Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Night Relaxer: The Pixar Genius

Last year a first occurred in American cinema going. The animated film, Toy Story 3 came number 1 at the box office. But that wasn’t a first – animated films have been number one quite a few times – going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and more recently Shrek 2 was number 1 in 2004. No, the first was that not only was Toy Story 3  in the top 10 box office, but so too were Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled.

Half of the top 10 most watched films in North America were animated. It was much the same story worldwide – four in the top ten (and Tangled came 11th).

If you think there have been a few more animated films around of late, you’d be right. Here’s a look at how many animated films have made it in the American top 25 since 1980 (I could do Australia but the US data is freely available so I’ll stick with that, and plus we broadly have the same tastes – though I’ll do a post on that one day perhaps))


As you can see, back in the 1980s there was a bit of a dearth of animated films. Disney had all but shut up shop after 1981’s The Fox and the Hound, and the one film in 1983 and 1987 were re-issues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

In 1989 there was The Little Mermaid, and this was followed in 1991 and 1992 by Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (Aladdin was the number film in ‘92). But even despite the money and the awards that came with those films, animation still didn’t kick off.

In 1995 an animated film again came number 1 at the box office, but this time it was not a traditional Disney film with a score by Broadway composers or Elton John (like The Lion King which came second in 1994). The film of course was the Pixar computer animated film, Toy Story

It changed an industry.

Yes it took a while (the development time of such films is pretty lengthy), but by the time its follow up A Bug’s Life came out in 1998, Dreamworks had joined the party with Antz. Then in 2001 came Shrek- and became the first animated film to beat a Pixar film at the box office – Shrek came 3rd, Monsters Inc, 4th), and there was no turning back for Hollywood. 

By now the studios had really caught on to the money pit that can be good animated films. Audiences had come to see them as perfect family fare – films kids will love, and films parents not only don’t mind seeing, but also love as well. And then came the flood. From 2003 the rolling 5 year average has gone from two animated films in the top 25 to now over five. Twenty per cent of the most watched films each year are now animated. Since 2001 there has also been a Best Animated Feature category – something that would have been thought absurd only 10 years earlier.

The reason for all this of course is Pixar. Sure Dreamworks have come along to be the Rolling Stones to Pixar’s Beatles, but had not the computer animation and story telling of Toy Story worked, movie studios would still be wondering how they could replicate the popularity of TV shows like The Simpsons on the big screen.  The Simpsons of course is also the grandfather of all of this. The smart humour of The Simpsons taught adults to not be embarrassed about watching animation – it was seen as not just Disney schmaltz. And while Aladdin had some of that attitude, it wasn't until Toy Story (and yes, Shrek) that it really caught hold in cinema.

Since 1995 anyone who has dismissed animated films as ‘just for kids’, has missed out on some of the best films of the past 15 years. The number of critics who put Toy Story 3 as their best film of the year – ahead of The Social Network or The King’s Speech – is testimony to this fact. You don’t need to be a kid or even have kids to enjoy Pixar films – in fact given the sophistication involved in their scripts and storytelling, being an adult is an advantage.

All this is a long way round to introduce my ranking of the Pixar films. I could have done a top ten of animated films, but I’ll just stick with Pixar – it’s a tough enough task. So here we go from bottom to top:

BugslifeposterNumber 11:  A Bug’s Life

The film about an ant who saves his colony is nice, but far too kid targeted. The same year, the less popular Dreamworks Antz came out – I prefer that – if only because Dreamworks realised that ants have six legs and not four. The ants in A Bug’s Life were just far too “Disney” for me.

Kevin Spacey as the evil leader of the grasshoppers, “Hopper” and Richard Kind as his brother “Molt” are fun. The work of David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame) as the stick insect is also good. But Julia Louise Dreyfus and Dave Foley as the lead voices are pretty bland – much like the film.

Verdict: Ants have six legs not four!!!! Given the attention to detail of later Pixar films this is a travesty really.


