A fairly common trend over the last few years has been a growing frustration among some people at the idea that the Christmas season is beginning earlier and earlier. Holiday music starts playing well before Thanksgiving, decorations go up near the beginning of November, and so on. In the world of film, the closest parallel is that of awards season (or the ever-expanding length of the summer movie season). There was a time when the Oscars were presented near the end of March. These days, it seems more likely that the Oscars ceremony might soon come near the beginning of February or beforehand. That, of course, has a ripple effect: every other awards body announces its victors before the Oscars, with some organizations starting, this year, as early as two weeks from now. But even the Oscars are jumping the gun, at least in terms of announcing some features and shorts that have made it onto their shortlists and longlists. Those lists include potential nominees for Best Animated Feature and Best Animated Short. For Pixar, there’s good and bad news within those lists.
The unsubtle art of product placement has been present in film dating all the way back to the era of the silents. As of late, however, people have grown so tired of seeing real-life products or brand names being painfully evident that it becomes the first topic to discuss, as opposed to the plot or characters. (A recent example is Man of Steel, in which Ma Kent works at the local Sears, per her prominently displayed nametag, which she’s seen wearing at home.) Product placement by itself is not automatically a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s used subtly enough by a filmmaker to not be obnoxious; using a fake generic name for Google or a similar search engine, for example, can often be worse than seeing a character just go to Google. On the flip side, some filmmakers or actors are so blatant about the product placement that it becomes satire; you’d have to look to TV for the prominent examples, such as David Cross hawking Burger King on Arrested Development or Tina Fey on 30 Rock looking into the camera and asking for “our money” after bragging about her cool new cell phone. To take money from sponsors and using their products in your film is a delicate balance, in short; being too obvious may bother audiences.
Watching business decisions get handed down from on high is always maddening, with the context for such choices being obscured from public view; all that can result is rampant speculation. So it is with the surprising announcement a few weeks ago from the Walt Disney Company that it was shutting down Pixar’s Canadian studio, located in Vancouver, British Columbia. The studio, which employed over 100 animators, had worked primarily in shorts related to preexisting properties, such as the Toy Story shorts Small Fry and Partysaurus Rex, as well as some of the Cars shorts released straight to DVD and Blu-ray. As of now, one of the reasons being bandied about for why the shutdown occurred is that a number of the tax loopholes that existed in the past in Canada have been tightened, giving Disney less profit on this extension of one of their most financially fruitful branches.
Though it isn’t the first of Pixar’s films to inspire audiences to reach for as many tissues as possible, Up may be the most universally successful at getting grown men and women to do some good old-fashioned ugly crying. Up, released in May of 2009, was the first of Pixar’s films to be presented in both 2D and digital 3D; that latter format allowed many to use their 3D glasses as a shield, to make sure no one around them saw the tears streaming down their cheeks. However, just as it’s a predictable response that the majority of people who saw Up were viscerally impacted by the first 10 minutes, the reaction to the film as a whole has also become slightly stereotypical, summed up as follows: the so-called “Married Life” montage, in which we watch the lead character, Carl Fredricksen, and his wife, Ellie, as they live their lives over multiple decades, culminating in her death at an old age, is excellent. It’s amazing! It’s emotional! And the rest of the film can’t even begin to compete with its devastating, heartbreaking finality.
Nearly 20 years after their first feature film, Pixar Animation Studios finally crossed over from the big screen to the small one last week with their inaugural television special, Toy Story of TERROR! Most Pixar devotees, if not all, know that before there was Toy Story or even characters like Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody being storyboarded, there was A Tin Toy Christmas. Pixar originally wanted to expand upon its Oscar-winning 1988 short film Tin Toy by situating the title character in a holiday setting, before they decided (partly thanks to Disney’s urging) to ditch the training wheels of television and jump right into making feature films. Now, after decades of critical and commercial success, they chose to move back into television for real, bringing along Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang in the process. [Read more...]
This column doesn’t often traffic in the oft-familiar conversational tack you’ll see online, amounting to someone saying, “Boy, this carton of milk really spoiled badly! Here, smell it, and take a swig, too!” Essentially, the Pixar Perspective doesn’t often wade into the world of hate-reading, which isn’t too far removed from hate-watching certain TV shows or movies, or even hate-following people on Twitter or Facebook. It can be easy, fun, and cynically enjoyable to read something so purely terrible or backwards-thinking, specifically knowing that said article or blog post or book is designed to push your buttons. Typically, it’s better to be above such a visceral pastime, even when the topic centers on a certain animation studio in Emeryville, California. Today is not a typical one, unfortunately.
