The Internet and nostalgia go together like peanut butter and jelly, barbecue chicken and the Fourth of July, and other appropriate food-related metaphors. A day doesn’t seem to go by anymore without Buzzfeed or another clickbait-centric website publishing an article about some piece of popular culture from the 1980s or 1990s, something you’d forgotten over time but are reminded of with a few well-placed GIFs. The power of this kind of nostalgia has revived countless toys into movies, or old properties into new ones designed to appeal as much to adults as to their kids; it’s both enveloping and somewhat corrosive. This isn’t to say that nostalgia in general is a bad thing; the problem is that the Internet has allowed such wistfulness to go unchecked and run rampant. [Read more…]
The concept of an infinite number of universes parallel to our own has some vague scientific backing behind it, but is mostly just fun to consider without presuming there’s any real logic involved. If you buy into the theory, then there’s a parallel universe where Dewey did defeat Truman in 1948, where the Buffalo Bills didn’t lose the Super Bowl in 1990 against the New York Giants due to a wide-right field goal, and so on. Thus, there might even be a parallel universe where every aspect of our current one is the same except for one thing: here, John Carter was a success at the box office, not an eternal punchline. It’s been over 2 years since John Carter was released in theaters after decades of development, and it left theaters almost as quickly. Although it was not the most painful flop in recent memory (any movie that grosses nearly $300 million worldwide deserves a tiny bit of credit), and although it has a dedicated subset of fans, John Carter is almost akin to a modern-day Ishtar: a movie known for its financial failure to a wide audience, even if that’s not equal to its creative quality.
A few weeks ago, this column discussed the concept of risk-taking at Pixar Animation Studios. Recently, one of the studio’s head honchos, Ed Catmull, admitted that the growing reliance on creating sequels as well as original films is in part because sequels were financially less risky. Perhaps, when considering the cost of marketing as well as how much certain movies or characters make in merchandising, that may be true. But simply looking at the box-office takes of Pixar films proves that Catmull’s statement is faulty: as daring as their stories may be, no Pixar film can be categorized as a flop. As much as we may presume that original storytelling is riskier than relying on sequels in financial terms, at Pixar, it’s almost as if they can tell whatever stories they want and people will pay no matter what.
The Internet is a wonderful tool that has changed the world in immeasurable fashion; its immense power is unparalleled, and yet it’s easy—so very, very easy—to get frustrated at how so many content creators online create clickbait items to lure in unsuspecting audiences to get pageviews and nothing more. (This article you’re reading, to be clear, will not be clickbait. Breathe easy.) Nowadays, one of the most common types of clickbait articles in the world of pop culture is specific to fan-created theorizing about various films or TV shows. Arguably, this first began when fans obsessed over genre shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, but theorizing about the various potential meanings of minor Easter eggs has reached a fever pitch in the last 5 years, what with shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and even Mad Men.
What separates Pixar Animation Studios from the rest of mainstream animation companies, as this column has mentioned plenty of times before, is its willingness to take a risk. In many ways, they’ve been operating under a system of risk from the very beginning, before they were even an established name in the TV-commercial business. The first major risk they overcame was the very acceptance by the public of computer animation being utilized for a feature film; in the intervening time, the biggest risks they overcame were story-based, as they pinned their hopes on movies about robots who don’t speak a discernible human language, a rat who wants to cook, and more. But in recent years, the risks they’ve run up against are, in some respects, of their own doing. To wit: how risky is it for Pixar to invest more heavily in the future on sequels than on new original films? Does the studio stand to lose its respect among the public by reviving old characters instead of creating new ones?
In the past, this column has focused primarily on looking at the positive side of Pixar’s shorts, features, and filmmakers, which hasn’t been terribly difficult; when compared with its competition, Pixar’s films are frequently far and away the best examples of mainstream animation of the modern age, no matter the format. Pixar’s influence has been immense over the past two decades, to the point where their style has become a formula for its rivals to copy. On the flip side, however, we’ve mentioned the benefits of Pixar expanding its storytelling to cover more female characters (even though not all of their films are aggressively male-centric), as well as approaching the genre of musicals in an attempt to step away from their initial unwillingness to follow in the footsteps of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Today, it’s time again to focus on an aspect of Pixar’s character development and storytelling that is arguably lacking and has been since the beginning: the issue of race.
Of the various behind-the-scenes stories that have now become apocryphal to the Pixar legend, it’s hard to beat the one associated with Finding Nemo. In the final few years of his time at the top of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner was convinced that Pixar’s winning streak both at the box office and with critics was about to end with this animated feature, the first led by director Andrew Stanton. Eisner couldn’t possibly fathom, he told shareholders, how this movie about a clownfish desperately scouring the ocean for his missing (and only) son with a forgetful blue Tang at his side could ever hit it big with audiences worldwide. When he made these comments in 2001, he did so based on a work-in-progress screening that was, in three respects, vastly different from the final product: Marlin was voiced by William H. Macy, instead of Albert Brooks; the angelfish Gill was, in spite of being the leader of the fish in P. Sherman’s aquarium, lying about his sordid past; and Stanton chose to dole out a series of flashbacks explaining what happened to Nemo’s mother, Coral, instead of beginning the film this way.
When Pixar Animation Studios unveiled its first feature film in 1995, it represented a rebellious pushback against a formula that some people might not have been conscious of until watching Toy Story. Only then were audiences reminded that not all mainstream animation needed to have Broadway-style songs, straightforward leading characters paired with talking-animal sidekicks, or the like. When The Little Mermaid was released in November of 1989, it felt like the culmination of what Disney animation and its rivals were trying to accomplish in reviving the form for a younger generation; movies like The Great Mouse Detective and An American Tail had paved the way, but didn’t approach the same qualitative cohesion as the story of Ariel and her dreams of being human. But within 6 years, its story structure, characterization, and aural composition were no longer even mildly groundbreaking. The same happened with Pixar and its films; even though Toy Story owes a great debt to the buddy comedies of the 1980s, its combination of unique visuals, childhood nostalgia, and action once felt fresh and new.
In the last couple weeks, Pixar Animation Studios has unveiled—or had Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger do so—a few hints as to the future of its continuing franchises. (This, of course, because even Pixar has proven unable, ever since Toy Story 2 opened in 1999, to end any of its stories definitively, from Toy Story to Finding Nemo and onward.) Earlier in the month, it was revealed that there would be a new short from the world of Cars featuring most of the original characters, including Lightning McQueen and Mater; last weekend, the newest Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, had a Monsters University short attached to its release; and the biggest news of all came last: sometime in the near future, there will be a third Cars film and a second Incredibles film.
“Gravity’s $ucce$$ will lead to a new round of 3D films NOT conceived for 3D…” These words, from Pixar stalwart Brad Bird via Twitter last fall, are unshakably true; if we have learned anything from Hollywood over the years, it’s that they will ride a passing fad into the ground, well past its expiration date. The industry’s leaders presume that if one unique aspect represented in one popular film works, that same aspect will work in every upcoming film. Though there are various add-ons Hollywood loves to graft upon its products, such as an IMAX presentation for something that wasn’t shot in the IMAX format, the most prevalent remains 3D. There are a handful of major films, from Gravity to Avatar to Hugo, that have been aided enormously by being presented in this immersive format; however, for each Gravity, there are 10 Need for Speeds right behind, films that were post-converted to the 3D format not because they require it, but because the studios want to make a quick buck.