For at least half of its running time, WALL-E is pure magic. It sings with personality and good-natured humor and the bitter sting of isolation and sadness, bringing about one of cinema’s most endearing love stories — attained without a single conversational exchange, unless you count characters repeatedly trying to pronounce their names. Before long though, WALL-E’s enchanting, wistful yearning for companionship, and the cute visual gags he falls victim to, come to a halt, and the plot kicks into motion. Suddenly, you’re stuck on a ship full of personality-deprived overweight consumerist drones and an environmental message so disconnected from its central character’s plight that the film’s heartfelt nature slowly drains until all you have left is poor little WALL-E, still vying for love. WALL-E’s affection for Eve manages to carry the film all the way though, stumbles and all, but much of the second and third acts of the film feel like an eco-friendly diversion from the whimsy that preceded it.
But man, that first half is just sensational. Up, Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 3 may all be more consistently great, but only WALL-E has a celestial dance among the stars.
Not quite Pixar’s least appealing concept, Ratatouille still had a lot to prove upon release. A rat that wants to cook? Oh, right, because a rat is the last thing you’d want in the kitchen. I get it. That’s kind of amusing, I guess. Please don’t make a movie about it.
But Pixar did anyway, and the culmination of that effort yielded one of their best offerings yet. I’m not sure if the passion for cooking on display in Ratatouille stemmed from an actual passion to cook, but if not, they did a hell of a job vicariously channeling their own passions through it. At the same time, the film offsets its “anyone can cook” mantra with a little bittersweet truth from its critic antagonist, who realizes that, while not anyone can cook, “a great cook can come from anywhere”. (It’s a prudent take-away that’s complemented nicely by the themes of The Incredibles, also written/directed by Brad Bird.)
Even though Ratatouile is dealing very specifically and earnestly with cooking — and in doing so, making cooking far more interesting than I ever thought possible outside of Iron Chef — the passion that motivates its characters can apply to anything in life, and the message would ring just as true. Also in the mix is some old school physical comedy that would do Buster Keaton proud, slyly navigating that pesky issue of having to find a way to allow rats and humans to communicate without speaking. More impressive still are the exhilerating action sequences, bringing an alarming realism to the perils of scouring the world as a tiny rodent. But this is all secondary to the true heart of the story: Remy, voiced with nimble conviction by Patton Oswalt. He may be a rat, but he’s as complexly human a character as has ever been concocted by Pixar, elitist and self-serving and as hugely flawed as he is smart and talented, constantly having to be reminded by his conscience (manifesting itself as the ghost of his favorite chef, like his very own Jiminy Cricket) to do the right thing.
Mike and Sully. Wall-E and Eve. Carl and Russell. Marlin and Dory. Remy and Linguini.
Pixar has always had a knack for conjuring up unlikely duos, but no pairing has ever come close to the comedic brilliance of their first outing with Woody and Buzz. This is when the characters were at their strongest and most well defined, enjoying a relationship plagued by irritation and hostility, and finding themselves repeatedly brought to the brink of lunacy because of it. It’s all well and good that they became best buds for future installments, but only in Toy Story will you find the edginess that was originally so pronounced in their scenes together, making the resulting action that much more fun and rewarding — particularly once they find themselves trapped in Sid’s house. Even as the Toy Story series has heightened the stakes each time out, it’s always been the duo’s daring escape from Sid’s house of horrors (aided by those wonderful deformed toys) that manages to bring out in me the most joy and excitement each time out. Never before has the distance separating two next-door neighbors felt so far.
And let’s not forget to give the film credit for the inspired conceit upon which this series has been built, bringing a magical realism spin to something kids already cherish and anthropomorphize: Toys. Through this fanciful notion of toys come to life, Toy Story also advances some surprisingly weighty themes, confronting what it feels like to be rejected and forgotten — or worse yet, replaced.
The Incredibles is Pixar’s most human story, which shouldn’t come as much of a shock, since it’s their only film that doesn’t cast animals or insects in main or supporting roles. It’s more than that though; The Incredibles is the first Pixar film to feature a real, fully formed family, with all the dysfunction that those relationships entail (marital, parental, sibling, etc.). Seeing these complicated dynamics unfold within the context of a superhero story is amazing fun, and it certainly helps that the hilarious and rich mythos of The Incredibles universe (which in many ways resembles Alan Moore‘s Watchmen) is more fully fleshed out than those of some major comic book characters. There’s just so much to love about watching these characters in action, with the parents struggling to keep up when they’ve been out of the game for so long, and the kids learning to how to use their powers in combat for the first time (I still get goosebumps when Dash realizes he can run on water), and all of them adjusting to their own strengths and weaknesses to utilize their powers as a team. What’s more, the film has the most challenging, even-handed themes of any Pixar film to date, arguing that (contrary to what your teacher might have told you) not everyone deserves to be hailed as special and given a gold star, while also using its hero-villain relationship to convey the darkness that can result when eager and capable young minds aren’t encouraged and cultivated by those best equipped to do so.
Leave it to Brad Bird to even out Pixar’s cheerful positivity with a heavy dose of rationality.
What are your favorite/least favorite Pixar films? And more importantly, why?