Pixar: The Art of Story and the Best Studio Out There

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” –G.K. Chesterton

“The shortest distance between truth and a human being is story.”–Anthony De Mello




In my previous entry about Sports Night, I talked about how the most important draw in a film, television, or novel is story.  These quotes sum up to me the importance of story in our lives.  I fully believe that Jesus was very intentional when used stories (parables) as one of His main ways of getting His point across.  You can tell me a moral or message in simple words, and I may agree and not be changed, but teach me that moral or message through a well-told story, connect with my emotions, and it has a much greater chance of becoming part of me.

Unfortunately, the “Dream Factory” of Hollywood is, for the most part, I believe, ruining the Story.  

There are several ways this is happening.  The same old stories are recycled over and over again.  Stories are told with more flash and less substance, and since the early 90s, Hollywood has been all about the opening weekend, while most films that tell a strong original story tend to be indies without big names or big opening weekend dollars, films that therefore fall by the wayside.  (It didn’t used to be this way.  I remember in 1985 when “Back to the Future” played for an entire year at my town’s movie theater.)

Everything is geared towards the quick result, the quick dollar, the easy laugh.  What will a 14 year old boy enjoy?  

The biggest issue to me is that Hollywood, for the most part, seems stuck on a small handful of themes, themes that get retold and repackaged again and again, though they are not in any way the only themes out there (nor are they all necessarily true.)

Some examples: There’s a million movies along the lines of “it’s okay to be different/don’t judge a book by his cover/accept yourself as you are/sometimes the most unlikely, uncool person turns out to be a hero”.  Closely related to that is the “unlikely person/group overcomes great odds to defeat something that appears much more powerful” story.  This is a very American theme–the loner individualist that overcomes and triumphs.  (And the loner can sometimes be a group–as in “Remember the Titans”, when the whole town is racist except for the newly enlightened football team.)  

Here’s another that makes me especially nauseous: “Romantic love is the only thing that brings real happiness, and can in fact overcome anything.”  Excuse me while I go spill my lunch.

Or another: “White/rich people are hopeless and pathetic, and need to be saved by encounters by wisened/mystical/more lively ethnic people (see The Green Mile, The Visitor, and many others.)  This was has always struck me as slightly racist–notice that white people are always the center of these stories, and the usually-black-but-sometimes-other-ethnicity person that “saves” the white hero usually ends up dead or something.

Okay, enough rambling.  Here’s my point: the original idea in Hollywood is something we just don’t see very often anymore.  Even indie studios have mixed bags.  But there is one studio, I believe, that is forging the way in telling new stories that can be used to teach, stories that will be classics for decades to come: Pixar.

Pixar.  Yup, a cartoon studio.  I have friends who dismiss Pixar films for that very reason; they don’t like cartoons.  They don’t like talking animals or anthropomorphic anythings, and they therefore miss the heart and meaning behind the stories Pixar is telling us.  

But Pixar films are not like other modern-day studio cartoons.  Their main competitor in the computer-animated movie department would be Dreamworks Animation–the studio behind Shrek.  And Shrek 2.  And Shrek 3.  And Madagascar.  And Madagascar 2…you get the idea.  These are films full of movie star voiceovers, pop culture references (Shrek, with its Matrix and Riverdance jokes, is already looking a little dated), and satirical-yet-formulaic storylines.  

Pixar, however, is different.  For Pixar, story comes first–if a movie star’s voice isn’t necessary, it isn’t used.  You won’t find pop culture jokes in Pixar films.  But you will find original ideas.  You will find themes that usually only get explored in small budget indie films.  You will find truth.  You will find beauty.

(The other thing you will find, I might add, is what is apparently the best place to work in Hollywood.  Watch any of the numerous docs on life at Pixar and you’ll see a vibrant place of community and creativity.  At the risk of sounding like I’m idolizing Pixar, it looks a bit like how a church office should be.)

Let me illustrate.  Pixar started off making short computer-animated films as experiments in the mid-80s, their first short released in 1984.  The little independent theater in central Vermont used to show these “animation festivals” every year, and one year in high school I attended and saw not only the first very Simpsons cartoons ever made, but also Pixar’s fourth work, Tin Toy.  It is the first of the bunch that I feel is truly successful, with the climax of the movie–what happens when the toy finally escapes the slobbering baby by hiding under the couch–packing a really big laugh.

In 1995, they released the first ever full-length computer-animated film, Toy Story, followed three years later by A Bug’s Life, which is a children’s version of The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa.  (No, it really is.  Think about it.)  Toy Story 2 followed, and was a vast improvement on the 1st.  Monsters, Inc. came next, and was a truly clever idea executed mostly pretty well.  

