It’s hard to think of a studio more singularly adored than Pixar Animation Studios, the creators of “WALL-E,” “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo.” Of course, they weren’t always everybody’s favorite. The studio started out as an experimental, computer-based component to George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic effects house, one that Lucas had so little faith in that he promptly sold the team to Apple founder Steve Jobs, who looked at Pixar as a well to sell sophisticated graphics processors (the initial short films that created so much buzz and attention were supposed to serve as mere tech demonstrations). The artists at Pixar, however always had one clear goal in mind: a feature-length animated movie, groundbreaking in the same ways Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was way back in 1937. Pixar accomplished this (with Disney’s help) in 1995 with “Toy Story” and since then have gone on to achieve an unparalleled streak of critical and commercial success, amassing nearly 30 Oscars and almost $8 billion worldwide (they were sold in 2006 to Disney for more than $7 billion, so they’re finally making a profit!) But, contrary to popular opinion, they’re not perfect.
In fact, there are a handful of nagging problems with Pixar movies to date, that show some of the seams of their successes. And it takes someone who is obsessed with the studio and their films to even be able to point out these issues. It’s also worth noting that when Pixar started, none of the principles were, you know, filmmakers. For lack of a better word, they were technicians, working desperately to craft the new technology to fit their storytelling needs. This makes the studio’s accomplishments (especially early on) even more impressive and explains, at least somewhat, some of their shortcomings.
1.) A Lack of Strong Female Characters
The most glaring (and frequently written about) problem with Pixar is their severe lack of strong female characters (yes, we’ll get to “Brave” in a minute). When Joss Whedon was brought onboard “Toy Story” to try to fix some major problems with the initial scripts (a three-week job that stretched into a four-month residency), one of his major additions was a strong female character, who would rescue Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) from the clutches of the sadistic neighborhood kid Sid. The problem was that Whedon’s character was Barbie, and toy giant Mattel, unsure of the “Toy Story” property (and about giving their beloved character a voice and personality that didn’t necessarily mesh with their own ideas) denied Disney and Pixar permission (the band of merry mutant toys replaced her). This negated the strong female character from “Toy Story” (Bo Peep is such a nonentity that by the third movie she’s been removed entirely) and set an ugly precedent of marginalizing female characters that the studio has mostly followed since then. Female characters appear in almost all of the Pixar movies, sometimes in prominent roles (like Dory in “Finding Nemo”) but few are what you would consider strong characters. Despite Ellen DeGeneres’ genuinely amazing performance, sometimes Dory feels less like a character and more like a plot device. There are, of course, exceptions, most notably in “The Incredibles,” in which Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), boils down the tenants of feminism into a thirty second speech she gives her daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), while both are facing imminent death. Whedon, who in the years since “Toy Story” had become critical of the studio’s female characters, said that when he was watching this sequence in the theater, his wife leaned over to him and said that it had been written for him. Still, the female characters after “The Incredibles” have reinforced these bad habits, with many being defined solely by their male counterparts (like Jesse in the “Toy Story” movies) or disappearing from the movie entirely (Ellie from “Up” is a barely-seen narrative engine; Kevin the bird, however, is a woman). The response became loudest around the time that “WALL-E” was released, where the studio assigned outdated, binary sex characteristic to genderless droids.
The studio’s response, of course, was “Brave,” a movie that was set to be the studio’s first feature directed by a female filmmaker (Brenda Chapman) and described, at least initially, as the studio’s “feminist fairy tale.” The problem, of course, is that Chapman was fired 18 months before the feature’s completion, largely due to what she perceived as the studio’s glass ceiling and much of the movie’s female-positive message went along with her. Instead, the main character of “Brave,” Merida (Kelly Macdonald) was a feisty, independent woman who learned about selflessness but at the end didn’t seem all that strong; her “awakening” didn’t cause that much change. Also, whatever good came from the film’s presumed progressiveness was minimized when Merida was co-opted by the anti-woman Disney Princess brand (and we all know how well that went). This week’s “Monsters University” doesn’t try to fix the problem. Most of the female characters are reduced to a horde of demonic sorority girls (and a brittle dean played by Helen Mirren) although there is a moment when Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) sneak into Monsters Inc. and see one of the scariest monsters, who turns out to be (shock!) a woman. Too bad there isn’t additional information about her and she doesn’t actually speak.
