Disclaimer: Pixar is a studio that can mount its own defense well enough. This article is a response to fellow Screwhead Derek Nahigyan’s Pixar in Review article.
In terms of their animated canon, the 1980s were not the most profitable years for the Walt Disney Company. Their biggest hits, or what are today considered the classics, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians – or which characters most prominently feature in their advertising and theme parks, were produced in the 1950s and ‘60s. The cartoons produced in the ‘70s and ‘80s were not to receive such great acclaim. 1989 saw a resurgence of the Disney brand with the release of The Little Mermaid, a film Disney not only poured its heart and soul into, but more money and resources than the studio had spent in decades. From this point, through 1994’s The Lion King, Disney’s films, released once per year, would become grand spectacles of animation, bright and cheerful, marked by a higher frame rate than any other animation studio in the business.
Starting in 1995, with Pocahontas, the “classic” status of Disney’s releases became contested, the animation undergoing stylistic changes and the pop culture references veering wide of whatever story individual films might have been trying to tell. Arguably, Disney animation hit its nadir with 1999’s Tarzan, a lifeless retelling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic. But Tarzan is considered the last film of the Disney Renaissance, as it was the last to perform well both critically and commercially before what came next. And what came next does not concern us.
1995 saw the release of another film carrying the Disney label, though it was produced by Pixar Studios, an up-and-comer co-founded by the since sanctified Steve Jobs. Toy Story was the first Pixar film, the first full length computer animated film, and a box office success. Most theatregoers in America had never seen anything like it before. And though we did not know it, it would serve as a model for the Pixar brand.
In 2006, Pixar was purchased by The Walt Disney Company for $7.4 billion (a fair price for a studio whose highest-grossing film netted $865 million worldwide), and though they are now part and parcel of the largest media conglomerate in the world, Pixar went on to produce at least four more films that prove their unique spark has yet to be diminished under Disney’s solar glare. It is necessary to explain the animated antecedents of Pixar’s success to illustrate how the studio has differentiated itself from its parent company.
The Pater familias
Prior to Pixar, Disney was the institution of animation. Disney in fact has been the reason that animated films have been relegated to the children’s table for so long in our western culture. And this is not a slight against Disney. Disney long ago discovered that the spectacle, color and creativity possible with animated features was practically limitless, and they marketed to the widest audience possible. Its worst films were trivial escapes; its best were colorized dreams. Fantasias. But, with few exceptions, Disney films became formulaic, focusing on princesses, songs, and silly animals. Disney chose to base many of its films on classic fairy tales from childhood, tales familiar to its audience. But it wouldn’t do to have Cincerella’s sisters cut their toes and heels off in 1950, especially released so close to Valentine’s Day. Nor would children react well to seeing Ariel’s fin split in two, witness her agony of walking on tender feet, or betrayal by the prince she gave up her life for and for whom she willingly suicides. Disney movies had to be harmless. Beautiful and harmless.
Pixar owes much to Disney, as do most modern studios. And Pixar, too, has its own formula. Many of its films focus on travel, several are chase films; this ensures that the action moves at a steady clip and gives plenty of opportunities to encounter incidental and quirky characters. Where Pixar begins to break from the Disney mold is in its adherence to original creations. Toy Story and Finding Nemo are familiar to us because they follow familiar beats, familiar stories. But these are not your father’s cartoons.
The Two Promises
From its very first feature Pixar promised two things to two different audiences. The first, for the children, it would deliver stunning visuals that captivated at every turn. It has been nearly fifteen years since Pixar came on the scene and no studio has yet matched their visual aptitude. In recent years other animation houses have come closer, but the level of detail and innovation at Pixar grows with each new feature. Even my fellow Screwhead Derek Nahigyan conceded that Sully’s hair in Monsters, Inc. (2001) is an achievement in texturing. The water effects in 2003’s Finding Nemo are an even greater illustration of their prowess. The light diffusion and depiction of waves both above and below the surface were rendered using software Pixar developed from scratch. They then used what they learned from that film and applied it to the wind and dust effects in WALL-E (2008).
The second promise is the promise made to adults. If you come to the film, you will see a film, not a distraction, not an entertainment. There is more under the surface of Pixar films than was ever hidden under Disney’s. Perhaps that is the freedom of 3-D effects, a subtlety of dimension. Or perhaps it is the sheer quality of the work. Adults can also count on the fact, not necessarily a promise, that the heroes of their tales will vary from the glamorous. Young and old, middle-aged and elderly, robots and toys, parents and children have all featured as protagonists in Pixar tales.
Pixar as Storytellers
The care Pixar places in its visual palette is reflected in its narrative choices. Sound and fury it can portray, but its worth is in what it chooses to signify.
