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The Pixar Project 7 min read

The Pixar Project

Read about WeWork and corrupting influence of venture capitalists, the D.B. Cooper mystery, college football and COVID-19, corporate culture at Zappos, and why people don't return shopping carts.

By Cary Littlejohn

My mom is fond of saying, “There’s no day so bad that it can’t be made better by watching Toy Story.”

The same could be said for many Pixar movies. In 2017, after the Thanksgiving lunch had settled, my mom and sister and I saw Coco. Somewhere along the way, Mom mentioned that we’d seen Toy Story on Thanksgiving back in 1995.  Now neither of us remember if that’s true, but it certainly sounds right.

In a profoundly strange year, it’s noticeable that we didn’t gather together in a theater to watch a new Pixar film. In fact, we’re not gathered together at all, and there is no new Pixar movie in theaters right now.

But, in a bit of good news, a brand new Pixar film, Soul, is scheduled to be released on Disney+ on Dec. 25, and in preparation for that joyous event, I’m going to revisit every single Pixar movie. There are 22, so I’m going to send them out throughout the month of December.

Pixar films are well known by now for their ability to appeal to adults the same as they do to kids.  The kids can sit back and simply enjoy the plot, which is almost invariably a quest, full of heroism and hijinks. Parents can sit back and appreciate the subtly subversive comedy and the deeper themes that elevate the films from plot-delivery devices to fully realized masterpieces of art.

Though I’m no longer the kid at whom these films are primarily directed nor am I yet the parent at whom these films are secondarily directed, I believe there is much to be analyzed and appreciated by a single guy in his early 30s.

The films also bring me back to my first bylines ever in a newspaper, back in Lexington, MS, where I was allowed to review films for the community. Because of the publisher’s deeply held Christian faith, I was never allowed to review anything rated above PG. But I was eager to write and an avid moviegoer, so Pixar films were a welcome treat that both entertained me and met the publisher’s requirements.

Now that I work full-time as a journalist I rarely review films or write critically about culture anymore. I’d like to change that, and this newsletter will serve that purpose nicely.

I hope you’ll come along for the journey. Revisit your favorite Pixar films or try out those that slipped through the cracks. If one thing is for certain it’s that 2020 has been a collection of days desperately in need of Toy Story’s, and the wider Pixar Cinematic Universe’s, redemptive power.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. We start with WeWork, the co-working space company that promised to be “the world’s first physical social network,” and its epic downfall. Not that the downfall is news nor should it be wholly unexpected when such a nonsensical mission underpins the mission of the company. (Really? The word’s first physical social network? As if that’s not just the world, our communities, schools, churches, civic organizations, softball teams and book clubs? A pitch like that is just evidence of how social media have broken our brains.) The story, after all this time, is how venture capitalists enabled the stunning rise and noisy crash of WeWork. V.C.s are searching for unicorns, those once-in-a-lifetime ideas that reshape how we fundamentally do life, like a Facebook or an Uber. But as Charles Duhigg explains in this week’s New Yorker, the V.C.-mindset comes at the expense of good ideas and solid businesses that can promise investors only the humdrum-ness of solid (if modest) returns on investments and competent business plans but cannot claim to be, nor do they want to be, world-changing. Who knew running a good business could be so bad for business?

  2. WeWork’s downfall is closely associated with its former CEO, Adam Neumann, who exemplified the larger-than-life CEO stereotype. But there is another kind of CEO, no less revolutionary, and actually good for the company and, arguably, society as a whole. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, lost its recently retired CEO, Tony Hsieh, from injuries sustained in a fire. A 2009 New Yorker article captures some of the magic surrounding the man and the corporate culture he helped create.

  3. I remember learning about that culture near the end of college. I was living with randomly assigned roommates in an apartment on the university’s campus. One of the roommates was a psychology major, and in the bathroom, he left an issue of Psychology Today, which featured an article on how things were done at Zappos. What caught my attention was the company’s policy of asking a potential new hire if he or she really wanted to work for the company, and to get beyond the perfunctory answers of most jobseekers, they offered this incentive for honesty: We’ll pay you $2,000, here and now, to turn this job down, no questions asked. The belief was that those who turned down the money really wanted to be there, really bought into the company and wanted to be a part of it, and that would lead to better results for the company in the long term. I’ve never forgotten than policy nor the magazine article that introduced me to it, and so I went in search for the article in hopes that the Internet had saved it somewhere. Here it is, from the September 2009 issue of Psychology Today, “Earnings and Yearnings: Paid to Smile.”