2.) An Emphasis On Story Means A Lack Of Texture
Pixar has an infamous “story first” approach to their movies in which any extraneous detail, if it doesn’t directly serve the narrative, is jettisoned into the deep recesses of outer space. When “Ratatouille” started to wander under the guidance of original director Jan Pinkava, with a complicated web of food-initiated flashbacks and dream sequences in which Remy (Patton Oswalt) would vividly visualize the taste sensations he was experiencing (pieces of which you can experience in the videogame version of the movie), he was removed and replaced by “The Incredibles” helmer Brad Bird. Maybe more tellingly, after Disney bought Pixar and installed John Lasseter as, essentially, the head of Disney creative, one of his first orders of business was to promptly fire Chris Sanders, whose “Lilo & Stitch” Lasseter found too weird and aimless. Sanders went on to have a wonderful career at DreamWorks Animation, where he made “How to Train Your Dragon” and this year’s delightful “The Croods.” “Lilo & Stitch” is the perfect example of a movie that Pixar would never make because it is all about the tiny details that fill up and expand a life, but have little to do with the story. Why does Lilo love Elvis Presley songs? What does one of the aliens cross-dressing have to do with anything else? You easily imagine Lasseter looking at the gorgeous, watercolor backdrops for “Lilo & Stitch” and saying, “So what?” In Pixar movies, character traits and narrative beats are exclusively produced to drive the momentum of the story forward (or double-underline some thematic concern) – there is, ostensibly, no fat on these movies.
The problem, of course, is that too much of this means that there is very little texture to the stories. “Cars 2,” which involves a labyrinthine plotline involving secret agent cars and an alternate fuel source that turns out to be deadly, is the best example of this: it’s all plot, to the point that nothing ever makes sense because every scene is so busy zigging and zagging to the next pressing plot point. As mentioned before, Dory, a character from “Finding Nemo” that was so indelible that some were predicting an Oscar nomination for DeGeneres (which would have been an all-time first), is really a functional plot device: she sees the boat that takes Nemo but has short-term memory loss (a character trait of the actual fish), so that keeps her from ever really aiding in solving the mystery. While the relationship between Ellie and Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) might be the emotional center of “Up,” their entire relationship is summed up in an admittedly beautiful, wordless montage, that isn’t exactly lousy with specific details about their lives together or apart. They fell in love, they had some troubles, she died. Does it still make you cry? Sure. But there’s also nothing to really hang your hat on. A half-dozen characters in “Ratatouille” feel like they never exist outside of the kitchen, every buggy character in “A Bug’s Life” is there for the betterment of the story, and never once in either “Cars” movie is an explanation attempted as to why this crazy cars-world exists. You know why? These “unnecessary” details would take away from the story, but give the projects so much more in return.
3.) Every Movie Ends In A Chase Sequence
Like many of Pixar’s bad habits, the every-Pixar-movie-has-to-end-with-a-chase thing was started with patient zero: “Toy Story.” In that movie, Woody and Buzz are making a frantic attempt to reconnect with their toy friends before Andy and his family move houses. There’s a rocket and a radio-controlled car and the whole thing was absolutely exhilarating. So exhilarating, in fact, that the studio decided to use it as their narrative template for many, many future adventures. “Toy Story 2” upped the ante of the chase by having it set on an airport’s runway (the third film eschewed the chase altogether, which was a nice move); “Up” concludes with an aerial chase through (and over and around) a zeppelin; “Monsters Inc.” features maybe the studio’s most famous climactic chase – one involving a seemingly endless sea of doors. “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” both have elaborate chase sequences but are staged before the finale, while “WALL-E” has a race against time that spans the cosmos. “Brave,” for its part, features a similar time crush, but is set in the mystical Scottish highlands instead of outer space. It got so bad that New York Magazine’s Vulture blog asked Pete Docter, the director of “Up,” why so many Pixar movies end with chases, and this was before “Cars 2,” where the entire movie feels like a chase (and, of course, it ends with one – a race against time, no less). “Yeah, it’s definitely something you think about,” Docter admitted. “But just from a storytelling standpoint, you want to have a sense of acceleration, that things are getting faster and deeper and more intense, so that’s why you inevitably get to some physical thing, which really viscerally gets the audience going. But it’s always something we’re aware of. But you just try to make it as good as you can.” And “Monsters University?” Yep. This one involves a chase through the human world, in a sequence that more closely resembles an installment from the “Friday the 13th” franchise than anything from the Pixar world.
