THE BACK PAGES

THE PROBLEM WITH PIXAR

The famous animation company is making artistic films, but cheap laughs seem to be winning at the box office

JAIME J. WEINMAN July 7 2008
THE BACK PAGES

THE PROBLEM WITH PIXAR

The famous animation company is making artistic films, but cheap laughs seem to be winning at the box office

JAIME J. WEINMAN July 7 2008

THE PROBLEM WITH PIXAR

THE BACK PAGES

film

The famous animation company is making artistic films, but cheap laughs seem to be winning at the box office

JAIME J. WEINMAN

Pixar is the world's most famous animation company, thanks to computer-animated smashes like Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. But lately, its movies have felt more like art films. Ratatouille, its first release after merging with Disney, was a two-hour story about food, art and creation that was almost too complex for children, and performed less well in North America

than expected. And while writer-director Andrew Stanton delivered Pixar’s biggest hit with 2003 ’s Finding Nemo, his new film, WALLE, opening June 27, is a science fiction epic with minimal dialogue and a big social message. Stanton said at a roundtable discussion in Toronto (reprinted on pixarblog. blogspot.com) that he made WALL-E, which is getting ecstatic reviews, because “it’s about time we started pushing the envelope a little more. Hopefully, opening the audience’s experience.” But judging from box-office returns, audiences may be moving toward animated movies that don’t try to expand their experience. That doesn’t mean Pixar is in trouble yet. But it may mean that Pixar has lost control of the form it created.

Pixar and its three main directors may dominate modern animation, but that status can change very quickly. When Pixar pro-

duced its first animated feature, Toy Story, in 1995, Walt Disney pictures was on a huge animation winning streak and distributed Pixar’s film as a side project. By 2006, when Pixar and Disney merged, Pixar co-founder John Lasseter was put in charge of both studios’ animation departments.

Pixar isn’t only famous for its success, but for giving animation directors a degree of creative freedom unmatched in the history of animated features. Pixar directors, such as Lasseter, Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and Stanton, create original stories— Pixar doesn’t do adaptations—work on scripts, and control every aspect of the production. After Disney animation had been choked off by over-interference from non-animators, Pixar was viewed as an artistic oasis in a corporatized cartoon world. Thomas Huxley, editor-in-chief of UpcomingPixar.com, sums up this view when he says: “I think the money has been secondary to them, and making a good movie first.” Even with the Disney merger, there is an almost superstitious respect for Lasseter and co-founder Ed Catmull; animation critic Harry McCracken says that while he was initially worried about plans for Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, he decided that “if anyone can figure out how to make sequels that aren’t retreads, its Pixar.” Even with slightly lower box office for recent films, Pixar is the company that can do no wrong.

But you could have said the same thing about Disney in the mid ’90s. Movies like Pocahontas, Hercules and Tarzan made lots of money, though not as much as earlier films like The Lion King. They were to Disney as Ratatouille and Cars are to Pixar. But Disney was on the verge of being left behind by a new style that it hadn’t adjusted to. Something similar could eventually happen to Pixar. While Pixar’s movies are still popular, the type of computer animation that’s most

popular is removed from the Pixar style. New hits like the Shrek movies (from DreamWorks) or Ice Age (from Fox) rely on a style that’s fast, topical, and disposable. Brandon Neeld, who runs the popular Pixar Planet website, explains that the difference between Pixar and the rest of the animation world is that “Pixar movies aren’t held together by toilet humour and pop-culture references that bring in the kiddies for a big blockbuster weekend and then get cast aside.”

Sometimes these non-Pixar movies turn out to be pretty good; Huxley says that Kung Fu Panda, the latest DreamWorks hit, is their

first movie that "focused more on the story than jokes and pop-culture references." And m . on the pop-culture movie story that than references.” And they follow the Pixar example in some respects; they’ve especially learned from the fact that Pixar’s movies all focus on male characters and appeal the most to boys. (Michael Hanscom, a computer analyst who blogs at michaelhanscom. com, dubbed WALL-E “MISOGYN-E” and says that while he likes Pixar, he’s not going to see their movies in theatres “until we see some evidence that they’ve let a girl into the clubhouse to play.”) But for the most part, these movies are far away from Pixar’s artist-oriented approach.