220px-Cars_2006Number 10: Cars

Perhaps the most disliked of the Pixar oeuvre. This was the first Pixar film I didn’t bother to see in the cinema – it just sounded stupid. I saw it when visiting some relatives, and my 4 year old daughter at the time just loved it. I mean LOVED IT. Suddenly we had Lighting McQueen merchandise everywhere. And I have to admit the film is not horrible.

It has some nice parts and I do get involved in the story (and the movie-tie in computer game is excellent!). But you can’t get away from the fact that they are talking cars! This is the only Pixar film that exists in a made up reality. Hang on, I hear you say – what about.. well every single other one? Well all the other films are set in the human world – even Monsters Inc is linked to the human world. In Cars there are no humans, never have been, and never will be. This fact for me loses something important. I can imagine the world of Monsters Inc, or even Toy Story, but a world where cars have jobs, go to the toilet and need lawyers? Nup. A sequel out this year. I do not have great expectations.

Paul Newman is perfectly cast as the old racing car “Doc”, and the two Italian cars, Luigi and Guido are good comedic fun.

Verdict: Look nothing is really all that bad, but it’s just a bit… you know... why?

220px-WALL-EposterNumber 9: Wall. E

OK, this is obviously a travesty on my part. This film won an Oscar and has some wonderful animation – the character Wall. E was compared to Charlie Chaplin! The thing is, I just find the story boring. So humans have left earth and live on space ships not moving any muscles, and they have machines do everything for them. Well wonderful, but it was a tad laboured. Also none of the humans really connect with me. Wall.E and Eve’s romance is great – their dance scene is beautiful. But I am a dialogue man, and this just doesn’t have it for me.

Verdict: Love the robots, but the people are lifeless.

220px-RatatouillePoster2Number 8: Ratatouille

The story of a rat in Paris who is also a brilliant chef. Yes the story is slight, but the animation in this film is just heaven.

I also must admit that this is the Pixar film I have seen the least (because we only recently bought the DVD).

Directed by Brad Bird the scenes in the restaurant kitchen are just gorgeous to watch, and the story does have an emotional kick. My daughter didn’t want to get this one on DVD because the scene where the food critic, Anton Ego, tastes the ratatouille and is taken back to his childhood was too sad for her. This is a scene that lasts about a minute, has no dialogue, and yet it affected her deeply. It does me as well. Pixar films do that better than anyone.

Verdict: Beautiful beyond words, but the human characters lag behind that of the rats – we don’t really care too much about Alfredo and Collette’s romance.

220px-Movie_poster_monsters_inc_2Number 7: Monsters Inc

A great idea – monsters coming out from the cupboards – from another dimension (the monster world) – in order to collect the screams of kids to use as energy. The “scream shortage” aspect of the story was again a bit laboured (Pixar do best when they stay away from political messages), but the voice cast is brilliant. John Goodman and Billy Crystal perfectly match their characters Sully and Mike – Crystal is a basically an eye, how can an eye look like a person? And yet amazingly it seems like it is Billy Crystal. And Steve Buscemi is a great bad monster, Randall.

Some of the animation, such as when Sully and Mike are chasing Randall on the doors is breathtaking. But the story? Again – getting a scare quota? Meh, who cares really. We mostly care about Sully and the human girl, Boo – the monsters’ world is great, but only in the way it is connected to our world. 

Is it too scary for young kids? Well yeah – it took my daughter till she was seven before she felt she could cope with it. But she loves it now.

Verdict: It’s excellent, it just lacks that bit of real care for the monsters that we have for the toys in Toy Story

Up_PosterNumber 6: Up

An old man, Carl, lifts his house up with a multitude of balloons and goes in search of his childhood dream place – Paradise Falls. Along the way comes Russell – a boy scout caught on the house when it took off. They find the falls and also find that Carl’s childhood hero, Charles Muntz, is a bit of a bastard.

Again, more gorgeous to look at than any film deserves to be, but I always find the story gets a bit dull once Carl and Russell meet Muntz.  Dogs piloting planes? Yes, Pixar, you can imagine us things that never were, but you still need to keep within the realms of the world in which you have created – and this is the real world, not a made up place like that of “Cars”.

