Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The House that Pixar Built


The Pixar I remember as a 7 year-old going to see Toy Story for the first time is no longer. Their wit, which was once simultaneously clever, universal, and sophisticated, has regressed into heartless snark, bad puns, and toilet humor. While Up is never as smug and contemptuous as the second act of last year's Wall-E, it similarly never reaches the sublime heights Wall-E did in its first half. Rather, Pixar has whored itself out to sugar daddy Disney and Up is the bastard child of clashing sensibilities.

In the world of Pixar, everything--- be it toys, insects, monsters, fish, cars, rats, or robots--- is given abundances of humanity. Everything, that is, with the exception of human beings. When a portrait of human beings is moved to center stage in a Pixar film, they can't contain their contempt for humankind. Be it the portrayal of human beings as fat, lazy, and destructive that shattered the otherwise splendid Wall-E or the bland caricaturizations in Up, Pixar shows that human beings themselves are not their strong suit. Like Up's protagonist, Pixar has become the cranky, disaffected old-man batting passersby with its cane. Up attempts to indict today's children (their core demographic, no less) with an overweight boy-scout who is ignorant of the world outside his insulated corporate landscape; and while this portrait isn't quite as mean-spirited as the citizens of the Axiom in Wall-E, it's still moralistic and snarky. Coming from a studio owned by no less than The Walt Disney Company, this is the equivalent of the pot calling the kettle black.

Which is not to imply that Up doesn't have its moments--- it certainly does. Things start out well enough with the delightful short Partly Cloudy, Pixar's finest short film to date (though they've all been memorable in their own right). If the short that preceded Wall-E--- the magnificent Presto--- was Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes-esque, then this is a perfect 3D re-inhabiting of Walt Disney's own Silly Symphonies. Unlike the feature that follows it, Partly Cloudy's use of 3D is inventive, subtle, and effective--- and proves that Pixar still has chops as visual storytellers.

Unfortunately, things get problematic pretty quickly with Up. Wall-E, at the very least, had sustained brilliance for its first 45 minutes before regressing to formulaic banality and a hateful depiction of humanity in its second half. Up begins with an admittedly touching montage showing the main character, Carl Fredrickson (voiced by Lou Grant himself, Ed Asner) and his wife's life together--- the only thing that separated them was death. This is an extremely simple but eloquent statement on the nature of love and loss, and would rank with Wall-E's first half as flawless visual storytelling. Carl's wife, Ellie, looms over the remainder of the film like a ghost, only the ghosts are those in Carl's soul.

This would rank among Pixar's finest moments, judged apart from the rest of the movie. However, the moment immediately after Pixar has pulled our heart-strings with the death of Carl's loved one it plays Carl's status as a sad, lonely, bitter old man for cheap laughs; the "Habanera" comes in on the soundtrack, as though we're supposed to be amused by the fact that Carl's days are numbered. This tacky juxtaposition makes all the sap that follows (which there is a lot of) ring false. But we wouldn't want to upset the kiddies with tragedy, so instead Pixar tosses some infantile slapstick in with their oppressive schmaltz. This would explain the need for the fat, stupid, annoying child (is there any other kind in the world of Pixar?) as a comic-relief sidekick, and endless lame jokes involving talking dogs (apparently, that's a joke that Disney/Pixar thinks gets funnier each time they tell it).

There is a moment early on in the film that would have made Tati proud. An exterior shot of Carl's wonderfully colorful house cuts to reveal that the house is alone in a sea of apartment and office buildings; a splash of imagination and personality in an increasingly homogenized society, driven by corporate interests. However, coming from Disney, the studio largely responsible for the collective dumbing down of the masses, this notion is dubious; they tried to play the same card in Wall-E, and it was fallacious then as well. This sentiment is made all the more ironic by the endless demographic pandering that follows; it tries to appease the children with lowbrow humor, it tries to appease the adults with bad puns and trite ruminations on life and death. The universal quality that made early Pixar so special has become as mechanical and formulaic as the worst of Disney's modern-day product that they peddle as entertainment.

Pixar is far from talentless, but they are willing to squander their talent to their corporate masters. This makes them something worse than hacks--- it makes them sellouts. The 3D in this film is just a tacked on marketing gimmick; after the inventive use of 3D in Henry Selick's Coraline, this unimaginative and extraneous use of the device is unacceptable. Pixar is so flippant with their gifts and resources that they're willing to exhibit Up and its extraordinary color-palette a shade darker simply for the sake of added revenue. Indeed, through a good chunk of the movie I found myself peeking from behind my 3D-glasses to take in the film's wondrous and imaginative art-direction without the obtrusive and distracting 3D. But Pixar doesn't care about aesthetics anymore; everything about Up reaks of cold, calculated marketing--- it's every bit as manufactured as the Pavlovian reception of these increasingly poorly made films.

