As the Renaissance Era slowly dragged to a close, a “new” animation studio arose from the ashes to steal Disney’s thunder and make better movies than they were making. Pixar had been making CG short subject films since the 80s, and had secured a distribution deal with Disney. During the Second Dark Age while Disney was slowly imploding and destroying their own legacy, Pixar’s films were critically acclaimed, earned lotsa awards (I refer to the Best Animated Feature Oscar as the Pixar Achievement In Being The Best At Being Pixar), and made scads and scads of money. Disney eventually recognized just what Pixar was delivering them, so they bought the entire company in 2006, and more-or-less merged. Steve Jobs, who initially invested in Pixar, became Disney’s largest shareholder, and John Lasseter became the Lord of All Disney. Well, no, but he got a hell of a lot more creative control. For one thing, the D2V sequels, excepting spinoffs like the Disney Fairies series, were halted. Dude’s a major animation geek and turns into a total fanboy around Hayao Miyazaki. I think he knows what he’s doing.
Toy Story | A Bug’s Life | Toy Story 2 | Monsters, Inc. | Finding Nemo | The Incredibles | Cars | Ratatouille | WALL-E | Up | Toy Story 3 | Cars 2 | Brave | Monsters University | Inside Out | The Good Dinosaur | Finding Dory |
Toy Story (1995)
As most of you know, this film made history. It would be the first time an animated feature would be in all CG, which, before then, had only been used to animate short subjects and the occasional TV series such as ReBoot. Unfortunately, Pixar’s innovation eventually resulted in animation executives deciding that hand-drawn animation was a dead medium. Toy Story is Pixar’s staple franchise, as it begot two sequels that outdid its success both critically and financially, and, despite Toy Story 3 being intended as a conclusion, the series continues in short subjects, television specials, and yet another upcoming sequel. It also made Mattel and Hasbro a shitload of money.
- I’m probably going to be coming out of left field with this one, but I confess I just don’t like the Toy Story series that much. They are still entertaining movies, but there are multiple Pixar movies I like much, much more. At any rate, I have a lot of affection for the fictional Pizza Planet restaurant. It’s a plausible idea (I’m sure there actually are outer space-themed pizza parlours) and a cute parody of Chuck E. Cheese. I really like the design of the place too, from the very silly thematic arcade games, to the dark lighting, to the atmospheric sound effects. It all just seems real.
- He would get better in future instalments, but Mr. Potato Head is absolutely obnoxious. In every single scene he’s an angry, snide, bitter jerkass who treats everyone like crap. He was right in calling out Woody’s jealousy of Buzz, but it’s clear that Spuds here has some jealousy issues of his own. It was particularly aggravating seeing how many of the other toys cowed to his wild accusations of Woody, despite their having known Woody for years, and knowing that Mr. Potato Head isn’t exactly a great person. Also: That “hockey puck” joke was incredibly lame. Yeah, I know it’s a thing Don Rickles called people he was insulting in his stand-up act, but it’s still an absolute groaner, and not in a good way.
OBLIGATORY “JEFFREY KATZENBERG SUCKS” RANT:
- Just like how he almost ruined The Little Mermaid, Katzenberg almost ruined Toy Story. He was convinced that what audiences craved was cynicism, so he was pushing for Woody to be even more jealous and spiteful. (If you’re curious, here is the storyboard test reel of a scene in the scrapped version of the movie) He was fortunately overruled when test audiences absolutely loathed Asshole Woody, so Pixar was able to go back to their original plans for Woody’s character. That said, this film’s characters are ridiculously hostile to each other – it’s so unlike how other Pixar films would be, including Toy Story’s own sequels. So unfortunately, I suspect more than a little bit of his influence remained in the final product. (Thank GOD he left the company!)
See Also: Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3
A Bug’s Life (1998)
This is the Pixar film that no one talks about. It’s kind of an anomaly in the series – there’s no emotional pull (which, yeah, I’m a sucker for), and there’s no explanation or motivation for the villain’s behaviour, he’s just evil as all hell. I hadn’t really “discovered” Pixar until Monsters Inc. so I didn’t even bother seeing this film when it was in theatres. (1998 was kind of a busy year for me, anyway) And…well, having seen it now, it’s one of my least favourites. It’s kind of funny that Dreamworks had a similar film released in the same year (Antz) because this one almost comes across as Dreamworksian. (That’s a word now, okay?)
- Princess Dot was actually rather adorable. The whole biology of whatever is going on with that ant colony is too confusing for me to unravel, but I did like her a lot, particularly the scene where she just cannot make any sense of Flik’s “rock as a seed” metaphor. She also seems like she’ll be a better Queen than her sister will be, since she’s far more understanding, far more brave, and far less neurotic. And hey, there’s babby Hayden Panettiere, two years before she started Remembering some Titans and four years before she was in a love triangle with two boys who smack things with giant keys.