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Outside Pixar, the non-animating produ-

cers, like Paramount and Disney veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, are more powerful than the animators. The scripts are written not by the directors but by sitcom writers. And unlike Pixar, which uses some famous voices but doesn’t publicize them much, other studios make celebrity voices (Jack Black, Jerry Seinfeld) the literal stars of the films. No one is imitating Pixar’s artistdriven business model; instead, ex-Pixar employees have gone to other studios to make joke-laden features like Surf’s Up. Pixar’s movies, by comparison, aren’t precisely difficult movies—Stanton admitted to comingsoon.net that underneath the experimental trappings, WALL-E “is a very conventional love story, just told through very unconventional means with very unconventional characters”—but they avoid the butt jokes and Matrix references. David A. Price, author of the book The Pixar Touch: the Making of a Company, explains that “outside of Pixar, studios often seem to believe that a film isn’t relevant to adults unless it’s ‘edgy.’ ” Price adds that Pixar prefers to appeal to adults by trying “to give its characters adult-like problems.” All the other studios seem to have decided that that approach would just drive adults away.

This can be taken as a sign of how far ahead Pixar is when it comes to artistry: McCracken comments that “respect for the audience’s intelligence is one of their defining characteristics.” Whereas most cartoons soft-pedal messages and emphasize comedy, recent Pixar films have moved toward bigger issues, even if they’re using robots and rats to make their points. Brad Bird’s Pixar movies push messages about the need for exceptionally talented people to rise above the mediocrity of the world, which brought accusations of right-wing Randianism (to which he responded by saying “I’m definitely a centrist and feel like both parties can be absurd”). And though WALL-E’s hero, a robot in a world where all the humans have been forced to evacuate, resembles the robot from the ’80s movie Short Circuit, Andrew Stanton has a bigger theme, about the impact of consumerism

upon the environment, that has caused WALLE to be jokingly referred to as an animated version oí An Inconvenient Truth. Pixar started out with Toy Story, an unpretentious alternative to Disney’s preachy Pocahontas. Now it’s not only trying to make us relate to robots and rats; it’s trying to teach us something.

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Artistically, this makes sense, but so did Walt Disney’s experiments with serious issues in the early ’40s, in the dark and downbeat moments from Fantasia or Bambi—movies that were artistic triumphs but didn’t make back their huge costs. Ratatouille reportedly disturbed some younger theatre-goers with its length and seriousness, and the box-office analysis site The-Numbers.com fretted that WALL-E would be “a very difficult movie to market to families.” Today, what an animated movie means to families is Kung Fu Panda at best and Bee Movie at worst. Pixar’s movies are profitable, but they haven’t reversed the trend away from Pixar’s kind of movie.

Of course, a lot of people still seem happy with Pixar, even with their last few movies. “Outside the company,” Price says, “there has been some sniping because the high point for Pixar’s box-office grosses was Finding Nemo back in 2003. But it’s all relative.” Ratatouille’s European setting made it a smash hit overseas, and while Cars didn’t do quite as well, it became what Price describes as “a money machine with merchandising,” and a sequel has been green-lit so as to sell more toys. The only danger for Pixar is that other studios could do to it what it once did to Disney: leave it behind when a new format comes in. Already, studios are anticipating that full-fledged 3-D animation (with or without special glasses) will be the next step in the medium, and Pixar is slightly behind the curve: the studio

announced that its future movies will be in 3-D, but by then DreamWorks’ Katzenberg had already committed to 3-D.

If WALL-E is a hit, then Pixar won’t have to worry, at least not until its next movie, which looks to be the least kid-friendly project yet: Up, the wacky adventures of a 78-year-old man voiced by Ed Asner. These story choices may seem unusual now in an era where every other animated studio is doing comedies about wisecracking animals. But just as Walt Disney was vindicated by the enduring popularity of his films, Pixar is hoping that its movies will have a longer shelf life than the DreamWorks-type movies. If not, their creative freedom might not last forever: “Now that they are a part of Disney,” Huxley says, “the money is becoming increasingly important.” There’s still a chance that Pixar could lose ground to other studios that are less artful but more crassly commercial, just the way Disney lost ground in the ’90s. But at least Disney was losing ground to Pixar; Pixar needs to avoid losing ground to DreamWorks and DreamWorks knock-offs. That would really sting.