Take the central imagery of the flying house in Up. The image of the house taking off is a breathtaking one--- as the balloons burst through the chimney and rip the house out of its foundation, the extraordinary use of color, contrast and tonality in this sequence heightens our senses. This is wild, spectacular imagery that sets the imagination on fire. However, when the main duo reaches South America in its second half, it focuses on banal plot mechanics and the spectacular use of color and image becomes mere window dressing for Disney/Pixar's adherence to trite formula and mechanical plot-beats. Ultimately, the spectacular art-direction is little more than the equivalent of cinematic bubble gum.

Maybe Disney can't do any better than this--- they lost their spark long before they acquired Pixar--- but Pixar Studios certainly can, and we deserve no less. That they think we do is the highest of insults. Ever since Walt Disney's death in 1966, DisneyCo's focus has been solely on increasing GDP and making their stock-holders richer (the company actually never turned a profit during Disney's life-time, as he would continually invest his earnings into bigger and more daring projects), and they have done this through a series of conservative (read: safe) business moves. It's always about the bottom line for DisneyCo. Now Pixar, once defined by unique artistry, is content to be just another asset--- another link in The Walt Disney Company's morally bankrupt chain. This makes them worthy not of our cheers, but our jeers. And they pilfer this infantile crap in the name of children's entertainment, as though they deserve any less than the best we can give them.

15 comments:

Adam said...

I'm sorry Ryan but, as you might have predicted, I can't follow you on this one.

Your growing distaste with Pixar over the years seems to have stemmed from a fundamental misreading of their work. Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter are all artists with unique visions not just in the animation world, but filmmaking in particular: Bird is brains, Stanton is wonder, Docter is heart.

Bird's films evoke the pessimism of the French New Wave. They have social commentaries worthy of Godard and Truffaut. His camera shots are often lifted from B-Movies (he once said that a deleted scene in "Ratatouille" was inspired by the opening of "Touch of Evil") and, when it comes to humans on film, he definately takes the most interest. His portrayals of people are not always pretty, but I see nothing too offensive in his work.

Stanton is more like a descendant of Kubrick and Spielberg. He's looking for that rare experience that is only witnessed once a dozen years. With "Finding Nemo", he pushed the graphic envelope (resulting in my favorite of Pixar's films) and with "WALL-E", he temporarily introduced silent cinema into modern animation.

Docter has yet to make a masterpiece and has not quite reached the heights of Brad or Stanton (or Lasseter), but he's making progress. With "Monsters Inc." and "Up", he's definately the sentimentalist at Pixar, but the lack of cynicism in the projects he chooses is refreshing. It's good to have somebody daring to be Capra-esque in these tough economic times.

When I saw "Up", I didn't see the "infantile" film that you did. I saw a film about an elderly man who was relentless in sticking to his goal, even though, deep down, it wasn't much of a goal at all. Then, when he realizes that what he needs more is compansionship, he shifts gears. I don't recall any "bodily fluids" jokes in the film; if there were, however, they were definately sporadic. The film is, yeah, pretty conventional, and I thought the ending was a bit anti-climatic (and the talking dogs didn't add much, either), but set all of that aside and what you have left is good stuff. "Up" is essentially a very pleasurable film about enjoying life after middle age, and I'm thankful that we aren't left with a feeling that Karl is going to be kicking the bucket anytime soon. He's got a good future ahead of him.

Adam said...

One thing I will agree with you on: the 3-D fot the film was bad. I should have listened to Ebert's advice and gone to see the original film instead.

Now, onto your main criticisms of Pixar.

As I posted on your Facebook profile, Pixar's portrayal of children and adults is not unlike that of the original films in the 1940's. Remember Lampwick in "Pinocchio"? An annoying kid who smokes cigars, laughs at crickets and calls himself a "jackass". That sounds pretty crude for an animated kid in 1941, don't you think? But then Lampwick is punished for his sins by transforming into a hideous donkey, resulting in perhaps the most terrifying sequence ever captured in an animated film. THIS is why Disney has had a history of demonizing its children characters; so that it can be a lesson for all juvenile audiences not to follow their same fate. This is assuming that other kids have seen what I've seen, and it certainly made an impression on me. (that's a paraphrased movie quote, by the way!).

