Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Wednesday Classics, Vol. 5: Pixar

With the recent release of Up, Pixar Animation Studios have reached their tenth movie, and I wanted to take the occasion to take a look back at the amazing track record John Lasseter's merry band have left behind them. There are ten reviews to write, so I'll forgo the lengthy introductory essay and get right to it.

Toy Story
The template for every Pixar film was already firmly in place with the release of their first movie, Toy Story. It featured a score provided by Randy Newman (he would score Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Cars), state-of-the-art computer graphics, and a water-tight story, all of which have become Pixar trademarks. But what really makes it Pixar is the way the story is driven by the characters. Nothing in a Pixar movie happens just to have something happen; it all spins out of the characters and their motives, their relationships. By modern standards, it looks downright archaic, but Pixar's first film is still one of their best.
Grade: A

A Bug's Life
An inconvenient hiccup of timing left A Bug's Life marked, in some circles, as a less intellectual, younger sibling to Dreamworks' Antz, released in the same season. That may be true, but they weren't aiming for the same audience. Antz was aiming for the adults, while A Bug's Life was for everyone. Toy Story suggested that Pixar had a way with slapstick, and they honed that sensibility here. Toy Story had a sophisticated edge to some of its jokes, and Pixar ran with the balance of humour for young and old here. The story and characters are strong as ever, and, while it may not measure up to most of the Pixar output, A Bug's Life is still a stellar achievement.
Grade: A-

Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 is a masterclass in writing a sequel. The continuity of the first film is preserved; we aren't given some half-baked excuse for a new adventure, it's logically built off of what's come before. The humour is still intact, and even developed. All the familiar characters from before have returned, and the new characters introduced neither outshine nor pale in comparison to the old guard; they feel as though they fit all along. We learn more about the histories of the characters; Buzz and Woody have their origins filled out in authentic, unforced ways. It's perfect, really.
Grade: A+

Monsters, Inc.
I'm not sure how it works, exactly, but Pixar make their films in such a way that I am able to enjoy them simultaneously on both an artistic and a technical level. Yes, the story of Monsters, Inc. is clever and original. Yes, the characters are, as ever, strong. Yes, the sense of humour is there. But, my God, would you LOOK at that fur! Honestly. It was worth the cost of admission simply for the fur. It is not, objectively speaking, one of the stronger Pixar films, but it has a lot to live up to.
Grade: B

Finding Nemo
Here we have what is widely considered the crown jewel of the Pixar empire. Finding Nemo actually is just as good as you've heard. It may even be better. The story, again, is water-tight (no pun intended), and the characters are wonderful. It speaks volumes for this movie that Ellen Degeneres was able to relaunch her career off the back of a voiceover role. It looks good, it's as colourful a movie as you'll ever see, and the relationships between the characters this time around are flawless. You can see Marlin growing fonder and fonder of Dory as the film progresses. In the Pixar canon, Toy Story 2 is the (relatively) unsung masterpiece, but Finding Nemo, thus far, is the studio's magnum opus.
Grade: A+

The Incredibles
Brad Bird is responsible for this, and it shows. Bird has been around in animation for a long time, but he made his name with The Iron Giant, a masterpiece of animation that remains disconcertingly unfamiliar to the greater public. The Incredibles was written to be hand animated, but John Lasseter asked if Bird wanted to make it with Pixar. He said yes. A dramatic departure for the studio in tone and content, The Incredibles is one of their best films. It's more serious than the other Pixar movies. It has more to say about society; says Mr. Incredible, "They keep coming up with new ways to celebrate mediocrity!" The characters are defined, but subtle, and realistic. The motives are more complex than in any prior Pixar film, and, as a result, it is the most mature Pixar film, in every way. Not every animation studio would take a chance on a film like this.
Grade: A

Every family has one, and most studios have several. The biggest "blemish" on Pixar's record is Cars, a film most animation studios would kill to make. It's not a surprise, though, and I'm disappointed Pixar didn't see it coming. Where Pixar has differed from every other studio is in, yes, I know, I keep saying, its characters, and that is the weakest link in Cars. The characters are enjoyable, and Tow Mater is the only thing Larry the Cable Guy should ever do, but they rely too heavily on stereotypes. The Volkswagon van is a stoner. The jeep is militaristic. Haha. Hoho. Now, I'm putting it down in relative light; it's a funny movie, it's never less than entertaining, and, as ever, it is well made. The stereotypes aren't so bad for a children's animated movie, but, by Pixar standards, it's for shame. You may ask yourself why there's a sequel in the works for their weakest film, and while I like to think it's because they feel like they could do better, it's hard to ignore the $5 billion in merchandise sales this film generated. Cars was a disappointment, but if the sequel isn't up to snuff, that will be the first blatant attempt at consumerism on Pixar's part, and that will truly break my heart.
Grade: B-

