Loving certain works of entertainment can come with a price.
I know that very well as a fan of animation, and especially the legendary Disney animated classics “canon”. Back in August of 2015 on my mainline news blog, I ripped five generalizations about the body of work apart. Now, I want to do the same with some generalizations that are often hurled around when folks talk about Pixar Animation Studios…
Like that previous piece, I’m going to be in full “brutally honest” mode here and a lot of this is based on fact and honest opinion. I’m sure that will rankle some, but on the Internet, that’s inevitable. Pixar, like Disney Animation, is near and dear to me.
So to start off…
Just what kind of animated films does the Emeryville house make? Well, as far as I can see, they make really smart, really creative animated films for family audiences. They don’t make movies that target children more so than any other age group, but they are “responsible” filmmakers, not putting anything wildly offensive or inappropriate in their stories. They successfully stay within the PG walls without alienating anyone else in the audience.
Their stories feel like they’re for adults, but can also be understood by young’uns. Emotionally and thematically, they connect with us adults because the characters are interesting and relatable, their premises are executed with gusto, the writing is sharp, humor is wonderfully balanced with drama, and they all tend to feel different from each other.
Pixar is not the first animation studio in North America to make this kind of film. They were not the first US-based maker of animated feature-length films that could appeal to adults and kids alike.
What was the first animation studio to make films for both kids and adults? Nope, not Don Bluth’s production company. I’ll give you a hint… The founder’s first name rhymes with malt.
If you’re lost… Walt Disney Productions…
It all started there.
Walt Disney’s animated creations were not – contrary to popular belief – targeted at children. In 1928, Walt Disney made Steamboat Willie for “audiences”. The ensuing Mickey Mouse cartoons were no different, even though they had spawned lots of children’s merchandise. Mickey Mouse was a character for everybody to like and admire, as was Donald Duck, as was Goofy, as was Minnie Mouse, as was Pluto, as was Daisy Duck, and so on.
Walt Disney’s first Silly Symphony animated short film, 1929’s The Skeleton Dance, was deemed too scary for young children. A while ago, I came across a local newspaper listing the short film and other things that were playing during the week of its release. It had a warning, giving parents a heads up of what was in store. Walt had faced criticism for the scary content of the film.
Walt Disney’s first feature-length animated film… Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs… That had to be a children’s film, right? In an interview with the British press in 1938, Walt was criticized for making a film that was too frightening for young audiences. Many European countries actually felt the same way, it was a big deal back then. Walt Disney then told a reporter “Snow White is not a children’s film. We don’t make films for children.”
Walt also once said “Our most important audience out there are those free-thinking adults.” That’s a quote you rarely ever see, and I bet the Disney of today doesn’t want you to see that. Rewriting history is attractive.
It’s a shocking concept for many, but yes, Walt Disney took his work very seriously. While he wasn’t a pompous maker of high art, he also wasn’t a slouch. He and his crew poured their collective souls into Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. Even in the post-war years, Walt kept his eye on the animated features like a hawk, making sure they came out in tip-top form and knew when something wasn’t working. Walt lived through the production of nineteen full-length animated features, not a single one – to these eyes and ears – is mediocre. There’s a clear difference between a Walt Disney animated film, and a Disney animated film made sometime after his passing.
To me, Pixar is essentially a Walt Disney-like studio. They want to give audiences and families great movies that will last, films that have something to say and hit you in the heart. John Lasseter, the current chief of the studio, began his animation career at Walt Disney Productions in 1980. He was pushed out by the management, who were stubborn and felt they knew what Walt wanted for his studio, holding all the animators back from truly showing their stuff. Lasseter took his Waltian ambitions – which the 80s Disney guard feared – to Lucasfilm’s Graphics Group, which of course became Pixar in 1986. That was the same year Disney’s feature animation wing showed that they were slowly getting it back together.
By the time Toy Story entered active development in 1991, Walt Disney Feature Animation was back on track. They had recently come off of the critical and box office smash The Little Mermaid, their biggest hit since the Golden Age. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was instrumental in the fostering of this upward climb, initially rejected Pixar and computer animation. At this point, he was eager to pick the studio up. By the time Toy Story entered production, Katzenberg’s Disney was becoming repetitive, as each new movie looked to replicate the successes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Lasseter was adamant that Pixar wouldn’t make that kind of movie, and they didn’t.