- The general tone of the film really, really puts me off. There is way too much gross-out humour – was the bit with the flies eating the “Poo Poo Platter” really necessary? Everyone treats everyone else like garbage, from Princess Atta knowingly sending Flik off to fail just to make him go away for a while, to Hopper killing off his own gang members just to make a point. Apparently this film was an homage to The Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai and Three Amigos, which might have been more effective for me if I’d seen any of those movies (I know, I know). In general, I dislike films that hinge on the “All of the Other Reindeer” thing – I really don’t like watching large numbers of supposedly sympathetic characters ostracize the protagonists.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
For Pixar’s third ever feature film they…made a sequel. Fortunately, this is one of those rare sequels that is superior to its predecessor. It’s also one of the highest rated movies of all time on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 100%. (This, by the way, just means it has near-universal appeal, RT scores are not necessarily indicative of quality – a great/fun film with a 50% score is just divisive, for instance) For this one, the toy-related fear is how there is now a collector culture around toys – people will leave their toys in their boxes, never to be played with, in the hopes that they’ll be valuable someday. I do it too. And the film firmly takes the stance of “Collecting bad. Playing good.” But really, any toys I buy at this stage of my life are for display. I certainly played with my toys when I was a kid. I feel no guilt here.
- The When She Loved Me sequence is the most well-known in the film, and for good reason. It’s unlike most of Randy Newman’s film compositions in that it is emotional and sweet rather than goofy. Sarah McLachlan was a good choice for vocalist too – all I have to do is write “In the arms of the angel” and you’re picturing tragically abused pets, right? The scene is composed in such a lovely way – the golden sunshiney tone in the visuals gives a falsely happy mood, representing the love that Jessie and her owner had for each other, that she found out wouldn’t last. And it really is a heartbreaking song, and, well, it definitely made me kind of guilty about the toys I didn’t take care of and/or abandoned. But…we’ve all done it. Eventually, those toys will not be played with any more simply because that’s how maturing works. Keeping those toys turns them into…collector items.
- Where are the female characters?! Sheesh! Talk about a Smurfette Principle – the only female character who does anything is Jessie. The rest are all male characters – they don’t even give a reason why it’s those particular toys going on a rescue mission for Woody. I can sort of buy that Bo Peep would have mobility issues, but what about Mrs. Potato Head? Toy Story 3 was a lot better about this (since Mrs. Potato Head, Jessie and Barbie all play significant roles in the plot) but it’s still kind of pathetic to see how overly male-centric the Toy Story movies are. Maybe that’s why I don’t like them all that much. I dislike The Lion King for similar reasons.
See Also: Toy Story, Toy Story 3
Monsters Inc. (2001)
Choosing a favourite Pixar film is a lot like choosing a favourite child, but…oh, to hell with it. Monsters Inc. is my favourite chi—Pixar film. I was never that big on the Toy Story movies (although I appreciate the work that goes into them), and A Bug’s Life is just…dull. Monsters Inc was when I really started to sit up and take notice of Pixar. It’s a fantastically imaginative universe, with a great sense of humour and wonder. This film is hilarious and heartwarming in the most wonderful, charming ways.
- There are few happier endings than this film’s happy ending. The factory now produces laughter instead of fear, the employees are much more satisfied with their jobs, the energy crisis is solved…and ‘Kitty’ and ‘Boo’ get to reunite. Mike can be a selfish person, but he really shows his love for his best friend by spending all that time reconstructing Boo’s closet door for him. The sweet, tinkling music is wonderful – it evokes the innocence of childhood and the love between those three wonderfully. And most of all, the animation of Sulley’s joyful smile as he sees Boo again is probably one of the best expressions of emotion I’ve seen in animation – especially computer animation. The transition is so fluid, and there’s so much emotion conveyed in that one smile. What a perfect scene to end the film on.
- This is fortunately not something that affects the film itself (only the end credits), but I really don’t like Randy Newman. Not really sure why Disney/Pixar used him as a composer so often, considering how polarizing his style is. It’s hard to explain, but his music reminds me of a low-budget children’s TV show in which the hosts are trying WAY too hard to be perky, and are absolutely dorky in the things they say and what they decide to do. And yes, I know that’s a weird analogy. Randy Newman IS weird.
See Also: Monsters University
Finding Nemo (2003)
This film was an ENORMOUS hit. Something like $300 million domestic alone? So it’s not surprising that Disney-Pixar is planning a sequel entitled Finding Dory. This is one of the films where I can genuinely feel immersed in its world – the aquatic flora and fauna is just so realistic, and so brilliantly beautiful. You can really tell that Pixar did a ton of research for this film. It’s also got that usual Pixar magic of incredibly funny writing and sweet heartwarming moments.
