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Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Pixar Beats Disney

A week from today, Up will be out on dvd, and we'll be picking up our copy soon thereafter. Why shouldn't we? It was a charming, sometimes heart-breakingly real, sometimes gut-bustingly hilarious ("Squirrel!") bit of movie-making...just like nearly everything Pixar has done. The truth is, the mark of Pixar is pretty reliably pure gold: everything people used to say about the "Disney touch" now should be more properly said about Pixar. Disney may own Pixar, but Pixar has thoroughly beaten Disney's own record at their own game.

When I was an undergraduate, back in the late 80s and early 90s, everyone was talking about and watching Disney movies. Well, fine, yes, I was attending BYU, where no one was supposed to watch rated-R movies (er, emphasis on the "supposed to"...), so perhaps the Disney fan-base was pretty built-in. Still, it wasn't just Utah Mormons; it was all sorts of folks. There was the whole "Disney Renaissance" thing, with critics taking up the drumbeat: a Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast, a campaign to give Robin Williams a Best Actor nomination for the role of the Genie in Aladdin (which, really, he should have gotten: it's his best, most focused, and hence funniest, comic performance on film). It was a good time to be a fan of animated films. But for those of us really hooked on the movies it was, at most, a throwback to the Golden Age of Disney. Back before cable television and Disney's leveraging of itself into a multimedia empire, back when its corporate presence was basically confined to Anahaim, Orlando, and The Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights, those classic films--Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Fantasia, Bambi, and the greatest of them all, Pinocchio (don't fight me on this, because you'll lose: as a mix of musical comedy, medieval Everyman tale, and moralistic bildungsroman, it's simply a flawless film)--were all we needed to know about what a great run of filmmaking meant. Those films, all gems, all produced in a five-year period, set a standard that Disney, or any other studio really, could never repeat or match.

Except that Pixar has.

In fifteen years, Pixar has made ten films, and there's not a dud in the lot. When you have a situation where someone asks what the worst film a studio has made is, and you end up pointing to such fun but less-than-truly-brilliant movies like A Bug's Life or Cars (though personally, I would elevate Cars above that group, and bring Ratatouille down onto it), then you're looking at something simply unprecedented in the history of film, I think; at the very least, unprecedented in the annals of animated filmmaking. Pixar use of technology, music, characterization, color, editing, storyboarding, vocalization, and more, is a damn near unmatchable labor of love. There was a run of four Pixar films beginning a decade ago--Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo (the best of the lot, I think--a Pinocchio-level achievement in animated story-telling), and The Incredibles--in which each one could credibly claim to have been the best American movie released that year. You just can't touch that. Disney itself certainly can't. And Pixar isn't letting up: WALL-E brought into theaters around the country a note-perfect silent-movie comedy sequence, and Up didn't just give us a film that parents and kids could enjoy together, but an adventure story which combined with a tale of resistance and acceptance that spoke truths about aging and change that everyone needs to hear.

It's just astonishing, when you think about it. When will Pixar ever make a bad film? Never, I hope.


Melissa said...

Um, love, it's Robin. Not Ron. :-) Other than that, spot on.

Tracy M said...

Agreed and agreed, RAF. I do like Cars better than Ratatouille, but like you said, there is hardly a blemish among the peaches.

No arguement about Pinocchio either. Try watching it and just focusing on the backgrounds. It's a stunning piece of art- and even the others of it's five-year creative period and genre cannot compete.

sister blah 2 said...

Love Pixar, but super bummed out about the lack of a single film in that long list of hits that has a female protagonist.

Maybe they're trying to do some affirmative action because girls have the Disney Princess(tm) line, but can we even compare the two as far as what you'd want a young son and daughter to be digesting?

Tracy M said...

Pocahantas was a good protagonist for Disney, and while I still have my beefs with how she was drawn, overall I don't have too many issues with her.

I would like to see Pixar toss in a girl, too.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Made the correction, Melissa. Thanks.

Tracy, I like what you say about Pinocchio's backgrounds. They really are complex and gorgeous (and thereby, unfortunately, just show up the cheap hackwork later Disney animators made of the backgrounds in films from the 60s through the 80s). I used to argue that until and unless the computer learns to do everything the human hand can do, then Pinocchio will stand as the pinnacle of animated art. We may have gotten to that point...but then again, maybe not.

Sister Blah and Tracy, I agree; Pixar's stories thusfar have been entirely boy-centric; they haven't yet created as powerful a story for my daughters as Pocahantas or, even better, Mulan (my favorite of the "post-revival" Disney flicks). I've no doubt they can do it, but they haven't yet.

Vada said...

I agree that Pixar is amazing. I take issue with suggesting that Cars is near the bottom of their repertoire. I have seen the film hundreds of times (very, very literally), and I still enjoy it every time. That is an act of pure film-making genius.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"bring Ratatouille down onto it"

Why? I'm startled.


David Orlev said...

I do love Pixar movies , and there is no doubt the Disney made it's best deal buying Pixar and the latest purchase , Marvel. Disney Cars is probably the top money making machine selling cars products even 3 years after it's release. Zoom...Zoom...Zoom

Russell Arben Fox said...

Jacob, I'm not saying I think Ratatouille is a bad movie; I just don't think it obviously one of their best efforts. There's not a single Pixar film that rates less than a solid B, which is a great record for the studio. But Ratatouille isn't an A. I think my main beef is with Linguini, who is presented to us as a likable stooge, but to me just came off as grating, and a weak crutch to get the conceit of the movie (the rat is a chef!) to work as well. Remy can control Linguini's arms by pulling on his hair? Man, Pixar, you can do better than that.

kuri said...

I mostly agree with you about Pixar's brilliance, but I don't think they're untouchable. Studio Ghibli is very much in the same league. Their four-film run (in only three years) of "Castle in the Sky," "Grave of the Fireflies," "My Neighbor Totoro," and "Kiki's Delivery Service" is at least the equal of Pixar's.

Marya said...

I love Ratatouille, and despise Nemo, so go figure. For me Marlon is the irredeemably awful character. Linguini is a bit of a schmoe, but he's capable of appreciating true greatness.

Agreed though that Pixar has had an impressive run. Up made me cry repeatedly. Really strongly emotional stuff about love and hope and the value of illusions woven throughout the adventure.

Rob said...

For me, "Ratatouille" and "WALL-E" lacked some the 'zing' that the others have all had - altho certainly they were by no means duds. ("A Big's Life" was also kinda "meh" for me, but hey, it was their first foray.) But unlike all of the others, I have not revisited these, so subsequent viewings may change my mind...

"Ratatouille" is artistically lush and textured in much the same way as "Pinocchio" but just didn't connect with me nearly so strongly as the others.

There are so many things that Pixar always does right, but the key element is that they never commit the unforgivable sin that Lucas (and to a great degree Spielberg) has - to become so enamored with the eye candy that it forces quality, compelling storytelling to the background. You never focus first on the gee-wiz technology aspect of a Pixar film. So many other filmmakers forget to awe you with the beauty of their stories, instead are content to make you slack-jawed with the technology of their visuals.

My 3 yr old has been fixated with "Cars" for a couple of months now, so we've watched portions of it repeatedly. Like all of their films, it's so layered with subtleties that you can't begin to appreciate everything they slipped in there without watching it half a dozen times.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Marya, Marlin an "irredeemably awful character"? Wow, I really don't see how you can get that at all. But, as I said elsewhere as part of this same conversation, different strokes, I guess.

Nice to see all the love for Cars. I recognize that few consider it at the top of Pixar's heap, and I can understand the arguments as to why that is, but I personally think it's fabulous all the same.