You know, I’m going to stop doubting Pixar when it comes to Toy Story movies. After 2, I was skeptical of 3, and after 3 – man did I not think 4 was going to be anything special. Somehow, however, Pixar has managed to defy the law of diminishing returns and Toy Story 4 is as amazing (if not more so) than its predecessors. From its characters to its dialogue to its unbelievable sense of self-awareness, Toy Story 4 is an unexpected gem.
But there’s one thing in particular I want to focus on: Walking out of the theater, I got the sense that the story was more familiar than I had initially thought. I’m not calling Toy Story 4 a rip-off, not by a long shot…but it definitely takes a lot of inspiration from a very unlikely source. When I call Toy Story 4 Pixar’s version of Frankenstein, please know that I’m not talking about Forky – well, not just about Forky.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing Pixar’s new movie, Monsters University. In my past posts, I have made no secret my disappointment at recent Pixar films (Brave, Cars 2) but I’m happy to report that Monsters University is a step back into the spotlight for Pixar. Sure, it doesn’t have the heart that its predecessor, Monsters Inc., had but overall I would actually say that I had more fun with Monsters University. The prequel definitely had more memorable characters in it (Boo was missed but it was nice to actually get to know Mike and Sully). But anyway, I could go into more detail here but I’ll say see the movie for yourself and judge. I would like to talk about Pixar studios more as a whole today rather than focus on their most recent accomplishment.
A trip to Metacritic prompted this article. After seeing Monsters University I was interested to see the critical reaction. Monsters Inc. enjoys a 78 on the movie review website and I figured that its prequel would be around there. It’s not. I was actually really surprised to see that Monsters University currently only clocks in at a 64. What’s more surprising is that much of the criticism simply accuses the film of being a cash grab and condemns Pixar for their lack of originality. To be fair: nobody really ever asked for a Monsters Inc. prequel. However, simply because no one asked for it doesn’t mean it can’t be a good film. Also I would like to think I’m good at spotting cash grabs. Putting Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II for instance, that was a cash grab (the father of the best selling Star Wars toy ever made). Monsters University was not made simply to make Pixar more dollars and shame on any critic who thinks that. One can dislike the movie sure but there are other legitimate weaknesses to criticize.
Amongst the reviews I read, I was shocked to discover an atmosphere of distrust toward Pixar. In general it seems that critics aren’t as warm to the animation company as they once were. I decided to take a look at where other animation studios ranked according to Metacritic’s review pool. Here is what I found:
Walt Disney Animation Studios – Overall ranking: 69 (Highest rated film: Winne the Pooh at 74)
– Special Note: This does not include the old Walt Disney Studios Animation company, merely the most recent one that formed after Disney acquired Pixar.
Dreamworks Animation – Overall ranking: 63 (Highest rated film: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit at 87)
Sony Pictures Animation – Overall ranking: 58 (Highest rated film: The Pirates! Band of Misfits at 73)
Blue Sky Studios – Overall ranking: 58 (Highest rated film: Horton Hears a Who! at 71)
Illumination Entertainment – Overall ranking: 53 (Highest rated film: Despicable Me at 72)
It’s clear who the current king of animation is. Pixar has eight films rated higher than the highest of their competitors. They are the equivalent of Renaissance painters in this day in age (making Illumination Entertainment finger-paint artists). Want to know something though, before the end of the “Pixar Golden Age” in 2010, their overall score would have been an 87. That includes Cars. Since that time, movies like John Carter (yes they did the animation in that film plus it was directed by Pixar vet. Andrew Stanton), Cars 2, Brave, and now Monsters University have lowered the score a full eight points. So recently Pixar has fallen off their pedestal. It is only their past triumphs that keep them above the clutter.
Okay, Cars 2 sucked. I’ve implied it, the critics have stated it (57 on Metacritic) and the public has generally already forgotten its existence. It’s just not a good movie. From start to finish, there is little in Cars 2 to compliment. Beyond that: who was asking for it? Cars was the black sheep of the “Pixar Golden Age”. It was the film that was released between The Incredibles at Ratatouille, two vastly superior films. Prior to the release of Cars 2, Cars was unquestionably the worst film that Pixar ever made… and it was still okay. Cars wasn’t horrible, it just wasn’t brilliant. That was the standard people were expecting from Pixar films.
Seriously compare reviews between animation companies. Here is the most common praise for other animation studios’ films: “they’re fun and pretty”. Here is the common praise for Pixar films: “moved me to tears”. Pretty big difference in reaction there.
In some ways I think it is the association with Disney that is causing people to distrust Pixar. Remember when Disney was king of animation and turned out classic after classic? That was before the dark times… before Michael Eisner and the relentless parade of unnecessary and unwanted sequels. Everyone loved Cinderella… did you know he turned that into the first part of a trilogy? It was no longer art for art’s sake, the films became a manufactured property designed to be marketed in every way possible (sequels, toys, cartoons). The result was a decline in quality. The Disney classic disappeared. That’s where Pixar came in.
In many ways, if anyone is ever curious as to how much Pixar and Disney (under Eisner) didn’t like each other, watch Ratatouille. Replace Remy the rat with Pixar, Chef Gusteau with Walt Disney and Chef Skinner with Michael Eisner. Incidently Pixar was going to leave Disney at one point and Ratatouille was originally envisioned as their first independent film: a film about an artist battling a greedy man obsessed with destroying an image… hmmmm.