But for all of that, I love it if only for the opening scenes with young Carl and his best friend Ellie. And even better is the depiction of Carl and Ellie’s marriage. If you are not crying at the end of it, go out and see a doctor, because you will likely find you no longer have a pulse.

Verdict: The real emotional oomph is at the start – it’s so good, that everything after struggles to match it.

Number 5:  Toy Story 220px-Movie_poster_toy_story

The first.  Thank God it was good. I write about it here – in which I suggest that it should have won Best Picture in 1995.

Verdict: Oh the dialogue!:

Woody: All right, that's enough! Look, we're all - *very* impressed with Andy's new toy.
Buzz: Toy?
Woody: T-O-Y, t-oy.
Buzz: Excuse me, I think the word you're searching for is "space ranger".
Woody: The word I'm searching for, I can't say, because there's preschool toys present.

Buzz: You are a sad strange little man. I pity you. Farewell.

Number 4: Toy Story 2220px-Movie_poster_toy_story_2

They did the impossible – they improved on the original. Sending the toys on an adventure to save Woody was a brilliant way to break the confines of the the bedroom. Even better though was the story that Woody actually doesn't want to be saved. Some great laughs, excellent jokes, wonderful imagination, and amazing heart.

Pixar films aren’t known for their songs as are the old Disney films, but “When She Loved Me” sung by Sarah McLachlan is an absolute gem. How in the hell it lost to Phil Collins “You’ll Be in My Heart” (from Tarzan) I’ll never know – and no, you’re not alone, I couldn't hum a bar of it either, but “When She Loved Me”? – I’m tearing up just thinking of it.  

Verdict: best sequel since The Godfather II.

Number 3: The Incredibles

220px-TiposterBrad Bird’s first Pixar film is a brilliant adult delight. It may be loved by kids, but this one really is about adults. Bob Parr (otherwise known as Mr Incredible) longs for the past when he was a somebody. From there the film goes where really no other Pixar film does – not surprising given it was first developed to be made by Warner Bros. Bob Parr’s wife for example thinks he is having an affair; we also see Bob working in an insurance firm – where the life of the cubicle worker is as brilliantly rendered as in the film Office Space. It even has Samuel L Jackson invoking some of his character from Pulp Fiction when he calmly asks to have a drink of water.

This ain’t kid stuff. But wow, do kids love it – maybe because it features two very fully rendered kids – Violet the shy teenage girl and Dash the boy who is more Bart Simpson than any Pixar character has been.

Verdict: The film takes the super hero genre, kicks it around, turns it upside down, and has a lot of fun with it (“no capes!”).

Number 2: Finding Nemo 220px-Nemo-poster2

Prior to Toy Story 3, this was Pixar's most successful film at the box office, and it is not hard to see why. This is a film about a parent trying to save his child (who happens to be a fish), it doesn’t need to milk the emotion, the emotion is already there. But what makes Finding Nemo so magnificent is the main characters: Marlin the clown fish who isn’t funny, voiced by Albert Brooks is brilliantly uptight and Ellen DeGeneres steals the movie as Dory, the fish with short term memory loss. Together they are the perfect odd couple for us to accompany on this long adventure.

The animation is of course, amazing – the water actually looked like water – for fun watch The Little Mermaid after this, and laugh at how unreal the water looks in that 1989 film.

Maybe this film has more of an impact on me because my wife and I went to see it just after our first child was born, and we were both feeling incredibly connected to the story (in that over the top way that recently first time parents are connected to any parent-child stories.) My only quibble is the character of the the pelican voiced by Geoffrey Rush: it is not a pelican the likes ever seen in Australia – having grown up on the River Murray where pelicans are plentiful, I couldn’t believe they got it wrong.

One thing about this movie – my daughter has never seen the start – she always skips it as it is too upsetting for her. I am quite glad she does, as the death of Marlin’s wife Coral and most of their “babies” is pretty tough going – a brave start for a supposedly “kids’ film”, but Pixar are never scared to push boundaries.