- Dory is an AMAZING character. Almost every word she says is funny, and it’s quite easy to get caught up with her optimism and fearlessness. My favourite moment, without any doubt, is when she speaks “whale.” I still remember the kids in the theatre laughing their guts out at the silly whale voices, and I have to give a ton of credit to Ellen Degeneres’ performance here. So goddamned funny. Dory’s lines are also incredibly quotable – I quote the “It shall be my squishy” bit whenever I get a chance. (I also quote “My bubbles.” but that’s not a Dory line) I have to say that I’m quite looking forward to the sequel, provided they remember that Dory is first and foremost a comedic character rather than a tragic one.
- I don’t believe I’ve brought it up before, but there is a trope called the “Disney Death” in which the audience is tricked into thinking a character has died, but HOORAY IT TURNS OUT THEY HAVEN’T. And, well…this Disney film uses the Disney Death waaaaay too often. I guess they wanted to emphasize how dangerous the ocean is and how fragile fish are, but the three main characters have a fake-out “Oh no did they die” scene something like 3 times *each.* It got really tiresome – that technique only works once per film, guys. The film opens with a rather large body count – it’s already a story with a tragic past, no need to wring it out. It was particularly bad when they had a Disney Death for Nemo after he coaches the fish out of the fishing net. Nemo and Marlin have already reunited, Marlin has already had several Fishy Heart Attacks over thinking that Nemo has died…it REALLY wasn’t necessary in that scene.
The Incredibles (2004)
Brad Bird was first known as a major animation director for the early days of The Simpsons, but he really made a name for himself after he directed The Iron Giant, a cult classic masterpiece that deserved to be a hit, but failed due to Warner Bros. not bothering to promote the film properly. (Warner Bros. has had no friggin’ clue how to handle their animated properties since the 60s.) Bird jumps ship to Pixar, and is finally given the opportunity to direct a mild deconstruction of the superhero film genre. The most important change Brad Bird made was to have his lead superhero be a middle-aged husband and father, rather than an eternally youthful bachelor with a long history of retconned love interests. The change, in my opinion, was revolutionary.
- The relationship between Bob and Helen Parr is incredibly well written. The prologue, which had them flirting playfully with each other (implying the beginning of their relationship) is instead a fake-out, as they would be getting married that very night. No time is wasted with the meet-cute or the romantic drama – they’re already in love, and they’re already forever committed to each other. As the plot moves forward in time, their relationship is allowed to subtly mature as well. Despite being superheroes, they’ve aged normally, and, like Gomez and Morticia in The Addams Family, we see an example of an “unusual” family in which the middle-aged married couple is still incredibly passionate about each other. And yet, they also fight realistically – each member of the Parr family is given realistic flaws, and legitimate grievances. And, okay, Syndrome’s incredulous line after he realizes that Mr. Incredible married Elastigirl and got “BIZ-ZAY” still cracks me up. [Honourable “Best” mention goes to Michael Giacchino’s fantastic jazzy score – the 1960s sound really helps to sell the loose time period in which the film takes place.]
- This is a mild criticism, but since I know some basics about comic book superheroes (FAKE GEEK GIRL ALERT), I have to comment on the lack of originality for the Incredibles’ powers. They are much too similar to the superpowers of the Fantastic Four, which is *also* a family of superheroes. Clearly the Fantastic Four were an inspiration here – Mr. Fantastic has stretchy powers like Elastigirl/Mrs. Incredible. Sue Storm can create force fields and turn herself invisible, just like Violet. Dash isn’t exactly similar to Johnny Storm, but he is pretty much The Flash. And while Mr. Incredible is not a rock person like the Thing is, they both have super strength. It’s just too many similarities for my taste, and considering how vast and varied superpowers can be, their powers could have been a lot less derivative.
Here’s John Lasseter making a film pretty much to please himself. He likes cars, he’s nostalgic for the 50s, he likes driving along Route 66, so…he made a movie with all of those things. Cars became a marketing phenomenon – I think it’s earned something like $1 billion in merchandise sales alone. Which isn’t surprising. Little boys lose their shit over cars. Though back in my day, they were all about Hot Wheels and Transformers. So naturally there was a sequel. And then there were more toys. And then there was a spinoff. And then there was a sequel to the spinoff. Yep.
- This is probably going to seem like an odd thing to focus on, but what I remembered most from this film (and it still struck me as I rewatched it) was how awesome the neon light effects were. Like, the glowing is just mesmerizing. It looks great on the cars, and it looks great on the revitalized Radiator Springs. I’ve always had an affection for bright neon lights (despite my eyes having a light sensitivity condition). It’s one of the things I love most about going to the CNE (which is basically like a state fair for Ontario/Toronto). But yeah, Pixar is known for pushing the visual limits of what computer animation can achieve, and those neon light effects could not have been done with traditional animation.
