That latter sensation isn’t a mistake, of course. In fact, for all the Pixar images that couldn’t be achieved on a live film set (like, say, following a scurrying rat up a drainpipe), much of the animation remains rooted in traditional filmmaking techniques. WALL-E includes lens flares when the “camera” is pointed toward the sun, for example. And in the scene in which WALL-E is trampled by the runaway shopping carts the image goes out of focus ever so briefly, as if the result of a cameraman’s error while shooting a scene that’s too expensive to restage for a second take. Through these gimmicks, Pixar attempts to seduce us into regarding its action as “Real,” and I’d argue that these little tricks have a greater effect than most of us realize.
However, I agree with you that Pixar’s animation of human characters leaves much to be desired. Ratatouille has perhaps the most creatively rendered human cast, while WALL-E has the least inspired human characters. In WALL-E, I understand what Stanton was going for in making the lethargic passengers of the Axiom look similar to fleshy infants, but that doesn’t eliminate the letdown one feels when transitioning from the detail-rich robots-only opening. It’s as if the animation team tired themselves out working on WALL-E and phoned it in on the other characters. A similar sensation is delivered by this year’s Up, in which three gorgeously wrinkled older characters stand in stark contrast to a younger supporting cast with rounded edges like Weeble Wobbles. I don’t have much doubt that Pixar has the ability to create realistic human characters, but it hasn’t quite happened yet, for whatever reason.
EH: You pick out a lot of great scenes and details there. But while we’ve both been impressed by the realism Pixar often achieves in their most recent features, I do wonder if realism is even what animators should be aspiring to. You say you’ve “never confused old-school cel animation with live action,” and I certainly haven’t either, but is that really such a bad thing? Sure, there’s no mistaking a Disney feature or a Chuck Jones short for reality, but that’s because they’re interested in creating their own stylized cartoon realities, especially in Jones’ more out-there later cartoons like Now Hear This. Maybe it’s my interest in comics and cartooning that makes me feel this way, but I tend to think the best animation is not necessarily that which imitates reality. It’s the same thing in comics. Look at the way, say, Chris Ware, Jaime Hernandez and Kim Deitch draw people: None of them treat the human form in quite the same way, and even Hernandez, the most realistic of the three, is heavily stylized. Good cartooning conveys recognizable emotions and behaviors without actually mimicking reality itself, without trying to fool the eye into thinking it’s seeing a photograph. As animation gets closer and closer to live action, it loses its specifically cartoony virtues, and I think that’s something to mourn, even as I also gape at the meticulously rendered Paris of Ratatouille or the detailed dystopia of WALL-E.
So I’ll ask you, do you think realism is, in itself, a noble goal for animation to work towards? What’s so great about being realistic?
JB: Nothing in and of itself. But several Pixar films suffer from a sort of fashion clash when pseudo-realism shares the screen with those old cartoony virtues. In WALL-E, for example, that cigarette lighter looks like the genuine article while the Axiom’s captain has only slightly more detail and three-dimensionality than a Peanuts character. The result is a stylistic disconnect. One shot suggests actual reality, the other suggests cartoon fantasy. I don’t want to make it sound like these different approaches could never be part of the same film, but often Pixar creates certain expectations in one shot that it isn’t ready to live up to in the next. In fact, sometimes even individual shots clash. In Up, for instance, there’s a scene in which Carl Frederickson has a conversation with a construction foreman voiced by John Ratzenberger. Neither of these characters looks so “real” that these men could be mistaken for live actors, but Carl—whose light bulb nose and square jaw make his cartoon ancestry impossible to miss—possesses a 5 o’clock shadow so bristly that it looks as if it could scratch the screen. By comparison the foreman is a blank, an initial sketch still waiting to be filled in. One character inspires us to look closer, to take pleasure in every digital hair follicle. The other is better off regarded from a distance.
I don’t think Pixar should strive to increase the realism of its artistry from picture to picture, but I do think it benefits Pixar to remain consistently realistic (or not) within each movie. Visually speaking, The Incredibles and Ratatouille do a pretty good job of this. WALL-E and Up, less so. Though I don’t think there would be anything inherently wrong with striving for greater realism here and there, the last thing I want to do is lose the cartoon splendor of, say, the diminutive Chef Skinner and lanky Anton Ego. Ratatouille proves that cartoon virtues and photorealism can be cohesive parts of the same whole. At the same time, there are moments in the Pixar collection when it’s as if Charlie Brown has walked into a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd adventure. At issue isn’t really if one style is better than the other, just that the two styles don’t always match.
