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The Children of Myth and Pixar

BY John Bucher January 9, 2022

Image credit: Disney

In circles where myth is a topic of discussion, the name Disney has sometimes brought about unsympathetic commentary, and often for justifiable reasons. The perceived bastardization of the stories of Hans Christian Anderson and others has usually served as the launching pad for most critiques. Sanitizing the harsh realities found in early versions of folk narratives for family-friendly financial gain has been viewed as a disservice to organic human development, and there have been compelling cases made that seem to affirm such. The reality, as is often the case, can’t be quantified in binary terms. For every problematic vision of maturation that Disney might have created, there is another child who came to love fairy tales and was drawn to the rich source materials that Disney’s films were based on. Most of Disney’s coarsest critics, when it comes to fairy tales and myth, grew up worshipping their films. 

While Disney’s stories have been low hanging fruit for critical mythologists and folklorists to pick on, that position became more difficult to sustain in 2006, when Disney bought a Silicon Valley company originally founded by George Lucas. The company was called Pixar, and they have had more impact on the way individuals consume story than most entertainment companies combined. Most professional storytellers have embraced at least one of the major lessons that Pixar has taught to the culture at large. Pixar specialized in creating stories that could be enjoyed by people of all ages, just as Disney had aimed to. However, they also were deliberate about presenting complex psychological truths that could be understood by children yet still resonate profoundly with adults, often on an even deeper level.

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The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)

While Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces has become known as a seminal exploration of myth, it also has a great deal to say about fairy tales and folklore. And while heroes often conjure images of young strapping males, Campbell actually defined heroes much more broadly. “The hero, whether a god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assimilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) either by swallowing it or by being swallowed…Then he finds that he and his opposite are not differing species, but one flesh.” (89) It’s easy to get caught up in Campbell’s 1949 choice of pronouns, and Campbell’s work is far from recent acknowledgements when it comes to issues of gender identity. However, it is important to recognize that when he discusses the hero in the book, he’s looking at a psychological archetype that can be embodied by anyone—even a child. 

While Disney historically relied on more patriarchally defined heroes, heroines, princes, and princesses, Pixar has chosen protagonists that subvert many of those traditional cultural expectations that constitute the heroic, especially regarding children. Brave, Coco, and Onward are just a few of the Pixar stories of children acting as heroic protagonists. Most recently, Pixar has offered Luca, the story of a young boy and his friendship with a sea monster disguised as a human, and Turning Red, a tale about a 13-year-old girl who suddenly “poofs” into a giant red panda when she feels certain emotions. Both films tell stories of children who encounter unusual creatures, one within his community, and the other within herself. Both stories also offer mythic lessons about conditions of “otherness” that we encounter in our world and within ourselves. 

Campbell tells of a myth about a young Arapaho girl from the North American plains who encounters an unusual creature in her world: a porcupine. (45) She desires the animal’s quills, and eventually chases the animal up a tree. The tree, playing the divine role of nature, extends its trunk higher and higher, giving the porcupine more and more distance to run. The girl looks down and sees how high she has climbed. She sees her friends below beckoning her to come down. However, the little girl becomes wonderfully enchanted by the creature and eventually ascends into the sky with the porcupine. She achieved something which was within herself, made possible only by accepting and, eventually, embracing what the “other” had to offer. Without spoiling Luca or Turning Red, these stories offer this same precise theme. Is it any wonder such stories resonate across age differences, gender identities, and cultural geography? As the mythic so often depicts, the mysteries explored in these stories are universal across time and space and we see ourselves in them.

Myth and fairy tales are filled with stories of magic and divine children that teach us a great deal about who we are and who we could be. Marie Louise Von Franz, a Jungian scholar whose voice Joseph Campbell valued, described the child found in mythic stories this way: “The child is thus an apt symbol of the Self—of an inner future totality and, at the same time, of underdeveloped facets of one’s individuality. The child signifies a piece of innocence and wonder surviving in us from the remote past, both that part of our personal childishness which has been by-passed and the new, early form of the future individuality.” (Von Franz, Marie Louise. Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Spring Publications, Dallas, Tx. 1970. pp. 144-145) We see ourselves in the myths of the young Arapaho girl and in the stories of Pixar. We see that which is still developing inside us. We see the potential of the heroic and our relationship to the community. We see the innocence and wonder that survives in us from the most remote reaches of our past—and who we may become in the future.

Yours, John Bucher John BucherJohn Bucher is a renowned strategist, communicator, and cultural mythologist based out of Hollywood, California. Disruptor named him one of the top 25 influencers in Virtual Reality in 2018. He is the author of six books including the best-selling Storytelling for Virtual Reality, and has worked with companies including HBO, DC Comics, The History Channel, A24 Films, The John Maxwell Leadership Foundation and served as a consultant and writer for numerous film, television, and Virtual Reality projects. John has spoken on 5 continents about using the power of story to reframe how products, individuals, organizations, cultures, and nations are viewed. Learn more.

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“The folk tale is the primer of the picture-language of the soul.” — Joseph Campbell

Originally written as the foreword to The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales (released in 1944), this fascinating essay explores the basis and the structure and types of fairytale collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early nineteenth century. In this early work, he lays out the distinction between a myth, a tale, and a fable, setting up a framework that he would elaborate on throughout his career.

News & Updates

John the Baptist earned his title on this day, January 9, the Baptism of the Lord.

Rinzai Buddhists turn to their origin story: The Linji Memorial, January 10, recalls the death of the sect’s founder, Linji Yixuan, who stressed the “abrupt awakening” of transcendental wisdom. The Koan is a favored pedagogy.

January, 10, Seijin-no-Hi, or “coming of age” day, is a Japanese civil holiday with deep spiritual roots—some petition spirits at Shinto shrines, others go to Tokyo Disneyland.

Maghi, January 13, commemorates an 18th Century battle in which Mai Bhago led forty ‘martyrs’ to protect her spiritual leader, Guru Gobind Singhi Ji. She survived and spent the rest of her life serving as one of his bodyguards, dressed as a man and apparently accepted as such.

The act of eating is sanctified this time of year with the January 14 Hindu harvest festival, Makar Sankranti.

Using the Julian calendar, Orthodox Christians calculate that New Year’s is January 14.

Weekly Quote

The wonder is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale—as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea.

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Campbell in Culture

RuPaul Talks Joseph Campbell on Jimmy Kimmel Show

Featured Work

Hero with a Thousand Faces, The

This seminal work has influenced millions of readers since it was originally published in 1949, bringing the insights of modern psychology together with Campbell’s revolutionary understanding of comparative mythology. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell formulated the dual schemas of the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through all of humanity’s mythic traditions, and of the Cosmogonic Cycle, the stories of world-creation and -dissolution that have marked cultures around the world and across the centuries.

Book Club

Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber breathed steamy new life into traditional fairy tales. Here, you’ll find no mere nursery stories. This now-classic collection delves past the surface of familiar plots, fleshing out their latent horrors as well as their beauties. Myth, folklore, and Gothic fiction all intertwine in the weave of Carter’s sumptuous language and her unflinching gaze. Frightening, animalian, macabre, and baroque, The Bloody Chamber will change the way you read fairy tales forever.

Joanna Gardner, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group,
Joseph Campbell Foundation

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