Now that Pixar’s moved itself off the 2014 release calendar, it’s quickly becoming apparent how painful that absence will be. (Necessary, clearly, and hopefully beneficial. But it’s also very painful.) The best possible evidence is to look and see what other animated movies are getting unveiled in 2014. If you’ve gone to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 since it opened a couple weeks ago (and if you haven’t, you may want to stay home, even—or especially—if you’re a fan of the far wittier original), you may have seen a peek of the future of animation, with trailers for such films as Free Birds—opening in just a few weeks—and The Nut Job. (The former is a presumably wacky story about turkeys trying to save themselves from being Thanksgiving dinner, and the latter is about a squirrel breaking into a nut store, and why are neither of those jokes?) Though there’s plenty more coming in 2014, such as The Lego Movie and How to Train Your Dragon 2, what little has been displayed of what’s to come only serves to emphasize how impactful Pixar’s absence will be.
Inevitability is, sometimes, the worst of all feelings. It’s easy to deny something is going to happen, even if all logic and evidence points to it being the case. But allowing yourself to accept the inevitable can be more satisfying than if you remain stubborn and obstinate. If you consider a piece of pop culture like Breaking Bad (allow the indulgence, please), you’re looking at a story that had a very clear and inevitable ending for many of its characters. We can wish that some of them might have escaped whatever fates they arrived at, but when logic points to the grave as being where they’ll wind up, there’s not much of a point in hoping otherwise. Denying the inevitable is easier than acceptance, but as much as we may imagine other possibilities, the latter option is healthier.
Pixar may have a problem with a lack of female representation among its directors, but that’s not the case with many of its female characters. The concern over the disparity of active female characters in mainstream filmmaking has grown (rightly) louder over the last couple of years; though this has been a problem in big-budget films for a very long time, it’s become truly galling because it shows a perceived lack of progressivism in a culture that is often painted as being potentially too progressive. No doubt, there is a disturbing inequality in the number of male versus female directors, writers, and producers in Hollywood. Pixar may not be perfect, but to presume, as some have, that it is similarly failing in representing strong female characters in its films is wildly inaccurate.
Trends always crop up in movie news, whether they’re based in fact or not. As such, the trend last week was cinema icons announcing their retirement. (Or, in the case of the most famous purported retiree, Jack Nicholson, sources said that he had already retired, then other sources backtracked and said the initial claim wasn’t true. Even though he’s got nothing in the pipeline. So you never know.) Specific to this column, Hayao Miyazaki, the master behind Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation studio, announced that his newest film, The Wind Rises, would be his last. Now, it’s worth noting that Miyazaki has said in the past that he’d retire, but this time, at least, he seems fairly serious about leaving behind the director’s chair. Many words will be written about Miyazaki’s influence and about the great films he’s made over the last 30 years from Princess Mononoke to My Neighbor Totoro. If he’s going to stick to his guns this time, if The Wind Rises is Miyazaki’s final directing effort, then it may be high time to wonder who will take up his mantle of making animation for everyone, not just for kids.
Last week, this column pondered why, exactly, Disney and/or Pixar Animation Studios were holding back on a teaser trailer for their next film, The Good Dinosaur, which is slated to open in May of 2014. By the time the article was published early Tuesday afternoon, the rumor mill was in high churn about the film’s status. Was its director, Bob Peterson, being taken off the project? Would this explain why he wasn’t present at the Pixar presentation at last month’s D23 Expo? Did this explain his ever-changing Twitter biography? (If only that last question was a joke, but no, that’s something fans were left to ponder as Disney stayed silent.) On Friday, the rumor became news: Peterson had indeed been booted off The Good Dinosaur sometime “over the summer,” and presumably before the D23 Expo. The project is now reportedly in the hands of a mix of people, including the film’s co-director Peter Sohn (known equally well for his behind-the-scenes animation work as for voicing characters like Emile in Ratatouille), Lee Unkrich, and John Lasseter himself.
Planes is not a Pixar movie, but it badly wants to be. More to the point, the Walt Disney Company wants you to think that Planes is from Pixar. Though the Pixar Animation Studios logo does not appear in the film—and it shouldn’t, because the movie was animated by the people at DisneyToon Studios, even if the short film that inspired Planes was created by those at Pixar’s Canadian studio—there are more than enough hallmarks of Pixar’s work present within that could fool you. The first thing on screen after the Walt Disney Pictures logo is the moniker “World of Cars,” with the last word designed a la the title cards for Cars and Cars 2. John Lasseter, the head of Pixar Animation Studios, Disney’s Chief Creative Officer, and the man who’s almost singlehandedly spearheaded the Cars movement to the point where it has its own land in a theme park, co-wrote the story for Planes and is its executive producer. To cap it all off, John Ratzenberger, long known as Pixar’s good-luck charm, makes a cameo appearance. (No, he doesn’t voice the Mack truck from Cars, but a different character, even though cars exist in the world of Planes. Try not to think about it too much.)
