Monday, July 6, 2009

Onwards and Upwards: The Evolution of Pixar

The struggles of being an artist. A critique on society's treatment of the environment. A meditation on love and old age. These subjects were once the domain of serious art films, but now have become the subjects of the last three Pixar films. The other films this summer, supposedly geared towards adults, are about superheroes and fighting robots. Movies based on toys, as opposed to movies that may eventually inspire toys.

This summer sure has felt long and uninspired, particularly considering what Hollywood has had to offer. So, since there have been few, if any, traditional summer movies to see, some of you may be thinking of revisiting “Up”. Or some of you may be seeing it for the first time. No matter what, it is worth it.

“Up” is the story of Carl Fredricksen, who at 78 years of age and after the passing of his wife, decides to float his house to South America with thousands of balloons along with a stowaway, a Boy Scout named Russell. When I read this summary, the first thing that comes to mind is how little Pixar seems to pander and second guess what an audience expects from them. They could have easily made a fortune churning out movies about wisecracking animals with celebrity voices. What always makes me look forward to Pixar films is the trust on their part that their audience is craving an involving story, often containing some of the most poetic visuals put onscreen the last decade or so. One can actually see the progression of Pixar from creating children's entertainment to movies that connect with the parents who happen to be sitting in the theater with their kids.

The earlier Pixar films, such as “Toy Story”, “A Bug's Life”, “Toy Story 2”, and “Monsters Inc.” often centered around around friendship and camaraderie in everyday life and even in the workplace, whether it be toys in a kid's room, an ant colony or monsters at a power plant powered by children's screams. Plus, there was always a basic message of tolerance present in all those films. The original “Toy Story” centered around Woody the Cowboy's acceptance of the flashier Buzz Lightyear figure. “A Bug's Life” was about how the grasshoppers unfairly persecuted the defenseless ants. “Monsters Inc.” allowed monsters and human beings to come together out of joy, as opposed to fear.

This is certainly not meant to diminish the subject matters of those wonderful movies. Though one can say that these messages were not unique in animated films released before them, they were handled quite effectively in those earlier Pixar films. The next two films “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” were about Pixar tackling the issue of family for the first time. “Nemo” centers around a father searching the sea for his only son and “The Incredibles” deals with the travails of a superhero family.

In those films, you can see Pixar inching closer to more mature subject matter, while still aware that a movie with talking fish and a comic book movie (though not based on one) would still not alienate the young audiences out there. “The Incredibles”, in particular, begins to lay the groundwork for the proceeding films. Not satisfied with indulging in superhero cliches (the norm for about 80% of comic book movies today), the movie reveals itself to be more concerned about the mediocrity of the world today and how it is often embraced by the majority of people. Yes, this idea may be considered elitist by some people out there. However, some of us do not subscribe to the notion that gifted and talented people should be marginalized to make others feel better about their own shortcomings. Many of us voted for the winning ticket in the last presidential election and probably dodged the bullet of power-hungry mediocrity (not unlike “The Incredibles” villain Syndrome) in the process.

One does wonder how much Brad Bird contributed to this change at Pixar, as he is the closest to being considered an auteur from their stable of directors. “The Iron Giant” was one of the few 2D animated films I ever bothered to see, since the Disney animated boom from the late 80's to the late 90's never did much for me. Bird's earlier film didn't fit the mold of the animated film during that time, which often broke every 10 or 15 minutes for bad Broadway show tunes.

Much like the earlier Pixar films, “The Iron Giant” centered around friendship and tolerance. However, the movie went beyond metaphor and employed human beings as characters, something Pixar would not do until Bird's “The Incredibles”. The humans in “Giant” consisted of a fear-mongering government agent (who manages to fuck things up royally at the end and nearly causes a town to be wiped out with a nuclear bomb) and, to counter the agent, the beatnik artist who eventually gets a giant robot interested in being an artist himself. Brad Bird could not hide his political leanings if he tried, but “The Iron Giant” is a great film that was ignored by audiences who were probably not ready to confront such troubling suggestions in their animated films. I do vaguely remember some right-wing writers complaining about the movie's anti-nuclear weapon stance, as if recklessly blowing countries to bits with weapons of mass destruction was a more appropriate message to send to children.

