Remembering the Moments That Shaped Us: Dr. Joshua Eyler on Pixar Films

Why is a scholar of Medieval Studies interested in Pixar films? And what makes these films resonate across ages and generations?

Feb 16 , 2018

Image of entrance sign at Pixar Studios

One of the most unique and intriguing courses offered at the Glasscock School this spring is The World According to Pixar, taught by Dr. Joshua Eyler. This class invites adults to explore the deeper meaning and surprising sophistication of Pixar films including “Finding Nemo,” “Inside Out,” “Up” and more. Director of Rice’s Center for Teaching Excellence and an adjunct associate professor of Humanities, Dr. Eyler holds a doctorate in Medieval Studies and has taught courses on Chaucer and children’s literature, among other topics. Cathy Maris, Director of Community Programs, caught up with Dr. Eyler to find out why a scholar of Medieval Studies is interested in Pixar films and what makes these films resonate across ages and generations.

What inspired you to offer a class on Pixar films?

Up until 2013, I was simply a fan of Pixar. I had enjoyed the films and thought highly of them. In the summer of that year, though, I read an essay by a writer named Jon Negroni called “The Pixar Theory.” Negroni essentially argues that all of the Pixar films are connected, that they share the same cinematic universe. I don’t exactly agree with him, but the essay did make me think about the complexity of the films and the possibilities for teaching the films at the college level. In 2015, I taught my first Pixar course as a first-year writing intensive course at Rice, and I just taught it again last semester. The students really seem to like it.

Pixar movies are known for their appeal to adults as well as children. For instance, my niece and I both loved “WALL-E.” But, to her, it was a robot love story, while I saw it as a dark, cautionary tale about environmental destruction. How do Pixar films manage to resonate across ages and generations?

Pixar does what all good creators of media and literature for children do: they respect their audience. When I read a fantastic children’s novel, I am always struck by the ways in which the writer is respectful of and honest with the children who will be reading the book. Pixar does this, too. There is no reason to avoid the “Big Questions” when writing for children. The key is to talk about these important issues in ways that will resonate with children and to include some light-hearted humor so that things don’t feel too weighty.  Because the Pixar films succeed in marrying all of these elements, they appeal to both children and to adults at the same time.

Do you have a favorite Pixar film or one that feels particular relevant to you right now?

My favorite Pixar film is “Up.” It is as poignant a meditation on loss and grief as you will find anywhere. As a dad, I also really love “Inside Out.” In terms of relevance, though, “WALL-E” (as you’ve noted) is particularly apt, given its message about environmental responsibility and pursuing a life that is meaningful. But I also think that Pixar’s newest film, “CoCo,” is an important one right now. It’s a film about the beauty of different cultures, the love of family and the need to hold our dearest memories close to us.

You’ve described the Pixar movie “Finding Nemo” as “The Odyssey set in the ocean.” Is there another classic work of literature you’d like to see interpreted as a Pixar film?
One of my all-time favorite books is “Don Quixote,” and I think Pixar would do a great job capturing the humor, power and sadness of that book.

You’ve also taught a course with the Glasscock School on Reading Children’s Literature. In addition to connecting with the children in your life, how is exploring media for children enriching for adults?

Children’s media and literature focus on stories that are absolutely fundamental to who we are as human beings, and they do so in a way that is direct and meaningful. It is easy to engage with these stories, but they are often deceptively simple. These stories help us remember those moments that shaped us as people, and in remembering we learn more about ourselves.

•    Learn more about Dr. Eyler’s six-week course for the public: The World According to Pixar (starting Feb. 26).

About Dr. Joshua Eyler

Dr. Joshua EylerDr. Joshua Eyler is director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and adjunct associate professor of Humanities at Rice University. He was previously a faculty member in English at Columbus State University in Georgia and affiliate associate professor of English at George Mason University, where he was associate director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence. He has published broadly on children’s literature and medieval literature, and his eclectic research interests include Oz, Chaucer and disability studies.