By Todd VanDerWerff
Among the certainties in the world of film criticism—there will be a series of pieces bemoaning critics' inability to stop a terrible summer film from becoming a blockbuster; Armond White will often stake out a position in opposition to many of his fellow critics; movies about middle-aged men having their mid-life crises sorted out by women well out of their league will always receive mostly kind notices; etc.—there's one that stands above all others. Every year, Pixar will release a new film, and every year, it will garner exceedingly kind reviews, often competing to be the best-reviewed wide release of the year on review aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The reviews will contain some variation on the phrase, "Pixar does it again!" and champion the studio's ability to come up with children's films that also hold appeal for adults and tackle bigger themes than your usual computer-animated monstrosity. At the end of the year, said critics will often pen a few words about how Pixar can never get any love at the big races at the Oscars, even when their films win big critics prizes (as did Wall-E). And then the topic of Pixar as reliable geniuses, practitioners of a kind of ruddily American innovation, will be put back in the box until it is dragged out all over again the next time a Pixar film is released, to be repeated with much the same series of beats.
I would find it hard to disagree that Pixar is the best and most consistent creator of traditional narrative film within the Hollywood system, and, indeed, they've produced many of my favorite films of the decade. They have ten films at this point, and all ten of those films have their virtues, with at least five or six of them having such virtues as to be genuinely worthy of far deeper critical discussion than they usually receive. At least one would number among my favorite films of all time (The Incredibles). Even something like Cars, which has its problems when examined as a typical three-act, Hollywood narrative (the mid-section sags), is more interesting from a thematic point of view. What it's saying is something that's been stated time and again, but it's rare for a computer-animated film to express such a weird nostalgia for outdated technologies and things that have gone on before. Pixar's dedication to the old ways of movie storytelling, to the idea that things used to be better when story went before all else, dammit, provides such a weirdly compatible partner for its cutting-edge technological feats that both halves of the equation strike an odd tone of harmony.
Among modern movie magnates, Pixar and Clint Eastwood seem to stand alone for getting critical credit for their deliberate embrace of old-fashioned Hollywood techniques and tropes. Pixar movies, while innovative on a visual level, are definitely throwbacks on a storytelling level. Unlike Eastwood, who deliberately seeks out material that has a classical Hollywood feel to it, Pixar is also structured much like a studio would have been in the '30s and '40s. Like most animation studios, the production staff at Pixar is much closer to the way a production staff on a television show might work, with a large variety of voices contributing a variety of notions to the finalized product. While it's easy to tell a Brad Bird film from an Andrew Stanton film at the directorial level, both are still readily recognizable as Pixar products in a way that a Warner Brothers film is not necessarily recognizable as a Warner Brothers film. Pixar reignites that old debate over whether or not a director, screenwriter, producer or studio is most responsible for a film's content and argues indirectly for the idea that a studio can be an author, that a group of people working together can forge something approximating a thematic identity. Oddly enough, for a studio that so often embraces stories about individuals working alone to change the world, Pixar's films almost always provide occasional glimpses of an individual voice but then speak up more forcefully, in the end, for the collective. But where other studios might be trapped up by ego in this process, Pixar uses it to turn all of its films into at least solid pieces of craftsmanship, if not miniature masterpieces.
What's even more interesting is that Pixar has a decided thematic throughline to its films. Though multiple themes are present in the films, three have risen to dominate the nine productions released so far, even going so far as to create a neat evolution of the Pixar thematic ideal. For its first five films (save the intriguingly different Bug's Life, which I'll examine in more depth in a bit), the studio made films about the relationships between young children and their parents and the way those relationships shifted, changed and warped as children aged. For its next four films, the studio made films about how individuals do or don't fit within their communities and the ways that communities struggle to encompass the exceptional individuals who pop up within them. And now, with Up and leaked plot details from Toy Story 3 as evidence, the studio is overwhelmingly concerned with mortality.
What's even more interesting is how these themes intertwine most thoroughly in studio creative chief John Lasseter films, while Stanton's films close out each rough "section" of Pixar's filmography with the ultimate statement of that particular theme. Pete Docter's Up, meanwhile, is almost a refutation of the four films that precede it (its villain could have easily been the hero of any of those four films), while it seems unlikely that Brad Bird—who's uniquely obsessed with the ways society ostracizes individuals—could have made a film as good as The Incredibles or Ratatouille at any other point in the studio's history. What's even more interesting is how these four men, who comprise Pixar's main creative "brain trust," have somehow meshed together to create a unified authorial voice for the studio that rarely seems in conflict with itself.