But things changed and Pixar and Disney made up. Michael Eisner left and unnecessary sequels became a thing of the past… or did they? Unfortunately the common fear is that now Pixar has become the new corporation and are viewing their properties much in the same way that Disney used to view theirs. Even Toy Story 3, as great as that was: was that really necessary? Think of how Toy Story 2 ended:
Point is we forgave Pixar because Toy Story 3 was just that good. Imagine if that film had been only okay, the reaction to it would have been very negative. But now was Cars 2 and Monsters University, two other sequels/prequels no one was asking for, audiences are starting to get worried. Is Pixar out of ideas? Are they just going to make sequels or prequels to ever movie, regardless of how few people want it. This may be overreacting, I mean it’s not like they’re making another Finding Nemo…
I loved Finding Nemo but that was not a movie that screamed sequel… or even whispered it. Maybe there is something to worry about. Three of the last four animated Pixar films have been off of existing properties. Maybe they are running out of new ideas. It is worth noting that their next film, The Good Dinosaur, is not a sequel or a prequel. So they are still making some new content… but will it be only as good as Brave?
Pixar was, at one point, the company to replace Disney in terms of quality animated films. They are now on the verge of replacing Disney in terms of unnecessary and unwanted sequels. For the record, I don’t think things are as bad as the Eisner days. As I stated at the beginning, Monsters University does not feel like a cash grab and Cars 2 was a mad passion pursuit by director John Lasseter. I do express some nervousness for the company’s future, however. The “Golden Age” is definitely over and there comes a day where every king falls to a successor.
Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of it or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.
In my commentary on The Incredibles, I made mention of a “Golden Age” of Pixar. The period I am referring to there is 1995-2010. During this time, nearly every Pixar movie made (minus Cars) ranged from above-average to artistic work of animated perfection (Wall-E is on my top ten films ever made list). Sadly with the release of films like Cars 2 (seriously Lasseter, please let this series die) and Brave, the “Golden Age” of Pixar is over. Whether it is merely taking a short break or gone forever is yet to be determined. But let’s talk about Brave for a moment. Brave is the first non-Cars Pixar film that I have not fully enjoyed.
If I had to name my largest problem with Brave, it would be its sloppy application of its feminist message. I am not against a feminist film, really we need more of them. I believe the film medium is a great platform to intelligently convey ideas and perspective. Brave is not intelligent. Brave teaches us that teenage daughters know more than their mothers about life and that hundreds of years of culture can be disregarded without serious consequence.
So basic plot rundown for anyone unfamiliar with Brave. The film follows the story of Merida, a young girl being forced into marriage by her parents. Merida doesn’t want to get married and refuses, she flees her home and encounters a witch. Desperate to escape her fate, Merida buys a spell from a witch and uses it on her mother (cause it’s all her mother’s fault and not just the societal reality of the situation). This spell unexpectedly turns her mother into a bear and, for the rest of the movie, Merida proves how stupid everyone is and then doesn’t get married. I’m simplifying that last part but that really is pretty much it.
There’s a reaction scene in particular that irks me. When Merida first turns her mother into a bear. Merida scolds her, saying something along the lines of “well this is what you get for trying to force me to get married”. I have no problem with Merida saying this. She’s a teenager: selfish, proud… stupid. My problem is that the movie supports it. Not once is there ever an interjection on Merida’s immature approach to the situation. Marriage back in those days, particularly among royalty, was not done out of love. Marriage was a political move to make sure people didn’t kill each other. This was the reality for royal men and women.
True, Brave does make a side-mention that Merida’s suitors aren’t really interested in getting married either but again, you don’t change culture with a lectures from teenagers, especially not during the Medieval period! The problem really lies with centering the conflict on mother-daughter. Queen Elinor (Merida’s mother) has no real power in the situation. Blaming her for a system that already existed is believable on a character level but foolish on a plot level. Really if she wanted to actually change the culture, Merida’s main conflict should have been with her father, King Fergus since, you know, he is the only one at the time with power.
But Colin, it’s just a family film, you should cut it a break.
This is a Pixar film. These are the people who brought us Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Toy Story 3. They are capable of doing incredibly intelligent pieces of film making. I’m not against Brave‘s message, I just really wish it was done in a smarter and more believable story. Feminism is a rational belief, please make a rational movie out of it. But anyway, Brave came out last year so why am I talking about it? Because of this:
This is why movies like Brave have a point. Walt Disney has long been known for their line of princesses (most of whom do not take an active role in feminist culture) and Merida is now going to be included. That should be a good thing. Regardless of my feelings on the movie, including the princess who didn’t get married is good. It gives girls a new role model and teaches them that there is more to pursue in life than a ring. So yay Brave for that reason.
However, this “redesign” is not good… at all. It takes hotheaded, imperfect Merida and transforms her into a skinnier, doe-eyed fairy princess. So much for an intelligent conversation on feminism. Neither side here is right. We have the movie with its immature approach and now the Walt Disney corporation has reacted with their own immaturity (they are refusing to change the new image, despite objections from both the filmmakers and some consumers). Why make Merida look like that? Why take the fire out of this princess? She has been subjugated in this new design and no amount of impassioned lectures (yes I see the irony of this post) is going to change that.
It is sad that, in the 21st century, in a so-called age of progress, we’re still having stupid arguments. Having a stupid argument about a stupid subject is one thing but feminism deserves better than this. It is intelligent so can we please be mature about it? No more movies that strip it down to bare, idiotic ideals. No more redesigns that show us how important those ideals are in the first place. We need a better princess for feminism, good thing one exists – Mulan.
Note: if anyone out there feels that because Mulan has a romantic interest she cannot be a good role model for feminism, please tell me so. We’ll have a fun conversation about it.
Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of shit or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.