Pixar soared while Disney Feature Animation was gradually compromised and molded into an assembly line, spitting out uneven films loaded with great ambitions that were shackled to formulaic writing, focus group mumbo-jumbo, and notes based on the arbitrary thoughts of the many executives running the studio. Pixar didn’t operate this way, and it showed in their features.
This is where I think a lot of this generalization comes from. The generalization that says Pixar makes a particular kind of animated movie that is superior to whatever Disney may make. Pixar filled a void in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Disney Animation was becoming a shell of its former self, and most of their output at the time was frustrating to say the least. Pixar’s films were the whole damn package, they did cool and creative things while still being smart, well-written, and free from the pap that came from executive-written notes. Steve Jobs had even used this to knock then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner down a peg, at an uncertain time when Pixar and The Walt Disney Company’s relationship was really sour.
Eisner was hurting Disney so badly that Pixar was ready to break away from the company once their feature film contract ended with the completion and delivery of Cars. They could’ve gone off to Warner Bros. or Universal or any other distributor, had this trouble persisted. Push had come to shove by 2004, but as Cars was halfway through production in late 2005, it had finally happened. Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger took his place and immediately sought to repair the broken bridge. They re-negotiated, Lasseter and company were on board, and in early 2006… Disney announced that they were acquiring Pixar for a whopping $7.4 billion.
John Lasseter was now set to head up both Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation, which was rechristened Walt Disney Animation Studios, and finally given a proper logo to boot!
Here’s where another generalization rears its ugly head…
The idea that Pixar saved Walt Disney Animation Studios, the idea that Disney Animation was a house full of lost fuddy-duddies who needed the “geniuses” at Pixar to help them make quality movies again is hilariously untrue, but it’s a story a lot of publications have purported. No, it’s absolute bunk! Walt Disney Animation Studios was held back by ignorant executives and an off-the-rails CEO, they weren’t quite allowed to make good movies. They were a studio riddled with all of these executives who gave the crews endless notes, compromised all of their stories and productions, and were responsible for absolute dreck like Home on the Range and Chicken Little. The virus had to be removed, and Lasseter did just that.
After that, he instilled Waltian principles back into the studio’s creative culture… Principles that were missing from the studio for decades. The same principles he and the other top dogs instilled at Pixar. Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia are not “Pixar-like” movies. They are movies that follow in Walt’s footsteps, in the same way Pixar’s movies do, in the same way the older Disney animated films did. Really, Pixar’s movies are Walt Disney-like movies made by a studio with a different name. They share the same core values.
I think of it this way: They are cousin studios. Lasseter started out at Disney, helped make Pixar what it is today, and then returned to Disney to remedy it. Both studios make family-friendly films that are animated, both intend to innovate and try new things… There are minor differences, to me. There’s a certain heart to Pixar that differentiates it from Disney’s heart, it’s almost a minute difference, but it’s there.
Another thing… Movies like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia apparently don’t feel like Disney animated films. Or aren’t typical Disney animated films… But what is a typical Disney animated film? Walt Disney, in his lifetime, made three fairy tale movies that happened to be about women who were or became princesses. Three. He also made fantasy adventure films like Pinocchio and Peter Pan, more true-to-life talking animal dramas like Bambi and Lady and the Tramp, wildly experimental films like Fantasia and The Three Caballeros, offbeat and surrealist tales like Dumbo and Alice in Wonderland, and more in-between. The Jungle Book is a buddy movie, 101 Dalmatians is a mystery action story, The Sword in the Stone is a comedic and meandering series of medieval episodes. Some of these films have characters who break out into song, and some of them have songs that are sung offscreen. Some of them are based on novels, some are based on fairy tales. Disney’s empire and marketing makes them all look homogeneous and all cut from the same sticky, sugary mold… Watch them again, they are all pretty unique.
You could detect a Disney animated film based on its heart and quality, but Walt didn’t repeat himself or make the same exact film each time out. “You can’t top pigs with pigs”, he once said, referring to when the sequels to his 1933 Three Little Pigs cartoon short didn’t garner the popularity of the first one.
When I see Disney Animation making films like those aforementioned three, I see them branching out and not trying to repeat what worked so well in the past. True, we get our “comfort food”/90s callback stuff in the form of films like Frozen and Moana, but these unique films keep the idea of “keep moving forward” alive. They’re the films Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet should’ve been, they’re the films Disney Animation wouldn’t have been allowed to make in the mid-to-late 1990s, and especially not during the 1970s! Also, Pixar did not invent the kind of animated movie that they make.