4.) The Problem With Multiple Climaxes
Usually multiple climaxes isn’t viewed as a bad thing, especially in the bedroom (eyebrows raised), but when it comes to Pixar movies, it’s a huge issue. This problem really started with the end of “Finding Nemo,” in which Nemo is reunited with his son and are about to swim back to their little part of the ocean when – oh no! – Nemo gets caught in a net and has to convince a giant school of fish to swim to the bottom of the ocean. The moment is meant to double-underline the idea that Nemo has, thanks to his interaction with the Tank Gang, learned about selflessness and the importance of teamwork, and it shows that Marlin has let go of his obsessive worrying enough to at least let his son figure out this problem on his own. It’s just one beat too many and it has come up again and again in the Pixar movies since “Finding Nemo.” This is most noticeable in “WALL-E,” which, like “Finding Nemo” and Pixar’s lone, unofficial live action feature “John Carter,” was directed by Andrew Stanton. At the end of “WALL-E,” climaxes seem to come so fast and furiously that they start to bump into one another, noisily colliding. You’d think that the climax would be our heroic robots EVE and WALL-E stabilizing, to a degree, the flailing Axiom spacecraft, which has been overruled by a villainous robotic copilot (this is that sequence where the ship is tipping over and the humans, formerly immobile blobs, spring into action). But then there’s the issue of WALL-E being mortally wounded (or whatever the equivalent of a robot being mortally wounded is) and the desperate race back to a post-apocalyptic earth. What’s even more outrageous is that the movie doesn’t end there – EVE still has to fix WALL-E, which creates another added dip in an already dizzying rollercoaster of emotion. “Monsters University” suffers similarly (spoiler warning for those of you who care), with the movie seemingly culminating in the final round of the Scare Games, where Mike and Sulley are finally sized up for the monsters that they are. But wait! There’s more! The aforementioned chase through the human world happens after the end of the scare games, and that sequence has its own little climax, where Mike and Sulley have to scare a bunch of law enforcement officials who are after them. It goes on and on and on, with diminishing returns in terms of emotional payoff.
5.) Buddy Movie Overload
Again, this is a trait that started with the very first “Toy Story,” which was fashioned after mismatched buddy movies in the tradition of “Midnight Run” and “48 Hours.” At the time, this seemed downright revolutionary – the original “Toy Story” was released smack dab in the middle of what’s commonly referred to as the Disney Renaissance, with big, brassy, Broadway musical-esque animated epics. By comparison, “Toy Story” was small and character-focused. The songs that Disney suggested be in the movie weren’t the centerpieces of grand musical numbers, they were quietly played in the background of highly emotional scenes (by the third movie, this too had been abandoned). It’s just that this formula often became too formulaic. After “A Bug’s Life,” which was an attempt at building a kind of “group” dynamic, and the second “Toy Story,” there was “Monsters Inc.,” a buddy movie between two monsters. Then there was “Finding Nemo,” which didn’t seem like it was going to be a buddy movie but then turned into one (this time with two fish). “The Incredibles” was a different beast altogether and almost shouldn’t be talked about in the grander context of the Pixar oeuvre. “Cars” was a buddy movie about two mismatched cars, one that is interested in the excitement of the race and the other who takes in the quieter moments of life, while “Ratatouille” was a buddy movie about a rat and a chef (you can’t get much more mismatched). “WALL-E?” Buddy movie with two robots. “Up,” while it has more of a group dynamic if you count Kevin the mythological bird and Dug the talking dog, but it’s really a buddy movie between a roly poly Wilderness Explorer and the old man who’s been squared off by age. Even “Brave,” which promised to break all the rules, ended up being a buddy movie between a princess and her mother, who has been mistakenly turned into a giant bear. At this point it has become very apparent that Pixar knows how to make buddy movies, but at a certain point it goes from being a trademark to being a creative crutch, one that should be taken away from them. From the sounds of it, the next movie, “The Good Dinosaur,” will be a sort of buddy movie between a dinosaur and a young boy, but it should be impossible to shove the formula into the one after, “Inside Out,” which takes place inside the mind of a young girl. Right?
You could argue that the abundance of sequels is one of the worst things about Pixar, but that is less a trait of the films and more a product of the corporate culture. From what we understand, for every bizarre, high concept oddity that the studio is hell bent on producing, like Lee Unkrich‘s movie that takes place on the Mexican Day of the Dead, Disney is demanding a sequel, prequel, or spin-off from a preexisting property. So yes, another “Toy Story” is likely, and “Finding Dory” has already been scheduled for 2015. It’s a strategy that has served DreamWorks Animation quite well and is probably the pay off for some of the studio’s more adventurous upcoming projects. There also seems to be a lack of diversity that is reflected in the ethnicity of most of the characters on screen (although, again, “The Incredibles” featured both African American and Latina characters and the kid in “Up” is vaguely Asian) and the kind of stories Pixar is willing to tell. But look for that to change too, in the coming years, with new animators and experienced vets both wanting to branch out to tell deeper, darker tales. As always, the sky’s the limit for Pixar.