Disney's villains, especially the adults, are always these snarky, long-nosed shadowy creatures like the one Christopher Plummer plays in "Up". Captain Hook, Stromboli, the Queen of Hearts, Cruella de Vil and the hag in "Snow White" are all these threatening, German-influenced monstrosities... in their own way, they're also likable as well!

I was disappointd to hear you say that Disney has been burned out since the 60's. Though it is true that they have rarely shined bright in recent years, I'm surprised that you didn't mention at least one great film: "Beauty and the Beast". What a wonderful flick. The music, the voiceovers and the adaptation of the original story all resulted in this milestone. On the side, Disney also had a few small gems (like "The Brave Little Toaster" and "The Great Mouse Detective") although it is true that, by the late-90's, they began getting less artistic and more commercial.

I'm not ashamed to confess my love for Pixar. They are the masters of modern animation. There's a reason why they keep winning the Oscar every year (or every other year): they release only one film a year that is perfected and carefully planned, unlike DreamWorks and Disney, which both prefer to release at least two or three of their stuff every year with no other ambitions other than to ensure that their audiences have something to do on a rainy day.

You're right, Pixar isn't what it was back in 1995... because it has evolved into something more sophisticated!

Ryan Kelly said...

No need for apologies, Adam. You've stated your position politely and eloquently and that's never anything to be sorry for.

Belive me, I wish I could get behind Pixar. To me, Toy Story is a movie that is full of promise. And there have certainly been moments of greatness in their features (and as I said in the piece I absolutely adore their shorts, to me they get better and better).

Bird is definitely the best thing the studio has going for them right now, I think. I really do like The Incredibles, but you can't deny that there is something elitist and somewhat snarky about that movie's world-view. I really didn't enjoy Ratatouille when I saw it in the theater, but it's also one that I've been inclined to revisit since I first watched it. So that says something right there.

I'm not sure about the Spielberg thing, my friend. Look at the rich, multi-faceted portrayal of childhood in E.T, Empire of the Sun and A.I.. Compare this to the portrait of children in Up: as overweight, ignorant, and lazy. I didn't get any insights into Russell (I had to go to IMDb to look up the character's name, so much of the film has so much faded from my memory), he was just a tacked on side-kick there to make what were, to me, unfunny jokes. He was a mechanical device because the movie couldn't be specifically old man-centric. Again, Disney/Pixar has demographics to keep in mind.

I tried to be fair and talk about the movie's good qualities, too. There is no doubt it has its moments. But, like Wall-E, it shifts gears abruptly and becomes formulaic. I just didn't see much invention here, I'm sorry to say.

As for the Lampwick thing that makes perfect sense in the moral context of Pinocchio, a blatant Biblical allegory. Pinocchio, to me, has a moral center, while Up does not.

If you could criticize the portrayal of human's in Disney's pictures, it's that they tend to lack personality because he makes them almost God-like. He overdid the eminence in some of his movies. In other words, the reverse of Pixar.

I doubt that they're the 'masters' of modern animation very much. In fact, this is part of my problem with Pixar: general audiences pretty much don't accept anything but Pixar style films as animation, in the same way that Walt Disney monopolized animation when he first started. Unlike Pixar, though, Disney's first ten years are defined by non-stop aesthetic and formal invention.

And I have a fondness for many of the films after Disney's death, but you can't deny on the whole they're kind of predictable and stale, especially in comparison with the older stuff. And yes, Beauty and the Beast is among the studio's best easily.

Adam said...

All good points you have summed up. I'll get back to them in a jiffy when I have time.

Did you notice that feminist bloggers are taking a liking to your blog? Haha. Some 40-year old woman realized that she was among those who likes "Mission to Mars" and has been ridiculed for it!

Ryan Kelly said...

I don't know if they're taking a liking, Adam. A blogger by the name of MaryAnn Johanson said I made her feel "invisible and dismissed" for a sarcastic remark I made about "girls blogging, too" in my piece entitled "Notes on the Blogaissance". Now, I thought it was quite obvious that was a joke, but Ms. Johanson decided to be reactionary and just lump me in with other, legitimately mysogynist statements. Which is down-right offensive and wrong.

Not to mention, the piece (where she is calling out male-bloggers for sexism begins with the sentence "Men, bless their blindered little hearts, really, really don’t get it". I mean, I don't know if the irony was intentional, but there you have it.

Adam said...

Yikes. I must have thought that she felt, you know... TURNED ON by feeling invisible, lol. How naive of me.