Director Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) was on hand at the D23 Expo this past weekend as part of the Let The Adventures Begin: Live Action At The Walt Disney Studios presentation. Bird, along with co-writer Damon Lindelof (Lost), presented artifacts in their continued myth building for the 2014 Disney live-action film, Tomorrowland. The mysterious “1952″ box, which has been utilized for the last several months to tease the film, was brought out on stage and explored in front of the audience. A few enigmatic items from the Disney studios past were unveiled, a doctored picture of Walt Disney with Amelia Earhart was shown and a vintage copy of Amazing Stories was used as a key for some cryptic message decoding. But by far the most interesting and entertaining portion of the presentation – and the bit that had me most intrigued about the project – was a clip of animation that has ties to Pixar.
A few days ago, James Cameron announced, for what feels like the umpteenth time, that Avatar will be getting multiple sequels in the years to come. (Originally, it was two, to be released in 2014 and 2015. Now, it’s three, to be released in 2016, 2017, and 2018. Next year, there will be seven planned Avatar sequels, all opening on the same day in 2025. Get excited!) On those rare days when Avatar again dominates the daily entertainment news, it’s sometimes surprising to remember that this movie, the highest-grossing ever, domestically and worldwide, opened less than 4 years ago. Strangely, for a movie that made so much money and, at one point, had a fanbase so overwrought with emotion that Pandora wasn’t real that they exhibited signs of legitimate depression, Avatar hasn’t left an impactful legacy to many people. Not many films do leave a legacy, certainly not compared to the sheer number of films that open each year, but if you make a movie that grosses more than $2 billion, it’s not wrong to presume that it must have left some kind of mark on the world populace.
It’s high time that Pixar Animation Studios made a musical. In some ways, it’s been high time for them to make a musical ever since they started making features. From the beginning, the people at the top of Pixar’s food chain tacitly, vocally avoided making animated musicals in the same way as many of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s most beloved classics, either from the 1930s and 1940s or from the Disney Renaissance period. Pixar has defined itself, and the genre of computer animation as a whole, by refusing to have its characters break into song and dance on the regular. But why hold back on embracing one of the ironclad tenets of mainstream feature animation? All this refusal represents is a strange, stubborn unwillingness to be risky.
The Internet is rife with theories that have to deliberately skew or ignore certain facts, or else these arguments would knowingly fall apart. No topic is free from such needless conjecture, including the films from Pixar Animation Studios. The backlash borne from the last few films Pixar has made—up to and including their newest, Monsters University—has spawned a number of editorials and a few dreaded not-a-word “thinkpieces” trying to get to the bottom of the problem. The question at the root of the “problem,” of course, is one that can’t be answered on a grand scale, but must be given some texture: “Why are Pixar’s films not as amazing as they used to be?” Of course, this argument could be more accurately phrased as, “Why doesn’t Pixar make movies I, the writer of this editorial, like anymore?” And it’s important to be vigilant, watching for the flaws inherent in these articles.
The cornerstone of the Walt Disney Company is nostalgia. Every film they make, every character they create, every world they concoct furthers the notion that looking back at your past, dreaming of a time when everyone said it was truly wondrous to be alive, well before the minor frustrations of the future took over, is the best possible way to approach life. What are Disney’s theme parks if not various ways in which to embrace youth, either your own or the country’s? So many of their movies call to mind a vision of the “good old days,” a manufactured simulacrum that makes us wistful, wishing we’d been around at the turn of the century, say, or that we’d known as we lived our childhoods that we should cherish them appropriately. The irony is that the more technologically groundbreaking Disney films—and especially Pixar films— are, the more nostalgic they become.
Late last week, the Walt Disney Company decided to expand our knowledge of their inner workings just a little bit, specific to the future of their animation studios. Anyone who may have been concerned, for example, that Walt Disney Feature Animation would be going the way of the dodo (this writer is among them) could breathe a bit easier because of this news story. In some ways, the entire story is fairly random—why Disney chose to announce its animation slate through 2018 at the end of May 2013, we may never know—but it’s got plenty of information we can parse through. Specific to Pixar and this week’s column, the topic of concern is multiple films in one year.
Pixar Animation Studios is the exemplar of originality in Hollywood. This is what we remind ourselves when we get frustrated that they’ve announced a sequel to Finding Nemo or a prequel to Monsters, Inc. If those sequels turn out to be more like Toy Story 2 instead of Cars 2, then good for all of us. But when we think of Pixar, we think original. They may pay homage to animated and live-action films from across the globe, of course; however, what the animators and filmmakers in Emeryville, California do has always been based on original ideas. Today, after considering a recently unearthed report, it’s time to ponder the opposite: what if Pixar did traffic in adaptations of preexisting material?