It’s high time that Pixar was funny again. Before you begin writing fierce and angry comments, keep reading, even if you’re tempted not to. When people think of Pixar’s highest creative peak, they likely consider the four films released between 2007 and 2010: Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, movies typified more by their emotional highs than comic highs. This is not to say that this quartet of films aren’t funny; they are, and frequently so. But think of Up, and you hear the tinkling sounds of Michael Giacchino’s Oscar-winning score and the “Married Life” montage in its opening act. Consider WALL-E, and you may think of WALL-E and Eve swirling around in space, triumphant in their mutual admiration and determined to help the human race evolve once more. And Toy Story 3’s final act is an emotional flood for most audiences. Pixar hasn’t stopped being funny, but they’ve allowed themselves to be swept away by that flood.
Their feature films offer a solid balance between the emotional and the funny, but where the imbalance in tone is most obvious is in Pixar’s shorts. In the past, this column has praised Pixar for keeping their short-film program alive long after the studio needed to creatively (since the shorts don’t exist to make money). When the company started, Pixar wasn’t even an animation studio; John Lasseter was the first animator at the technology company, making as many short (some as short as two minutes) films that would help define Pixar as more than just a business that sold high-end computer systems. Tin Toy and Luxo, Jr. may not be as technically jaw-dropping to 2013 audiences as they were back in the 1980s, but they are a creative microcosm of what made Pixar stand out from other animation studios aside from simply animating with computers instead of by hand.
Perhaps what’s missing most of all is that balance, in which neither emotion nor humor dominate so fully that audiences can’t relate even slightly to the characters. This is always a bit of a challenge, since Pixar’s shorts rarely are longer than eight minutes, which isn’t that much time to even learn a character’s name, let alone relate to them intimately. And so, over the last few years, it feels as if Pixar’s shorts have overloaded on emotion, instead of offering some of the fast-paced wit that not only helped the original shorts stand out, but is the linchpin of their best short, Presto. Take, for example, the newest Pixar short, The Blue Umbrella. Attached to Monsters University, The Blue Umbrella has a fairly direct plot: it’s about a blue umbrella who meets a red umbrella during a particularly rainy night on the city streets and falls in love. The story is not (nor does it need to be) intricate and detailed, but what should be a sweet, swooning, and heartfelt story seems a bit flat, because of the strange animation techniques on display and because the love story does not feel unique or different.
In short, The Blue Umbrella is too reminiscent of Paperman, the stark, beautiful, and romantic short attached to Disney’s most recent animated film, Wreck-It Ralph. Much like The Blue Umbrella, Paperman focuses on two characters, one male and one female, who meet each other while walking down the streets of a bustling city. They are immediately taken with each other, and the female character is identified partly by red (Paperman is a black-and-white short outside of that splash of color on her lips). By the end of the short, they’ve come together after being separated by Mother Nature and various real-world obstacles. We need to see nothing else, because they will live a happily-ever-after life from this point forward. Of course, Paperman is about humans, and The Blue Umbrella is about…well, look at the title. Still, the comparisons are disappointingly obvious, even if this is a case of poor and coincidental timing. Pixar’s shorts, at their best, manage to be strikingly original while acknowledging and respecting their cinematic ancestors. Presto and Knick Knack may be deliberately paying homage in their style and gag-heavy stories to the work of Chuck Jones, but they do not feel like an echo of any of Jones’ shorts.
Pixar’s shorts don’t have to be funny, to be fair, but most short animated subjects are known first for their humor. Looney Tunes, Silly Symphonies, Tom and Jerry: all are funny first. Silly Symphonies might be a kinder, gentler version of Looney Tunes, though the Disney animators did end up using Donald Duck as an excuse to enact plenty of forms of cartoon violence upon one of the good guys. But it’s rare that heartfelt emotion was the overriding theme of these shorts. Maybe it’s because Pixar has become well-known both for its humor and for its ability to make stealth tearjerkers that they’ve chosen to apply that template in miniature form for the shorts. However, the emotion that has become such a hallmark of Pixar’s films isn’t so easy to achieve in the shorts, even for a studio of such master-class animators and filmmakers.
In The Blue Umbrella, the first roadblock to achieving an aching romance is that the animation style is ever-so-slightly different, far more so than in any of their past shorts. Pixar Animation Studios prides itself on improving its technology, and has done so over the last three decades marvelously. Whether in their features or in the shorts, you can see a gradual shift in animation quality. The company that made Tin Toy, with a human baby whose face is strangely, unnervingly unrealistic, also made Lifted; two decades after the former short, it’s easy to see that Pixar was able to improve dramatically. And in movies like Cars and WALL-E, Pixar has reached a level of photorealism in the exterior and interior environments that’s truly stunning. Cars takes place in an alternate universe, yes, but if you look at the exteriors of Radiator Springs, it’s hard not to be blown away at how accurately the animators were able to present each road, each plant, and each automobile.
The Blue Umbrella has, somehow, reached a different level of photorealism, one that brings up that most feared phrase in animation: the uncanny valley, often seen in motion-capture animation that presents human characters who are off-putting to look at because they look human but robotic at the same time. Think of The Polar Express or Beowulf, motion-capture films whose surroundings may look arresting or awe-inspiring, but whose characters inspire distaste once you look in their strangely unemotional eyes. Interestingly, we don’t get a good look at the human characters in The Blue Umbrella, outside of a glimpse of someone’s hand here or arm there. So, how can The Blue Umbrella achieve a kind of uncanny valley effect if there aren’t any human eyes to stare into? Somehow, writer-director Saschka Unseld pulls it off just by focusing on the rain-spattered city streets of this unnamed metropolis. If anything, the best that this animation achieves is making the audience wonder, quite legitimately, if Pixar filmed a real city street and placed the animated inanimate objects like the two umbrellas as well as a rain gutter, a Walk/Don’t Walk sign, and more within that live-action environment.
Unfortunately, with only a few minutes of story to work with, too much is spent in The Blue Umbrella on getting acclimated to an odd and unexpected style of animation. And even if you know what’s coming, there’s not that much humor in the short. Pixar’s shorts should be an outlet for its younger filmmakers, those who may not be ready just yet to helm a feature, to let loose as much as they can. Though it isn’t accurate to say that Pixar’s shorts now totally eschew humor in favor of plucking at the audience’s collective heartstrings, coupled with their recent films, we’re coming to a point where theaters should offer boxes of Kleenex for any audience, just in case. Pixar’s films have become memorable for making us cry, but their shorts have, in the past, and should continue to stand out by making us laugh instead.
The Blue Umbrella is, more than anything else, slight, which may seem like a strange criticism to lob at a short. How many animated or live-action shorts can claim that they’re not slight? Here, as with the concerns that Pixar is in the middle of a long, slow creative decline, expectations are as much the culprit as the animation style or lack of humor are. Even in the last few years, when Pixar’s films may have let people down, they were right to assume that the attached short would be possibly worth the price of admission. If nothing else, one of the Toy Story shorts or Presto or Day and Night or Party Cloudy would make people laugh uproariously, without wearing out its welcome. Pixar’s last two shorts, La Luna and The Blue Umbrella, may boast technological breakthroughs that couldn’t even be dreamed of back when John Lasseter was making Luxo, Jr. or Knick Knack, but they lack a throughline of humor. Hopefully, this won’t become an actual trend in the years to come.