- The major issue with Lasseter making a film based on his own interests is that it can easily become inaccessible. I’m not a car enthusiast, so most of the technobabble about cars and racing just bored me. I’m not an American, so I don’t have any familiarity with the area that the majority of the story takes place in (which I’m guessing is, what, Nevada?). I’m a big city girl and always will be, so I can’t appreciate the charm of small towns. (Though I try.) I’m not a Boomer, so while I really like 50s and 60s music, I have no nostalgia for the time period that the Radiator Springs town had its heyday in. This film just leaves me cold because there is nothing here for me to relate to.
See Also: Cars 2
Brad Bird’s followup to The Incredibles, which has one of the most cringeworthy premises (A rat cooking in a gourmet restaurant in Paris!) and yet still was an enormous success…because Pixar. Although Bird had directing and screenwriting credits, he’d taken over the film after the film’s first director, Jan Pinkava, was unable to write a satisfactory ending. This doesn’t surprise me somehow, as his two Pixar films couldn’t be more different. (Though apparently both Ratatouille and The Incredibles can be interpreted in an objectivist sense, and that just makes my head hurt)
- HEY GUYS, WOULD YOU LIKE ME TO GET ALL META? 😀 So I really loved Anton Ego’s review at the end of the film in which his character discusses the meaning and nature of being a critic. It was nice to see that the typical “Asshole Critic” cliche was not the case for Ego’s character, and that his speech/review took the opportunity to present the critic as an individual who loves a medium/subject/topic on its own terms, and is willing to recognize greatness, genius, etc and share this discovery with the rest of the world. Yes, writing negative reviews is fun and cathartic, but I’ve always been the kind of film critic who prefers to gush about something that I really, really love. I also try to ensure that when I do express a negative opinion of something, I back it up – I don’t dislike things without reason. But I’m not so sure I agree with the statement that the “average piece of junk” is probably more meaningful than the critic’s opinion of it – but it’s ambiguous about what “meaningful” really, er, means in this context. Is meaning tied to experimentation, to discovery, to creativity? Or is meaning tied to purpose, agenda and interpretation? Is there “meaning” in Skinner’s shameless cash-ins on his deceased boss’s name, for instance? Is there “meaning” in a Michael Bay film that solely exists to make money, and presents some really disturbing social messages? Is there meaning in a caustic Anton Ego review in which he, with a poison pen in hand, wishes to challenge chefs to make something he loves rather than something he merely likes? …Basically, that’s a really good speech, and it’s the kind of thing where, if I’d gotten to become an animation historian/professor after all, I’d have my students dissect it.
- *takes a deep breath* Okay. I have mentioned this before when I reviewed Cinderella, but I hate mice and rats. Hate. I am not scared of them, but I have had really unpleasant experiences with them when they’ve gotten into the house over the winter. I have lost entire nights of sleep because they’re noisy. Things in our house and garage were destroyed by them. They are a walking health hazard. They’re filthy, they’re greedy, they’re disgusting. And as much as this film tries to present the possibility of a clean rat that merely wants to create something beautiful, I felt nauseous the entire time I watched any of the scenes with the rats. I couldn’t lose myself in the film. All I could think about is what would happen when the rat hair or droppings got into the food. And really, I find the film kind of a cop-out. Gusteau’s got shut down for having rats in the kitchen. Fine. That’s how it usually goes. So then why were the protagonists immediately able to open another restaurant that doesn’t even try to hide that there are rats in the kitchen? Where’s the health inspector here? Gah. Sorry. I really, really, hate rats.
Pixar takes on a post-apocalyptic-romance-science-fiction-false-utopia-comedy-drama-action-adventure-musical story, with a little bit of silent/pantomime film thrown in just to make sure this genre goulash has just the right flavour. WALL-E is my second favourite Pixar film, but like I said before, it’s like choosing a favourite child. Every time I watch it, I’m struck by just how beautiful it is – in so many ways. I am absolutely nuts about WALL-E – when I took a science fiction film course at the end of my university years, I chose to write about this film (comparing its existentialist qualities with Futurama and Blade Runner). There are so many concepts, narrative conventions and themes in this film that I love to discuss – the only thing missing is time-travel. 🙂
- MAN this is a hard one to narrow down! But I think I’ll point out just how extraordinary the world-building is. This takes place hundreds of years into our future, but within seconds of the film’s beginning, its narrative themes & dichotomies are established. The corny lyrics from Put On Your Sunday Clothes juxtaposed with the beautiful vista of the galaxy tell us that we’re seeing a story about how the past meets and influences the future, and the future defines the past. And even though the song is super optimistic, suddenly the clouds part and we see what a consumerism-gone-mad wasteland the Earth has become, and voila, here’s the other dichotomy of optimism/realism. But even setting aside my English degree blathering, everything in this film feels completely plausible and realistic, which is saying something, since science fiction is entirely based in the fantastic. Even the clever bit about how the live action humans evolved into the animated blob people grounds the world of WALL-E as something that could happen. And there’s just SO much to look at, so much to take in! Every single part of this film has been so very carefully created and crafted.