EH: Well said. There are ways to make the cartoon/realism dichotomy work—a lot of manga and anime set off cartoony characters against hyper-realistic backgrounds, as does Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin and Jeff Smith’s Bone—but I don’t think Pixar has managed to achieve this balance. The different styles at work in their films don’t seem like an attempt at creating contrast so much as a failure of inconsistency. These films have huge budgets and utilize state-of-the-art tech: we shouldn’t be seeing images that seem half-finished, as though the details haven’t been sketched in yet. After all, at their best these films display prodigious imagination and visual style, even in stretches that are otherwise lackluster: the second half of WALL-E gives the impression that the animators poured all their energy into the Axiom’s coldly beautiful interiors, often displayed with the patterned formalism of Richard McGuire, while the humans are, as you say, sketches.
Of course, when Pixar’s animators give a sequence or a setting their all, the results are jaw-dropping. We’ve already stressed how visually exciting Pixar’s animation can be at its peak, but probably the pinnacle of their visual splendor, for me, is the sequence in Ratatouille when Linguini takes Remy to the river to drown him. The young man rides his bicycle down the foggy streets of Paris, passing by a cathedral whose stained glass windows shine through the thin white haze, casting a diffuse rainbow glow into the air. It’s realistic, in one sense, but also almost too beautiful to be real. The whole sequence is ethereal and melancholy, and that one image stands out as possibly the loveliest Pixar has crafted to date. It’s especially affecting because it’s not just empty spectacle, but enhances the mood and emotions at the heart of the scene.
It’s because of scenes like this that Ratatouille, with its simple, formulaic storyline and its earnest emotional core, is the one Pixar film I can really get behind, at least as an example of the studio’s capacity for charming, well-crafted family entertainment. On the other hand, even this rather light film contains a faint echo of the Randian, anti-human Incredibles: Note that Linguini never does learn to cook, and instead eventually accepts his natural calling as a waiter. What’s striking about Pixar’s recent films (though I haven’t seen Up) is how little faith they really put in human accomplishment; beneath all the cutesy flourishes and gorgeous imagery, they’re very cynical films, especially for children’s fare. Ratatouille is about being driven to succeed, about doing what one is best at, but as in The Incredibles the film is really about one naturally gifted being and the mediocrities surrounding him. Talent is viewed as innate; Remy doesn’t even really need to work very hard to be a good chef, he just seems to know what to do because he has a superior sensibility. It’s merely a subdued undercurrent in this film, but it’s still troubling as an indication of Pixar’s larger ideas.
JB: Indeed, the moral messaging in Pixar films doesn’t always add up, which just goes to show how much Pixar assumes that audiences will identify with its main characters, coming away from The Incredibles and Ratatouille with the urge to be all that we can be and ignoring the suggestion that all that some of us can be is mediocre. In that way WALL-E is a little different. We might identify with WALL-E’s desire for companionship, but mostly the trash-compacting robot serves as an escort to view our future selves. He’s a mechanical Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and we are overweight, nature-killing Scrooges. The images of this future are haunting right out of the gate—those wind turbines, erected far too late, now buried in junk—and are bluntly critical of our current level of conservational (in)activity.
Some of WALL-E’s detractors suggested that this vision of the future is too bleak for a movie aimed at kids, but what that criticism ignores is how tame and non-threatening Pixar movies tend to be in terms of their presentations of villainy. Just look at their recent pictures: The Incredibles has Syndrome, who seems more misguided than dangerous, in part because we only see the results of his robot-based assassinations. Ratatouille has Chef Skinner and Anton Ego, who are mean more than monstrous. WALL-E has AUTO, just a spaceship mainframe trying to do its job. And Up has Charles Muntz, who is a brave hero turned silver-haired lunatic after years of exile. (Omitted from that list is Cars, in which the only “villain” is the hero McQueen when he doesn’t have his priorities straight.) All those aforementioned characters fill the “bad guy” role, and sometimes deservingly so. But in terms of evil and ferocity none of them match up with the Witch of Snow White, Cruella De Vil of 101 Dalmatians or Scar of The Lion King, just to hand-pick three cartoon baddies. Nor do Pixar movies revel in terrifying darkness as other cartoons do—Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty or (to go with a non-Disney movie) The Secret of NIMH.