Verdict: even the DVD menu dialogue is great:

Marlin: [introduction to the main menu of the first disc of the DVD] Where is it? Where is it?
[the menu appears]
Dory: Oh there's the menu, I knew it was around here somewhere.
Marlin: [beginning of menu loop; Marlin talks to the viewer at home] Okay, you've got a lot of choices here. You can watch just the movie *without* the commentary...
Dory: [interrupting] Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I'm so excited! I've always wanted to see... "The Little Mermaid"!
Marlin: Good. Well this is "Finding Nemo".
Dory: Oh, well that sounds nice, too. Maybe we should watch *that* one.
Marlin: We're watching that one! This is "Finding Nemo"!
Dory: [sounding flattered] Oh you shouldn't have switched just for me!
Marlin: Unbelievable...
Dory: I've always wanted to be in a film.
Marlin: You were in a film. THIS one. "Finding Nemo"!
Dory: No way! I'd remember that.
Marlin: No you wouldn't...
Dory: Yes I would.
[excited inhalation sigh]
Dory: Being in a film would be so glamorous!
Marlin: [nonplussed] Really?
Dory: Oh my. Fabulous! Where's my trailer? I need water!
Marlin: Dory...
Dory: Fill my trailer with water!
Marlin: Something's wrong with you.

220px-Toy_story3_poster3-1-Number 1: Toy Story 3

There probably should be a rule on not allowing me to choose the most recent one, but bugger it. Toy Story 3 is without doubt the great 3rd film in a trilogy ever.


Everything is perfect, everything is true to the spirit of the series, and everything ends the series as it should. I haven’t seen it in 3D, and maybe that improved the emotion and wonder, but I can’t possibly see how, because it already has more emotion and impact than any other film I have seen for many a year.

How good are Pixar? [Spoiler follows] At the near end, when the toys are in the junkyard smelter and look like they are going to all be melted, I was sure that was what was going to happen. My brain was trying to tell me that this was a kid’s movie and there was no way in hell that Pixar would destroy Woody, Buzz and all the rest, and yet there it was – the toys looked at each other, held hands, accepted their fate and waited to die together. Here is a film about toys, and we see them waiting to die – and their deaths seemed inevitable and real. Achingly real – as real as the end of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.  

I could not believe this was going to happen, and yet on one level it also felt like this was a way the film and series should end – toys do end up in the tip, and do end up melted down. It would have been horrible, and I would have ripped out the DVD and thrown it across the room, but Pixar treat their audience with such respect – they in effect treat them as adults – that such an adult ending seemed not only plausible, but also correct.

But thank God the toys don’t end up dying. Pixar may push boundaries, but they aren’t stupid! Woody, Buzz and the gang needed to end happily – they had earned this ending. And when they get their happy ending we get there with them, and rejoice. We know as well that, like Andy, we can leave them behind.

Verdict: Perfect.

So that is my ranking. It is of course my opinion, and is thus wrong or right depending on your own. For what it’s worth, here is the ranking by a much more discerning and knowledgeable critic than myself, my 7 year old daughter:

1. The Incredibles
2. Toy Story 3
3. Ratatouille
4. Monsters Inc.
5. Up
6. Wall. E
7. Toy Story 2
8. Cars
9. A Bug’s Life
10. Toy Story
11. Finding Nemo

Have a great weekend.


Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting observation. I too like almost all of the films that you mention, though I loathe and detest Cars. Loathe. Detest. The yearning for a nostalgic 1950s of someone's imagination. Yetch. But I digress. My biggest concern, and it is not so much with the films you mention above, is that sometimes some of these animated films try so hard to be smart and adult-centric that they miss the kids altogether. When done well, these films are fabulous - when done less well they are horrors and abominations like Chicken Little and the Seinfeld Bees film. But, I still do love Monsters Inc even though I have see it 429 times....

Adrian Liston said...

Did you try The Tale of Despereaux? After Toy Story 3 and the Incredibles it is my favourite animated movie to come out recently, and is a remarkable children's movie in how it portrays the "bad" characters - not evil, but each having their own history which explains their actions.

edie said...

heh I think I agree with your daughter's list more than yours..
I wonder what that says about me?

Chase Stevens said...

