Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Great Overrated Pixar?

It's that time again... Time for another ramble! Proceed with caution...

An article on Animation Scoop made the rounds recently, one that posited that Pixar's films are ultimately average... Especially when compared to animated films that, in the writer's opinion, are the high bar. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, My Neighbor Totoro, and The Secret of Kells. Positing that the studio is not a team of true innovators on the cutting edge of animation certainly riled some up, I definitely didn't agree with it either... but I can somewhat see where he's coming from despite my love for the studio, and the fact that I do consider them to be successful at doing cool stuff with the medium.

I can see where some frustration for Pixar's accolades can lie, and some of Pixar's praise does get on my nerves... But it's not because of the studio's films, like I said. I love Pixar, but my frustration is towards what is said about these films. This isn't necessarily a response to Mr. Kenny's article, but rather my particular gripes with how Pixar is received, and how I think it kind of hurts animation as a whole.

Pixar is almost a genre, if you are to ask some people out there. Over the years, I've gotten the feeling that Pixar is considered by non-fans of animation to be the only gold standard in animation. All animated films should aspire to be like Pixar's, all animated films should follow their model. The other studios are naturally pale by comparison...

I remember when Pixar made their quartet of smashes, the very films that audiences and critics alike adored. Films that seemed to define the studio and everything that was so great about them: Unconventional culinary comedy Ratatouille, post-apocalyptic space bound robot love story WALL-E, heartfelt kooky adventure-drama Up, and the very climactic Toy Story 3. Some of these were pictures that were risky in a sense, as some asked... Who would want to see a movie about a rat wanting to cook? Robots in love? Pass! An old man in a flying house? Where's the refund? These very undeniably creative movies. When these films came out and shocked critics and audiences, I soon heard people say things like "Pixar is the only good studio in Hollywood", "Pixar could make a film about paint drying and it would be great", "Pixar can do no wrong"...

It was almost as if no other animation studio could achieve what they were doing. Great, more than competent animated films from other houses often went ignored because of this. Critics and people often get shocked when another house makes a film that's of high quality, and often compare them to Pixar's. Even the films of the revived Walt Disney Animation Studios! Remember those articles saying that they were a lost cause until Pixar "came along and saved them"? Pixar didn't save Walt Disney Animation Studios, cleaning the studio of micromanaging executives was what saved them. Anyone with a knowledge of animation history should know that.

All this praise sort of tread into hyperbolic territory. Pixar indeed made excellent films, but to say that they are perfection, that they can make anything work, I think this sort of became their undoing. If another studio had made something like Cars and its sequel, I don't think they would get as much vitriol as they do. Cars' first installment alone is like the perfect antithesis to something like WALL-E. One movie is "true Pixar", the other one isn't and is a "letdown". This is where I get a bit irritated. The very films that Pixar is praised for are not the ones that decidedly take it easy and go traditional, the ones that are a little more simplistic on the surface. You'll often hear that Pixar's worst are those very films: A Bug's Life, Cars, Brave, Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur. Films that are "nothing" films, films that are "more for kids than adults". This is a day and age where a "great" animated feature has to be "complex", it has to be filled with elaborate plots, it has to be hyper-fantastical and through the roof, with non-stop quips and clever little twists and turns that make your head spin in awe... Or frustration...

This is where the problem lies, and this is also why Pixar gets bit in the rear for making a less ambitious movie. I feel that Pixar is being expected to make a specific kind of movie, almost as if they have to follow a "formula"... It's evident in the critical reception that those "simpler" movies got. It's also evident in the way a lot of modern writers, who happen to be Pixar acolytes, write about the films of Walt Disney. A lot of these writers, and if you've been here for a while you'll know that this is a massive pet peeve of mine, often write Walt's films off as simplistic children's films. Films that needed to be "complex" in order to be better, as if complexity and tons of little complications and plot points make an animated film an all-time great.

There's a lot of ignorance towards Walt's films in a lot of these articles and such. Everyone seems to forget that Walt layered his films with emotional texture and rich characters, he didn't need Inside Out-like pocket-watch plots that have all these moving gears in order to make his movies great or "adult". Walt understood that characters, the telling of the story itself, and entertaining audiences came first. Snow White doesn't make all-time greatest films lists because of pretty colors and songs and nostalgia. Intricacies and neat little things are mere tricks if the storytelling does not resonate. Inside Out is a great film because of what it does with those things, not because it has them to begin with. The same goes for WALL-E, Up, The Incredibles, and so on...

I think expecting animation to tell a certain kind of story is hurting the medium, and hurting Pixar...

