Archives For Pixar

The Criticwire Survey this week covered the topic of critics’ most watched movies. This isn’t best movies, or favourite movies, or guilty pleasures, but purely the movies that critics keep going back to over and over. A couple oddball choices are in there, like Certified Copy, but for the most part the choices reflect the ultimate quality for a re-watchable movie: fun. Films like Die Hard and Pulp Fiction show up, as do Ghostbusters and Star Wars.

These movies are all lots of fun. Even when they get serious they’re still a lot of fun to watch. Sure, there are movies I love to re-watch, like No Country for Old Men, that give me pleasure more through theme and character than pure entertainment, but those are rare. It’s far more likely that a movie like Drive comes along, which I find endlessly fun to watch. In fact, Drive is probably one of the most recent films to crack into my “most watched” category, or at least it’s well on its way, as is The Muppets. I just can’t get enough of these movies. Click to read more.

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In the grand scheme of things it’s good to remember that Brave is just a movie. That’s not to dismiss it, rather it’s a statement of fact. The film’s purpose is, like almost any film, to stimulate its audience. In this case it aims mostly to entertain, as well as illicit and emotional reaction. It’s possible to judge the film on this level alone. Does it achieve these basic goals? How well does it achieve them? This is the level most people will settle on in terms of their appreciation for the film.

There’s another set of criteria that gets attached to certain films, though. The first is a placement within a group, in the case of Brave this would amount to a measurement against other Pixar films. For other films it might be a comparative evaluation within a director’s body of work. Or a writer. Or an actor. Or anything. This sort of judgement is both fair and not. Judging Brave as “not up to par for Pixar” means very little for the film itself despite what it may say about the film within the given grouping and from the critic’s perspective. I have issues with judging a film this way, though I do acknowledge the usefulness of this sort of comparison. More problematic is burdening a film with a weight of necessary importance. The way I see it, Brave has struggled greatly with this kind of unfair weight. Click to read more.

It’s happening again. It happened back when Toy Story 3 was announced, and then when it came out. It happened when Cars 2 was announced, and when that came out, as well. Now that Disney has released the teaser trailer for Pixar’s Monsters University, it’s happening all over again. I’m speaking, of course, about the annoying requests for a sequel to The Incredibles. It pops up in lots of threads about one of these Pixar sequels. It can’t be escaped. The logic is always the same: we want Pixar making original movies, and we don’t want them to become Dreamworks, so no sequels or prequels or unending franchises, oh but wait, make an Incredibles sequel because it’s a superhero movie so it must have one.

I’d rather see “Incredibles University” – Sanford Bell, /Film commenter

Do you know how many times I’ve heard people claim that the end of The Incredibles was a perfect set-up for a sequel? I swear, these people have no concept of humour. The ending of The Incredibles is not some call to arms for an inevitable sequel, but a thematic capper that completes the arc of the Parr family. It’s left open only because that is thematically functional. Plus, the concept of the Underminer is hilariously silly. It’s an ending almost like the joke ending of Back to the Future, only with more emotional and thematic resonance. And sure, that joke at the end of Back to the Future was used as the the set up for sequels, but by using that scene as a jumping-off point for Back to the Future Part II, the film was significantly hampered all the way through. So why would anyone on earth think The Incredibles was setting up a sequel? And more importantly, why on earth would anyone think an Incredibles sequel is necessary? It’s this mentality, quite frankly, that is destroying Hollywood blockbuster entertainment. Click to read more.

I got into an interesting conversation at a film blogger meet-up last night about Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Specifically, the discussion was about the fact that the film only barely passes the Bechdel Test, and that in general Anderson doesn’t go to great lengths in his depictions of female characters. First, what is the Bechdel Test? Well, it’s name given to a test that comes up in one of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novels. It’s basically a test meant to illustrate how few complex portrayals there are of women in Hollywood films. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must meet the following criteria:

  1. It has to have at least two named women it it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

The test does have problems. There are some great films with great portrayals of women that, by virtue of function, don’t pass the test. But that’s not really the point. A film not passing the test is not also a condemnation. The test simply highlights a larger problem in Hollywood films, where white males are effectively seen as the blank norm and anything else, including a female character is often a purposeful deviation. But that’s not what the conversation was really about. We didn’t just talk about whether the film passes the test, but how much responsibility we should place upon Anderson for these failings. Click to read more.

Back again this week with some links. It was a little hard finding great blog posts this week, not because the writing was poor, but because I simply didn’t feel like linking tons of Oscar predictions. I love the Oscars as a game. I love predicting who will win and getting excited about it all. But I really don’t see it as important, and this year I haven’t felt motivated to even talk about the Oscars very much. Then again, I one Oscars-related post did manage to slip through. All the links are inside! Click to read more.

