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Pixar: The studio, its history and process

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SDG   
Just a Toy: Pixar's Failure of Imagination

In 1995, with the release of the first fully computer-generated feature film, Pixar took the first steps into the virgin territory of a new medium. However, they have not made the most of these advances. Pixar's films, regardless of the writer or director, have always had a big idea: a rat chef, a flying house, living toys – but they rarely go beyond that one idea. While Studio Ghibli, their Japanese hand-drawn friends, show the magical in the everyday and mine joy from the details of life, Pixar routinely make less from more and reduce their grand fantastical concepts to the mundane. . . .

Pixar's writers paint with a limited emotional palette too. Things are HAPPY or they are SAD. Also, there is a reliance on marquee 'emotional moments' that teach us how to feel in the studio's films. . . .

Furthermore, there is a mean-spirited and simple-minded good/evil dichotomy at work in Pixar's films. Given that these types of film appeal most to children, this bothers me. Why must Muntz fall from the zeppelin to his death in Up? Is it what he deserves? Or is it, in some convoluted morality, proof of his badness? Why are the housing developers so faceless and robotic? Why are the humans in Wall-E such fat, babyish oafs?

Compare this to the big-hearted treatment of the Witch of the Waste in Howl's Moving Castle, who, having lost her powers, is not punished or humiliated but welcomed into the castle as a member of the 'good' characters' family. Even if humans are reproached for their bad acts towards the natural world in Princess Mononoke, it is in the light of their capacity for even greater good.

In the end, Pixar's output comes close to fulfilling the view of Hollywood cinema still held in much of the world: predictable, disposable and dumb.

Stephen Russell-Gebbett, October 6

I am open to contrarian criticism, and anything, even Pixar, even Miyazaki, is subject to criticism. That said, when someone titles a piece "Pixar's Failure of Imagination," I have a hard time seeing past the apparent contempt for the studio's fans. When he concludes with the words "predictable, disposable and dumb," I am hard pressed to see it as much more than trollery.

To turn the tables on Russell-Gebbett, Miyazaki fans are quite familiar with his trick of introducing (seemingly?) malevolent or villainous characters who are eventually seen in a more sympathetic light (Yubaba, Dola, Fujimoto, etc.). Are these redemptions psychologically or morally persuasive? Not necessarily. Should we now pile on Miyazaki for the conceit that if only we are big-hearted and accepting of nasty people and welcome them into our homes, we will magically transform them into nice people? Up at least allows a twisted personality the dignity of being a tragic figure. It doesn't pat him on the head and say "Have a cookie."

"Why must Muntz fall from the zeppelin to his death in Up?" Why "must" it be a matter of "must"? Why "must" Carl's wife die? Why "must" Russell's father be an absentee dad? Why "must" developers want to tear down Carl's house? We could play this game with Miyazaki too: Why "must" Chihiro's parents be so chilly and unsympathetic, even at the end of the film? That bothers me a lot more than Muntz falling to his death.

"Why are the housing developers so faceless and robotic?" Because that's how Carl sees them? Because sometimes people are predatory and self-interested? The world can be a ruthless place. Is that not a message for films that appeal most to children?

"Why are the humans in Wall-E such fat, babyish oafs?" Isn't that like asking why are Lilliputians so tiny?

I am tempted to go on a five paragraph rip about HAPPY and SAD and the extraordinary depth and nuance of emotion in Pixar films, but I feel like I've wasted enough time at this point.

Edited by SDG

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SDG wrote:

: Up at least allows a twisted personality the dignity of being a tragic figure. It doesn't pat him on the head and say "Have a cookie."

:lol:

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Hmm... in the battle of Miyazaki versus Pixar, I'll certainly take Miyazaki. But I think Stephen Russell-Gebbett's being far too harsh on Pixar.

I do often think that Pixar fails to fully deliver on the potential of their own ideas (WALL-E is a key example of that; great first half, but a woefully rote second half ultimately makes the film a little less than satisfying), or to develop a truly breathtaking and impressive aesthetic, which means they very rarely hold up when examined as works of art. But their films are consistently enjoyable, entertaining, and engaging in a way that few other examples made-for-children cinema have managed to be, past or present. And I daresay, Pixar can also be more entertaining than Miyazaki (Miyazaki may be imaginative, but he can also be remarkably tedious; see PRINCESS MONONOKE).

Edited by Ryan H.

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Thank you, SDG. I was trying to calm myself down to write something along those lines, but I wouldn't have been able to respond with the same civility.

And I really don't think Miyazaki and Pixar can be so easily compared, as if they're both playing the same game and Miyazaki is winning. Miyazaki is revising folklore and crafting mythologies. Pixar's storytelling is a different kind of storytelling, I think. They're taking conventional, commercial entertainment and enriching it -- sometimes rather subversively -- with surprising substance, character, and social commentary. I'll have to think about how to be more specific about that. But direct comparisons of the two just don't seem very fair.