But it’s after this film that Pixar truly hits its stride, and they haven’t released anything short of a classic since then.  These five films that I’d like to discuss (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E) are works of heart, tackling such heavy and diverse themes as parental abandonment, the temptation of marital infidelity when the routine of life becomes too much, the need to slow down in life and not let modernity crush what truly matters, and the question of what makes an artist an artist.  They both celebrate what is good in modern society, and heavily criticize that which really needs criticism.

Nemo is the last Pixar film that is truly a children’s movie.  That’s not to say kids won’t like any of the others; I just don’t believe any of the others are primarily geared towards children.  Most of you have probably seen it, so I won’t say much here, except to say three things:

1. The animators rose to the challenge of animating when most of the film takes place underwater.  They resisted the temptation to over animate the water, and created an environment that seems very real.  The use of color is also remarkable.

2. While the story is a strong one–the beginning haunting, and the central themes of letting your children grow up, not raising kids fearfully, and the separation theme–the thing I walked away with is how funny this movie is.  I think it is Pixar’s funniest movie, largely because of the character of Dory.  But every actor carries their weight, and who could forget the seagulls?

3. It is here that Pixar begins its somewhat odd tradition of releasing trailers for their movies that show a scene that is not actually in the movie, and a scene that doesn’t really work or make you want to see the movie.  It’s a bit strange.

Next came The Incredibles.  For this, Pixar brought in Brad Bird to direct.  Bird, a former Simpsons writer, had previously directed the animated film The Iron Giant, a minor classic, and it was clear that he was able to tell a story that had appeal for children and adult sensibilities.  And he knocks this one out of the park.

Most of you are familiar with this movie as well–it is a story of a nuclear family of superheroes who live in a time when superhero–ing has been outlawed.  It borrows from The Watchmen, Fantastic Four, and other superhero lore.  But this is the only PG-rated Pixar movie and it carries with it some truly adult themes that become clearer on multiple viewings.

The center of The Incredibles is one idea: Mid-life crisis.

Mr. Incredible specifically is facing a life stuck in a job he does not believe in, with two kids who struggle in life, and a wife who struggles in her own ways.  The superpowers that brought them together–the sense of adventure and power–is something they have to hide, and so the fun is gone from marriage.  Mr. Incredible sneaks out nights to meet and old friend and listen to police blotters in hopes of finding some adventure.  He lives in the past.  Then, with the arrival of Mirage comes the temptation to escape his dull life and be involved in something that seems exciting to him–but at the cost of his family.  Mirage represents the temptations of both escape and adultery, and her name is well-chosen.  

 Mr. Incredible gives in to the former temptation but never the latter.  However, it all turns out to be a trap, one his family ultimately must rescue him from.  In the end, Mr. Incredible is able to fulfill the dreams of his youth not by escaping his family, but by modifying the dreams and drawing his family into them.

Next came Cars, a film I think is highly underrated, possibly because it seems too simple a premise and slow a movie upon one viewing.  But there is great beauty in this movie, and since part of its message involves slowing down in life, it is ironic that the beauty is often missed by people who find the film too slow. (And when was the last time you saw a movie that told you to slow down and embrace older, simpler values?)

Cars’ initial trailer was awful–nothing in it explains the story or makes you want to know anything more.  A strange advertising strategy if it is one–lower expectations for your movie and then surprise everyone.  

Anyway, Cars takes place in a world where everything is a vehicle.  A famous race car on his way to a title-clinching race gets lost and ends up in a run-down, nearly-dead town on the old Route 66.  He gets stuck there and learns lessons about friendship and loyalty, but also about the parts of America that are dying, parts that are beautiful and unique and are being passed over as we more and more embrace the homogenized interstate lifestyle, where everything’s a strip mall and all the towns look the same and feature the same things.  

This is a message that resonates with me.  I grew up in a state that prides itself on its small town ethos and locally run businesses, with frequent angry battles against the Wal-Marts and McDonalds of this world (seriously–we have the only state capital without a McDonalds in the city limits.)  And while I don’t agree with everything about the line of thinking here, I appreciate the value and beauty that has gone unspoiled because people resisted.

The town in Cars is based on real towns and buildings along the old Route 66–a highway that spanned much of the south and the west but has become rundown and in some places dead because of bypasses interstates built, like I-40.  (The movie mentions this one specifically.)  The writers and creators of the film traveled Route 66 and met with people who live there, scraping by, and listened to their stories.  (My wife and I got to drive a bit of Route 66 last year while on vacation, and found it fascinating.)

