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Has Pixar Lost it's Touch

By Simoa Barros
On March 10, 2011

Pixar can do no wrong. That seems to be the general consensus in Hollywood, and among movie fans. What started as a small computer graphics firm in 1986 (one that designed Listerine commercials) has grown into an animation powerhouse, churning out hit movies that deliver quality stories and endearing, gutsy characters. Unlike DreamWorks Animation, the studio often compared to Pixar (and the one that continually receives the negative attention), Pixar is not about the buck, and they never have been.

Oh sure, their parent company Disney is crazy about the buck (and the merchandise, and the franchises, and the sequels…) But as one astute person put it, a Pixar movie is always wholly original, even if there's a number in the title.

"Toy Story 2" was Pixar's first sequel. John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Disney/Pixar spoke of it: "When Toy Story came out and became a big hit, almost immediately there was talk of a possible sequel. The characters were so strong and well developed, we thought of them more like friends or family or fellow employees than we did creations, so we felt a sequel would work." Audiences, too, grew attached to these characters and that's why the sequels ("Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3") have been so well received.

So what exactly makes these films so remarkable? How are these characters able to connect with movie goers on such a profound level? John Lechner, a guest writer on the blog Animated Writings, attributes the success of Pixar's first feature length film "Toy Story" to the writing. In his words, that's what made audiences stand up and cheer. I'm not here to disagree with him on that point; the writing in any film is what holds it together. Without the story, you have nothing.

But what I don't agree with is his claim that the quality of writing in Pixar's films has decreased since "Ratatouille." Lechner claims that the characters of Linguini, Colette, and Chef Skinner didn't drive the plot themselves, but were manipulated by it. "I found myself not caring as much as I did in previous films," Lechner writes. But what about Remy, the non human main character (re: rodent), who dreamt of becoming a chef? Remy was the one driving the plot, Remy was the one setting out to fulfill his passion to cook. The human characters weren't any less important, but I cared about them as the supporting players in Remy's story.

Lechner praises the lack of dialogue in the beginning of "Wall-E", but states that the "second half fell into disarray, I wasn't sure whose story it was or what lesson was being taught, despite (or perhaps because of) the heart stopping action." Really? The second half of the film takes us on board the Axiom, the space ship where humanity now lives because earth cannot sustain human life. (That is until a plant is discovered, thus restoring faith that the humans can return home). These human characters are complacent, lazy, and overweight, not only because they're consuming too much food, but because they've consumed a lifestyle that is neither humane nor healthy, but one that stresses the importance of material possessions and only physical fulfillment. The lesson's not too hard to discern.

In the midst of all the "heart stopping action" onboard the Axiom, Wall-E and the fembot Eve are the ones falling in love while their human counterparts chug liquidated food from a cup, content as they're transported around the ship in their flying chairs. Director and screenwriter Andrew Stanton may not have intended the film to be a warning against the consumerist culture, but he did create a love story. That love story, combined with Stanton's Christian faith, is what influenced the direction of Wall-E's purpose.

"The greatest commandment is to love one another, and to me, that's the ultimate purpose of living. So that was the perfect goal for the loneliest robot on earth, to learn the greatest commandment, to learn to love." (Christianity Today, "The Little Robot That Could", 2008). Wall-E learned how to love, the humans learned merely surviving was not the same as living and a couple humans even found love of their own. Is this a film suffering from poor scriptwriting? I don't think so.

2009's "Up", though hailed by Lechner as a tour de force in visual storytelling (much as "Wall-E" was) fell short because the relationship between crotchety widower Carl and the exuberant boy scout Russell was explained to the audience, not shown. That argument just doesn't hold with me. Russell was meant to be a reincarnation of Carl's late wife Ellie. This wasn't explained through any of their dialogue; it was shown throughout the film. The dynamics of their bond came about because Russell reminded Carl of Ellie and this didn't detract from the action of the film, as Lechner suggests. Yes, "Up" took great advantage of thrilling action sequences, but the story wasn't minimalized because of it. If anything, the action reinforced the theme of false adventure Carl had been seeking after Ellie's death, which drove the story.

Last but not least, is critically acclaimed and universally adored "Toy Story 3", nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. These are Lechner's thoughts on the film:

  "Here is a film that has action, comedy, emotion – all the ingredients of a classic film, everything audiences love. But unlike previous Toy Story films, the pieces don't quite fit together, the characters seem to be going through the motions. It is a plot-driven film, where the primary objective is to get from point A to point B while avoiding the dangers conveniently placed in between. Motivation is explained by the characters, it didn't evolve naturally through the story."

Is Toy Story 3 a plot driven film? Absolutely. Are the characters merely going through the motions? What are the motions of Toy Story 3? These are toys that have been dependant on Andy for years and are now uncertain of their future. They take fate into their hands when they donate themselves to Sunnyside Daycare, and realize their mistake when the place turns out to be neither sunny, nor safe, nor friendly. The motivation of the characters is to be played with again; to be loved, because they feel Andy doesn't care about them anymore. This wasn't explained; it was shown and it certainly doesn't reflect poor writing.

"A flawed Pixar film is still better than most of  what passes for most family entertainment." No one is claiming that all of Pixar's films are flawless, but maybe I'm the wrong person to ask what exactly these flaws are.

I have a definite bias when it comes to Pixar. I can't imagine the studio would ever let money or formula come before creativity, which is what Lechner hopes doesn't happen in this piece. But his claim that it's already happened in the films mentioned here is something I just don't agree with.

Lechner is entitled to his opinion but in response to the title of his post, ‘Has Pixar Lost It's Touch?' My answer is a resounding NO.  

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