I think I would have bumped up Wall-E a little, and I would have switched Toy Story and Toy Story 2. Haven't seen Toy Story 3 yet (travesty really), so I'd best get on that.

Anonymous said...

I'd put The Incredibles on the top of my list as well, though I haven't yet seen Toy Story 3.

The characters are just all so interesting, from Mr Freeze to Edna Mode, even Mr Incredible's boss (Wallace Shawn) is fantastic!

stephenwho said...

I always kind of gauge movies successfulness (and music for that matter) by the way it's content and message sticks in my brain; by the way that a piece of dialogue just becomes part of the language around me, by the fact that I can say "squirrel!" and look sideways quickly and it is instantly recognised.

Yes, I like "Up" the best, and I still get a tear or three when watching the start, but I think the strength of the old fella's bond with the Russell is built beautifully in the second phase of the movie.

And I want a talking dog!

Graeme said...

I'll preface my cynicism by saying 'Megamind' is about the best mainstream US movie I've seen for a few years.

But what you call 'animation' is just cartooning made easy by computers. And for all Dreamworks' chutzpah and Pixar's money, it's still incredibly formulaic. Typically it's a couple of well worn adult tropes about family redemption woven onto a bowdlerized fairy tale. And animation that too often is hyper-realism.

Compare the limitless possibilities and imagination of genuine animation. Australia's Elliott with 'Harvey Krumpet' or 'Max and Mary', or the red and blue plasticine animation or even Pingu. That's without all the great central European stuff, dark and surreally funny, animating dead insects. 'A Town Called Panic' played here late last year: riotous stuff by the same Frenchies who made 'Triplets of Belleville'. Even Aardmann and Wallace and Gromit. Not all animation takes huge budgets; moreso time, care and imagination.

ps: 'Up' is a transparent watering down of 'Howl's Moving Castle' by Miyazaki.

Anonymous said...

I'm a granddad with 3 grand kids currently 2 x 13 y.o and a 7 y.o.["I'm nearly 8!"] and together and separately we have seen most of the above with the most recent viewing being that of "Finding Nemo" [for the umpteenth time] a couple of weeks ago.

Their appreciation of those movies is a joy to behold.

The standard of these movies is incredible, I ask myself how can they not only maintain the standard but, apparently [cos I haven't seen it yest, with 'Toy Story 3' continue to improve?

Some itty bitty observations.

Does the old fella in "Up' remind anyone of Spencer Tracy?

Is the food critic in Rattataoooey, beautifully voiced by O'Toole, drawn as Noel Coward?

Given the obsession with accuracy in Nemo I too find drawing the Pelican as an American Brown Pelican unpardonable.

Michael said...

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly for somebody who typically prefers indie flicks to Hollywood blockbusters I find Wall•E and Up, well, boring.

Granted, the depiction of Carl and Ellie's life in Up is very touching. But overall I find neither film very satisfying. The whole story in Up just seems absurd, and the second half of Wall•E is tedious.

Pixar can do touching very well, but I enjoy it best in small doses, interspersed amongst whip-smart dialogue and pop-culture references. So I'd stick Pixar's more mainstream titles, including Cars, above them.

PS - I think you'll find the central (human) character in Ratatouille is named Linguine, best recalled in the exasperated tone of Ian Holm's head chef Skinner?

Maria said...

Arrrrrrgh! You'd just convinced me that I should really see Toy Story 3... And then you committed the prime movie crime! Grog I've loved you for awhile now - you're my favorite blog - and I've never left a comment before but I must protest. And my favorite (acknowledging my now lessened ignorance of TS3) is the Incredibles. I will forgive you, but it may take a little while...

heisenberg said...

When Buzz goes all Spanish in TS3 is a highlight for me. Sheer brilliance.

han said...

Because of the near perfect quality of the computer animation of all Pixar films (with the rare exception of Bug's Life), I would only attempt to rate them purely on the story line. I would put Up at the bottom as I fell asleep during the film, then Bug's life. Walle and Rat had some interesting ideas but overall not to make you too excited. I disagree on Cars as I think it was a brilliant idea that cars live and interact like human beings (with lots of in-jokes).