Edited by Overstreet

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Ryan H. wrote:

: I do often think that Pixar fails to fully deliver on the potential of their own ideas . . .

Yeah, one section of Colin Low's post that I eventually refrained from posting here is a bit where he notes that the last four Pixar films all represented second (or fourth) turns in the director's chair for Pixar's four established directors, and in every case, the last four films have been less impressive than the films that came before them: Ratatouille is less than The Incredibles, Up is less than Monsters Inc., WALL-E is less than Finding Nemo, and Cars is certainly less than the Toy Story movies. All these points are debatable, of course, but it certainly dovetails with what I've been saying for a while, which is that The Incredibles is the last Pixar film for which I felt an uncomplicated love.

FWIW, I have never really "gotten" Miyazaki, so I can't say I agree or disagree with any argument or comparison that anyone would make, there. I do find said arguments and comparisons interesting, though.

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I think I mentioned it in the Up thread, but after recently rewatching many of the Disney animated films, including the Academy Award-nominated Beauty and the Beast along with most of Pixar's films, I feel Pixar easily blows all the old Disney "classics" out of the water. I grew up on those old Disney animated features, but I'll rewatch pretty much any Pixar these days over any Disney.

I'll also agree with Jeff:

Miyazaki is revising folklore and crafting mythologies. Pixar's storytelling is a different kind of storytelling, I think. They're taking conventional, commercial entertainment and enriching it -- sometimes rather subversively -- with surprising substance, character, and social commentary.

And I haven't read all of the Jack Patrick Rodgers article, but this strikes me as off:

But if Cars feels like such a thin story, it

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I think I mentioned it in the Up thread, but after recently rewatching many of the Disney animated films, including the Academy Award-nominated Beauty and the Beast along with most of Pixar's films, I feel Pixar easily blows all the old Disney "classics" out of the water. I grew up on those old Disney animated features, but I'll rewatch pretty much any Pixar these days over any Disney.

I would largely agree, with one exception: FANTASIA. Pixar has not yet offered anything nearly as breathtaking as that masterpiece.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Darryl A. Armstrong wrote:

: I won't disagree that Cars feels like a thinner story than the Toy Storys, but I think he's making connections in his criticism that are tenuous at best. Watching any of the given films in context, I think it's pretty obvious that they all fall on the side of developing relationships in the face of consumerism.

Perhaps, but I don't think that's where the main thrust of his argument lies. What's striking about the recent crop of Pixar films, going back at least as far as Cars, is how anti-modern they have become, whereas the original Pixar films celebrated modernity to some extent -- most explicitly, perhaps, in A Bug's Life, where the hero is an inventor who replaces traditional forms of harvesting with newer, more mechanized techniques. (This aspect of the film is all the more striking when you compare it to Antz, which came out around the same time and is very explicitly critical of the industrialized life. And since A Bug's Life was only Pixar's second movie, whereas Antz was the very first cartoon to be released by DreamWorks, it was possible back then to look at the films on their own terms, more or less, without seeing them through the lens of what we have come to expect from "Pixar films" and "DreamWorks cartoons".)

Ryan H. wrote:

: I would largely agree, with one exception: FANTASIA. Pixar has not yet offered anything nearly as breathtaking as that masterpiece.

I would also have to give a nod to Pinocchio, which came out the same year as Fantasia. It may be somewhat dated in some ways, and so it might not seem all that impressive to audiences with 21st century sensibilities, but it's a fantastic film in its own right.

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Thank you, SDG. I was trying to calm myself down to write something along those lines, but I wouldn't have been able to respond with the same civility.

And I really don't think Miyazaki and Pixar can be so easily compared, as if they're both playing the same game and Miyazaki is winning. Miyazaki is revising folklore and crafting mythologies.

I would also note, that in the context of the world of Anime, Miyazaki uses pretty traditional Japanese ideas. He wasn't turning things on their head with stuff like Princess Monoke and Spirited Away. It is not like everything else in Anime is giant robots and noone "tackles" the subjects the Miyazaki studios do. Like Pixar, they just do it better than their peers.

Edited by Nezpop

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Perhaps, but I don't think that's where the main thrust of his argument lies. What's striking about the recent crop of Pixar films, going back at least as far as Cars, is how anti-modern they have become, whereas the original Pixar films celebrated modernity to some extent -- most explicitly, perhaps, in A Bug's Life, where the hero is an inventor who replaces traditional forms of harvesting with newer, more mechanized techniques.

