Sunday, February 20, 2011

HAS PIXAR LOST ITS TOUCH?

The author of this week’s guest post is author illustrator, animator and interactive designer, John Lechner.  See his work at johnlechner.com

HAS PIXAR LOST ITS TOUCH?
 

Toy Story 3 was the highest-grossing film of 2010, showered with praise from audiences and critics alike. It would seem that Pixar is on a roll and can do no wrong. However, in my view, the scriptwriting from Pixar over the last five years has been uneven at best, formulaic at worst, and not nearly up to the high standards they set for themselves many years ago.
 
I still remember when the first Toy Story came out, the first animated feature to use computer-generated, three-dimensional characters. No one had seen anything like it before, animated films had always been drawn by hand, frame by frame. Audiences approached cautiously, but Pixar knocked it out of the park. The film had beautiful art direction, great characters, a breezy and clever script, and even packed an emotional punch. John Lasseter, the visionary animator and director behind Pixar, had an uncanny knack for knowing what looks good in computer animation, combined with a natural talent for telling a good story on screen. Critics declared traditional animation to be a thing of the past. But it wasn’t the astounding graphics that made audiences stand up and cheer, it was the great writing.
 
Lasseter always said that Pixar puts story above all else, and it showed in their subsequent films. A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, and Monsters, Inc. all featured great characters and a tasty blend of comedy, action, and heartwarming moments. I think Pixar reached its apex with the films Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.
    
In Finding Nemo, several stories were woven skillfully together, touching on some pretty serious themes of parent-child relationships and growing up. Yet there was very little preaching or explaining, all of the drama and humor came from the characters and their watery surroundings. The movie was also filled with clever details and observations that further enriched the story. 


The Incredibles was a different kind of film, the first one for Pixar where humans were the central characters. It was a superhero film brimming with action, suspense, imagination, and heart. And central to the plot were the characters, all of whom learned to  work together and accept themselves for who they were. Mixed in with the story were dozens of witty send-ups of the superhero genre, turning the conventions upside down while saluting them.
 
Cars was another very different story. The subject matter didn’t lend itself to the kind of fanciful creatures of Nemo or the hair-splitting action of The Incredibles, and audiences didn’t quite fall in love as much as the previous films. Still, it was a solid, character-based story about a boastful race car who learns a few lessons along the way to the finish line.
 
Then came Ratatouille, which I think is where Pixar began to stumble. While I enjoyed the breathtaking animation and humor, I never felt like I really knew the characters. The boy Linguini, the chef Skinner, the girlfriend Colette all seemed manipulated by the plot, rather than driving it themselves. I found myself not caring as much as I did in previous films.
  
Wall-E was yet another genre switch, the story of a lowly robot whose job it is to clean up a trashed future earth. The film received critical acclaim, and the first section, basically wordless, was a masterpiece of visual storytelling. The second half of the film fell into disarray, I wasn’t sure whose story it was or what lesson was being taught, despite (or perhaps because of) the heart-stopping action.
 

Up was another critically hailed film, the beginning of which was a masterful piece of cinematic storytelling, depicting a man growing up and getting married. The liftoff of the house was thrilling, but then the story seemed to lose its way. We were meant to see the growing bond between the man and the boy as they learned about themselves, but most of that business was done through explanation — characters telling, not showing — and seemed disconnected from the action of the film.                                 
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “But I loved Up, it was funny and exciting and made me cry.” That may be the case, but a film can be all those things without being very well written. Pixar does many things well, including sight gags, chase scenes, and pulling the heartstrings. But a masterful script, the kind seen in earlier Pixar films, does all of this while building character and reaching a higher, almost poetic level of storytelling. 
 
Which brings us to Toy Story 3. Here is a film that has action, comedy, emotion – all the ingredients of a classic film, everything audiences love. But unlike previous Toy Story films, the pieces don’t quite fit together, the characters seem to be going through the motions. It is a plot-driven film, where the primary objective is to get from point A to point B while avoiding the dangers conveniently placed in between. Motivation is explained by the characters, it didn’t evolve naturally through the story.
 
Michael Sporn wrote a critical review of the film, citing its reliance on relentless action and chase scenes. These kind of scenes, where characters narrowly escape one peril after another, are fun to watch — but they should not take over the film. And the ominous final chase through the landfill and incinerator, ending in a most bizarre and arbitrary way, didn’t have the clever inventiveness of previous Toy Story climaxes. It was a straight-ahead action scene which ended with the characters basically giving up. That’s not the Woody and Buzz that I know.

 
I won’t deny the emotional pull of the film, as Andy grows up and the toys move on. But I believe the emotional weight came not from the writing, which I thought relied too heavily on characters explaining themselves and quoting truisms, but because we had lived through two other films with these characters, and knew them like our own family. It didn’t take but a little tug to open the waterworks and make audiences feel the pangs of goodbye.
 
I had other issues with this film as well, like the character of Lotso who was never quite as interesting as he needed to be, and the motivation of the bad toys. I’m not saying that Toy Story 3 was a poor film, I think it was a good film. But it was the latest in a trend I see at Pixar where inventiveness is giving way to formula.      


Of course, when your film makes more money than any other film that year, I imagine you would want to keep doing what you’re doing. A flawed Pixar film is still better than most of what passes for family entertainment. But Pixar is smarter than that, and they know that too much reliance on tried and true devices is what led Disney to stumble, as they churned out what audiences wanted until they didn’t want it anymore.     

This year at the Oscars, Toy Story 3 was nominated not only for Best Animated Feature, but Best Song, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. Whether the film wins or loses any of these categories, it is already a winner in the hearts of millions of film goers, another feather in Pixar’s cap. But I hope success doesn’t spoil this great studio, and make them lose sight of their storytelling roots. They can do better than that, and their audience deserves better.

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3 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I did love Ratatouille but my kids didn't like it as much as the others. I haven't watched Toy Story 3 yet, but I didn't care for Wall-e. I felt like the movie had switched over to a very heavy handed message, which is unlike Pixar.

Corey said...

Great article, overall I agree with the idea that PIXAR is not as great as it once was, when it was just a small studio with a handful of really passionate, hungry artist with great stories to tell. Now they have tons of investors & shareholders to please, which for me explains Cars 2. In fact, the day I really felt like they lost their way was when they announced opening up their satellite studio here in Vancouver. From every interview, podcast & books I've read/heard, opening up a secondary studio for cheaper labor sounds very un-PIXAR indeed.
I hadn't thought much about the ending in TS3, where you mention that the heros pretty much give up and await death, and thats not the heros that we saw in the previous 2 films. I would agree, but given the overall themes of death, becoming unwanted, having nobody love you, etc. I still feel like those 'final' moments with the heros are totally warrented. Granted, the gang wouldnt have 'given up' so quickly in the previous 2 films, but thats because we werent seeing the final chapter in those characters lives just yet. For me it didnt feel like Woody was giving up, he and the others were simply accepting the inevitable and kind of bitter-sweetly acknowledging that their time was up.
Anyways, amazing article, thanks for posting it!

Nora Lumiere said...

LAURA: I couldn't agree more about Wall-E: ugly, pretentious and pedantic.

COREY: What usually derails animated film-makers in Hollywood is targeting the 12-year-old boy demographic: lots of action & explosions. Pixar has a wider audience and we expect more subtlety and charm.