Admittedly, I never saw “Cars”, so I will leave that one out of the discussion. The premise of talking cars is about as appealing to me as fighting robots. And a movie centered around car racing at a NASCAR-like event is probably never going to pique my interest. So, I will move on to the three movies that I feel represent Pixar's maturity, their full acceptance that animation need not shy away from the subject matter that other great filmmakers aren't afraid to tackle.

“Ratatouille” belongs in the genre of movies about artists who want to express themselves, which is usually a genre that brings out a filmmaker's self-aggrandizing side. That the movie centers about a rat named Remy who has the gift of being a great chef is a refreshing change from the usual womanizing painters and alcoholic writers that usually populate the over-romanticized artist genre.

Brad Bird understands the drive and commitment it takes to be an artist. However, he doesn't mythologize the process. Remy uses a garbage boy as a puppet to do his cooking and becomes a bit arrogant and difficult when he isn't receiving the proper accolades due to being a rodent in everyone else's eyes. Remy never gives up on his dreams to simply fulfill the usual narrative of an underdog who finally gets his due. Considering the rat's artistic temperament, I believed he would find some other means to achieve his dreams if the resolution didn't work out his way.

Watching “Ratatouille” in the theater, I became well aware of how the adults responded to the movie, while, admittedly, some of the ideas were sailing right over their kids' heads. Movies about dreamers can inspire children, but Remy was clearly a rat with life experience, though restricted to living the status quo with his family and friends in the rat commune. His dreams were not as much about him fulfilling ambitions he had in his childhood but more about not wanting to see his life pass him by.

The sophistication of “Ratatouille” becomes more evident when the character of food critic Anton Ego is introduced. Feared for his scathing reviews, Ego reveals that even critics can have passions after he tastes Remy's cooking causing him to flashback to his childhood and then discovers a rat was the cook that transported him to that moment. Revealing the humanity of a critic (a character type often targeted for obvious ridicule in most films) as well as the artist he reviews demonstrates a surprising willingness on Bird's and Pixar's part to suggest that there is nothing wrong with having discerning tastes. Those who strive to make the best food, as well as those who want to discover it, are all searching for something of quality and passion, as opposed to being satisfied with the junk that is regularly spoon-fed to us for short-term satisfaction.

This theme reappears somewhat during the second half of “Wall-E”. While the first half mostly establishes a robot love story between Wall-E and Eve on a deserted Earth, the rest of the movie demonstrates what happens to society when its standards are lowered significantly. Centuries before, the inhabitants of Earth had contributed to its destruction by polluting the environment with the help of corporation/government Buy-N-Large. Portrayed as flesh and blood humans in advertisements and videos from that time, they have since evolved into overweight cartoon versions of themselves.

“Wall-E” is quite devastating in its satire. Much like “Ratatouille”, it is quite comfortable aiming a good deal of its themes at adults rather than children. When I first saw “Wall-E”, my jaw almost hit the floor from the movie's almost Oliver Stone-like muckraking about how corporations and government conspire to keep us apathetic as they carelessly destroy the world for profit. Though it comes across as more subtle than any Stone film by deftly telling us this story visually and avoiding dialogue during long stretches, often the sign of a filmmaker who trusts the audience to grasp his ideas.

Even the supposedly lighter first half of the movie I can imagine scares some children with a view of Earth that is as much of a downer as the worlds depicted in such movies as “The Road Warrior”, “A.I.”, “I Am Legend” and the upcoming film version of Cormac McCarthy's “The Road”. “Wall-E” marks the first time I felt a non-Brad Bird Pixar film had significantly evolved in its filmmaking and storytelling. Directed by Andrew Stanton, who did the somewhat safe-by-comparison “Finding Nemo”, this is an animated movie almost willing to invite derision from some quarters regarding its political and social messages.