Boy, I don't know if I fully agree with this. Is ABL pro-modernity? Yes, I would agree that it is for the reasons you give. No argument. I honestly have a lot of trouble seeing Toy Story or Toy Story 2 as being either anti- or pro- modernity. Monster's Inc. can be read either way. Certainly scream-power portrays a rather dark picture of modernity, but MI offers the hope of modernity redeemed rather than rejected through laugh-power. I can't see anything in FN either way. The Incredibles is certainly acid in its portrayal of corporate capitalism (you couldn't fit a sliver between the health insurance industry as portrayed in "Sicko" and how it is portrayed in TI) but it is ambivalent to other aspects of modernity; certainly Syndrome can be seen as Flick gone very, very bad, but Edna Mode is also an inventor character and is on the side of the angels (or the supers at any rate). I would agree that Cars is rather anti-modernity, at least as much as a civilization of machines can be. Ratatouille isn't particularly interested in modernity as such, but its hostility to the profit motive is clearly in line with the attitude shown in The Incredibles, both of course directed by Brad Bird. Is Wall-E anti-modern? I would say it is in the same sense that Monster's Inc. is; hostile to how it is developing but optimistic of modernity redeemed. (The robots are clearly shown as having a role in rebuilding the earth.) Finally, I don't really see Up as being much interested in modernity as such. The development pressures on Carl don't actually hurt him in the end. What was really hurting him was his own inability to move on, leaving him trapped in futile and impotent remorse. Development actually helps him, oddly enough, by forcing him to do SOMETHING, even though the developers had no benign intentions towards him.

Edited by bowen

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I thought we had a thread devoted to Pixar Vs. DreamWorks or something like that, but I can't find it -- maybe it was in an earlier incarnation of this board? (If memory serves, it began with SDG noting how the first four or five DreamWorks films were like subversive, adolescent versions of the first four or five Pixar films -- Shark Tale vs. Finding Nemo, Antz vs. A Bug's Life, etc.)

Anyway, Yahoo! Movies has a chart comparing the box-office performances of Pixar vs. the computer-animated output of DreamWorks (thus excluding their hand-drawn cartoons, such as The Prince of Egypt; it also excludes Flushed Away, which was technically an Aardman co-production).

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Michael Barrier:

I'd be delighted if Up snuck through and won for best picture—not because I think it was the best movie of 2010, or even a good movie at all, but because the shock value of such an award might encourage at least a few people to look at Pixar and its films with a less indulgent eye.

In the past year, I've been struck not just by the uniformly adoring reviews for Up (The New Yorker's review comes first to mind, probably because that magazine's reviewers are so much tougher on most films), but also by such cultural signifiers as a long and completely uncritical piece about Pixar—titled "
"—in the October 8, 2009, issue of The New York Review of Books, probably the leading American literary/intellectual journal. I've read NYR for many years, and its Pixar piece was, I believe, its first article about animation of any kind since Robert Craft's dismissive review of Christopher Finch's book The Art of Walt Disney, more than thirty-five years ago.

There's scant evidence in the Pixar article that its author, Christian Caryl, has seen many other animated films, or knows anything about animation other than what's in the three books listed at the head of his piece: Amid Amidi's The Art of Pixar Short Films, Karen Paik's authorized history, To Infinity and Beyond: The Story of Pixar Animation Studios, and David A. Price's The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. But Caryl, whose expertise is in foreign policy, does mention his five-year-old daughter, twice. (It seems she "had no trouble at all following the story" of WALL•E.) Caryl also says, ludicrously, that Pixar's films have been "attacked" by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. What I've read about Pixar in both newspapers could be construed as attacks only by the most thin-skinned (which the Pixar people quite likely are).

Pixar's films are often mentioned in the same breath as the great Disney shorts and features of the late '30s and early '40s, but I think a more accurate comparison would be with the MGM live-action features of the same period. There were some good MGM movies then—although at the moment I'm struggling to think of one (OK, yes, The Philadelphia Story)—but the representative features were smug, well-upholstered, and manipulative; that is, cold, sleek industrial products like Test Pilot and Mrs. Miniver. When I glance back over Pixar features like Finding Nemo, Cars, WALL•E, and Up, and the shorts released alongside them—all of the Pixar films of the last ten years or so, setting aside Monsters, Inc. and Brad Bird's two features—they look to me like films that might have emerged from a miniature version of the MGM factory.

Like Pixar, MGM won lots of Academy Awards, and its big movies still have their fans, but does anyone take very many of those movies seriously? Not any more; and I think that will be Pixar's ultimate fate. . . .

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Yeah. I mean, nobody takes Toy Story seriously anymore.

Seriously, I look forward to revisiting this claim in 20 years or so. As I'm watching Toy Story 2 again.

