Few major studio declines have been quite as constructive and educative as Pixar Animation’s recent streak of three straight disappointments, and if you count Andrew Stanton’s fumbled live-action John Carter and Brad Bird’s only recent flub with Tomorrowland, the whole gang seems to be in a tough spot lately. Personally, I’ve found this downfall to be a useful period of exploration. With Pixar, the former leader in clean, yet ambitious and semi-mature, family animation, failing to keep true to its principal promises, it’s made possible the emergence of more independent animation directors in the usually CG-dominated Oscar category – last year two hand-drawn animations and a stop-motion film popped up while the year’s most popularly loved CG-animated film lost out.
It’s also meant we’ve had time to necessarily reevaluate the merits of these films. Before the fall, it felt like there was an atmosphere of unquestioning obedience to the Pixar brand. One noticeable mediocrity aside (Cars… no *cough*, we all know it’s Cars), all their work was deemed inspired and in some way loveable. At least that was my perception of it, as a child/teen looking desperately to conform to others’ opinions for fear that her own had no credibility. The circumstances of the past few years, combined with my maturing cinematic senses in a collegiate environment, helped me out of that period of helplessness. Suddenly, Pixar films had to serve a different function from what I’d initially sought them out for. They had to captivate me as cinematic texts, not merely as stories.
I only recently mounted a mass re-watch of the company’s films, setting aside those I’m still fairly comfortable in disliking. One conclusion I’ve come to that roughly envelops all 15 of their films so far? Their story-first approach often results in a certain laziness to their image construction. Mind you, this is a problem with a lot of CG-animated films. Not using a concrete camera in forming visuals can often result in images that are pretty, beautiful even, but also lack meaning or ideas behind them. I find this moderately irksome, but in no way a total deal breaker. Regardless of flaws in how Pixar Animation Studios is run, each film ought to be judged on its own terms. If a film fails to move me, it’s because it either failed to convey its ideas to me, or simply that I didn’t find ideas particularly interesting.
Which brings us to the present, as Pixar seeks to partially reform their reputation with Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter of Monsters Inc. and Up. Docter isn’t merely a company man. He’s reasonably a filmmaker in his own right. Same should be said of Brad Bird, without question. However, to what degree are these the works of skilled, disciplined and singular filmmakers? Does their mode of production risk sacrificing individual personality to the frightful “Pixar Think Tank”? And, perhaps most essentially, does Inside Out provide any hope for maturation out of their weaker areas?
All I’m certain of is that I know what I like and when I don’t. As the company rounds out their present tally to a tidy 15, now seems like a good time to sound off on the whole lot of Pixar’s films, elucidating where they’ve surprisingly succeeded and what departments they’re still in need of work on. I acknowledge that our good founder and family man, Alex Carlson, already did a very nice list of his own Top 10 Pixar films (and given the recent decline, I wouldn’t be surprised if they remain mostly unchanged since), so I recommend you check his (perhaps friendlier) list out as well.
The official beginning of Pixar’s down phase, it makes bleak sense that this should be Pixar’s worst, but only because it was such an unfathomably ill-advised decision to begin with. Made almost solely for financial purposes, there are no ideas fueling Cars 2; only a very irritating desire to make Lasseter’s boring toys do silly things. With no emotional investment having been made in the first Cars, the characters’ contemptible stereotypes are given free reign over a contrived narrative that delights in the bloodless carnage of several disturbingly sentient automobiles. As Lightning McQueen races around the globe with no emotional reason at all, country hick Mater accidentally becomes a secret agent… for some reason? The contrivances and senseless action and violence wouldn’t be so frustrating if the film wasn’t peddling a moral that seems all too indicative of Pixar’s privilege at this stage in their history: Never adjust your obnoxious and offensive behavior to cater to the customs and sensitivities of people different from you. Doesn’t Lasseter love Miyazaki? Hell of a way to show it.
It’s the devil you know and the devil you don’t suspect, and Monsters University is that rare Pixar film that turned from a harmlessly asinine prequel to being something offensive in its utter uselessness. Essentially reversing all the moral progress of the first film, and forgetting the immorality of Monstropolis’ fear-focused regime in the process, Monsters University prefers winking in-jokes over earned character development. The feud between Mike & Sulley reveals no new fascinating layers to their relationship or characters, and only mires the fledgling series deeper into obnoxious bro-territory. Its conclusions about college life are grossly stereotypical and strangely dumbed down and desexualized. This is one of two Pixar films that serves no emotional purpose in existing, only a financial one, and is likely the most responsible for the year of downtime Pixar took in 2014.
I have a hard time saying anything remotely meaningful about Cars, not doubt because it sticks out as an emotionally vacuous dead-weight of a film, focusing on the redemptive journey of a stereotypical hothead racecar. There is some buried message about a growing disrespect for American infrastructure, but it’s conveyed through the most offensive cliches of heartland characters. The cars that make up the characters themselves speak volumes to how one-dimensional the metaphor of the film’s construction is. With no suitable explanation for this world’s vehicle centered order, nor any satisfying emotional revelations behind an expected “the losers are the real winners” ending, Cars is simply an emotional void, sleek, flashy and obnoxious for how loudly its polluting the company’s potentially promising future. As Cars 3 is silently in the works, one hopes that project meets the same fate as Pixar’s aborted Newt.
