This summer, Cars 2 will become the twelfth Pixar movie to enrapture children with its layered storytelling and characters. But alongside those kids in the movie theaters will be their parents, and, as is the case with most Pixar movies, the parents, especially fathers, are bound to enjoy the film just as much as their sons and daughters.
That level of engagement for parents will partly result from the work of John Lasseter, the creator of the Cars franchise and one of the creators of Pixar. He’s the mind behind Toy Story, its sequel, and A Bug’s Life, and he’s overseen each of the other number Pixar films.
Tom Junod’s new profile of Lasseter in Esquire looks at the animator’s life and asks one fundamental question: “How does a man committed to remaining a boy also manage to teach boys how to become men?”
Lasseter is known as a filmmaker for children; what he really is, and what he has always been, is a filmmaker for boys who has found something universal in the poetry and heroism of American boyhood. Though not a moralist, he understands the moralism of boys, and has created Pixar’s moral universe out of it.
The piece goes on to describe the ways in which the Pixar empire has shaped the morality of boys throughout the world. After all, characters like the brave cowboy Woody, the environmentally-conscious Wall-E, and the freegan rodent-with-a-soul Ratatoullie are ripe for emulation.
This method of instilling ethics in children is one of the most effective—we’ve already seen in the Good Men Project how Saturday morning cartoons can be positive teachers.
But Lasseter’s students aren’t just young boys. Their fathers watch, too.
Yes, we can learn the generic life lessons and ways to improve our own behaviors from Pixar movies—being a good friend, standing up for what’s right, refusing to give into fear—but those are things we can learn from other cartoons. Lasseter’s films deliver deeper lessons, ones tailored specifically to fathers.
Pixar’s films, in addition to passing on these other important lessons, provide us with some of the most complex father figures in movie history. In The Incredibles, we see the superhero patriarch Mr. Incredible realize that sometimes he needs to admit that he must rely on his family for their support. In Finding Nemo, we see Marlin go literally to the depths of the ocean and back to rescue his son. And in Up, we see the positive, “don’t give up on your dreams” impact that a grumpy old man can have on a young boy scout.
Most of the Pixar movies are sprinkled with these father figure archetypes—even in Monsters, Inc., big, blue Sully plays dad for a day to Boo, a human girl. And in Cars, washed-up racer Doc serves as an adviser to hotshot Lightening McQueen.
The Esquire profile is a fascinating dive into Lasseter’s life, revealing how his own environment—in the funhouse of an office that is Pixar or in his own home, with his five uniquely precocious sons and creative wife—is like an animated film in its own rite. This, Junod explains, is essential to Lasseter’s success, his character, and his understanding of what goes into making a positive male role model.
That’s what makes Lasseter who he is and Pixar what it is: He has created the moral universe in his films by inhabiting the moral universe of his films. And by making sure everyone around him does the same.