How is it that a movie studio that produces kid’s films can be responsible for so many of the best films in cinema?
Twenty years ago, that question would be directed at Disney. Now it’s more likely to refer to Pixar, Studio Ghibli, or even Dreamworks of late. What is it about children’s entertainment that has, time and time again, managed to capture the hearts and minds of adults as much as it has their offspring?
Perhaps it’s a result of these films rekindling our lost sense of childlike wonder and naively adventurous spirit. Perhaps it’s their universally accessible narrative simplicity, always ready to charm away our worries with the awe-inspiring visual splendor through which these tales are so often told.
Whatever the case may be, with thirteen films under their belt, the Pixar formula is one that’s proven itself to leave a lasting impression, transporting us to spectacular, gorgeously rendered and thoughtfully defined worlds — second only to the passionately heartfelt and funny stories of family and friendship embedded within.
What’s more, Pixar is able to achieve this mixture while emboldening children to think for themselves; to challenge the status quo; to recognize their true potential, as well as their limitations. As fun and charming and pretty as Pixar’s films are, it’s the complex ideas and emotions they explore that makes them truly special, affording youths the opportunity to confront the realities of the world around them in a way they can understand and cope with. While everyone else is content to pander to kids, Pixar knows that the best way to communicate with children is to treat them as equals.
But equality is not a trait shared by the current roster of Pixar films. Despite the technical virtuosity on full display with every production, it takes a lot more than stunning animation to make a film great, and that’s not a balance that Pixar always strikes — at least not recently. At one point it may have seemed like the studio could do no wrong, but that was a short-lived romantic notion, and hardly one that merits much deliberation. No, far more instructive would be to scrutinize their missteps in conjunction with their successes, and try to determine what exactly it is that makes any one of their works richer than the other. After all, what better way to understand what makes a story great than to study the best?
The struggle between art and commerce rages on, even with Pixar at the wheel*. Cars may not have performed nearly as well theatrically as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, but what the film lacked in box office revenue it made up for in billions of dollars in merchandise. It seems fair to say that was a primary motivator for Pixar greenlighting a sequel to their least celebrated film, which has now in turn claimed that honor for itself. At the very least, Cars 2 should be admired for trying to take things in a decidedly different direction, centering the story around Mater (previously a supporting character) and spinning the series off into a riff on the spy genre — albeit a lamely derivative “mistaken identity” one. Pixar also has fun with the setting, introducing a World Grand Prix event that expands the limited scope of the first film to places like Japan, Italy and England. Frustratingly, the use of these visually diverse locales is done no favors when confronted with the film’s protagonist, inadvertently encouraging Mater’s blissful ignorance of other cultures because, hey, he means well. No matter that his boorish behavior is a constant source of conflict within the film; clearly, it’s everyone else that should learn to be more accepting of him. With a message that’s likely to do more harm than good, this is Pixar at its most obtuse.
But hey, if the occasional Cars 2 is what’s needed to help finance Pixar’s more bold, original ideas, so be it.
*I am so sorry.
John Lasseter has been very vocal about his love of cars, so it’s not surprising he would pour his automotive passions into a story that literally brings them to life. The inherent problem in that though, is that making a movie in which only sentient cars exist is stupid. Outside of the Cars universe, Pixar has always been careful to keep its fantastical elements grounded by real-world logic. In Toy Story, for example, the toys operate according to human needs, and make sure to return to an inanimate state when humans are near. Cars isn’t interested in tying itself to the human world; it simply doesn’t exist. So why, then, do cars exist? How are they made? How are they alive? How does anything get made in a world where everyone has tires for hands? Any way you look at it, the Cars universe is a logistical nightmare, save for one possibility in which it takes after Terminator (set in the distant future, when humankind has already been wiped out by the very thing it created). But no, the world of Cars is mostly a comedic afterthought (Volkswagen Beetles that are actually beetles! Hilarious!), and the characters it introduces are as blandly familiar as the story it tells with them. Its message of tolerance and humility isn’t as lunkheaded as what Cars 2 dealt out, but it’s hardly fresh, and the lack of subtlety in Lightning McQueen’s character arc only makes it less so. At least the film’s racing sequences are impressive, overcoming the cartoonishly simplistic nature of the characters by surrounding them in photorealistic environments and thrillingly emphasizing the break-neck speeds at which they travel through them.
Brave is filled with plenty of grand, dramatic moments that beautifully embody the sort of heart-dropping theatrics Pixar has grown so skilled at composing. It’s the scenes inbetween those moments that causes it problems. By far the clunkiest story Pixar has told, Brave knows exactly what beats it needs to hit, because it repeatedly hits them before it’s done anything to earn them. It’s ostensibly an intimate tale of a mother-daughter relationship gone awry, but for once the relationship feels like a calculated obstacle, rather than an earnest, heartrending reflection of child-parent woes, a la Finding Nemo. Not enough time is dedicated to organically evolving their relationship within the action, so instead of feeling intimate, the film feels slight and forgettable. Equally problematic is the confused moral lesson at the heart of the fable, supposedly affirming how important it is to communicate and listen, but more realistically advocating a flat “listen to your parents” policy, because even if they don’t know best, they will probably, hopefully, maybe come around once you’ve proven your blind loyalty to them. (Didn’t Finding Nemo send pretty much the exact opposite message?)
We’ve waited a long time for a Pixar film with a female protagonist, and now that we’ve gotten one, it’s evident that the studio is in need of a more feminine touch. As strong of a character as Merida is, she’s predominantly defined by her appeal to masculinity — which is only problematic because there are already so many movies in which girls act like boys, rather than behave like the proper ladies they’re expected to be (Mulan comes to mind). If Pixar hopes to shake its “boy club” mentality, they’re going to have to come up with something a whole lot more creative than this to use as the basis of a female-led story.