Greg Jericho said...

Very sorry for the spoiler in Toy Story 3!!!

I was completely unthinking about it.

Actually I usually only worry about spoilers with films still in the cinema, I stupidly treated Toy Story 3 like all the others, forgetting that it hasn't been out for that long.

Maria, many, many, many apologies - I hang my head in shame.

Rowan said...

I think all these movies are okay, but my faves (in no particular order, and not a Pixar in sight) are:

Triplets of Belleville - almost no dialogue, and most of what there is is in French. Amazingly understandable, and engaging. But they CUT the version you can buy in Australia! No wonder ppl download stuff.....

Spirited Away - IMHO the best of Miyazaki

Hoodwinked - I've never seen a character that made me laugh as much as the cursed goat and his collection of horns. Unless it was the yodelling lederhosen-clad schnitzel vendor. Maybe I just have a strange sense of humour.

Pip said...

Grog, I name you Puss in Boots just for today. The dashing Antonio.
"I have shamed myself" from Shrek The Halls.

Jeremy said...

Apart from a few decent moments (Buzz's Spanish transformation is hilarious) in Toy Story 3, I thought it was by far the weakest of the series. Everything it did well had already been done better in Toy Story 2.

I agree that the first two films are brilliant, but the third was somewhat disappointing, I thought.

As for the rest of the Pixar bunch, other than maybe Wall-E (although I have the same problems with that one as you do), I'd put both Aladdin and Lion King ahead of them, easily.

Simon said...

Interesting - no mention of shrek in the list(s). Agree about the Toy Story series - extraordinary.

Is it just me, or do all of these anomiations (esp the Incredibles, Nemo, TS series) have writing about a million times better than most no-animated hollywood films?

zedder1994 said...

My favourite is Finding Nemo, the colour and beauty of the animation captivates me. I would also recommend the animation genius of Hayao Miyazak, animations like Spirited Away are truly beautiful pieces of art.

Michelle said...

Had to comment on 'Finding Nemo' kids had never seen the opening scene - I would always start the DVD and hit fwd once so it started without the scene of the death of the mother... fast forward several years and my kids see it somewhere else one day and tell me that Pixar have made a new opening scene for 'Finding Nemo' !!
My favourite is 'Up'... it features 3 of my great loves; scrapbooking, travel and a golden retriever and I love that it was made without the usual merchandising opportunities... no Woody or Buzz dolls to sell... Carl & Russell dolls didn't exactly hit the stands... but...having said that...I did find a cute little Carl, Russell & Dug Christmas ornament that I adore :)

julian dunmurphy said...

I'd like to think I'm a little like George C. Scott when it comes to ranking and voting on art. I would like to comment on your post though.
Pixar have captured my undieing love since '95, so my appraisal of their work can't be viewed as objective and I could not place an order on the ones I love most like Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, Monsters Ratatouille and the TS's. The entire catalogue have elements I love. But you have commented on some of the moments that moved me. The Wall-e dance scene, Sully's demonstration scare for Waternoose that made my daughter cry and the opening scene of Nemo that I keep telling myself that I'm skipping for my kid's benefit.
The scene in TS3 however that you gave a paragraph treatment for in your prestigious blog had more of an affect on me than even Andy Dufresne holding up both hands in the rain. I saw it with my sister and our combined 5 kids (in 3D but the film was good enough to almost remove this distraction) and the look on mine and every other adult's face in the cinema during those final seconds in the furnace was utter surreal bewilderment. How the makers of this story were able to elicit such reaction from adult's watching a kid's animation was sheer genius. I had real tears! In fact, in post-analysis with my sister I recounted how I was in a way disappointed by their saving and Andy's cheesy farewell to the toys given the emotional weight they invested into that climax. Had that moment not been there, I naturally would have expected the ending that occurred and would have been pleased at the experience I could've given my kids. But by pulling me in that far then yanking me out was akin to Juliet waking up just before Romeo drank his own poison, exclaim at the hilarity of what almost happened, unite the families and live happily ever after.