My Disney Top 5 - Most Heart Wrenching Pixar Moments

by Chris Barry, contributing writer

Welcome back to another Disney Top 5. As always, I hope you are all safe and well out there.

Just the other night I was going about my business cleaning up after dinner and I popped on the television in the kitchen. I flipped around a bit and was happy to see that Disney Channel was airing Toy Story 3. Perfect choice for a little background noise while I clear and clean dishes. The Toy Story films have always been favorites of mine and it's obvious that millions of Disney fans agree with me as well. Woody, Buzz and crew have become global icons as recognizable and as beloved as Mickey Mouse himself. I'm pretty sure you can guess what happened next. The dishes sat and so did I as I watched this modern animated classic unfold. It's not that I haven't seen it many, many times. I clearly and happily have. But, this time was the first time I had sat and watched it since my sons started college this September. And if you know the film, I'm sure you can guess what happened next; I was a mess.

I don't imagine that I have to explain the plot line to any of you readers out there, but let me refresh your memory to help you comprehend why I was sobbing over my leftover steak and rice on the plates in front of me. On the surface, Toy Story 3 is the tale of Andy's toys trying to escape the seemingly benign but borderline dystopian world of Sunnyside Daycare. Of course, the larger subtext to this story is that the toys ended up there in the first place because Andy was packing up his childhood room to move away to college. Andy sentimentally has his eye on keeping his favorite toys in the attic but they inadvertently got rerouted to the donation pile thus kick starting their quest to get home and be waiting there for him in his house whenever he might need them. As with most great Disney and Pixar films, Toy Story 3 tugs at the heartstrings several times and that night, with my sons now in college just like Andy, like I said above, I was a bit of a weepy mess by the end.

The thing that always impresses me most about the Pixar films is that the heartbreaking moments are inextricably linked to the tradition of great storytelling. Sad moments in films happen. Comedy is hard. Sadness is easy. Not everything makes people laugh, but there are plenty of universal themes which will instantly make people sad. The trick is shoehorning those sad moments into an otherwise joyful film to help completely flesh out the story. Indeed, some of the moments I list below didn't have to happen for the respective films to be successful, especially when you consider that they are essentially kid films. But it's the sad elements that make them ring true for all ages. It's the poignant moments that elevate the stories and ensnare the audience convincing them to go along with the characters on whatever journey the filmmakers are trying to send them on. Would you root for Dumbo as much without Baby Mine? How about The Lion King? The death of Mufasa is brutal, but it's critical to the story and if you weren't already in Simba's camp, witnessing the horrified look on his face as his dad falls will make you follow him anywhere. Sure, it's painful, but it's good storytelling. Let's take a look at the Pixar scenes that have gotten to me the most, and there's a lot to choose from, with my Top 5 most heart wrenching Pixar moments.

5 - Remember Me - Coco

Coco is an astonishingly beautiful film. Cinematically, it's a wonder to behold. Most Pixar films are. The thing I loved most about Coco was the fact that it took me someplace completely unique. I know a lot about toys, cars, fish and superheroes but the elaborate and intricate world of the dead that they took us to in Coco showcases creativity that exists on a whole other level. It's one of the most breathtaking pieces of animation I've ever seen. But the extraordinary artistry is just the beginning. There's a whole lot of deep stuff going on in the storyline of this movie. Tackling death in an animated film is a bold move. But tackling not just death, but the permanent disappearance of those who have passed from people' s memory and consciousness is downright courageous. The moment that will forever have me welling up when I watch this masterpiece is, of course, when young Miguel plays the song Remember Me for his great-grandmother, Coco.