I appreciate this movie and find it entertaining and inspiring, and the animation of the landscapes are just gorgeous–they look real.  It makes me a little nervous, however, that Pixar is working on a sequel for 2011, as I don’t think it necessarily warrants more story. 

Cars was accompanied by another wordless short entitled “One-Man Band”, which may be one of my favorite things ever.

Next came Ratatouille, another entry in the Pixar canon that convinces me that they’re not aiming at making children’s movies.  There’s nothing that loud or flashy here, and the movie is longer than the average cartoon.  As you know, it tells the tale of a rat who loves to cook fine cuisine, and his adventures in a Parisian restaurant as he guides an untalented chef into a career as a head cook.  

This may be my favorite Pixar film.  The animation, though not as groundbreaking as the previous three, is gorgeous–the streets of Paris look amazing.  The story, to me, resonates as it explores the questions of what makes an artist, and what is the artist’s responsibility to his own calling versus his responsibility to his audience.  Art vs. commerce.

The animators took a risk, and one that I believe pays off–instead of making the rats cute or overly cartoonish, they stuck pretty close to real rats.  There are scenes of hoards of rats running around restaurants and food, and they make you squirm.  The foley artist definitely did his job on that end as well.  But it pays off because it makes everything seem a little more realistic, which causes the tensions of the story to be heightened.  

One thing I have to point out: Peter O’Toole’s voice performance as the critic is brilliant, and the monologue he delivers of the review he has written almost makes me cry.  I also have this special affection in my heart to movies whose climax boils down not to a chase or large revelation, but the question of what will happen at a very simple or commonplace moment.  (About Schmidt is an example–the climax is “What will Schmidt say when he finally gets the microphone at his daughter’s wedding?”  “A Mighty Wind” is another–the climax being “What will happen at the break at the end of this song?”)  The climax here comes at the moment when the critic finally gets his first bite of the dinner prepared for him.  A climax boiled down to a single bite.  And what happens when he does is one of my favorite moments in any movie ever–an image that always makes me smile.

In 2008, Pixar released a very bold movie, Wall-E.  It is bold for several reasons.  First, it is the first Pixar film that could be construed as directly political or “preachy.”  I find it to be neither, but since one of its subject matters is our treatment of the environment, and specifically a large corporation’s treatment of the environment, people can read things into it.  

It is also bold because there is virtually no dialogue.  The first third of the movie is almost wordless, and there are later stretches without anything but robot noises.  It is also, I believe, the first Pixar full-length film to mix in live-action footage, in both the videos from Fred Willard’s BnL President and scenes from the old version of Hello, Dolly.

It is their first science-fiction film, and it fits in nicely with much “prophetic” style 70s sci-fi, films that addressed specific current social ills.  It presents a pretty bleak view of humanity.  The human race lives entirely on one large space ship and devolved to the point that they don’t use their legs anymore, not to mention the rest of their bodies or even their brains, spending all their time in chairs with video screens, not even noticing the ship around them.  The film hones in on two of those humans, who encounter Wall-E upon his arrival on their ship, and we see their gradual awakening.

This prophetic warning about humanity is, to me, entirely plausible, especially the laziness/obesity warning.  It’s a bit scary, and one we could all do well to pay attention to. Don’t become too addicted to entertainment and comfort.  Get out there.  Open your eyes. Do something.  Don’t allow yourself to become so de-humanized that robots seem more human than you do.

Pixar’s next film looks like it may continue this streak–the movie “Up” about an old man and a young boy who travel in the old man’s balloon-carried house to South America.  That will be followed by Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, a fact which makes me a bit nervous.  In addition, Brad Bird, who directed both The Incredibles and Ratatouille, is working on Pixar’s first ever live-action film, 1906, about the San Francisco earthquake.

Thank you, Pixar, for making movies that make me think and that I will have no qualms about showing my children.  Thank you for putting story above financial consideration and star power.  Thank you for your originality, for not falling into the traps of Hollywood and keeping your child-like joy as you work.  I hope your streak will continue!


3 responses to “Pixar: The Art of Story and the Best Studio Out There

  1. wow! this is awesome! you should be writing for top papers & magazines! (and i am not saying it just because i am your wife who is madly in love you! 🙂

  2. Hey Mr. Book, I thought this article was amazing. It really broadens my personal thought about Pixar and the movies they make and I really never saw those movies quite like the ways you described them. It really does make me want to watch them over again and see these different thoughts you have brought up!! Thanks

  3. Dude…I’m so thankful for you bro! I could read pages and pages of this stuff. Very thoughtful, very true, very ‘JohnBook’. Hope you keep this up when you are in England. Peace.

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