Pixar maybe has cause to embrace such a philosophy: from 1995 to 2004, Toy Story through The Incredibles, the studio had an uninterrupted string of six critical and commercial successes; it seemed impervious to failure until Cars, which, while a financial blockbuster, was simple and sloggy where the others had been smart and snappy. Since, the studio has produced a few more lackluster-yet-moneymaking titles: Cars 2, Brave (which robbed the Oscar from Wreck-It Ralph!) and its latest, Monsters University, released on DVD about a month ago. (Spoilers follow throughout.) Though there are measures of success behind the monetary, the exceptionalist espousing has continued.
It first appears—and most baldly—in The Incredibles, which several critics identified as Nietzschean if not Randian. Like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, its characters' innate greatnesses are stifled by those around them. The boy Dash, born with superhuman speed, isn't allowed to compete on his school's track team to the frustration of his father. (He wants to pit his superhuman child against humans! It's like racing people against horses!) The villain's nefarious plot is to give everyone exceptional talents, thus rendering no one special; he uses his intelligence to produce gadgets and gizmos that affords him superpowers, more Batman than Superman (i.e. ubermensch), and for that, despite Pixar's reliance on the technological advances of computer technology for its success, he's the studio's purest expression of villainy—someone who insists on having extraordinary talents he wasn't born with. (In Pixar's moral universe, book smarts is not a talent.)
A similar concept underlies Ratatouille. Though its motto sounds egalitarian—"Anyone Can Cook!"—it's deceptive; the film's idea is that greatness can come from anywhere, even from the rodent population, not that anyone can become great. The movie is generous enough to suggest that everyone can have a talent: the fraudulent chef reveals himself to be an adept rollerskating waiter, for example, but there's a clear hierarchy: the human fraud's girlfriend is a great sous-chef, the nasty critic becomes a reliable business partner, the mouse-chef's friends and family are a great team, whether it's chopping vegetables or binding health department employees. Some people are great artists who can make great things; the rest of us can support them.
This is also the driving idea behind Monsters University, a prequel to Monsters, Inc., both set in a parallel universe in which monsters power their society with the terrified screams of humans. In both, then, the society's most valued members are the ones who scare kids the best and thus produce the most fuel. In making it to "MU" and enrolling in the scaring program, the strangely shaped Mike Wazowski, voiced by Billy Crystal, goes after achieving his childhood dream of being one of those respected citizens: he avoids a social life and studies instead, mastering the techniques and theories behind frightenings. In contrast, Sully, voiced by John Goodman, takes his innate talent, his lion's roar and bear-like shape, for granted, pursuing partying at the expense of his academics.
Actually, there's something I almost like about this; the actual Monsters University seems jammed with Scaring majors, yet anytime we see the actual power company's "scaring floor," there are only a few scarers at work, scarers who work full careers (thus preventing frequent turnover); the college prepares more employees than the company can hire—not to mention there's at least one rival university. Subtly, the movie positions itself against the student-debt crisis, or at least the pervasive idea that we all have to go to college even if it won't help us on our future career paths, reinforcing the idea that we all have a place and it's not always at the top. Indeed, Mike and Sully wind up expelled, and get where they are when the first movie begins the old-fashioned way: working their way up from the mailroom. (Do companies even still have mailrooms? Do they send and receive actual mail?)
But at the same time, there's something distasteful in the suggestion that some of us are constitutionally—even physically—incapable of achieving our dreams. It's the anti-Rudy. Instead, Mike is told his talents lie in coaching, and he forever takes a backseat to his friend. Not that there's shame in coaching, in being behind-the-scenes; those in-the-know know that there's no Mike Tyson without Cus D'Amato, no F. Scott Fitzgerald without Maxwell Perkins, no Fred Astaire without Hermes Pan. But the idea that Hermes Pan could never be a dancer, no matter how hard he tried or how committed he was, is crazy.
It's true that not everyone can become great, but there's still value in falling short of greatness. Like, ok, not everyone can be Paul McCartney; you can't just teach someone to possess that kind of talent, which is why we're still a long way from computer algorithms writing hits. But most songs, even hits, aren't written by hitmasters; most base hits aren't hit by hall-of-famers; and most sick people aren't treated by physicians bound for the annals of medical history. People with passion can still work hard to enter their fields and once there achieve modest success, and those people still have worth in our society. As a professor once told me—a professor who won't likely be lionized by the lords of journalism—you can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
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