Which brings me to my next, and possibly biggest problem… The sometimes-frustrating reception of the “weaker” Pixar films. Laced with generalizations!
Let’s start with Brave. Released nearly five years ago, the studio’s first fairy tale-like film starred a princess who had desires that were not dissimilar to likes of Disney’s feisty and action-girl 90s heroines like Jasmine and Mulan. There were fantasy elements, a mystical forest, magic, the supernatural even. Was Brave more of a “Disney film” than a “Pixar film”? Hell no! Who says Pixar can’t make a ye olden times fairy tale-inspired movie? It shared similarities with some particular Disney animated films, but it wasn’t a “Disney film”, it was a “Pixar film”. It was their unique take on the genre. Even if it wasn’t all that different from those few Disney films, even if it was influenced by some Disney films, but what Pixar film isn’t? What if Pixar were to make a film that really felt like a Studio Ghibli film, would you say it was a “Ghibli movie” and not a “Pixar movie”? No. It’s a Pixar movie that’s influenced by Ghibli. Brave, which a handful of critics ironically compared to Ghibli, is Pixar’s film through and through. It has some influences from other studios and filmmakers, that should be a compliment if the film is good to the respective reviewer.
The Internet will often throw the “felt more like a Disney film” criticism at films like The Good Dinosaur, they feel that Pixar films that don’t hit every high mark in the book are inferior and “Disney-esque”. Or “DreamWorks-esque”. As if Disney and DreamWorks are inherently inferior animation studios to Pixar, as if Pixar is the all-time perfect godly animation studio. A titanium brick in the middle of a pit of pennies. As if everything has to be measured on a scale from 1 to Pixar. No, no, no.
The DreamWorks jabs are just as frustrating, actually. DreamWorks made great films like Kung Fu Panda uno and due, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and several strong movies like Rise of the Guardians, the first How To Train Your Dragon, Puss in Boots, Madagascar 3… Don’t give me that “It felt like a DreamWorks film!” saw. Would it hurt to be more specific? Didn’t you mean “This felt like a film DreamWorks made in the mid-2000s, like Shark Tale“? I know it’s more words to put down, but it won’t hurt, really…
Honestly, I feel all of the major animation studios have it in them to make greatness. It should not just be “Pixar… and then everybody else.” No. DreamWorks has shown what they are capable of several times, and don’t knock the filmmakers, they want to make memorable and great animated movies too! Knock the management, consider the many years of how they were run. Context! Is! Key! As easy as it is to rag on Illumination Entertainment, guess what? They have the potential to make something that isn’t akin to their screaming yellow tictac diversions! The same goes for Sony Pictures Animation, who recently wasted their resources on an emoji movie. That’s the same studio that made Surf’s Up and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Blue Sky made Ice Age numero uno, Rio, the only decent Dr. Seuss feature-length movie to exist, and The Peanuts Movie, don’t let some of their shoddier productions fool you. Warner Animation Group showed what they are made of with The Lego Movie and, if you’re in my camp, Storks. Paramount Animation? They’ll get there one day! Reel FX showed real promise with The Book of Life, and some of their slate sounds really exciting.
But to me, it’s especially wrong to downgrade Disney Animation. Walt Disney’s animation house was lighting the cinema world on fire long before John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and crew were even born. Pixar has yet to make a film that’s as ambitious and unconventional as Fantasia. Great as many of their films are, none of them are the sheer earthquake that Fantasia was. WALL-E comes extremely close to being the next Bambi, and as excellent as that film is, it falls short of reaching that film’s level when it settles for having a plot. Not that that kills the movie, doesn’t at all, but a film like Bambi – happily plotless it is, something the modern film world would probably disapprove of – operates on a whole other playing field. Don’t tell me that Disney is the inferior studio. Don’t tell me their new, great, experimental movies aren’t Disney-esque.
You could say “this Pixar film reminded me of a Disney film from the [insert era here] that I didn’t like”, instead. It’s know, a longer sentence, it’s so hard isn’t it? I’ll fix it for you: “I hated Brave, it was like one of those bad Disney films from the early 2000s, like Home on the Range!”