This week I got to see a big screen presentation of the animated shorts nominated at the Oscars. Along with the five nominated films were four “highly commended” shorts, a welcome addition considering the five nominated shorts don’t even fill an hour of viewing. What I generally love about animated shorts is that they’re effectively silent films. Where live-action shorts generally try to be like small versions of the kinds of movies you might see at the art house, animated shorts tend to be conceived as a way of showing off skill in animation. That makes sense, of course, but the result is usually a total lack of dialogue, focusing on expression through character animation.

Onward, to the reviews! Click to read more.

Recently I’ve been thinking about when it’s appropriate for a director to take responsibility for the artistic failure of their film, or at least admit it its failure. This also got me thinking about whether it’s okay to take pride in a film despite its failure. Last week, The New York Times published a piece that included an interview with John Lasseter regarding the critical response to Cars 2. Let me be the first to say that the article is very poorly conceived and written. Much of it is purely speculative, and though it attempts to portray Lasseter as a man stuck in a difficult corner, defending his film from attack, his response actually seems quite open and honest. He clearly acknowledges that the film didn’t take with critics, but the film is very much his baby and he’s proud of it, and he’s proud of the ability of the series to connect with young boys.

He dismisses the claims that Cars 2 was only made for the merchandising profits, saying, “I make movies for that little boy who loves the characters so much that he wants to pack his clothes in a Lightning McQueen suitcase.” The cynical people reading this might read it as a contradiction, but I don’t see it. Lasseter is saying that the merch is not the important thing, but that it’s a reflection of how much young people love the films and their world and characters.

Cars 2 was a critical failure, and at the domestic box office it landed well below the first film and expectations for Pixar films. But so what if it’s a “failure”? What definition are we using anyway? John Lasseter made a film that he considers very personal. It is important to him, and he feels that he made the best film he could out of that. He’s takes pride in whatever successes the film had, and he takes pride in a film he considers to be quite good. There is nothing wrong with that. Should we really expect every director who makes a film we don’t like to come out and say that they admit it is was shit?

Today, Empire published a piece about Steven Spielberg, which included some choice quotes on how he feels about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. On his opinion of the film he says,

I’m very happy with the movie. I always have been… I sympathise with people who didn’t like the MacGuffin because I never liked the MacGuffin. George and I had big arguments about the MacGuffin. I didn’t want these things to be either aliens or inter-dimensional beings. But I am loyal to my best friend. When he writes a story he believes in – even if I don’t believe in it – I’m going to shoot the movie the way George envisaged it. I’ll add my own touches, I’ll bring my own cast in, I’ll shoot the way I want to shoot it, but I will always defer to George as the storyteller of the Indy series. I will never fight him on that.

Again, you could say that this is an admission that the film is not very good. Or you could take it as deflecting the blame. Either way, you might not be totally wrong. But I think the key here is that Spielberg likes the movie he made, and that though he clearly agrees it has some problems, he is willing to explain why those problems exist and why he let them slide. Now, maybe he shouldn’t have let them slide, but I don’t begrudge him the desire to work with Lucas and Ford on another Indy movie.

His next quote, though, is much more telling. When asked about some of the specific things people didn’t like about the film, Spielberg says,

The gopher was good. I have the stand-in one at home. What people really jumped at was Indy climbing into a refrigerator and getting blown into the sky by an atom-bomb blast. Blame me. Don’t blame George. That was my silly idea. People stopped saying “jump the shark”. They now say, “nuked the fridge”. I’m proud of that. I’m glad I was able to bring that into popular culture.

Spielberg doesn’t just like the movie he made, he take the criticisms of it with good humour, and actually takes pride in the things he contributed on his own that people have taken issue with. That nuking the fridge scene is completely ridiculous, but it’s also pure Spielberg: the grown up director who’s still a child at heart. In my opinion, that scene is the highlight of the film. A moment of pure, childish, playful glee. And not only did Spielberg put it in the film, he takes pride in it. He takes pride in it despite so many people hating on it. And he actually takes pride in the way that people have responded to it.

Guys, there is nothing wrong with this. Spielberg should take pride! He made something that he likes. Sure, the audience is the ultimate judge, but I always reflect back on the old adage at Pixar. “We make films that we would want to see ourselves.” This is the guiding principle at Pixar, and it has paid off commercially and critically with almost every film. And even when it doesn’t work, there is still some pride left to be taken in the end product. The same can be said of Spielberg. He admits that there are elements of the film that were not to his liking, but he took the story he was given and made out of it a film that he would want to see, that he thought he’d enjoy. And guess what, he enjoys it. He deserves to take pride in that.