Storytelling comes in many forms and sizes. Animation can tackle anything, from big fantastical epics to small-scale dramas that have nothing fantastical about them. Brad Bird once said in an interview that he was told by some old masters that there's no point in doing something in animation if it could easily be done in live-action, but he didn't agree with this mentality. Look at very human-centric films like Anomalisa, I think animation can do any kind of story it wants... The filmmakers just have to justify their choice of medium, and do something with what they have. When Pixar goes a little smaller and does something that's not as inventive as WALL-E or Up or Inside Out, a streak of disappointment flows through even the more positive reactions...

The other day, Birth.Movies.Death ran a great defense piece on The Good Dinosaur, a film whose detractors really really felt slapped in the face by. I think this particular passage sums it all up for me...

"True, The Good Dinosaur could never have lived up to the high-concept cleverness of Inside Out, almost unfairly released a few months earlier. It’s true also that its own original concept - that of the dino-killing asteroid missing Earth 65 million years ago - doesn't play out in the way many audiences expected it would. But The Good Dinosaur has a lot to offer audiences who approach it on its own terms, rather than in comparison to other Pixar films or a nonexistent film they imagined in their heads. Walk with The Good Dinosaur, and you’ll find a visually gorgeous, minimalist survival Western filled with weirdos, danger, and surprisingly mature themes."

Mr. Todd's conclusion hits the nail on the head as well.

"The Good Dinosaur isn’t the intimidatingly clever fare we’ve come to expect from Pixar, no. But it’s also not trying to be. It’s a traditional adventure story, and as it turns out, Pixar does traditional adventure very well. Approach The Good Dinosaur as the simple, lyrical, old-school Western parable it’s striving to be, and you’ll be rewarded for it. It’s Pixar’s prettiest movie, and also the scariest, and that alone makes it something of a marvel."

"Intimidatingly clever"... I quite like that description. That's the very movie that Pixar will get praised for, the very movie that will get another animation studio a comparison to Pixar. Another studio can make a decent or solid picture and get a pass for it, Pixar won't get one for doing the same. There will always be that sense of disappointment in the reviews and reactions. You can't expect animation to be one thing in order to be greatness, while letting films that don't aim way too high off the hook.

The modern American animation mantra is all about plot and complexity and a certain kind of imaginative wackiness, a criteria that something like Inside Out totally meets. See, those things being the major golden rules is rather limiting. It's limiting to Pixar, it's limiting to animation and film in general, and it's rendering Walt Disney's finest films invalid. Storytelling can go many routes, and to say that animation should only strive to tell stories like say, Inside Out or WALL-E, is an anchor on animation's freedom to explore its limitless possibilities.

Less can really be more. A story can be intimate, or big and wild, or quiet, or loud. It could have an air-tight plot, or it could have absolutely no plot at all and still be wonderful. (Movie likes Fantasia and Yellow Submarine immediately come to mind.) A story can have any tone or any level of surrealism. What if someone wanted to make an animated period piece or biodrama or intimate story that was not fantastical and hyper-inventive in any way? What if someone wanted to make a film that hit you in other ways, all without the need for plot? It can still do something great in different ways. It doesn't need Up or Inside Out-like heights in order to sit on a lofty pedestal.

I'm sorry, but to hold Pixar - a studio that operates like Walt Disney did in the 1950s that often takes some big risks - to this specific standard and judge all animation by it, is hurtful to the medium. No, what we should be doing is asking... What is the animated feature in question going to do and how is it going to do it? Does it do it well? Like Roger Ebert would say, "It's not what it is about, it's how it is about it." When a new animated movie comes out, be it something like Zootopia or Moana or Sausage Party or even something like Angry Birds, we shouldn't measuring it on a scale from 1 to Pixar. Or 1 to Ghibli, as some people do. Animation should strive for greatness and freshness, period. Innovation is all part of that, too, and indeed vital to the medium's growth. To get all of that perfectly woven together is the ultimate trophy, but I think measuring everything to the wonderful films of Pixar or just one studio in general should stop. You might as well say every film director should emulate the best of Steven Spielberg. Just one single person.

When seeing a great new animated film, critics should simply say it's a great film. No need to be shocked that it's "like Pixar", or that it should be like the Emeryville team's output to begin with. I think them being singled out like this leads to people voicing their concerns, and how they feel that Pixar can be "overrated". I think Pixar indeed deserves praise, but it shouldn't resort to hyperbole that shuts out other animation studios and their great works.

American feature animation would be stronger if creators did their own thing, and were encouraged to do so, and not be told that they are living in the shadow of one studio...


  1. Wow awesome post you are a great writter

  2. To be honest, I never heard of "A Bug's Life" being one of Pixar's worst films. I have heard, however, that despite being critically acclaimed at the time when the film was released in 1998, it never made as much of an impact as "Toy Story" from 3 years earlier.

  3. The fact Pixar tends to act like they're obligated to stick to the formula they've been doing for years (as in, it *does* seem as if critics told them to make their films in a certain way) does tend to annoy me a little bit as well. Not every one of their films have to be structured or be as ambitious as "Inside Out" or "Toy Story"!