Pixar's first film, Lasseter's Toy Story, is the earliest expression of all of these themes. Sheriff Woody is the laid-back cowboy archetype of a leader of a small community of toys, always ready to figure out how best to serve the other toys in his community. He's also the beloved plaything of a young boy named Andy, and he feels an almost fiercely paternal love for the boy, even as he understands that his relationship with Andy necessarily gives Andy all of the power. And lurking at the back of his mind (though not so acutely as it will in Toy Story 2) is the idea that he will eventually be replaced in Andy's heart by something.
In Toy Story, that something is the outsider the community struggles to incorporate, Buzz Lightyear, a confidently swaggering archetype of his own, who arrives to adulation from the other toys and the disruption of Woody's normal routine. Fittingly, the movie's other major narrative arc has Buzz accepting, thematically, that he will die. He is not an almighty space ranger. He is merely a toy. And while his plastic will not literally decay, his usefulness to the boy who owns him will. In its first film and simplest narrative structure (really, the film is essentially a classic buddy film), Pixar is already laying out everything it will be obsessed by. (Even more interesting is how the short in the studio's filmography that most resembles Toy Story—Tin Toy—finds children a source of horror more than gentle, paternal affection, perhaps a sign that it comes from a bunch of men who have not yet had children themselves.)
A Bug's Life, directed by Lasseter and Stanton, is the least thematically pure film in the Pixar canon. It incorporates other old Hollywood tropes—like the idea of the country boy going to the city and finding great adventure—and never quite subsumes them into the studio's formula in the way other films in its filmography did. That makes it pleasantly iconoclastic viewing when watched in, say, a Pixar marathon, but it stands out as being the only film among the studio's first five that is not dominated by parental fears of a child moving past them that give way to gradual acceptance. The ants in A Bug's Life have lifespans so short that they essentially have to accept that they will, inevitably, be replaced. Their main goal is to work to build a better community, to protect it from the greedy grasshoppers, who think only of self and take whatever they want. (We'll have other pieces about Pixar's politics later in the week, but it's striking how A Bug's Life also lays out the studio's political views so handily—there's a kneejerk liberalism there, but also a creeping dread that all of the good liberals do in trying to build a community can be easily undone by freeloaders.) More than any other film, A Bug's Life defies easy categorization into the categories I'm laying out here.
Not so Toy Story 2, which takes everything Toy Story was obsessed with and heightens it. Directed by Lasseter, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich, the film pounds into Woody the notion that he is a toy, with a shelf life, that he will inevitably outlive his usefulness and have to watch his surrogate son lose any interest whatsoever in him as the son necessarily grows up and moves on. The film is not about finding a way for Woody to preserve the feeling of being a loved and special toy forever (as the original Toy Story treatment, available on the DVD, was), but, instead, about him learning to accept that he will both lose his son and metaphorically die. The film's notions of community are less pronounced than they were in Toy Story, but they're present, especially as the ad hoc community undertakes a rescue mission to free Woody from a toy collector.
Monsters, Inc., directed by Docter, David Silverman and Unkrich, is the first film in Pixar's canon to make explicit notions of parent-child love and concern. While most of the praise for the film stems from its ability to invent a wholly separate world that runs parallel to our own and intersects with it at key points (namely, children's bedroom closet doors), it deserves equal consideration for how it turns a surrogate parent-child relationship into one that feels like a real one by the end. Despite the fact that young Boo spends what seems like several days in Monstropolis, we never get any indication that her parents in our world are terribly concerned about her disappearance. Instead, big, blue, furry Sully is the one who gets to experience the realization that the proper place for children is in a position where they are guided by their parents but eventually grow apart from them, as he eventually must do the right thing and place Boo back in her proper place. Monsters, Inc., doesn't have much in the way of mortality concerns on its mind, though it does have occasional thoughts on community, namely because the one at its center is dying, needing to find a new way to beat an energy crisis. The dominant theme for the first time is that of parents realizing their children will outgrow and even replace them.
