One of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments is that their movies are more than just terrific mass entertainments—they’re personal statements from the directors that made them. Their filmmakers each have their own set of reoccurring themes and characters, and one of the most interesting examples to me is that director and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter keeps returning to the same subject matter. He’s fascinated with relics of Americana from the past, and three of the four films he’s directed thus far—Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Cars—have focused on trends and lifestyles that have been tossed aside by our culture in favor of something newer and shinier. There’s an element of poignancy and regret in his movies at how much things have changed, but Lasseter is also astute enough to know that American pop culture has been always been a little junky and disposable, and yet at the same time it’s something that we can imbue with personal meaning.
Toy Story 2 (#1–10 of 8)
“YOU. ARE. A. TOY! You aren’t the real Buzz Lightyear! You’re… You’re an action figure! You are a child’s plaything!”
“You piece of dirt! No, I’m wrong. You’re lower then dirt. You’re an ant!”
In Pixar’s first two feature length films, Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998), after a violent confrontation, two of the main characters are face to face. One of them berates the other in defense of an age-old system of master and servant, a system that the other character actively denounces because this system gets in the way of his lofty ambitions. In both films, the plot centers on this conflict of those who wish to uphold boundaries and those who wish to break through them.
However, there’s one main difference. In the film’s ideologies, Buzz Lightyear is wrong, and Flik is right.
It is telling that Pixar’s least-discussed movies, A Bug’s Life and Cars, are the only two in its oeuvre completely divested of the presence of humans. Or, to be precise, bug species and car models provide visually striking designs for otherwise totally human personalities in these two movies: a typical strategy of American animation to enliven its stories. At its most distinctive, though, Pixar is a stalwart champion of the pathetic fallacy, centering its narratives on anthropomorphized “others” whose gains we take for granted (toys, supermen, ornamental fish, rubbish compactors) or whom we treat with disdain (rats, old grumps, bedside monsters). The studio’s preferred medium of CGI is the ideal conduit for this reversed perspective: more uncanny and spatial than yet traditional 2D, brighter and more fantastical than live-action—as though we’re seeing our world heightened in another’s eyes. By aligning our empathies with its protagonists against the onscreen humans who mistreat them, Pixar’s narratives stoke a wondrously complicated guilt rarely seen in other family films—and nowhere have they demonstrated this better than with Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles.
In 1995, with the release of the first fully computer-generated feature film, Pixar took the first steps into the virgin territory of a new medium. However, they have not made the most of these advances. Pixar’s films, regardless of the writer or director, have always had a big idea: a rat chef, a flying house, living toys—but they rarely go beyond that one idea. While Studio Ghibli, their Japanese hand-drawn friends, show the magical in the everyday and mine joy from the details of life, Pixar routinely make less from more and reduce their grand fantastical concepts to the mundane.
Despite the outrageous prices and rude patrons, I still prefer to watch movies where they were intended to be seen: in the movie theater. The prices are offset by the occasional critic’s pass or my penchant for sneaking into other movies, and the talkative patrons are nothing new to someone who cut his movie-loving teeth on the ghetto theaters of the Garden State. Sometimes, the audience experience is the best thing about a movie. Other times, it can elevate the experience by creating the perfect mise-en-scène for the feature. I love the community experience the googolplex provides. The problem is, most moviegoers today don’t know their talk-back-to-the-screen etiquette. Murmuring with your friends and screaming commands at projected images works well at Snakes on a Plane or The Far from Fantastic Miss Fox, but not at The Remains of The Day. As a result, people stay home in droves.
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.
In the nearly fourteen years since it first released Toy Story, the first completely computer-animated film in history, Pixar has somehow gone from a well-liked animation studio to the last, best hope of the Hollywood studio system, the final piece of proof many critics can point to and say, “See? The old system can work if you know what you’re doing.” Since the release of Toy Story, Pixar has gone through A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up, and nearly all of these have die-hard defenders who proclaim their film of choice to be a modern classic (well, maybe not Cars). The release of each new Pixar film in the summer can be rather predictably greeted with a spate of critical hosannas, but with a few exceptions, reviews of Pixar’s work often boil down to the following: “Pixar makes great films that both parents and their kids can enjoy!” And true though that may be, the studio has provoked surprisingly little solid critical discussion in mainstream outlets, outside of the annual attempts to rank Pixar’s latest effort against their former films.
Enter Pixar Week at The House Next Door, running Oct. 4-10, 2009, to coincide with the re-release of Toy Story and its sequel in theaters on Oct. 2.
What sorts of pieces are we looking for? Follow us after the jump for more.
1. CINEMA: DEAD AGAIN
MZS: We just came through a pretty tumultuous year for movies, and for the media and the entertainment industry in general. Although it’s not possible to cover everything, I’d like for us to at least touch on some of what I think were evolutionary highlights—moments, movements, trends or developments that altered movies, or how we perceive movies.
Right after the first of the year, David Denby tried to to get at a big part of this—specifically the effect of technological change—in his New Yorker piece “Big Pictures.” But it didn’t satisfy me. In fact, parts of it were so out-of-it that they reminded me of an old episode of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways run into a Japanese soldier who wanders out of the bushes where he’s been for 20 years not knowing that the war is over.
- Abbas Kiarostami
- all that jazz
- Caveh Zahedi
- children of men
- david denby
- david lean
- David Lynch
- david thomson
- iraq in fragments
- jacques tati
- james cameron
- jonathan rosenbaum
- miami vice
- michael mann
- mike d'angelo
- Paul Schrader
- peter rainer
- Robert Altman
- sin city
- Steven Spielberg
- superman returns
- terrence malick
- the black dahlia
- the company
- toy story 2
- twin peaks: fire walk with me