Miguel sings to his great-grandmother in Coco. ©Disney/Pixar

It's a moment of defiance as his family has banned him from playing music, but it is also a moment of rescue. Miguel attempts to penetrate the fading mind of Coco and in essence, brings her back, ever so briefly, getting her to sing and thereby restoring the memory of her father Hector before he fades completely into the ether. Once again, this is seriously deep and powerful stuff we're talking about. Anyone that dismisses animated films as just cartoons has never sat down and went through a heart wrenching scene like this. It's so poignant and so relatable to so many of us who have not just lost loved ones to death, but also lost them while they are living to a degenerative state of mind like the one that Coco exists in for most of the film. Coco celebrates the importance of family, the power of music and the essential task of keeping the memory of loved ones who have left us alive and all of those themes are wrapped up in this one short scene. I challenge you not to cry during this moment.

4 - When She Loved Me - Toy Story 2

From the beginning Toy Story reminded us just how significant a simple toy can be in the life of a child. Toys are not just portrayed as inanimate objects. They're rightfully seen as friends, sometimes the most significant friends that a child has. They are as unwaveringly dedicated to us as we are to them. When you consider a toy's existence from that point of view, it's no wonder that this scene in Toy Story 2 where we learn of Jesse's abandonment by her owner has brought so many viewers to tears. People thought Walt Disney was crazy when he wanted the Seven Dwarfs to be crying around Snow White after she was poisoned. Cartoons weren't supposed to cry. They were supposed to get into silly shenanigans and throw pies in each other's faces. But Walt knew that sadness could indeed be portrayed by animated characters. That legacy is dutifully followed up in this painfully sad moment when we see Jesse and Emily playing together so joyfully only to watch as Jesse gets cast aside for nail polish, telephones and record albums.

Jesse remembers Emily in Toy Story 2. © Disney/Pixar

I couldn't believe how much that last shot of Jesse's eyes peering out of the donation box hit me when I first saw it. I wasn't too sure about Jesse when I was first introduced to her in Toy Story 2. I found her to be a little abrasive. Once I wept through her backstory, she was instantly endeared to me. I always loved my toys, saved a bunch of them and still have a few to this day. After Toy Story 2, my kids toys have either been saved or they've purposefully been put into the hands of other kids to play with and enjoy.

3 - Bing Bong

I could go on and on about the themes in Inside Out, a film I consider to be Pixar's most ingenious piece of storytelling. Try explaining the emotions, their headquarters and things like Goofball Island to someone who hasn't seen it. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall listening to the first pitch about creating characters that live in an 11-year-old girl's subconscious. I first saw this film with my daughter in the theaters. At the time she was 17, much older than Riley, the main character, is supposed to be. Still, as a parent, the sentiment of this film rang so true to me because I had already lived through my little girl growing up. Watching your kids grow up is joyous and sad at the same time and this movie hits home to any parent. I've watched it with friends that weren't parents yet and, trust me, the parent experience shines a whole new light and increases the emotional impact of this film exponentially. There are several moments in Inside Out where I was getting choked up but nothing packed the emotional punch, at least to me, as when Bing Bong sacrifices himself to the memory dump to ensure that Riley is saved.

Bing Bong makes the ultimate sacrifice for Riley in Inside Out. ©Disney/Pixar

Once again, try to explain this moment to someone that hasn't seen the film; that the forgotten imaginary friend that's part cat, elephant and dolphin with a body made of cotton candy gives his life in the memory dump to save a little girl's life. It even sounds nonsensical to me as I write it. And yet there I was rooting for this duo to soar out of this pit of forgotten memories on a wagon rocket ship powered by a song. I'm waiting for that happy movie moment when they succeed and what happens. Spoiler alert if you haven't seen it, but holy mackerel if I wasn't a sobbing wreck when Bing Bong jumps out of that wagon allowing Joy to make it to the top and then slowly fades into nothingness. I've read that the creators of Inside Out purposefully left Bing Bong out of the pre-release promotions and advertising so he would be a surprise to viewers and then his untimely demise would hit even harder. It worked. "Take her to the moon for me…ok?"