If Docter, Silverman and Unkrich were the first to let that theme dominate a film, by the time Stanton and Unkrich's Finding Nemo came around in 2003, their playing up of that theme and Toy Story 2's subtle raising the volume on that theme had come to make it seem like Pixar could only make films about how parents don't want to see their children go but realize they must. Finding Nemo, about a lonely clownfish with just one son who embarks on a voyage throughout the entirety of the ocean to find him when he is snatched by an aquarium collector, is a lovely farewell to that theme, both playing it up to a point that no prior Pixar film had and finding a way to gradually lay it to rest. When the film begins, Nemo, with his one fin smaller than the other, is solely the responsibility of his father. When it ends, he is the responsibility of an entire community of friendly fish, an ad hoc family, and while that family's presence does not lessen Nemo's father's pain at the fact that his son will recede from him, growing murkier the further he pulls away (the film's lovely final image), it certainly helps him realize that he has a place within the world other than "father."
Pixar would evolve to find more interest in those themes of communities and individuals' places within them in its next four films, starting with 2004's The Incredibles. That film would also bring the studio its first arguable auteur in Bird, whose favorite themes nicely coincided with Pixar's new bent. Bird was responsible for the best non-Pixar, non-Disney American animated film of the '90s (and arguably THE best animated film of the '90s), The Iron Giant, but that film's gentle liberalism and send up of Cold War paranoia didn't really prepare audiences for the weird liberal elitism Bird's two Pixar films espouse (a philosophy that would earn him comparisons in pieces to everyone from Ayn Rand to fascists).
While I appreciate that this theme pops up in both of Bird's films, Bird's films are also uniquely obsessed with how communities combine lots of talented individuals in a system that creates something bigger than all of themselves—a metaphor for filmmaking, most likely. It's also not solely unique to a film like The Incredibles—where Bird's fretting that attempting to make everyone feel exceptional would sand the edges off the truly exceptional somehow became picked up by conservative commentators as a bludgeoning bat against the long-dead corpse of political correctness. The Incredibles is interested in family issues, yes, but they're more the issues of parents with children who are growing older and firmly asserting themselves as independent individuals. What it and Pixar are most interested in at this point is the idea that communities need to be built up and nurtured, yes, but not at the expense of the individual.
By forcing superheroes underground, the world of The Incredibles also forced them into unexceptional lives where they were of less use than they would have been more fully expressing their talents. Bird's films are messily personal (one always gets the sense that he feels like a misunderstood genius), which makes them the most fascinating Pixar films to dissect, but The Incredibles and Ratatouille are of a piece with the films Pixar was making at that time. If either film is elitist or fascist or Randian, it's not because Bird is any of those things but because the studio itself had taken a turn in that direction at the time, perhaps indeed believing itself to be truly exceptional when compared to Hollywood morass at some subconsciously collective level.
Of the major Pixar creative voices, it's Lasseter who's always been the most interested in old-time American iconography, the traditionalism that gives Pixar the base it neatly skews with its highly technological filmmaking style. He and the late Joe Ranft created Cars next, the film in Pixar's canon that has easily the least support. What's interesting about the film is how it inverts the themes of the other three films of this period of Pixar's filmography. Lightning McQueen is an exceptional racecar, yes, much, much better at racing than everyone else around him, but he has much to benefit from listening to everyone else he meets in the tiny town of Radiator Springs, even learning lessons about how to be a better racer from them. Cars remains a pretty weird film on a conceptual level—while it's obviously a piece of highly personal filmmaking, it also occasionally feels like one of those '80s animated shows designed to sell toys—but where Bird's films and Stanton's Wall-E elevate the individual at the expense of the community, Lasseter's portrayal of the death of Radiator Springs suggests that there should be a limit to this sort of thing, that the community should come first in some instances. Weirdly, the film in Pixar's filmography it most resembles is A Bug's Life.
Pixar's next film was to be the directorial debut of short director Jan Pinkava, a film about a rat who learns to cook with a highly comic tone. When the film was determined to not be working, it was handed over to Bird, who played up the extreme physical comedy of the concept (which involves the rat master chef literally turning another chef into his puppet) and the weird ickiness of seeing a rat in a kitchen into what may be Pixar's most highly personal film. He also ramped up the inherent elitism of the concept. The kitchen is a community, yes (as outlined in a lovely scene where the ghost of a dead master chef shows rat chef Remy that everyone has a place in the kitchen and should not be looked down on), but it's a community designed to serve the head chef's vision. The idea here is that when someone comes along with a certain degree of talent, it's necessarily good to help them achieve that talent if your job runs parallel to theirs. (It's not just Linguine who becomes a puppet here. The film's one major female character, Colette, throws aside all of her own ambitions to be alongside Linguine and, eventually, to serve Remy, the film's single biggest flaw.)