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Overstreet wrote:

: Yeah. I mean, nobody takes Toy Story seriously anymore.

I don't think Barrier's comment stretches back that far ("the Pixar films of the last ten years or so"), but since you mention it, yeah, you have to wonder how fondly the original Toy Story would be remembered these days if it weren't for the first, superlative sequel. (Whether the second sequel turns out to be as good as either of the first two movies is one of the Big Questions of the next few months. The track record with threequels in general -- especially those that are produced after a decade-plus gap, like The Godfather Part III -- isn't very good.)

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What I've read about Pixar in both newspapers could be construed as attacks only by the most thin-skinned (which the Pixar people quite likely are).

Wow. It's like he feels that he has to get personal to make his point. Of course, I am not sure what his point is. Is it "Waaahhh! People really, really like Pixar! WAAAAAAAAAAH!" Cause that's what it sounds like.

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Nezpop wrote:

: Of course, I am not sure what his point is.

His point is that people, many of whom know nothing about animation in general, are giving Pixar almost uniformly indulgent treatment, and that this treatment is undeserved. No doubt his point would be clearer if either of us had read that New York Review of Books article that he's responding to, but for my part, I can't be bothered to pay for it right now.

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FWIW, I was at the opening of Pixar's Canadian branch today; the mayor and the premier were there, as were a few higher-ups from Pixar HQ (including Disney-Pixar president Ed Catmull). The invitation said there would be an "announcement" of some sort today, but it wasn't all THAT big; basically, the local branch will be producing short films based on the Cars and Toy Story characters. Still, nice to see those guys up here.

Oh, and they literally unveiled a couple new character designs but told us not to take any pictures -- though I think some flashes went off anyway. I wasn't sure what to make of 'em (the character designs, that is), because they both looked like trucks (one had a face that looked a lot like Mater's) with the wings and/or engines of airplanes. Are these brand-new characters, or are they from a dream sequence or something, I wonder?

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Tyler   

because they both looked like trucks (one had a face that looked a lot like Mater's) with the wings and/or engines of airplanes. Are these brand-new characters, or are they from a dream sequence or something, I wonder?

Maybe they're reimagining the Cars franchise as an homage to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

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FWIW, these videos are from the event that I attended on Tuesday:

Click here for a cropped version of the video that was shown at the event; it puts the Pixar characters in live-action Vancouver locations, and at the 1:20 mark you can see WALL-E and EVE watching a bee-yoo-tiful sunset by the inukshuk at English Bay. (The wife and I used to take our kids there all the time when we lived downtown.)

And here is a photo of the "top secret" character images that the publicist told people NOT to take pictures of:

WEB_PixarCanadaOpening_2010.jpg

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Y'know, a question has been lingering at the back of my brain ever since I attended that Pixar announcement.

In the video that kicked things off, John Lasseter repeated his well-known mantra that "Quality is the best business plan". But if that is the case, then how does Lasseter account for the fact the Disney cartoons produced under his guidance have done less business than their counterparts produced by Pixar, DreamWorks, Fox and, heck, even Sony?

(Bolt grossed $114.1 million and The Princess and the Frog grossed $104.4 million, while Sony's Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs grossed $124.9 million. And of course, Fox and DreamWorks films routinely gross over $150 million and occasionally poke north of $200 million, while every Pixar film made since 1999 has grossed over $200 million. I won't hold Disney's Meet the Robinsons and its $97.8 million gross against Lasseter because, IIRC, that movie was already half-finished before he took the reins at that studio.)

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This isn't news, really; it's just the closest thing to an official statement that we've seen so far.

- - -

Exclusive: Newt is "cancelled"

Earlier this evening I received an email response from Walt Disney Company archivist Dave Smith (or a representative) informing me that Pixar's Newt "has been cancelled". This confirms the rumors that have been swirling around the film in the past few months. . . .

The rumors that Newt was in trouble began in February with a web comment made by Disney Legend and animation industry insider Floyd Norman saying that "Newt is dead". . . .

Newt (officially branded newt, logo in all lower case letters) was first announced to media at the Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios 2008 Animation Presentation in New York City in April of that year. The film was scheduled to be released in the summer of 2011.

The film was being directed by Gary Rydstrom, sound designer and director of Pixar's 2006 Oscar-nominated short film Lifted, and produced by Presto producer Richard Hollander. . . .

What a sad state of affairs. This is the first time I can remember I've been so disappointed with something Pixar has done. They've never publicly cancelled a film before. Why was it announced in the first place? It's a black eye to the studio that was able to bring Toy Story and Toy Story 2 to the screen under extremely difficult circumstances and with far less time and resources. . . .

The Pixar Blog, May 11

- - -

Link to my related blog post on 'Pixar shorts and the grooming of new talent'.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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