So… Those “lesser” Pixar films. What’s so “lesser” about them? What’s with the hivemind mentality that consistently downs these very films and vilifies Pixar for making them?
Before I go on, it’s totally fine if you personally didn’t like these particular films. We all have our tastes and preferences, but I’m sorry… I haven’t really read any critiques of these films that are compelling arguments on why they’re so bad or mediocre, many of them simply go the easy route, using as their “it’s not up to Pixar standards!” or “it’s not great so it’s terrible” as their only arguments. I agree that a good chunk of these are more B-level than A-level on a grading scale, but what is so bad about that? Not every movie is destined to be the greatest thing of all time…
Pixar Standards™ doesn’t exist to me, because no studio or group of people is going to be able to make absolutely perfect movies each time out. All the great directors couldn’t do it, so why should we expect Pixar to be such gods of perfection? Spielberg? He put out some movies that are considered to be clunkers by many, like 1941, Always, Hook, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and such. Scorsese? Not everyone loved The Wolf of Wall Street, or Shutter Island. The Coen Brothers? Hail, Caeser! was not everyone’s cup of tea, or The Ladykillers.
I feel the same way about… A Bug’s Life, Cars, Brave, Monsters University, and The Good Dinosaur. Critical reception on all of those, if you go by the “be all-end all decider on what makes a great movie” aggregate that is Rotten Tomatoes, was actually pretty solid. Most filmmakers and animation studios would do almost anything to get scores like 74% or 77%. No, because they are not coveted 90-or-higher numbers, the narrative is “Pixar lost their touch, they died, they betrayed me, they lost it.” What if Inside Out had gotten a 70%, but was the same exact film that we got back in the summer of 2015? What would the narrative have been? “Misunderstood masterpiece”? Or “What the hell, Pixar”?
An insignificant number on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic should not define your taste in movies, nor should it dictate what you will see. The only Pixar film to have a truly rotten score is Cars 2, last time I checked that thing had a 41%, which put it lower than a lot of films that I felt were worse. If another studio made that film, would it have gotten a 60% with RT’s consensus writer saying “It isn’t all that good, but it’s still cute and entertaining”? They gave middling comedies like Despicable Me 2, Turbo, Minions, and The Croods those kinds of reactions… I’ll take Cars 2 – messy as it may be – over all of those, thank you very much. At least Cars 2 tries to work with what it’s shackled with, those other films coast, are just noise, or don’t have enough uniqueness in them to make them stand out.
Anyways, Pixar was always going to make a film that you weren’t going to like. They were extremely lucky to score 9-to-11 critical, universally-loved smashes in a row. These very post-Toy Story 3 films prove that quality is indeed subjective. Is Brave a tender mother-daughter story with a medieval fantasy backdrop? Or generic twaddle with an unlikable main character? Does Monsters University give us a great story arc for Mike Wazowski? Or is the movie a bland Animal House-lite movie for cookie-chompers? Is The Good Dinosaur an atmospheric, minimalist frontier movie that just happens to star dinosaurs? Or is it barebones schlock that’s only fit for young’uns? Is Cars 2 actually a fun little blockbuster, or is it the worst thing in the world?
Debatable films tend to be more interesting than films that are universally adored. It’s always interesting to hear more than one side of the story, but in Pixar’s case, it’s a frustrating slew of knee-jerk reactions.Other criticisms are just as lazy to me, when they pull the “Pixar standards” cards and dismiss the film in question because it isn’t some hyper-complex marvel of a movie. Films need to be taken on their own terms, like anything else, really. If I didn’t do this, I would probably dislike half of the things I love. A favorite director of mine made a film that’s not their usual? I hate it! The Beach Boys’ album Friends? Screw that stuff, it’s not complex and heartbreaking like Pet Sounds! Nearly half of Disney animation’s library? Not as dark and layered as Pinocchio, to heck with all of it!
Now if you take the films on their own terms and still find fault with them, that’s perfectly fine… But to me, it’s lazy to down a certain film because it isn’t what you specifically wanted it to be. Rarely do I find a critique or piece that takes one of these Pixar films on their own terms, which I think weakens their arguments. It’d be like – yes, I’m lazy, using another music analogy – downing the early Beatles albums for not being psychedelic, game-changing works like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Or finding fault with a folksier album from someone who normally rocks hard.