- This, however, is not hard to narrow down – all the Hello, Dolly! stuff makes me roll my eyes. I like a lot of Broadway showtunes and generally like Hollywood musicals, but I have a very low tolerance for schmaltz. (I hope someone appreciated my use of the Yiddish there.) There are a LOT of musicals with the “I Want” song that talk about how great and expansive the world is and how it’s worth exploring. (Like, say… “I want adventure in the greeeat wiiide somewheeeere”?) And there are many more that have songs about how easy and quick falling in love can be. Why did they go with Hello, Dolly? Is it because “Dolly” rhymes with “WALL-E?” And the songs are just so deeply built into the plot – it’s not even a single cute reference and then it’s done, it’s woven throughout the whole film (so if you don’t care for Put On Your Sunday Clothes and It Only Takes One Moment, well…too bad). I just find the emotional sentiments expressed in both songs to be kind of phoney. Also, this is sort of unrelated, but how exactly did WALL-E get an iPod to play a VHS tape? (And why does the VHS only play those two scenes and nothing else?)
I don’t think this film could have been made by any other company than Pixar. The protagonists are a cranky old man and a young chubby Asian kid – not exactly marketable, and there was certainly some pearl-clutching from the Wall Street types about how on earth they were going to sell toys. But this film was successful, once again proving that you don’t need a young white man as the lead character to have a successful film. Up, to me, epitomizes imagination. A house being lifted by thousands of helium balloons is the kind of thing you can only see in your daydreams. Accordingly, the fictional animals shown in this film are also very dreamlike. It’s practically a fractured fairy tale, this film is so fantastical.
- There is absolutely nothing else I could name other than the prologue scene depicting Carl and Ellie’s long and happy life together. The music is so evocative, and even though the scene has no dialogue, you understand their characters instantly, and the facial expressions of the characters emote so clearly. Most of all, though, I want to highlight the very brief scene explaining why Carl and Ellie never did have children. The tone of the music, the dark lighting, the fact that you can’t see Ellie’s expression as she is sobbing into her hands…it makes me bawl every time. I don’t know what exactly happened in that scene (speculation is that Ellie had a miscarriage and/or was told she was infertile), but I felt so terrible for the two of them. I cried again at the third act of the movie when Ellie told Carl that their marriage was her adventure, and her dream come true. …yeah, I’m crying again just typing this.
- I didn’t really buy Charles Muntz as a villain. As much as I love Christopher Plummer, there just seemed to be too many holes in Muntz’s story to be plausible. He’s established at the beginning of the film as an inspiration for Carl and Ellie’s dreams of exploration, and then really isn’t brought up again until the end of the film. First off, how goddamn old is this guy? Carl must be in his 80s, and he was a child when he was watching an adult Muntz’s exploits in the news reels, which had to have been at least 70 years ago! I also didn’t really get how the man could turn murderously insane just over the discovery of a rare bird. I guess isolation would do that to you, but it’s not like he couldn’t talk to his dogs…
Toy Story 3 (2010)
The grand finale (at least in theatrical feature form) of the Toy Story franchise, where the writers/directors take advantage of the real-world time that had passed since the first Toy Story and explore what the toys’ futures are now that Andy has grown up and is off to college. As I’ve mentioned, the Toy Story series never really grabbed me all that much (I liken them to how I feel about Lady and the Tramp – perfectly fine movies, but I do not feel love or nostalgia for them). This movie is basically banking on the now adult fans of the series who want to give it a proper goodbye. As there are few things we man/ma’amchildren feel stronger nostalgia for than Disney movies, it’s a calculated but sensible move for Disney-Pixar to take.
- The garbage incinerator scene is INTENSE. You know while you’re watching it that obviously the toys are going to survive somehow, but the suspense, tension, impending tragedy and heartwarming aspects of the scene just work incredibly well. There’s no dialogue at its climax, just the characters holding each others’ hands as they slowly descend toward what they assume will be an inescapable death. The story of Andy’s toys has come full circle – instead of being divided, unequal and hostile like they were in the beginning, they plan to go to their deaths together, as equals and companions. They aren’t even cursing Lotso at the end, they’re just silently hanging onto each other. I imagine there would have been some furiously angry parents if Pixar had gone there, but I can’t help wondering what the end result would have been if this really was how Andy’s toys went out. That said, the use of “The CLAAAAAWWW!” as an almost literal deus ex machina was pretty damned brilliant.