  4. Speaking of online shopping, this weekend has surely seen lots of it, and probably even more tomorrow on Cyber Monday. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Black Friday shopping, in all of its in-person terribleness, still happened this year. Maybe you were among the masses of people at big box stores early on Friday morning. Even if you skipped it, perhaps you were in a big box store on Monday or Tuesday as you made preparations for a smaller-than-usual Thanksgiving celebration (or maybe you just realized you were out of toothpaste or toilet paper during that same time) and noticed the telltale signs of anarchy: a parking lot littered with stray shopping carts, like rusted clunkers in a junk yard that just remained wherever they last shut off. Maybe you saw the minimum wage workers rounding up the carts and if you gave them a second thought, maybe you felt bad for them. And maybe, just maybe, you’re among the morally superior who can righteously ask: What the actual hell is wrong with people who don’t return shopping carts? Scientific American considered this conundrum a few years ago, as did CBS’s John Dickerson on Twitter and on his show.

  5. For all the changes that may have affected your Thanksgiving this year, maybe you counted on football (both professional and collegiate) to be your saving grace. Consider these two pieces on college football and the coronavirus; one is from The New Yorker and the other is from The Atlantic.

  6. Maybe you’re still looking for something good to watch, and there’s always room for a well-done true crime documentary, especially when the stakes are relatively low and the mystery runs high. That’s exactly what you get from HBO’s new documentary on D.B. Cooper, the perpetrator of the only unsolved airline hijacking in U.S. history. It’s a Thanksgiving story, since the crime took place on Thanksgiving eve back in 1971, and this brisk hour-and-a-half documentary unspools the stories of four likely suspects but really widens to meditation on why the myth of D.B. Cooper resonates so strongly so many years later. Check out the trailer here.

  7. Another newcomer to HBO is the show How To with John Wilson, which is tough to describe but absolutely worth a watch. It’s slightly absurdist but surprisingly deep, alternating between cringe-worthy encounters with everyday people and affecting revelations by those same people. It’s profoundly human, and you can watch the first episode free here.

  8. One final plug for HBO, this one an oldie but goodie. Tuesday, Dec. 1, is World AIDS Day, and, in honor of the day, I rewatched And The Band Played On, the HBO adaptation of Randy Shilts’s ground-breaking feat of journalism by the same name. The movie is a little over two hours long, which obviously means it cannot do perfect justice to Shilts’s nearly 700 page (or nearly 32 hours in audiobook form) opus. The movie won three Emmys, though, so it’s no slouch. Now is a great time to give this particular book as a gift; as the country is in the grips of a much more widespread public health emergency, it gives the reader numerous opportunities to follow the discovery of AIDS and how little was done to treat it for so long. Buy it here from my friends at the Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, MO, as they do online orders now and will ship to you wherever.

  9. Our current public health nightmare is worsening on the ground in many states, but many are finding hope in news of vaccines that are proving effective in trials. The most-recent print issue of WIRED had a story that profiled the supposed silver bullet during the early days of the pandemic, hydroxycholoroquine, and this paragraph sums up the wider relevancy of the story:

    At issue here is more than just whether a drug treats a disease. The heart of the scientific method is the process of formulating a hypothesis and collecting data to test it. This is how to reliably be sure that (in this case) a drug does what you say it does—that the effects you think you see are not coincidence or luck or mirage. It sounds simple, but in practice it's ambiguous, messy, and often contentious. The twisted tale of hydroxychloroquine is actually about how to know stuff, the question that has defined every existential decision since the early 20th century—climate change, vaccines, economic policy. We've learned from failure and bitter experience that only when we take the time to find the truth do we at least have a chance to make good decisions. We also know that it'll be a struggle—that grifters, power-seekers, and fantasists will push their own versions of truth while scientists and policymakers grapple with the lumbering process and nuanced outcomes of the scientific method. Because there will be other pandemics, other disasters. And just as with Covid-19, only science and its tools will soften their impact. But also as with Covid-19, humans will do that science and wield those tools, and that makes things messy. What happened with hydroxychloroquine was a debacle, but retelling the story might help avert the same kind of chaos next time around.

  10. For the bottom of the news is something that never fails to make me smile. The world lost a decades-long staple in the afternoon lives of millions with the tragic passing of Alex Trebek, the one thing more easily identifiably as Jeopardy! than its requirement that answers be in the form of questions. Its cultural relevancy was undisputed for most, but it was undeniable when Saturday Night Live decided to make it a recurring sketch for talented impressionists to skewer the show through the supposed stupidity of celebrities. Vulture recounted the history of the sketch, and what’s even better, each entry on the list comes with a corresponding video. Number 7 is my earliest recollection of the sketch, and it will always hold a special place in my mind, but they are all hilarious, no matter how formulaic.

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