While this is necessarily the case on a film set (and it's worth pointing out that Bird's prickly, individualistic voice may have been reacting somewhat to the collaborative voice of the Pixar studio system), it's not really the best way to run a society. The central debate over Bird's two Pixar films (which, again, there will be more of in the week to come) is over whether he literally believes this is the way society should be run or whether he just worries that placing too much of an emphasis on the community shuts down individual voices. The Iron Giant suggests that Bird has an old-school liberalism that believes in communal values, but his Pixar work suggests it's not as set in stone as even he might like.
On the other hand, maybe Bird was just picking up on something in the water at Pixar at that time because the following film, Stanton's Wall-E, easily the most acclaimed Pixar film, is all about two exceptional individuals who literally remake the world around them into the image they want it to be. Much has been written about the lyrical loneliness of the film's opening 45 minutes, when the almost impossibly cute robot Wall-E courts the sleekly efficient EVE throughout a post-apocalyptic Earth that has fallen into environmental catastrophe. Again here, classically liberal notions of protecting the community—here, expressed through surprisingly biting satire as an environment fallen into disrepair because greedy humans took and took and took and didn't think about the consequences of their actions—eventually turn into a story about how the ways communities fix themselves and work best is when they get behind the leadership of a great leader. Wall-E is not the genius talent of Bird's films. He's just a likable guy who wants to do the right thing, but in a selfish, infantilized world, that becomes nearly an act of revolution, as he eventually leads back a big baby humanity to reclaim the world it abandoned. Wall-E, being about robots and all, is positively full of scenes where first the robots, then the humans, throw off the programming that society puts on them to express their individual spirit, but the film ends with the humans trading in one kind of programming for another, and it's not immediately clear Stanton sees the cynicism in that.
Docter was less involved in Pixar's mid-period films than the other three members of the studio's brain trust. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that he would usher in what appears to be another period for the studio with Up, released earlier this year and co-directed with Bob Peterson. Up takes perhaps the predicted thematic route for a bunch of men who started out as young and suspicious of domesticity, moved into considering their roles as fathers and then began to consider their roles as leaders within their community: Now, they're taking time to think about death. (Toy Story 3, which is all about what happens when Andy goes off to college, seems likely to continue this theme from what little we know of it.) Up takes as its protagonist a very normal, average old man, who's spent his whole life with a little girl he met when he was 9 and now finds himself facing the end of a lonely life without her. While there are community themes here—the hero, Carl, eventually becomes an active part of his neighborhood by becoming involved in the life of Eagle Scout Russell—the predominant one is that of looking back at life and seeing what good it was, what you did to make other people's lives better. Perhaps interestingly, the villain here is an elitist—an explorer who retreats from society when they fail to recognize him as the great, shining example of humanity he believes himself to be—and he's defeated by a very common man. This is, in essence, the previous four Pixar films flipped on their ears.
I don't necessarily think that this overview of these films suggests the studio had a grand, master plan. Nor do I think that some of the criticisms of Pixar's themes—particularly its community themes—are all that accurate (something I hope to wrestle with another writer over later on in the week), but I think detecting the presence of this evolution of thematic intent in the work of the studio (even if this piece oversimplifies some of this to a degree and even if I'm still not sure how to plug A Bug's Life into this whole schematic) allows a starting point to begin to consider the studio's output more critically. In the days to come, other writers will look at the roles of things like religion or politics in the studio's films, while still others will dissect some of the films in detail. Most of us love Pixar (including myself), but we have a few skeptics who are going to present their concerns. Regardless of how you feel about the studio, I'll hope you'll stick around and share your thoughts in comments. Pixar's place in the American film scene is so singular at this point that I'm kind of surprised there hasn't been more close critical examination of who and what they are. In the week to come, we'll try to right that balance.
An addendum: We have a week full of provocative pieces (as described above), but it's not too late to get in on the action. I'd particularly like people who'd want to dissect one of the studio's shorts, as that's something we're a little, uh, short on. So if you'd be interested in writing about Pixar in the next few days, please e-mail me at email@example.com Thanks!
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The AV Club.
Pixar Week will run Oct. 4-10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.