I don’t think the people at Pixar are capable of making a bad movie—though Cars veered dangerously close to the line—but there are the Pixar movies you like and the ones you fall in love with. And for me, the best are the ones that shake off the constraints of the natural world, like a dog drying off after a dip.
Take WALL-E—at least, up to what my husband calls the Titanic portion of the movie. Until the two little love-bots start running around the space station, calling out each other’s names for what feels like forever, the premise is ingenious, funny, and poignant all at once. It’s also exaggerated just enough to make you think about the growing gap between nature and the American way of life without getting preachy or self-righteous. The setup on the space station is interesting too, until it degenerates into a standard chase scene/showdown, but the great parts of this movie are the huge chunks that need no dialogue at all, just music and sound effects and the occasional coo or cry or clip from WALL-E’s favorite movie, Hello Dolly. The first half hour or so is the best part, a wordless ballet of motion, music, and sound effects. It’s weird and wonderful, instantly recognizable yet strange, like a dream so intense it wakes you up. (This is the kind of movie Max Fleischer would have made if they’d had CGI in his day.)
So are Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, and pretty much all of Pixar’s shorts (Netflix rents a DVD that holds about a dozen). These great Pixar movies are all set in dada worlds that operate by their own rubbery rules. In these worlds, the monsters that kids see in their closets at night are real—and more scared of the kids than the kids are of them. A babysitter faced with a spontaneously combusting toddler winds up with her chin in one hand and a fire extinguisher in the other, spritzing the baby periodically while looking bored as only a teenage girl can look. (Jack Jack Attack) A young alien hovering above Earth in his spaceship practices his abduction technique—badly—on a human teenager who’s so deeply asleep that he never wakes up, though the alien kid flings him around like a pinball, destroying his house in the process. (“Lifted”) And a little plastic snowman working to bust out of his snow globe comes off like the bastard son of Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx, radiating hapless intensity while producing a series of increasingly outlandish tools (a hammer? A jackhammer?? A bundle of TNT???) from who knows where. (Knick Knack)
The not-so-great Pixar movies start with much less original premises. Think Ratatouille, very good but not great, right? And what’s it about? Two odd-couple losers pair up and show all the naysayers that they’re winners after all. Or Finding Nemo, the sweet but predictable story of a youngster who learns independence while his overprotective dad learns to let go. Or, worst of all, Cars, that big wet kiss John Lasseter and crew blew to faux authenticity. Every character and relationship in that movie is a cliché, from the postcard-picturesque gas stations and tourist traps of Route 66 to the “homespun” humor of Larry the Cable Guy.
But even when the story and characters are stale, Pixar can make them palatable. Pixar movies are beautiful to look at, with carefully observed textures and movements and ambient sounds. They have fun with music—especially the shorts, which are often built around a song. And they always work in some nice bits of business around the edges. Even the credits are funny.
Pixar’s crew is smart about how they mimic the lighting and camera angles of live-action movies, too, creating drama or heightening the humor with conventions like low angles, slow pans, and key lights. And they’re always in the forefront of CGI technology. It’s impressive to see how far they’ve come in the 20 years since Tin Toy, a short about a rampaging baby as seen by his terrified toys. (The toys look amazingly realistic, but the baby does not, since the look of human skin and hair is a lot harder to replicate than the look and movements of plastic or metal toys.)
But best of all, the Pixar people never lose sight of the fact that technique is just a means to an end. What makes their great movies great are the stories they tell and the vivid worlds they conjure up. Pixar’s best flare like comets: beautiful, bright, unforgettable.
Elise Nakhnikian is a contributor to Time OFF.