- I am usually not the type to kvetch about plot holes, but this one has always bothered me. For Lotso’s diabolical Sunnyside Daycare pyramid scheme to work, the workers at the daycare would have to be insanely negligent. I can understand being rather cavalier about the toys that the daycare accepts, but to let a whole bunch of age-inappropriate toys stay in the toddlers’ room without supervising the kids at all is pretty awful. I mean…hello? Mr. Potato Head alone is a walking choking hazard. We even see the tots putting the toys in their mouths, so it’s not like that wasn’t a distinct possibility. The series has always had a bit of a “Adults are useless” mentality, but I think not supervising toddlers as they play is going a little bit too far, especially considering how stringent daycares have to be about safety standards. Have you ever met a toddler? You can’t take your eyes off them once, or they blow up the kitchen.
See Also: Toy Story, Toy Story 2
Cars 2 (2011)
Cars is a merchandising phenomenon, and since Disney had merged with Pixar by the time production on the film began, clearly they went for money over quality. Cars is popular with children, but most critics consider it to be one of Pixar’s worst films. It was still considered relatively good, mind you, just not good enough for Pixar’s standards. Since comic relief character Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) was a breakout character, he was made the lead character for the sequel. Cars 2 is the first (and so far only) Pixar film to receive a rotten RT score, and oh lordy does it deserve it. I never thought I would say this, but Pixar managed to actively offend me.
- “Big Bentley” is a decent pun, I guess, and Weezer’s cover of The, er, Cars’ You Might Think was good…
- Okay, here we go. The antagonists in this film are “lemons,” who are treated as second-class citizens by the regular populace, including by rustbucket Mater. They exploit a flaw in an alternative fuel solution in order to strike back at the nicer cars. Let’s dissect the subtext here. Lemons are cars that have trouble functioning, or have some sort of critical disability that makes it difficult for them to perform normal tasks. These are sentient beings, and the more functional cars treat the Lemons like crap, and even Mater makes fun of them. It’s seen as perfectly acceptable, because the Lemons are the antagonists. That’s right, ladies and gents, Pixar made a film where, subtextually, the individuals with disabilities deserved to be ostracized because they are a detriment to society, were resentful about it, and made diabolical plots to get their revenge.
See Also: Cars
My, this is a divisive film, but also an important film historically. The first Pixar film to have a female protagonist, the first one in the high fantasy genre, the first to have a female director (Brenda Chapman, formerly and currently of Dreamworks) and is also the first to have some major development hell issues, resulting in Chapman leaving Pixar and the film being completed by storyboard artist Mark Andrews. The film was originally called The Bear and the Bow, which is a much better title. Cut it out with the shitty one-word titles, Disney! With the critical indifference to the two Cars movies, a lot of people interpreted Brave’s poor reviews (and a “poor” review average for Pixar is anything with an RT score below 90%) as a sign that maybe the animation studio’s hot streak was over. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case – yet.
- Here’s a little pop quiz for ya. Name all of the animated Disney films that are about a mother-daughter relationship. I’ll even help you out by linking to the Wiki for the Disney animated canon. Time’s up! What’s the answer? NONE OF THEM. Of the Disney Princesses, only four besides Merida have living mothers – Aurora, Mulan, Tiana and Rapunzel. And, whoopsie, three of those films only explore the daughters’ relationships with their fathers! (Tangled does explore a mother-daughter relationship…just…you know, not exactly a healthy one.) Brenda Chapman has made no secret that Brave was influenced by her relationship with her own teenage daughter. Accordingly, the film touches on how teens can be selfish and impulsive with their rebelliousness, but also often have good reasons for feeling the way that they do. Mothers have a responsibility to teach their daughters skills and responsibilities for the future, but they also should consider that forcing their daughters to act or think in a particular way makes them miserable and prevents them from forging their own paths. It’s nice to see that this supposedly basic narrative theme was finally introduced into a Disney film, and given a reasonable chance to succeed, rather than relegating it to the “Chick Flick” pile. (Man do I hate that term)
- This might be because it’s exactly the kind of story and culture I grew up with (Clan MacMillan, at your service) but, Mother-Daughter theme aside, Brave doesn’t really do anything new with its story. There isn’t really any part of the plot that wasn’t predictable, which, considering what Pixar is known for, that’s a major problem. And I got the distinct impression that Disney/Pixar didn’t really know what story they were telling. The trailers went to great pains to hide the mother-turns-into-a-bear plot twist, but with the expense that they made the film look like it was a laugh-a-minute story about a rebellious Princess and her antagonist mother. A lot of people feel that the film was like two separate movies stapled together, and I can sort of see where they are coming from, but I can’t really decide where exactly the “Righteously Rebellious Princess and the Wacky Scottish Clans” part ends and the “Selfishly Rebellious Princess and the Overly Strict Mother” part begins.
Monsters University (2013)
Why, hello again, Mike and Sulley! We haven’t seen you in…*scrolls up* 12 years! Pixar has had its share of sequels over the years, but this was the first time they did a prequel, and one that was released a considerable time after its predecessor. (It’s kind of a different genre too – the first one was an “office dramedy” and the prequel is a “college comedy”) I confess I have never really liked the prequel concept, and I’ll explain when I discuss the “Worst,” but I am always happy to see these characters and this universe again. Does it have a patch on the original? No. The original was close to perfection. But Monsters University is a fun movie in its own right.
