The moment when Pixar caused a cultural shift in mainstream animated cinema wasn’t, as you would expect, with the release of their first film, Toy Story. That film inspired a shift in the animation industry, but the way in which general audiences’ response to animated films changed occurs roughly halfway through Toy Story 2. This film and Monsters, Inc. both represent the old and new in Pixar, a slight blend of honest and often-unexpected emotion along with clever and witty gags aimed at the pop-culture-literate members of the audience. Both, like A Bug’s Life, featured outtakes during the credits, a commentary on the prevalence of painfully similar blooper reels in live-action films; and both have a powerful moment that inspires the adults in the audience to tear up and reach for a tissue.
The gravitational pull of the endless Star Wars franchise is inescapable in modern cinema. Though there have only been six live-action films in the series, the vast ocean of toys, theme-park attractions, animated TV series, books, and more make it impossible to avoid, even before there were rumors of a new trilogy. After the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in the fall of 2012, the rumors became truth: within just a few years (now under 2 years), a new trilogy of Star Wars films would be unveiled, following up on the events of Return of the Jedi. Since that time, it’s been assumed that Disney wouldn’t just make new live-action films in that galaxy far, far away. Why not make more animated films, or spin-off series, and so on? For now, at least, these are rumors.
Over the last decade or so (possibly even less than that), one trend in Hollywood has been planning ahead (often too far ahead). Marvel and their Cinematic Universe is a good example of this, as they set dates for future projects, from the upcoming Ant-Man in July of 2015 to an untitled project in May of 2016, well before such minor issues as a script or cast members are set in stone. The most obvious current example of this is the impending Star Wars sequel directed by J.J. Abrams. Its existence was announced before a director, a screenwriter, or a cast were. (As of this writing, though plenty of rumors abound, there are still no officially announced cast members, in spite of the film being set for release in December of 2015.)
As was discussed in this column throughout 2013, the year 2014 is going to be an interesting one for Pixar Animation Studios. We have to look well into 2015 for the company’s next feature, and between now and that time, there will only be more rampant speculation about the studio’s upcoming slate. (Here’s hoping, of course, that the neverending glut of Star Wars casting rumors as well as this or that Marvel movie’s unveiling overshadows everything out of Pixar, in case people spin it to the negative.) Last week, it was confirmed via Entertainment Weekly that this won’t be an entirely Pixar-free year: the short Party Central, from the Monsters University universe, will be attached to Muppets Most Wanted this March. The short has been ready for a long enough time that it was nearly included on the Monsters University Blu-ray, but its director, Kelsey Mann, mentioned in the article that the party’s bigness lends itself to a silver-screen presentation. Party Central continues a now-long line of Pixar films being extended into the world of shorts, and hopefully it fits well alongside Partysaurus Rex and Small Fry, among others.
When this column began its theme of highlighting the so-called “Pixar moment” in various Pixar films (we’re still waiting on that patent to go through), it was predominantly about focusing on moments of powerful emotion in films that are targeted primarily at the family audience. That animation can inspire adults and kids alike to grab for a tissue isn’t terribly unique—though few modern animated films would attempt to echo its impact, let’s not forget the iconic moment in Bambi when the title character’s mother is killed by a hunter—but Pixar’s later films, such as Ratatouille and Up, reach for emotion in surprisingly mature and complex fashion. So in starting off 2014 with a look at the Pixar moment in Pixar’s first film, Toy Story, you might think this column would look for the origins of those unforgettable, tearjerking moments.
What is the price of a decreasing amount of prestige? This is the question that may be worth asking most of all right now if you’re a fan of Pixar Animation Studios. As Samad pointed out on the Pixar Times home page, when the Golden Globe nominations were announced this past Thursday morning, Monsters University was not included among the nominees for Best Animated Feature. There is, to be sure, a necessary discussion to be had, not only about how seriously people do or should take the Golden Globes, as well as why, this year, they only nominated three films for Best Animated Feature. (On the latter point, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, the exquisite and mature The Wind Rises, was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film, but not Best Animated Feature, inexplicably. Also, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, has a rule stating that if fewer than 12, but more than 7, animated features qualify in a given year, there can only be three Best Animated Feature nominees. As there were only 10 wide-release animated features this year, that must explain the small number of nominees, but just barely.)
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.