I went to see Wall-E, the new film from the animation powerhouse, Pixar, not because I like animated films (although I usually do) and not because I like stories about robots (although I usually don’t). I went because my life briefly touched one of the story artists behind the film, one of the hundreds of names in the credits that often scroll by without me giving them much thought. This time was different. This time, while I scanned the credits for the familiar name, I was sobbing. I was sobbing because a few months before Wall-E was released, the heart belonging to this particular name stopped beating.
About a year ago, I agreed to write a profile on Justin Wright, a storyboard artist at Pixar who had attended Pacific Union College, my alma mater for the school's alumni website. I had never met Justin, but from the first moments of our phone call, we connected. While we did talk plenty about the specifics of his education and how he ended up with the job he considered the dream job of a lifetime, we spent much more time talking about God, spirituality, and our struggles with the church we had both grown up in and were still figuring out what to do with as adults. (And dogs—when fellow dog lovers meet, there often seems to be an instant, karmic understanding of life’s priorities.) His passion for life and love and the depth of his questions impressed me as belonging to someone far older than his 27 years.
That sense of maturity beyond his years might have stemmed from the fact that Justin was living with a heart that was 18 years older than the rest of him. When Justin was born, his heart had all sorts of complications: cardiomyopathy, a complete block, a hole between the upper two chambers, a hole in the mitral valve —the list goes on. Finally, when Justin was 12, his heart had been through too many surgeries and procedures to be of much use, not to mention that it was the size of a deflated soccer ball inside his slight 70-pound body. It was time for a transplant. Justin had a 30-year-old’s heart put inside his chest, where it made its home until it suddenly and unexpectedly stopped beating forever this past March 18.
The constant brush with mortality as a child forced Justin to grow up quickly. He seemed to always know that life was fleeting, ephemeral. Maybe this is why he spoke about God, the meaning of life, and the Big Questions with both the grace and humor of a learned mystic who has repeatedly brushed shoulders with divinity and the mysteries of eternity.
It also allowed him the courage to chase his dream through several seemingly endless dead-ends that ended up with the dream job at Pixar where he worked on the story team, turning the vision of the director into storyboards and images. When I interviewed him, his excitement about Wall-E burst through the phone line with palpable energy. Of course he couldn’t really tell me anything about the film—Pixar’s story lines are kept more secret than Dick Cheney’s undisclosed location—but he told me just to wait; it was gonna be good.
It is good, exceedingly good. Even without my desire to love the film for Justin’s sake, my husband and I both have dubbed it our favorite film of the year so far. The summary doesn’t do it justice. As Frank Rich noted in his review of the film in the New York Times, Wall-E for President, “Almost any description of this beautiful film makes it sound juvenile or didactic, and it is neither.”
He goes on to summarizes the film in one sentence, “Wall-E is a robot-meets-robot love story, as simple (and often as silent) as a Keaton or Chaplin fable, set largely in a smoldering and abandoned Earth, circa 2700, where the only remaining signs of life are a cockroach and a single green sprout.”
From this simple plot comes a story that is both astoundingly moving and timely—for a film that surely was written several years ago, how does it manage to be spot-on for our current crisis of consumerism, complacency, and self-obsession? It’s a story about love, rebirth, and having the courage to stand up to our own greed. But it’s especially about love.
And how did they manage to make the emotional connection of robots speak such truth about the universal yearning we all feel to love and be loved? All I know is that there must have been a lot of people who knew their own hearts and heartaches behind this film. People with hearts like Justin’s, fragile and breakable with the scars of surgery still clearly visible, but also pulsating with a deep love and appreciation for life.
The last thing Justin told me as we concluded our interview was that he knew he had to be more careful with his heart than most, but that wasn’t keeping him from exploring the full dimensions of the human heart. He said with smile that I could quite literally see over the phone, “Right now I’m very happy. Right now my heart is doing great.”
Go see the film and you’ll know in your heart just how true that statement was—and is. Go and be moved by a powerful story of love and new beginnings. Make sure you look for Justin’s name, just after the cast under “Story Artists.” And then keep watching until you see that Pixar decided to dedicate this story to Justin. It’s fitting, ever so fitting, that a story bursting with such heart would be dedicated to someone with a heart as full as Justin’s.