- The Scare Games look fun. They’re really creative, visually impressive, and illustrate the concept of the Monster World beautifully. Basically, the Monsters have a society very similar to our own, just…dangerous. Very, very dangerous. But also very silly. My favourite game, though it’s the one that the least amount of time was spent on, is the one where the Scarers have to avoid the teenagers. The cliche things the fake teenagers say crack me up. “Whatever.” “BUT I LOVE HIM!” In general, though, the Scare Games sequences are the best in the movie – incredibly dynamic, suspenseful, unexpected, all that good stuff. Though mind you, the real-world equivalent to this sort of thing bored the hell out of me, and I avoided it like the plague. I was that university student who was actually there to learn stuff.
- I generally dislike the prequel concept, as it makes it very hard for me to enter the “suspension of disbelief” frame of mind. Oh yes, ha ha, they referenced a thing that would happen later. How clever. Foreshadowing doesn’t work when you already know the outcome. And, unfortunately, throughout the entire film, I was just waiting for Mike’s inevitable failure, Randall’s personality change from an awkward nerd to a ruthless and conniving villain, and for Mike and Sulley to stop fighting with each other and become friends. That is an awful way to experience a story! I want to get emotionally invested and root for the protagonists to succeed, but if I already know ahead of time that they won’t, it takes me right out of the movie. And, along the same lines as expecting character changes, I confess I didn’t really see the big loving father-figure “Kitty” side of Sulley. Maybe that came with maturity off screen, I don’t know. But yeah. Prequels bug me.
See Also: Monsters Inc.
There was a lot of pressure for this film to succeed and prove that Pixar wasn’t in a slump (as the last few films were merely financial successes rather than near-unanimous critical darlings). I think it succeeded with flying colours, and in addition to having a very high RT score (something like 98%?) it also broke the record for the biggest opening weekend for an original (non-sequel/non-adaptation) film. Mind you, I find box office records to be meaningless, what with inflation and surcharges. A truly high concept film, it’s basically director Pete Docter exploring/theorizing how our minds work, and was especially inspired by the changes he noticed in his own adolescent daughter.
- Appropriately, this is an incredibly imaginative film, and I absolutely loved the world building of Riley’s mind. Everything had beautiful colourful designs, and some very interesting concepts. I suppose it’s navel gazing, but every concept that was introduced made me wonder how these concepts would work in my own mind. The idea of the “Head” emotion is interesting – Riley is ruled by Joy, her dad is ruled by Anger, and her mother is ruled by Sadness. Lots of implications to unpack there. The Islands of Personality are such a fun idea, and made me wonder what core memories I would have, and what aspects of my personality would have their own islands. (I would assume I’ve got a Family Island, Reading/Writing Island, Animation Island…and Sailor Moon gets her own Island) I also really loved the message that even though all but one of the 5 emotions is negative, it’s established that these emotions have duties to protect Riley & have many (somewhat unappreciated) positive aspects. The concept that has made me think the most is that of the Memory Dump. It’s sobering to realize that when you forget something, you don’t even notice that it’s gone. And yet, even though Riley would inevitably forget her imaginary friend as a consequence of maturity, Bing Bong still had one last gift for his creator – he (literally) returned Joy to her. (NO I AM NOT CRYING OKAY)
- The climax in which Riley steals her mother’s credit card to buy a bus ticket back home to Minnesota was kind of half-baked. It was quite clear that these actions were one of a desperate adolescent who had trouble controlling both her emotions and her reason, but at the same time, the events that caused her to snap really didn’t seem that world shattering. (Like…is terrible pizza really that big a problem?) There were borderline plot holes that can be explained as “Tweens be irrational, yo,” but they still bug me – Why did so many adults let an 11-year-old child travel thousands of miles, late at night, alone, with only a backpack? Why did the emotions never address the problem of what exactly was Riley going to do in Minnesota without her parents, a home, money, or possessions? But all the same, I did like the resolution of how Sadness granted Riley the ability to realize how much she’d miss her parents if she went through with it. It’s a climax that didn’t really work for me, but the rest of the film makes up for it.
Unusually for an animation studio, Pixar released two films in 2015. This was the result of some behind-the-scenes drama in which The Good Dinosaur switched directors (swapping Bob Peterson, who directed Up, for Peter Sohn), significantly changed the art style (compare it to this poster from 2013 http://www.slashfilm.com/first-the-good-dinosaur-teaser-poster/) AND swapped out multiple voice cast members. The production of this film was a cluster-you-know-what, in other words. The plot’s simple and derivative – protagonist gets separated from family, befriends someone he initially saw as an enemy, they work together to get home. We already saw this movie 20 years ago, Pixar.