It's gotten to the point, with Pixar, where I hold my breath each time I hear about their next film. I keep waiting for The One, the irrifutably bad movie that will make them mortals, like any other studio. Before Brad Bird swooped in, at the urging of John Lasseter, Ratatouille was almost that film. During pre-production the previous director was removed, as the movie was not living up to the standards of Pixar. Bird was brought in, performed a major overhaul, and created an absolute gem of a film. It is the most visually sumptuous of all the Pixar movies, and marks a point of departure for the studio. The Incredibles aside, The Old Testament phase of Pixar was buddy comedies, with minor variations here and there. Ratatouille begins the New Testament, where Pixar started taking more chances with its stories. Given the results so far, I encourage the behaviour.
Grade: A

Now the studio has balls. From Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo, we have the most unusual Pixar film. Consider a children's movie where the first half hour is practically silent. Consider an adult movie where that happens, even. WALL-E features two protagonists incapable of speaking much more than their names, but it never stops us from connecting. A powerhouse of animation, WALL-E's emotions are conveyed entirely through body language and "eye" movement. Again, he's got character. The story is involving and dramatic, and distinctly funny. If the environmental overtones are a bit too prominent, they don't distract from the story, and Pixar prove that risk-taking still makes for great movies.
Grade: A
Outside of the amazing rendering behind those balloons (the colours!), the trailer for Up had me less than excited. I was ready for this to be The One. When I saw it in theaters, the opening ten minutes put my fears to rest, and made me realise just how wrong I was. Those first ten minutes encompass everything that makes Pixar great; for one, there is some sublime slapstick comedy. For another, the childhood relationship between Carl Frederickson and his future wife is established quickly, effectively, and endearingly. There are no words spoken as we watch them live life together, nor as we watch her grow ill, and, ultimately, die. The first ten minutes of Up were more emotionally touching than anything I've seen in the last two or three years. The rest of the movie has all the trappings of a wonderful, New Testament Pixar movie; a slightly askew story, wonderful characters, and ample humour.
Grade: A

So, there you have it. The first ten Pixar films. All of them are classics of the medium, most of them are classic films regardless. The next Pixar venture is Toy Story 3. I'm nervous, as is my habit, that it will be The One. But then I saw the teaser trailer, which is nothing more than Woody, Buzz and the crew fashioning a logo for the movie; hearing Tom Hanks and Tim Allen voicing their roles again actually made me feel good. It was nice to hear the characters again, and I can't wait to see how they fair this time around. That's what Pixar does so well. In their best films, they create characters who become parts of your life, who feel more real in some ways than any real-life character ever could. Thanks to Pixar, animation isn't a genre anymore, it has risen to the level of Medium, through which any type of story can be told.


Istvan Peter B'Racz said...

Right on!!!!!
It's refreshing to read someone who can actually write!

I liked The Fantastics more than you,
and Finding Nemo less
(somehow Ellen D's voice just didn't meld for me). You are right that with each new film,
Pixar seems to put themselves
on the edge of a huge cliff.
Bravo to them, really.

Keep up the great writing, Dear Sir!
Its ALWAYS a pleasure!

CC44 said...

Oddly enough, the grades don't reflect my personal opinions as far as how I'd rank them. Finding Nemo is behind Toy Story 2, WALL-E, The Incredibles, and Up, as far as my tastes run, but it's a situation where the movie is so beloved, and it's such an important film, that it deserves an A+. Not liking Dory is unfortunate, sir. You've been denied one of life's great pleasures.

Joe said...

This makes me feel as though I have no soul. Despite being sterdy movies, I can't stand Toy Story 2 or Ratatooie. In addition to that I've seen Toy Story and Finding Nemo so many times (which isn't so many, like 4 or 5) that I don't enjoy them anymore. I haven't seen Bug's Life since it came out.

The only ones I've seen, and can still enjoy are Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles.

Pixar has never has much rewatchability for me, despite their quality.