where he encounters Riley’s core emotions Joy (perfectly voiced by an effervescent Amy Poehler) and Sadness (perfectly voiced by an Eeyorian Phyllis Smith) who are on an urgent mission to return to “Headquarters” so they can restore balance for poor Riley, reeling after her family move from Minnesota to California.

After a series of shenanigans, Bing Bong and Joy fall into Memory Dump, where they both appear fated to be forgotten. Their one hope to get out is Bing Bong’s song-fuelled rocket-wagon, but no matter how much gusto they put into their singing, they can’t quite get themselves to safety. Until Bing Bong, in all his heroic cotton candy glory, makes the decision to leap out of the vehicle while it’s on its ascent, making it light enough for Joy to fly up and out, but ensuring that Bing Bong and all the adventures he hoped to still have will be lost to Riley forever. It is a singularly noble act, agonizing to watch, especially for a second time when you know what’s coming. Just as Andy and Woody once learned to let each other go for the sake of personal growth, so must Bing Bong and Riley. But at least Andy got to keep his happy memories! Poor Bing Bong never gets that chance, but the young girl he so adored gets to grow up and be happy, all because of his sacrifice. It’s a tragedy worth weeping candy over.

I believe that everything about Inside Out is a work of staggering, wrenching genius. It is a creative exploration of the tumultuous process of growing up, a thoughtful portrayal of how we process change, and an argument for the importance of sadness as way for us to make sense of our lives. In fact, that could be the thesis statement for all of the movies that Pixar makes, certainly for the moments included on this list. My sister asked me if I would consider writing a compilation of Pixar’s happiest moments, a request that honestly left me stumped. Because happiness, to me, is self-explanatory and uncomplicated– you smile and it doesn’t really matter why. But your tears always have something to teach you– what and who you’ve prioritized in your life, what you’re afraid of losing, what you’re afraid you’ll never get to have. Sadness helps connect us to the wider human experience. And what could be more joyful than that?

2 thoughts on “25 Years of Pixar Tears: Ranking The Saddest Moments (5-1)

  1. I never really liked Toy Story franchise *ducks* so I cannot relate to 2nd place, but I cannot watch 1st part of Up and Bing Bong scenes. Ever. Again. It’s like with “I’ll love you forever” by Munsch. Every time I pick up the book, thinking now I’m strong enough, I can finish it, and I never do because I cannot see words through tears. Same with “Coco”‘s remember me scene at the end and a slow fading of an old ghost, Hector’s friend, into nothingness…


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