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.
Something else that’s interesting to watch in the trailers for movies like Free Birds, The Nut Job, Rio 2, and even The Lego Movie is to see where pretty much every other animation studio differs from Pixar, or vice versa: the invocation of popular culture. Arguably, The Lego Movie, by its very existence, has to rely on pop-culture references; among its characters are the Lego versions of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. But that’s an outlier; though its quality remains to be seen, you could compare The Lego Movie to Toy Story, in that both are films with a necessity to include name brands from real life, even if the latter offers more variation in terms of what toys are presented on screen. Most other animated movies, though, don’t have the same excuse.
Much debate has sprung up over the years, and will continue to do so, about the difference between Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, how one studio is typified less by a hunt for the almighty dollar than the other. Though he argues against this notion in part, Forbes’ Scott Mendelson, in a recent article discussing DreamWorks Animation’s 15th anniversary, wrote that “in the eyes of the critical and pundit community, Pixar makes animated films while DreamWorks makes cartoons.” There are, no doubt, many facets to why this may be true, and why it can be extended, in most part, to every other animation studio, from Sony Pictures Animation to Blue Sky. Why is it that Pixar is seen as having a higher standard of quality? Or, rather, why has that been the case for most of the last 20 years? One important aspect, something that cropped up far too much in those aforementioned trailers, is the usage and required recognition of popular culture.
Take, for example, the trailer for Rio 2. (No, you have to take it. You can give it back in a minute, don’t worry.) In both the teaser and full trailer, there’s a gag, one that’s entirely context-free, in which a cute critter sings “Memory” from the Broadway musical Cats, and is gobbled up by a voracious jungle cat. But she manages to survive to keep singing the song, making it look like its destroyer is now belting out an 11 o’clock number. Leaving aside, again, the fact that neither character in this gag is from the first Rio, what we have is a joke that relies almost entirely on its audience remembering a) that Cats is a very popular and familiar musical, b) that, outside of its most devoted fans, Cats is kind of a joke in and of itself, and c) that “Memory” is the most recognizable song from Cats. That’s the joke. Certainly, kids watching the ad (and potentially the movie, though it’s possible that this was created for marketing purposes only) may laugh at the sight gag of a vicious killer singing a sugar-sweet ballad, but the full gag is that…well, hey, remember Cats? Do you? Do you?
It would, of course, be wrong to say that Pixar wholly avoids referencing popular culture in its films. Probably the most-cited example in recent memory, and often mentioned as a slight demerit, is from Toy Story 3: when Ken and Barbie first lay eyes on each other, Gary Wright’s 70s-era song “Dream Weaver” blasts through the soundtrack. Granted, this is not a case where the audience has to know who sang the song, its initial impact on music, or the like, but the entire gag does rely on recognizing that the song is inherently goofy and cheesy, a twist on the moment when the romantic heroes see each other for the first time and know it’s love at first sight. Because the “Dream Weaver” gag lasts only about 10 seconds, it’s hard to get too tough on Pixar or Toy Story 3’s director, Lee Unkrich, for using popular culture as a crutch. That, perhaps, is the true demarcation between Pixar and everyone else: it’s not that only one group uses popular culture, it’s that only one group uses popular culture as the basis for the majority of character or story-based jokes. What Pixar does is utilize popular culture to expand the worlds it creates.
Think of the first Toy Story, specifically during the still-thrilling climax, where Woody and Buzz Lightyear, after escaping the clutches of the psychopathic Sid, chase down the moving truck to clear Woody’s name and return to the loving embrace of their owner, Andy. At one point, Woody and Buzz, riding atop Andy’s RC car on a surface street and hanging on, by a thread, to Slinky Dog’s outstretched paws, drift to the right side of the road, barely avoiding parked cars. Cut to Andy’s mom’s car, where Andy’s little sister, Molly, sits happily in the passenger seat. She spots Woody and Buzz in the rearview mirror, laughing giddily and unknowingly, as “Hakuna Matata” plays on the car radio. This is a perfect example of Pixar using popular culture to its advantage, not as a distraction.
There is a nice in-joke in that moment—hey, the characters in this one movie distributed by Walt Disney Pictures are listening to music from another Walt Disney Pictures movie!—but that’s not the overarching point of the scene. It’s set dressing. Logically, plenty of kids in 1995 would be listening to The Lion King soundtrack; failing that, it’s not hard to imagine some radio stations at the same time playing songs from such a massively popular film. The Toy Story films do reference popular culture in other ways, but in ways that don’t fall so flat. For example, Buzz Lightyear, at the opening of Toy Story 2, attempts to destroy Emperor Zurg’s power source and has to jump across a fractured bridge inside his lair; the noises emitting from each section of the bridge when Lightyear hops on them comprises the familiar notes of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” used to triumphant and memorable effect in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even if you don’t attempt to explain it away—this moment is part of a video game being played within the film, not the film itself, so referencing popular culture might work within that setup—the gag is so quick that it functions as more of an Easter egg than anything else.
This, in essence, is a big part of why Pixar’s usage of pop culture is ever so rarely distracting: it doesn’t call attention to itself. If you find a reference to 2001 or Psycho (the slashing Bernard Herrmann score is featured in Finding Nemo, when Nemo is introduced to his potential new owner, Darla), good on you. If you don’t, you lose nothing from the film. The more a movie (animated or otherwise) needs you to recognize a piece of popular culture for a scene, character motivation, or joke to work, the less that movie is going to last. What the filmmakers at Pixar do, in spades, is allow their pop-culture influences to bleed through the films they make without dominating those films. Watch The Incredibles, and you can see how Brad Bird was inspired not just by superhero films but by the spy thrillers of the 1960s and 1970s. It’s no wonder that he originally wanted John Barry, known best for his work in the James Bond franchise, to score the film. Watch WALL-E, and you’ll see touches of 2001 and Silent Running, among other seminal science-fiction films of Andrew Stanton’s childhood. Watch A Bug’s Life, and you’ll see how the story was heavily inspired by Seven Samurai and Three Amigos! It’s not that Pixar denies pop culture a place in their films; it’s that they understand pop culture shouldn’t have the most important place at the table.
Animation studios employing popular-culture references isn’t an automatic sign that one of their movies is in trouble, just as a movie being a remake, sequel, adaptation, or the like isn’t a guarantee of poor quality. But to use a multitude of pop-culture references in any movie, animated or live-action, is to date a film, unless you use them wisely. Too many animated movies—and among Pixar’s filmography, only the Cars films can be justly criticized as such—need their audience to be familiar with a wide swath of popular culture for gags to work. What makes so many of Pixar’s films timeless is that they do not rely so heavily—barely at all, in truth—on jokes that are dated to a specific time. Even the films they’ve made set in the present day, or the future, are less besotted with popular culture than other modern-set animated films. Instead of using popular culture as a crutch in their films, Pixar’s films have become a part of popular culture. No doubt, DreamWorks Animation films are frequently very financially successful—only recently have a couple of their films, such as Rise of the Guardians or Turbo stumbled—but they are usually filled with easy, lazy references. Too often, the animated movies being released by other mainstream studios don’t try hard enough to tell unique stories with rich worlds and complex characters; they only try to play down to the audience, hoping we’ll smile at a reference to this celebrity, or to that movie. Other animation studios take the easy path. Pixar continues to, for the most part, take the road less traveled.