Steve Jobs’ death yesterday, after a long fight with cancer, was not entirely unexpected. The outpouring of reflections and remembrances could have easily been foreseen, as well. Looking through my Twitter feed, it was clear: a huge number people in the developed world use Apple products everyday. But to reduce Steve Jobs to his legacy of shiny products is unfair. In 100—or even 10 years, for all we know—Apple might go downhill and nobody will remember the iPod or the iPhone except for nostalgia. Products are stationary. They are made and, like any human being, they eventually die. The true mark of Jobs’ legacy is in the impact he had on the world through those products.

The news yesterday got me thinking about the measure of impact, and what it actually means to have an impact at all. When we say that somebody has “changed the world,” how do we mean it? We could be talking about how Steve Jobs, along with his partners, created the company that birthed the first personal computer and has defined our relationship and interaction with computers for the roughly three decades and counting. We could talk about how Steve Jobs changed the way we buy and consume music and media through iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad. We could even be talking about how Steve Jobs’ sense of design and aesthetics has come to define our concept of style in modernity. These are all worthy and world-changing impacts to be sure. Few can say that they have touched so many things that have become so globally important. Without Steve, our world would look vastly different.

Is that sort of direct, physical impact the only kind worth noting, though? It’s certainly the easiest to measure, but surely a person’s impact goes beyond those confines. When John Lennon died and people wept openly in the streets and held each other in their arms, what, really had John Lennon done? He created music that a lot of people loved, but surely the world would not have been too physically different without that contribution. Surely, if that was the only true measure of an impact, people should be marching in candle-light vigils all over the globe, crying inconsolably at the thought of Steve Jobs’ passing. The impact of the transcendent is far more affecting, and though its scale is smaller and more personal, that intimacy breeds a kind of love that makes the loss that much harder to take.

John Lennon made people feel. Through his art he changed the world, one soul at a time. That’s important, and it speaks to the impact we can all have very easily by simply connecting with each other as human beings. Steve Jobs did not have that sort of impact, not technically, but I think the strong outpouring of emotion in the face of his death signals that his impact really did go beyond the confines of our material lives. He was a transcendant man because he had a vision.

Perhaps the best example of Steve Jobs’ vision in its more pure form is found in the company often left by the wayside amongst all the tech-talk. In 1986, Steve Jobs paid $10 million of his own money to buy and invest in a small computer graphics division of George Lucas’ huge empire. The company would come to be called Pixar, and Pixar would go on to produce Toy Story, the first full-length computer animated feature, and then follow that up with the single greatest run of critical and box office success in the history of Hollywood studios.

With Pixar, Steve Jobs was neither the technical genius, nor the creative genius. Ed Catmull and John Lasseter deserve the credit there, and they get it all the time. Steve Jobs, to a certain extent, was just the money behind it all. That’s not something to scoff at, but it also diminishes what made him so important. Catmull and Lasseter may have had dreams of computer animation, but it took a man like Steve Jobs to see the potential of that dream, to really build something out of it. He brought an ethos to the development of that studio. He built it in Northern California, outside of the Hollywood system, and pushed the people there to strive for greatness, not simply technological achievement. Yesterday, John Lasseter released a statement about the passing of Steve Jobs:

Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.

“Make it great.” Such a simply idea. So obvious in retrospect, but the truth is, Steve Jobs would have had an impact if all he ever did was give us the Apple Macintosh, just as Pixar would have ushered in an age of computer animation even if Toy Story had been a terrible film. But Jobs had a vision that extended beyond that physical, that transcended the basic. Jobs aimed to build a world in which our interaction with technology was not merely utilitarian, but actually emotional. With Pixar, he saw the chance to change the face of Hollywood, but he also saw the chance to touch people’s hearts through the magic of film and art.

Maybe that’s where the real measure of Steve Jobs’ impact can be found, not in the stuff he got us all to buy, but in the vision he had for how we would use that stuff; in the vision of what a modern world would look like. And we truly do live in Steve Jobs’ world now. From computers to music to movies, Steve Jobs gave us his vision and that vision has come to define our world. He showed us the future, told us it was within our grasp, and strove to “make it great.” Steve didn’t just sell us a bunch of products, he sold us the future. How’s that for the measure of an impact?

I have long had my misgivings about the future of Pixar. My apprehension really began back in 2006, when Disney acquired the independent studio for a cool $7 billion. It wasn’t just that Pixar was being folded into a larger corporation; that wouldn’t have to be a big deal considering the actual studio would remain far away from Hollywood, in the beautiful Emeryville, in Northern California. No, the real problem was John Lasseter being spread thin, and the creative integrity of the studio going away as a result. Now, with Cars 2 being a critical failure, a Monsters Inc. prequel on the way, and reports of a Toy Story 4 being cooked up, I have come to terms with the fact that we are headed into a New Age of Pixar. But maybe that isn’t such a horrible prospect. Click to read more!