Sunday, December 12, 2010

PIXAR's Strong Suit Isn't the Story

There's something that's been bothering me about an argument I've spotted in the discussions of recent Disney films. Over the weekend, as I was chewing over which winter movies I wanted to see with some friends, "Tangled" and "Tron Legacy" came up. Gossip was, and this is totally hearsay, that both films are visually gorgeous but weak on story. Someone opined that since Disney gained chief creative officer John Lasseter, PIXAR's fabled story team offered their services to several Disney projects, including "Tron." Surely that meant the film was in good hands in the story department. I remember reading a movie blog a few months ago that used similar justification for why we shouldn't write off "Tangled" just yet. Lasseter and PIXAR were on the case, so we could expect them to iron out the story problems that had plagued the notorious "Rapunzel" project for untold years in development hell.

I don't find this argument very convincing. For the last several PIXAR films, story and writing has been their Achilles heel. "Up" had ten great minutes followed by eighty-odd mediocre ones. "WALL-E" totally fell apart in the second half. "Ratatouille" had a messy plot that felt like cobbled-together leftovers. And then there was "Cars," which I'm not alone in liking least of all the PIXAR films. This summer's "Toy Story 3" was an exception, honestly, and there were still moments like the one where Andy introduces the toys to Bonnie that fell pretty flat. PIXAR's execution has always been flawless, which covers a lot of the bumps and weak spots, but on the whole I've never all that impressed with their stories as just plain stories. I think PIXAR's biggest strength is their ability to come up with memorable characters and their visual storytelling abilities are far beyond what any of the other CGI animation studios have achieved. That's why I enjoyed most of the films I listed.

The myth of PIXAR's storytelling prowess is the result of a few different forces. The most obvious of course is that PIXAR actually emphasizes their care and attention to story when talking about their filmmaking process and uses it as a selling point. They spotlight their story teams and story artists where the other studios don't. The height of this approach was the first trailer for "WALL-E," which included a dramatization of an early PIXAR story meeting that generated the ideas for most of their earlier films. It's very shrewd brand boosting, and hammers home the message that PIXAR sets a higher standard to meet and they pay attention to their fundamentals. And all cynicism aside, PIXAR deserves plenty of kudos for staking their reputation on the quality of their films, and giving credit to artists that make vital contributions.

Another factor is the other major animation studios like Dreamworks/PDI and Blue Sky, that have churned out some downright terrible animated films in the past. Next to the minimal, clothesline plots found in the "Madagascar" and "Ice Age" films, "Cars" plays like Moliere. At least PIXAR was coming up with original, developed stories instead of relying on pop-culture references, scatological humor, and celebrity voices. At least they were making an effort, instead of churning out ill-considered "Shrek" sequels, one after another. However, lately it feels like the balance is shifting. Dreamworks is still putting out an awful lot of dreck, but their execution keeps getting better. "Kung Fu Panda" had a simple plot, but it was told very, very well. Ditto "How to Train Your Dragon." PIXAR, meanwhile, has an awful lot of sequels on its slate that are not inspiring my confidence.

Ironically the last PIXAR film I really enjoyed for its story before "Toy Story 3" was "The Incredibles," though director Brad Bird proved terribly inept at talking about the process by which he developed the film and its concepts - his director's commentary is a woeful litany of animator shout-outs, occasionally punctuated by him pointing out instances where they juxtaposed "the fantastic and the mundane," a phrase he awkwardly repeats about a dozen times. Bird is off making a "Mission: Impossible" film with Tom Cruise, but I hope he comes back to PIXAR soon. I thought his presence at the studio really shook the place up in a good way, and his influence led to riskier projects being put in the pipeline. Right now I'm rooting for "Brave," formerly known as "The Bear and the Bow," to deliver on PIXAR's promised commitment to good, solid, well-developed stories.

As for "Tron" and "Tangled," both films remain on my to-see list. But I'm going for the shiny visuals and Disney nostalgia. I'm not expecting much as far as their stories. I hope they surprise me though. I really do.

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