Despite the Bush years producing more politically-engaged films, most of them functioned more as humorless polemics. You pretty much knew you were walking into a movie that was going to preach to you. I have always appreciated a film that chooses to balance its message with entertainment value. I could not imagine any Hollywood film outside of the Pixar universe willing to walk that tightrope, which is why we often have empty-headed blockbusters and self-important prestige films, but little in between. “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E” show that Pixar chooses not to insult the audience by second-guessing and neutering their visions out of fear that the moviegoing public (particularly children) will not get it.

“Up”, directed by Pete Docter who also directed "Monsters Inc.", continues Pixar's progression by committing the Hollywood crime of making an elderly man the central character of the film. You would be hard-pressed to remember the last time you saw a film when the main character was this old. Often, older characters are used for cheap laughs or to dispense half-baked wisdom. Much has been said of the movie's devastating opening 10-15 minutes which tells the love story between Carl and his wife Ellie from meeting as children until her death. A significant portion of this mini-movie is told through a silent montage with musical accompaniment and does not shy away from the bad breaks in life and the compromises most of us have to make to get by on a daily basis.

As “Wall-E” dealt with our planet's mortality, “Up” becomes about our own mortality. Though death has been acknowledged, mostly off-screen in animated movies over time, none of them have had death lurking in its narrative throughout its entire running time. The death of Ellie at the beginning is already a heavy blow, since we are immediately introduced to her as a spirited child in the opening scenes. From the moment she's gone, you know very well that Carl senses that he probably won't be around himself much longer and that he is biding time until his time comes. When Carl is about to lose his home and is ordered by the court to be sent to a retirement facility, he chooses to go on the South American adventure that he and his wife had long dreamed of having, but couldn't because life got in the way. For Carl to do this, he flies his house with thousands of balloons, often lugging it behind him in an admittedly obvious, but still effective metaphor for his mourning.

There are aspects of “Up” that threaten to turn this film into earlier Pixar efforts, such as the pudgy 8-year old sidekick Russell and the “talking” dogs, but these concepts never veer into the cute and clever like most animated films would. Russell, while providing comic relief, is also a rather sad kid whose father clearly is never going to be around for him. The talking dogs only speak due to special collars that interpret their thoughts into words, though they still cannot help but act like real dogs. Even the villain Charles Muntz is not the often moderately threatening antagonist in animated films, but a truly psychotic individual.

“Up” builds on the themes of recent Pixar movies, which have been about making the most of your gifts, making the most of this planet and, especially, making the most of your life. Although I have been suggesting all along that these themes demonstrate Pixar's maturity, they also are quite effective in delivering a positive message to children while not shying away from the cold hard truths in life. That's something quite rare in animated movies today, as well as most mainstream live-action movies which detach themselves completely from the reality of our worlds out of fear that the audience wants little more than escape at the movies. I have long grown tired of films with little on their mind choosing to talk down to me.

Strangely enough, as often as I skip many blockbusters while making sure to catch every Pixar film, I know many who reject the idea that an animated film can be taken as seriously as a live action film. Pixar makes films that deftly mix social commentary and ruminations about our lives while not forgetting that movies can be entertainment. From my vantage point, that accomplishes more than the majority of films released in any given year in the last decade.


Brandon said...

Great post! Pixar is the most consistent studio out there and this is a great exploration of their constantly maturing themes. Interestingly, their technical prowess also matures with each film. I love Pixar and all of their movies are amongst my favorites. That includes Cars! I see so many people write it off as undeserving of being in the Pixar canon and many people like you have never even seen it! While its surface does seem rather juvenile (and I loathe NASCAR), there are deeper themes and punches lurking beneath. While it's not my favorite Pixar film by far, it definitely belongs amongst their other efforts. The movie deals with how (sub)urbanization, the interstate system, and corporatization ruined small town America. The movie really takes the stance that in doing so it ruined the American soul. It also deals with classism and is filled with little in-jokes that relate to the car theme (like voice cameos by the NPR Car Talk guys). I urge you to give Cars a chance.

Steven Santos said...

I will eventually see "Cars" so I can be a Pixar completist (plus it is Paul Newman's last work in film). I will definitely keep what you said in mind when I do get to it.