- Much of the discussion surrounding The Good Dinosaur is that it’s more like a tech demo than it is a cohesive movie. This isn’t really anything new for Pixar – Monsters Inc was all about showing off all the fur they could render, and Brave was all about rendering thousands of little bouncy ginger ringlets. The tech, in this case, is showing off the photorealistic backgrounds for the prehistoric setting. The backgrounds really do look like photographs, with every last detail in nature given lots of loving focus. The water, notoriously one of the most difficult things to render in CGI, looks flawlessly real. Buuuuttt…
- I said this before I saw the movie, and it didn’t change my mind – I hate the art style. The cartoony, over-exaggerated designs of the characters clash horrifically with the realistic backgrounds. It looks like shit. I’m sorry. Arlo’s huge long snout just looks dumb, and Spot looks far too much like Finding Nemo‘s Darla for my taste.
- Also: As I mentioned in the intro paragraph, this movie is unacceptably derivative for Pixar’s sky-high standards. I don’t expect masterpieces, but I do have a problem with recycled, boring storylines. Arlo is also a tremendously annoying protagonist. He screams, he whines, and he repeatedly gets knocked out just to facilitate scene transitions. (Seriously, he’s got to have suffered some brain damage.) Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur joins Cars 2 as a Pixar movie I never want to watch again. Which breaks my heart.
Finding Dory (2016)
One of the concerns many film fans/critics have about Pixar’s reputation as a tremendously prestigious animation studio is that they’ve been doing a lot of sequels lately, and some of them (Monsters University, this film, and the upcoming Incredibles sequel) are coming out more than a decade after their original film was released. Distant sequels aren’t unheard of when it comes to Disney (and that’s not counting the direct-to-DVD ones), animated films usually have a ridiculously long production schedule, and the film industry in general is going through a trend of resurrecting old franchises – just last year we had Jurassic Park, Mad Max and Star Wars sequels. So, again, I don’t think the Pixar Sky is falling just yet. Most of the original cast and crew of Finding Nemo reunited/reprised their roles for this film, which is always a good sign, though the 13 years between the original film and this film prevented Alexander Gould from reprising Nemo, because, well, Puberty Monster (they gave him a minor role instead). Though I have always maintained that The Incredibles is the Pixar movie that would lend itself best to a sequel, the plot of Finding Dory is such a no-brainer (the original film’s most popular character happens to have a mysterious past), I can’t blame Pixar at all for making this.
- Assuming you read my review of Cars 2, you saw how deeply the ableist subtext of that film hurt and angered me. I’m happy to say that Finding Dory is all about refuting ableism. Since the cast are all aquatic animals, this is, of course, all situated in the Wonderful World of Metaphor, but it’s quite obvious that there was a conscious effort here to depict people with disabilities with compassion and understanding. Finding Nemo had these messages too, but to a lesser extent. Dory’s short term memory loss is a genuine disability for her, but the film deliberately points out that she is not helpless, she is not unintelligent, and that knowing her is a tremendously rewarding experience if ‘people’ just give her a little bit of patience. Depicting her short term memory loss as NOT absolute was also really important, because some able-bodied people seem to think that disability is an on/off switch – there are many different degrees of disability; most legally blind people have some vision, and many wheelchair users can stand and walk for short periods of time (I have been practically tearing my hair out trying to get people to understand this). In addition to this, Dory’s disability is *GASP* an invisible one! Unlike Nemo, you can’t tell at first glance that Dory has any limitations, and the existence of invisible disabilities is is one major thing that disability activists have been trying to educate able-bodied people about. There was a lot of goodwill done here, and I have to give Pixar credit for it.
- Buuuuut…I think the film could have done without making Gerald (the seal with the unibrow) and Becky (the common loon)’s limitations as the butt of jokes. I laughed at them at the time, but it wasn’t until the car ride home before it dawned on me that, with a cast deliberately comprised of other animals with disabilities (e.g. Hank’s PTSD), those two characters could be considered disabled as well. They’re nonverbal, they have difficulty following directions, they’re exploited by the others (which is played for laughs), they look weird compared to the other animals of the same species, and the characters they interacted with treated them like crap. Seriously Marlin, didn’t you learn a damn thing from the first movie? I honestly don’t think this hypocrisy was deliberate, I think that Pixar was just trying to go for silly-looking slapstick characters without thinking through the implications. [“Loon” being an ableist insult for a person with mental illness is hopefully just an unfortunate coincidence] It just goes to show how ingrained prejudice is, that we can be discriminatory without ever even realizing it. That’s one of the perils of social justice – you can look back on mistakes you made and think, “Aw shit, I really should have known better.” I’m sure nobody at Pixar is reading this dinky little blog of mine, but they could probably make up for this oversight by doing a short for the DVD that ‘humanizes’ Gerald and Becky.