2 - Andy Gives His Toys to Bonnie - Toy Story 3

This is the scene that had me bawling at the kitchen counter the other night. Andy decides – with the help of a certain toy cowboy and a slyly placed post-it note – that on his way to college his beloved toys should be donated to little Bonnie so she could have all the fun with them that he had. For me this scene begins in Andy's room when his mom walks in and can't help herself when it suddenly hits her that her little boy has grown up and is leaving home. I know that look on her face because I've had the very same look. My daughter was the first to go to college and trust me, we didn't go into her room for weeks after she left. The first time that I had to go in there, I had an Andy's mom moment and froze in my tracks. The continuation of this scene in Bonnie's front yard as Andy describes his toys one by one and bequeaths them to her is just pure joyfulness and is wonderful filmmaking.

Andy bids his best friends farewell in Toy Story 3. ©Disney/Pixar

Andy is literally handing off his childhood memories to Bonnie to keep them alive. The music, the slow motion type shots of Andy getting one more round of good play with his oldest and dearest pals are so well done and so endearing. If it doesn't get to you, you might not have a heart. For some people, Woody's goodbye to Andy, "So long–partner," is what gets them. For me, the moment that crushes me every time is when Andy looks back at his toys on Bonnie' s porch and bittersweetly says, "Thanks guys."

1 - Carl and Ellie - Up

I imagine most of you could have guessed that this Pixar moment would be at the top of my list. Carl and Ellie's 5 minute sequence at the beginning of Up is not just one of animation's most poignant moments, I have no problem with stating that I think it's one of the finest 5 minutes in all of motion pictures. Once again, Up shows the artists and storytellers at Pixar taking huge chances to further along their story. Not many films, never mind animated films would tackle love, shattered dreams, miscarriage and death all in the first 7 minutes.

A young Carl and Ellie in their dream home in Up. ©Disney/Pixar.

Carl and Ellie's life together is told through this masterful montage of scenes set to melodramatic music. You root for the couple the whole time. You experience their joy fixing up their house together and finding shapes in the clouds. You feel for Ellie when she finds out that they have lost their child and seemingly can no longer have children. You grow old with them. You're as heartbroken as Carl when he loses his one true love. All of this with not a drop of dialogue spoken. It's quite simply a masterpiece of storytelling on film. The audience becomes completely invested in Carl's quest to live out his and Ellie's dreams. This scene will always elicit tears from me. It's right up there with all of the most gut wrenching moments on film just like Bambi, The Champ, and Old Yeller.

Boy. That was tough. In addition to writing this, I, of course, had to re-watch all of these scenes along with all of the ones that didn't make the list. Yeah I know, I left out some good ones. What about the Toy Story 3 furnace? Yes, of course, my heart always breaks when Sulley has to leave Boo behind in her bedroom. And don't even get me started on Eve reactivating Wall-E. There's a lot of choices but these are the ones that get to me the most. It's the genius of Pixar. I have literally laughed at loud in the theaters, been on the edge of my seat with suspense and have had my heart audibly broken. They're the best at what they do; being master storytellers that channel a tremendous range of emotions through the use of art, imagery, music and dialogue in order to teach us more about the heart, the mind, the soul and the human condition.

Those are my 5 most heart wrenching moments. As always, I'd love to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below, share your thoughts and choices, stay safe and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.



  1. By danyoung

    A very strong list, as most of your lists are. I have a very clear memory of watching Toy Story 2 in the Downtown Disney theater with my brother. When the song "When She Loved Me" we both looked at each other and went "WOW!"

    And that first few minutes of Up is a movie unto itself. All of that depth and feeling just to set up the plot of the movie? Truly magical!

  2. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    A very strong list, as most of your lists are. I have a very clear memory of watching Toy Story 2 in the Downtown Disney theater with my brother. When the song "When She Loved Me" we both looked at each other and went "WOW!"

    And that first few minutes of Up is a movie unto itself. All of that depth and feeling just to set up the plot of the movie? Truly magical!

    Thanks Dan.

    For some reason I missed Toy Story 2 in the theaters. I would have liked that.

    And yes, it's a brilliant piece of filmmaking isn't it?

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