Pixar and the Jewish Connection

06/23/2016

Pixar's latest animated film, Finding Dory, has swum into theaters. With notable Jewish actor, Albert Brooks, voicing a signature character, we wanted to take a look at the potential link between the Jewish artists in Pixar's films and the characters they play.

We know there are some crazy theories about Pixar out there. Google 'Pixar theories' if you doubt us. But one thing Pixar excels at is casting their characters with notable actors whose public persona often becomes synonymous with those very characters. This can make it difficult to separate actor from character, but really, why would you want to?

We suggest that the lines between the characters and actors are blurred for a reason: What the actors are known for becomes a sort of shorthand for fleshing out these characters' traits. As the most economical form of storytelling, film uses every shorthand it can get. Take the below characters for example.

Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head from Toy Story

This quibbling couple are loud, offensive, consistently worried, but most importantly, kind and good as they take care of each other and their fellow toys and are played by two powerhouse personalities.

Don Rickles, the famous Jewish stand-up comedian, has played Mr. Potato Head in all three Toy Story features, as well as Toy Story Toons and Toy Story of Terror! The actor was central to shaping the voice of his character, and he's the first to point out that he did not cry in Toy Story 3. On the other side, there's Estelle Harris, known for playing one of television's most recognizable Jewish mothers, Mrs. Costanza on Seinfeld. The Jewish actress and comedian has been the voice of Mrs. Potato Head since Toy Story 2.

Rex from Toy Story

Rex is textbook neurotic, consistently swerving between annoying and endearing, while he futilely tries to play scary. Voiced by Wallace Shawn, Rex's character description could easily match the actor's other well-known role: Vizzini, the villain who found far too many things "Inconceivable!" in The Princess Bride. The Jewish actor, playwright, essayist and comedian has voiced the friendly dinosaur in just about every Toy Story iteration, but he's hardly Pixar's only foray into characters as walking neuroses.

Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc.

The less-furry lead who debuted in Monsters, Inc. is funny, smart, ambitious, and witty. His particular style of wit harkens back to put-upon Jewish comedy by way of the Catskills, and of all of the characters on this list, Mike might be the one most connected to the voice actor who plays him. That would be Billy Crystal, who has improvised many of Mike's lines throughout the franchise.

Crystal is among a handful of Jewish comedians – think Woody Allen or Mel Brooks – who have come to represent, in the broader consciousness, the Jewish sensibility, tone, and voice. So, despite his existence as a non-human from a world not at all our own, it's hard not to read Mike as a hard-charging Jewish kid with a smart mouth.

Marlin and Nemo from Finding Nemo

Marlin, the overprotective aquatic, who is markedly not funny – ironic, since he's a clownfish – continually tries to shield his intrepid and curious son from harm's way. Nemo's nervous dad is now forever linked to Albert Brooks, the Jewish comedian who has perfected the art of playing an anxious everyman while remaining wholly relatable. With this role, Brooks helps inject another stereotypically Jewish archetype into the Pixar universe: the hyper-anxious, overbearing parent.

We also note Alexander Gould, the young Jewish actor who voiced Nemo in his first outing. Though Gould's aged voice has forced a casting change in Finding Dory, the character of Carl in the new film may sound very familiar to you.

Carl Fredricksen from Up

Grief makes the lonely, cranky, and bitter widower of Up a virtual recluse. He rediscovers his kinder side with the help of an accidental pipsqueak sidekick. Though Pixar claims that Carl is meant to look most like Spencer Tracy, we think he also resembles the actor who plays him, Ed Asner. That's not just in the looks department; his personality seems downright Asner-ian, evoking the cranky old Jewish guy schtick he's been deploying as far back as his iconic role in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Anger from Inside Out

Known for his bombastic rants about, well, anything, Lewis Black, the stand-up, author, playwright, and social critic was the perfect fit for the role of Anger. Can you imagine anyone else capturing the right blend of righteous fury and borderline cuddly endearment? Comedy as social criticism isn't exactly only a Jewish thing, but Jewish comics have been at the forefront of the form. It seems fitting that the finest furious funnyman of his generation has been immortalized on film as anger itself.