The Toy Story trilogy, at its basic level, is about leaving childhood. The first film, Pixar’s premiere film, is young and fun. The film opens with Andy playing with Woody, using his imagination to contrive Woody into whatever situations fit with the toys available. Toy Story is very much a representation of the studio itself, showing off and playing around at the same time. Even Sid, Andy’s disturbed neighbor, is no less innocent in his pursuits. Sid is a toy breaker, a firecracker lighter, yet he is also an inventor. Would Sid behave differently if he knew his toys had feelings and jealousies? The movie explicitly shows this to be true. But because toys are inanimate, he experiments with them to his young heart’s content, turning dolls into ratchet arachnids, staging battles in his sandbox. Sid is every bit as imaginative as Andy, but he is vicious. The toys of Toy Story love their owners not because they are enslaved to them but because of the affection given to them. Sid’s toys turn on him in a heartbeat. Andy’s toys fight against all reason to get back to him.
This theme continues in Toy Story 2 where we meet Jessie the yodeling cowgirl and learn how she was loved and then abandoned by her owner in a beautiful and devastating montage (a forte of Pixar is in its ability to forward its story without dialogue, in its interplay of music and images, nowhere more potent than in Up’s opening depiction of a couple falling in love, growing old, and dying). Jessie does not share Woody’s love of her owner, only her love of him and their joined potential to be loved as collector’s items. Where Toy Story was about being a child and dealing with new siblings (Buzz for Woody) and strange places (Andy moves; the toys go to Sid), the sequel is about accepting limitations. Woody tears his arm and learns from Jessie that Andy will one day grow too old to play with him. While initially willing to join Jessie and the collectible toys on the road, he eventually accepts his inevitable obsolescence when he reunites with his friends. The toys together know that when the love of their owner is gone, they will still have each other.
This emotional arc culminates in one of the most powerful scenes of any feature, let alone an animated film, in Toy Story 3 (2010), when the toys are approaching incineration in a scene of relentless despair, literally and emotionally reminiscent of the Inferno. Once more Pixar abstains from dialogue (though not sound altogether; the descent is a hellish clatter of claustrophobia) the way few films can, by having the toys struggle to escape, realizing there is no chance, and silently reaching for each other. Together, the toys we have followed for 15 years allow themselves to be shoveled into the fire, no less fearful but accepting their fates as equal and finding solace in each other. The third film of the trilogy, even more so than its predecessor, deals with childhood’s end and the acceptance of age. The final scene, of Andy giving his toys to a new little girl, is alarming with how simply it evokes the pain and jubilation of letting go, and moving on.
Contrast this with the Disney of yore, when Cinderella sang about her prince and put on a glass slipper and an Arabic Genie impersonated Groucho Marx.
What Pixar does is take the contemporary and transpose it onto entertaining creatures. Finding Nemo, one of Pixar’s best, is about a single father caring for his handicapped son.
Marlin doesn’t believe his son is capable of taking care of himself – not really true. Marlin wants to believe this because he was unable to protect his family. His wife and his children were not just lost to him, they were slaughtered and eaten by a creature higher on the food chain. To Marlin, Nemo is his life, to the exclusion of all else. Since the moment his son was born he has not lived but in constant fear that something terrible is going to happen to both of them. He smothers his son and he smothers his own soul. Dory, played by Ellen DeGeneres, is also handicapped, and yet she guides Marlin on his journey to save his child.
Marlin’s interaction with Dory actually reveals something important about his relationship to Nemo. Dory is a cloud cuckoolander, make no mistake, but it is her flightiness brought on by her short attention span that causes Marlin to dismiss her. He doesn’t believe she can help him. She is almost worse than scenery, gets in the way, is something for him to traverse. And yet Dory is perceptive, Dory is friendly, Dory says why not when he questions why. She motivates him to be a better person and in their search for Nemo he learns to trust her and to believe in himself. Nemo also proves himself, to both his surrogate father Gil and to his real father at the story’s close. Finding Nemo is about a father redeeming himself. By the end he is willing to let Nemo go and restart his own life with Dory.
Up is possibly Pixar’s most emotional film to date. Like Toy Story and Finding Nemo, Up is about letting go. Like the previous two films, Up is about not giving up. But unlike the two, it is about what happens when a dream dies.
Pixar’s films resonate because they touch on the human experience. Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) from start to finish failed to find a single truth in its story. Talking trees, anthropomorphic raccoons, and simplified Indian-White relations do not a complete movie make. It may be a matter of semantics whether or not you can step into the same river twice but I have yet to find anyone who knows how to paint with all the colors of the wind. If this was Disney’s attempt at spiritualism it lost it somewhere behind the growl of Jim Cummings’ solo (no slight to the great Jim Cummings intended). Up dazzles with the beauty of a crowd of balloons painting a child’s room like an itinerant stainglass window, but it also frightens with reality.
Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is an unlikely protagonist. He is geriatric, widowed, and grouchy. The three are common stereotypes of the curmudgeon in films, especially cartoons. Except Pixar goes to great lengths to show the life that Carl lived. This is an old man with a history, with an entire lifetime before the film takes place. He loved a strange girl named Ellie and they got married. Carl, we see, is a man with a very simple job: he’s the balloon man in the park. It is never stated, but this is not a high paying job. Carl and Ellie’s whole world revolved around each other. Their life savings amounted to a jar of pennies. And then Ellie dies.
Up asks its audience to accept this in the first fifteen minutes of the film. That is a lot. It’s a lot to ask a child and it’s even more for parents, who may have gone through the ordeal themselves. Carl’s story is about a lifetime spent anticipating the day he and Ellie would go to Venezuela together. And together that will never happen.
Up is also about the respect for things that were and the mindless way that progress stomps on us all. Carl is the lone holdout for a major patch of construction. He is old, he is grouchy, and he is not moving. And in a single moment of violence that will be familiar to any family that has had to watch the decline of an older relative, he is deemed a menace as well. What do we do with people that are no use to us anymore? Carl doesn’t let them give him their answer. His answer is in his fantastical scheme and his rebellious raspberry as he lifts off into the plot.
The villain of the piece is a Mr. Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer), a man who has also seen his dream die, his credibility ruined. Adults will catch the dark suggestion that he has killed many in the past whom he suspected of beating him to a new discovery, and Carl knows that Muntz is dangerous. His young tagalong Russell (Jordan Nagai) does not, but over the course of the film Carl comes to care for Russell. He even learns, in a stirring scene of him emptying his house of all his belongings, that you can ditch your baggage and keep the good memories. Make new ones and move on. The difference with Up’s protagonist is that he will not be alive to have too many more adventures. He’s old, washed up, used up. Even so, he is not above dreaming new dreams.
All Together Now
Time and again Pixar has proved itself adept at weaving family stories. It is possible that this is their true secret to success. Disney paved the way with spectacle and songs, with jokes thrown in for the adults, but Pixar truly models its movies to appeal to the entire unit. To do that, and to please its individual members, is a feat. Their best attempt to date may be 2004’s The Incredibles, certainly my favorite Pixar film.
The universe created in this film is one of endless fun, and I could go into great detail about the realistic portrayal of superheroes, the politics at work, the starkness of Bob’s office job and the stunningly gorgeous island locations, but what sustains this movie is the lead performances by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter. Simply put, they pull off a married couple better than 99% of films today, and they do so with a weary love that hides an abiding affection for each other.
The Incredibles is likely the best superhero film made to date but it is also one of the funniest films about infidelity around. Bob never cheats on his wife, but he does become a superhero again to get his kicks. He misses the excitement and he doesn’t feel like he can talk about it with his wife, who seems enamored of their domesticity and resentful that he can’t cop to it.
Hope in the Time of Dreck
In WALL-E, Pixar manages to make a film that focuses on just one character for almost an entire hour, a character that can’t even speak. WALL-E is one of the simplest of Pixar’s tales and yet it carries its loudest message: Don’t pollute.
That is the obvious message but the more profound one is what the audience is left to wonder while WALL-E trundles through the derelict metropolis: How did it get so bad? It got that bad because we let it get that bad. We didn’t plan for the future. We ran away.
While several Pixar films are about letting go and moving on, WALL-E shifts into reverse. It is about embracing our mistakes, about accepting that we are fallible. WALL-E is not a complex robot, and WALL-E is not a complex film. People can be very short sighted and very lazy. We rely on our technology to support us. When it fails, we fail. When we work together, there’s hope.
Hope is the guiding principle of Pixar’s oeuvre. Amidst the silly animals, the witty dialogue, the voices of actors we know and landscapes we don’t, there is a chance in Pixar’s films, never a certainty, that we can do right by ourselves and by each other if we believe in each other. It is more than just pat sentiment. Pixar creates characters that are flawed, coming from places that have shaped them into what they are. When they lose hope, we lose hope, because we are them. Disney made movies that were nothing less than dreams, but seldom more. Pixar wakes us to the losses that are encountered when one is bold or foolish enough to hope. Gain is not had without sacrifice, affection is earned, not the solution to a screenwriter’s formula.
Pixar’s films have a power to move that is greater than their 3-Dimensional mobility. They tell funny stories that can make us cry, and sad stories that we grin and bear because they find a way to make the bad beautiful. A shark grinning in the abyss or a loved one driving where we finally cannot follow arouses fear in equal measure when painted with such vivid depth.
For more film reviews, check out Pierce Nahigyan’s Article Archive