The first big surprise of my list, no doubt, I always struggled to find any degree of love for Monsters Inc.. I understand everything Pete Docter is going for, from a growing emphasis on the power of laughter being stronger than the power of fear, to its metaphor for growing energy crises plaguing cities. I just don’t particularly connect to this story of a faux-fearsome monster going all soft and cuddly for an adorable little girl. The metaphor for corporate corruption never clicked with me. And I found the dynamic between Mike and Sulley, much like in Monsters University, to be one of calculated bromance. Needless to say I’m not anticipating revisiting this particular creative well in the future, though it feels sadly like an inevitability given corporately unignorable trilogy potential.
I don’t have much malice for A Bug’s Life, but I don’t argue that this is openly one of Pixar’s most oversimplified setups. A colony of ants lives oppressed by the fearful reign of a comically and politically possessed mafia of grasshoppers (Kevin Spacey is one of Pixar’s most particularly charismatic voice villains). An amusing gang of circus performers end up protecting the colony after being mistaken for warriors. Simple, often funny enough, and it’s nice enough to see Pixar find their legs in respect to complex and thrilling animation sequences… but it still never makes much of a convincing or meaningful metaphor out of its premise apart from the somewhat trite “the many can rise up against the few” moral. It’s harmless, but it’s also one of the handful Pixar films that are truly… well, dim.
Brave is an interesting designation, with the visually ambitious parts of it warring with its trite and nonsensical plot detours. A polite, pretty fable, originally working from a personal story ripped from credited co-director Brenda Chapman’s fingers, Brave is perhaps most indicative of how Pixar’s brain-trust approach can lead to a loss of independence and individuality. Through Merida’s excitingly tangled batch of ginger hair or the beautiful elements of mist, fire and water, this is clearly one of Pixar’s most gorgeously animated films, but it’s also built on a silly premise that cribs plot elements of Disney’s own disastrous Brother Bear, not to mention an overriding Disney princess mold it feels like Pixar is conforming to. What likely started as a touching, intimate mother-daughter story, something that clearly meant something deeply to Chapman, ended up as a deeply flawed and sadly disingenuous one. Still, I’d gladly revisit to behold the visual majesty again.
Simply upon arrival, Inside Out is already one of the most instrumental films in Pixar’s history. Sure, it foregrounds the themes that have driven their films for some time – the utility of emotions both bright and blue in directing our path forward – but in a way that synthesizes startling visual ideas. As deeply, fascinatingly invested in Riley’s arc, captured in crisp details and shadows, she is unarguably a co-lead with Joy, pitching the film improbably as a romance. Joy’s desperate neediness towards Riley sets the action in motion, taking us on a tour of a mind being excavated of its precious memories in a period of expertly depicted depression. There are plenty of questionable depictions in regards to gender – the Pixar team sadly isn’t willing to face the reality of queer identity – as seems inevitable with a mainstream family film that deals with heady psychology, but the sheer force, momentum and, again, genuinely felt lyricism of Pete Docter’s voice makes this an essential text with a simple, but meaningful message adolescents need to hear: sadness is an emotion we’re profoundly lost without.
I’ve often flipped between how I’d rank the Toy Story films, a trilogy that meant more to me in my awkward adolescence than it does now. If there’s one film of the bunch that feels the most formally limited, though, it’s Lee Unkrich’s cathartic trilogy closer. At the time I was in rapture to how close the film came to an apocalyptic close. I was always struggling to be captivated with Toy Story 3, from the flourscently lit horrors of daycare to the grimy, prison break sequence, but I was never more in thrall to the series than when the toys, who mostly lacked their own individual arcs, accepted their fiery demise. That scene most serves Woody’s arc, as he stares into the flames, horrified, to the very last second… before they’re literally deus ex machina‘d out of it. In my heart, I wish they went all the way, since the treacly ending is very symbolic of what I didn’t like about the film. The animation feels so clean, sanitized, and glowingly lit that it’s hard to ever feel like there’s a bleak threat waiting for these toys.
It’s interesting to reflect on Pixar’s films now, because in some ways you could make a case for Toy Story being the male equivalent to Pete Docter’s Inside Out. In time Woody would become synonymous with reliability, while Buzz would become synonymous with… redundant disillusionment subplots. At the start, though, they were symbols of different types of aspiring masculinity, showing the shift between rugged throwback affections to sleek, space fantasy obsession. In a sense Sid represents Andy’s worst case scenario, more obsessed with acts of practiced destruction than performed heroism, and Woody and Buzz’s journey back to him is essential to restoring harmony to Andy’s world, much the same as Joy and Sadness’ journey in Inside Out. They’re quite revealing mirrors of one another, showing a clear progression from beginning to the present moment.