Don't worry. They just hate us because we worship De Palma, who, as they say, is the ultimate mysogynist. I'm probably more guilty than you are, of course, since I am also a Peckinpah/Milius/Verhoeven/Cameron mysgonynist...

Rick Olson said...

Pixar has whored itself out to sugar daddy Disney and Up is the bastard child of clashing sensibilities. ...

Go get 'em, Ryan. But I've been sour on Pixar from, oh, about "Toy Story II"

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, you are terribly naive. =P

Anyway, I know De Palma was categorized as misogynist, but two of his films this decade pretty much refute that. One of the most important things about Mission to Mars is the way it treats men and women as equal. Femme Fatale is a very deep rumination on the image of women in art, from the Madonna to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

As for your list, Peckinpah is definitely misogynist (a big part of why I'm not huge on his movies), and Verhoeven I think is extremely facetious about it. He's just glibly and gleefully pandering to American audiences expectations of sex and violence. He's very critical of testosterone.

Ryan Kelly said...

Rick, I do kind of agree that Toy Story 2 was the definite point where they started to sink, though I'll admit I do like the second Toy Story. In terms of Disney sequels, it's probably the best there was or will be (not saying much).

I'm not sour on them so much as frustrated. They have the talent. They have the resources. They choose to squander it on Disney's bankrupt movie making formulas. To paraphrase Zappa, they're only in it for the money.

Adam said...

I know I'm getting off-topic, but Peckinpah wasn't actually a mysoginist. "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" took a role that could have been thankless (a hooker) and instead built on it: Stella Stevens herself has even commented on why she thought it was a strong role for her. Some people believe "Straw Dogs" is mysoginistic (and indeed, some of the females in the movie really are dumb), but Peckinpah wrote that the film was really all about women's suffering and why it is a serious problem. I agree.

I'd say Peckinpah and De Palma are on par together in the way they portray females. And Peckinpah is most definately like Verhoeven in that he's critical of testosterone; as Norman Jewison has commented on "The Wild Bunch", it is an anti-violent film.

bill r. said...

Ryan, I haven't seen Up (or Wall-E, for that matter), but I still think you're out of your fucking mind.

You too, Rick.

Ryan Kelly said...

This is different from the way you normally feel about me... how?

I'd rather be wrong than dishonest!

And, for what it's worth, I'd say Up is the first of their movies I flat out did not like. Even if I do have major psychotic issues with Wall-E. I'm not crazy about the rat movie, either, but I like what Brad Bird does with animation.

Pat said...

Ryan -

I'm skimming this review for now, but planning to finally see "Up" sometime this week. I'll definitely be back to read your review in detail after I've seen it myself.

Ryan Kelly said...

I'm curious where you'll stand--- will you be like Rick, who thiks I'm right on the money? Will you side with Bill, who thinks I'm completely off my rocker? (which is absolute nonsense--- I was never on my rocker to begin with. If I ever write a book, it will echo Pauline Kael's book "I Lost it at the Movies", except mine will be called "I Lost it Long Before I Ever Set Foot in a Movie Theater". That has a nice ring to it). Or will you be like Adam, who all but agrees?

Time, as they say, will tell. I'm just happy you stopped into visit me, Pat.

Eric R. said...

I don't know about that Ryan. I found it easy to sympathize with the film's protagonist. Yes the early montage of his long and happy life with Ellie was heartbreaking (and it affected me on a level that I don't think any other animated movie has) but the film does not take any of that away when it transitions from sadness to laughter. I found it to be the film's message that we find the ability to move on with our lives despite how upset we may feel. I also felt that the jokes were funny because even if they were clearly aimed at children or adults it was still easy to fall under their charm because the characters (at least I think) were so lovable.

The boy scout was in many ways annoying but also charming and funny because we know that we have encountered kids like these throughtout different points in our lives.

The film did head into formulaic paths when it came closer to reaching its conclusion and the third act is definitely its weakest. But, nonetheless, the film was entertaining and I found myself caring for the characters deeply. Even for the talking-robot dog (who was funny) and the tall bird.

I think you looked at some things in the wrong way. Wall-E, for example, portrayed human beings in a negative way but it had much reason to do so. It was a warning and thoughtful observation on technology improvements and our consumerist culture. That was the thing about Wall-E that despite not being among the best Pixar films made it special, because it really had something to say. Neither Wall-E or Up were as great as Finding Nemo or the brilliant Ratatouille but they are good films that deserve recognition.