I think some also tend to forget… Pixar isn’t a single entity, it’s a studio full of people and numerous different directors. Now, each director at Pixar – and many have learned this the hard way – has to meet the approval of the top brass and John Lasseter. Like I said, those Waltian principles, Lasseter acts like a modern-day Walt Disney. Pixar isn’t quite the auteur-driven house some folk may want it to be, but thankfully you can tell if you’re watching a Pete Docter film or an Andrew Stanton film or a Brad Bird film. Walt Disney’s studio was no different, Walt was ultimately the great decider despite being in the producer role for each and every one of his animated features. Lasseter functions the same way, that being said…
Realistically, a big group of people aren’t going to hit a home run each time out. A band really can’t, or a sports team, or a group of TV show people. Even a director on his or her own can’t. Like I said, Pixar was bound to release a movie that wasn’t going to appeal to everybody, which is fine. Some say their second feature is just that, or Cars, a while before the “dork age” 2010s. In someone’s perfect world, Pixar would’ve disbanded after the release of Toy Story 3, leaving a perfect and untainted line-up with maybe one or two divisive entries… But no, Pixar is not The Beatles, a band that could break up if they wanted to. Pixar simply can’t end, they have so many established brands and franchises that could keep them alive if all their future movies were to fail at the box office, heaven forbid. They can’t just end, so over the decades, we’ll see many phases in their existence… Just like the world saw with Disney Animation.
Finding faults with a certain new movie from the studio is not wrong, so long as you back your argument up with strong points. Many on the Internet, to me, don’t do this. It’s usually an “it sucks!” followed by an argument that needs to be fleshed out. A good chunk of those folks then get hysterical and act as if the end is nigh. The silliest reaction has always been “Pixar betrayed me!” Pixar is not your parent, your best friend, or a companion… They’re a studio, making movies, hoping audiences like them and pay to see them. They are not obliged to satisfy you or me or anyone else, really. Did anyone in the 1970s say such things when Disney Animation made light fare like The Aristocats and Robin Hood?
Your counter-argument might be, “But that was right after Walt Disney died…” Pixar’s Joe Ranft, a major player in the company’s rise, died in 2005, right before the Disney acquisition. You could argue that Ranft’s death had a serious impact on the studio.
In all, a Pixar movie not being up to par shouldn’t be based on “It needs to be exactly like [insert favorite Pixar movie here] in order to be great!” A few movies you weren’t big on does not mean they betrayed you, or stop being great, or decided to become uncreative and money-hungry. They were money-hungry since the very beginning, you make content to make money, to make a living. Toy Story 2 was commissioned by Eisner and Disney brass solely for monetary reasons, Pixar fought to make it an excellent film, and guess what? No one gives two damns that the film was greenlit simply for the buck!
Sequels are a whole other – albeit very complicated – story. It’s a combination of weird things, it’s not like Pixar’s staff collectively threw their hands up and said “Well screw our integrity and our audiences, we don’t give a damn anymore!” Things don’t work that way.
Lastly, and this all ties back to the idea that Pixar makes a particular kind of movie… Pixar is obliged to make one specific kind of movie.
They apparently, absolutely need to make the following kind of movie… The hyper-inventive, super-witty, wacky, imaginative, mindbending, dizzying, heart-crushing comedy-adventure that has a plot that’s complex like a pocket-watch. Movies like… WALL-E, Up, Inside Out, and several others. Lighter stories like A Bug’s Life, Cars, and The Good Dinosaur? Not acceptable! Leave that garbage to Disney and DreamWorks!
Why can’t Pixar make quieter fairy tales or minimalist westerns? Why can’t Pixar make tranquil love letters to Americana or straightforward adventure-comedies? If anything, you limit Pixar and animation by saying they should only make one kind of movie. Some of my favorite animated movies don’t follow this silly rule. Ever see Yellow Submarine? That barely has a plot, in fact it’s really just a collection of psychedelic music videos with our heroes not seeing any major story arcs or anything… Every second of it is glorious, because it is what it’s trying to be – something more than just a conventional movie. Like Fantasia! It’s the execution of the concept that matters to me.
Pixar is Pixar, Pixar doesn’t have to make a certain kind of movie, Pixar isn’t the greatest maker of animated movies on the planet, Pixar is a studio full of human beings who are like all of us, and Pixar never died or went downhill or betrayed you…
Over and out.