A crotchety old man learns to truly live again thanks to the aid of a chubby, excited little boy. Excuse me for wanting a place to vomit in silence, but Up takes a potentially insipid plot and does some surprisingly unique and specific things with it. That opening sequence is a slow-creeping marvel, but not because it portrays a man and woman living a happy life together and aw, how adorable, (*holds back vomit*). In truth it depicts two people living on the financial bubble their entire lives, moving towards a dream that would never happen and would ultimately leave one of them profoundly alone, with no renewed family left. It’s a very bleak start, and in that light Russell does a lot to ameliorate Carl’s loss of a larger family, as do Dug and Kevin. The villain is ultimately the symbol of a dream made toxic and self-destructive, one that still eats at Carl throughout. It’s the potency of these themes, and how lyrically they’re portrayed (mmm, chairs), that pulls this from the ranks into unquestionably valuable, immanently entertaining Pixar.
When it comes down to it, my favorite of film of any trilogy must be the one with the pseudo-queer love ballad. Tabling the first film’s cocky masculinity study and leaving Andy’s psychology safely behind, Toy Story 2 whittles carefully away at themes of immortality and impermanence that Toy Story 3 tossed under the rug. Woody may have left behind his jaded attitudes towards Buzz, but the space ranger’s physical and cultural durability is still subtly taunting him. There are vast halls of Buzz Lightyear toys, expanding merchandise, all while Woody is finding himself physically fallible and socially waning. It’s as potent a mortality study as the trilogy’s ever done, but it’d be arguably disposable without Jessie’s heartrending “When She Loved Me”, a moment which achingly shows the joys and consequences of living for others.
This is perhaps the only Pixar film I worried would wane for me upon revisit. Finding Nemo undoubtedly has some soul-piercing emotional notes. A father anxiously dealing with the loss of his wife, his family, and potentially his only living child; it was something I watched achingly in the theater knowing that my dad would love it. In actuality, he was indifferent, and that indifference has shaped much of our relationship recently. Surprisingly, that never touches this film’s emotional resonance. There’s extraordinary craft bringing the oceanic world to life, a handful of truly heart-stopping adventure sequences, and a need to remember what’s lost, even if it only brings pain and sadness. Like in Inside Out, that sadness is useful in helping us move forward and learn more about those we love.
This film isn’t a parody of the superhero mythology, and frankly, we’re not in any great need of one. This is a film that brings the genre back to its core tenets of emotional vulnerability, something that’s been frightfully lost in the bloodless carnage of recent Marvel films. The period specificity, particularly in regards to comic book influences, is astonishing – the stylistic shift between golden age and silver age is distinct and palpable. Like most of Brad Bird’s films, though, its main focus is individuality and honest expression; that we are more fortunate and stronger when we accept ourselves and those around us than when we search resolutely for inspiration in a flawed figure. The action sequences have pop, zest and, most importantly, urgency, as a family’s livelihood and core values is repeatedly endangered. It may conform to an uncustomary nuclear family model, but it’s seeking continuously for the unconventional and surprising in this conventional family model.
Pixar has never crafted anything quite as visually extraordinary, meaningfully textured or tightly structured as WALL-E, the film that’s most representative of the deep emotional crevices Pixar can reach when it takes real thematic risks. The company is historically better off when it’s not playing safe, and there’s hardly anything safe about this energetic, effervescent cosmic love story, certainly not its affection for little known historical artifacts. That the film’s emotional chord would be struck and maintained through Hello Dolly is a surprise, though less surprising is the Chaplin-esq. manners and gestures of the robot protagonist. The idea that it conveys, that nonconforming and unconventional rogues, machines even, know the value of life more than mankind, is one that ably mirrors such recent sci-fi staples as Terminator 2: Judgment Day or The Iron Giant. I’d argue it gets very lost when inside the Axiom, where the fluorescent lighting really dilutes some of the action, but occasionally it will find a natural light respite in the unbound reaches of space, the ghetto of the garbage compacting center or, finally, back on Earth. The film’s startling magic is rekindled, and it’s not a lost cause to grow to love it.
In a lot of ways Ratatouille is Pixar’s most successfully self-reflexive work, though Inside Out certainly gives it a run for its money. Its main character is one desperate to reinvent his identity, even if it’s in ways that both human and rodent society can’t understand or accept. At a crucial moment in the film Remy lashes out at the ghost who’s been guiding him. “You only tell me things I already know. I know who I am. Why do I need you to tell me? Why do I need to pretend?” It’s certainly the most queer-reading line Pixar’s ever synthesized, showing that being yourself is never easy when it doesn’t fit into a framework. It’s maddening, and it calls for all kinds of self-performance, but ultimately there is an audience for the nonconforming. Ratatouille using art (as maker and consumer) to satisfy a personal crevice in our lives. Each of Pixar’s best films reflects it in how distinct and director-driven their work is. Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter… these are Pixar’s auteurs, and when their voice and curiosities come through?