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Toying With Us: Pixar’s Animation Legacy

This is one of my entries on the latest cross-blogging event, tracking down some of the most overrated movies of all time. It’s being run by Mike over at You Talking to Me. I can’t spoil the list by giving you any of the other titles, but I did take a quick look at Spider-Man‘s legacy earlier in the week.

I love Toy Story. I love Toy Story II even more. I am anticipating Toy Story III with baited breath. I adore Pixar. The only two films they’ve produced that fall short of excellence (in my opinion) are Cars and A Bug’s Life and both are still above average as films go. So it may seem odd to critique the legacy of perhaps the first great computer animated film – but this is a strange world we live in. Think about it, though. Pixar have essentially killed conventional animated films – at least in this part of the world.

Computer-generated animation spreads its wings...

Let’s not delude ourselves, though. Disney’s dominance of conventional animation was fading long before Woody arrived to push it out the proverbial window and feign innocence as to what happened. I like to think of The Lion King as the last true classic amidst the Disney animated canon, but I’ll accept that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was better than a lot of people gave it credit for. Disney seemed to slowly lose its energy as we drew towards the millennium – Brother Bear and Tarzan aren’t exactly highlights in the decades of Disney, are they?

So Pixar’s first shot at greatness was a welcome breath of fresh air. And they just kept delivering. Hell, they assumed such a dominant position that even their original business partner Disney moved into computer animation to compete. Of course, Home on the Range failed miserably and Disney ended up just buying Pixar in the end. Still, the parent company itself is still competing with it’s recently acquired subsidiary, with a hint more success with Bolt.

If even your business partners (and the largest company in your field) are seeking to emulate you, I think it’s safe to say that you’re on to a winner. Disney’s animated canon had seen its fair share of pretenders over the decade, all seeking to zero in on those precious “family film” dollars. I probably don’t even need to name them – films like The Land Before Time or An American Tale are borderline examples, but films like Anastacia were even attempting to steal the “Disney princess” storytelling model. So how long before these companies realised that the ball was out of Disney’s court?

It takes creativity and vision to shape a market place and to offer something new a visual and unique. We celebrate original ideas – and, until recently, it seemed that new ideas were something Pixar had in abundance. With the exception of Toy Story II, each of their movies is an original film with a beauutiful little story and a unique take. We may have to reappraise this, what with Toy Story III arriving this year, Cars II next year and Monsters Inc. II after that – but I still think those sequels will have a fair amount of original ideas behind them. After all, The Dark Knight and The Godfather, Part II illustrate that sequels of themselves aren’t exactly bad things. There are less original films out there, after all.

A handy guide to the differences between Pixar and Dreamworks (click to enlarge)...

Cast your mind back. Pixar and Disney found themselves nearly toe-to-toe for a few years. Pixar released A Bug’s Life, Dreamworks released Antz. Pixar released Finding Nemo, Dreamworks released A Shark’s Tale. I can’t coralate Kung-Fu Panda and Wall-E, but you get the idea. I’m not saying that these Dreamworks films are bad or terrible or anything so dramatic.In fact, they’re mostly okay. Some of them are good – some are even great.

This isn’t an argument necessarily about the quality of the output – though I believe that has suffered – than it is about the storytelling style. Pixar are perhaps responsible for single-handedly killing off conventional Western animation. So much so that The Princess and the Frog represented a conscious and highly publicised attempt to return to Disney’s animated canon. It did okay at the box office, but I don’t think it shook the world enough to be anything more than an abherration in the grand scheme of things. It’s the exception which proves the rule.

What was the last classic animated film you saw? If you exclude some of the  wonderful work coming from overseas, there’s a solid argument to be made that it was The Iron Giant. That was 1999, for those keeping score. Hardly promising.

So why do I mourn the passing of a film-making style? The argument could be made that the key thing is that the highest quality films are being made. Are the films themselves any worse for the success of Toy Story? I don’t think I could make the argument that the scripting quality is any worse – there were knock-offs before and there will be knock-offs in the future. What I do think is the problem is that the mindset of those producing these films has been narrowed ridiculously. And a narrowing mindset is not a good thing.

It seems that every major family film that isn’t live action is offered through CGI. It’s the default mode, in the same way that it seems that 3D is equally becoming a default mode. And that’s a pain. Because the whole point of computer animation offering this new world of possibilities was that it would compliment rather than replace the existing formats. Think of CGI as a concept – it works best to help offer stuff we couldn’t possibly film in real life (because it’s too expensive or dangerous or so-on), and hasn’t (despite early fears) replaced actors yet. Think of computer animation in the same way – one that offers new storytelling potential, while not necessarily percluding others methods of offering stories. Variety is the spice of life, and something to be welcomed. I think we’ve lost something, or at the very least that we are losing something beautiful.

Ah well, I’ll always have those ridiculously expensive and false-scarcity-generating “platnium edition” Disney DVDs to watch. And Pixar films. Because they are awesome.

8 Responses

  1. Pixar didn’t really ruin it for themselves since they have been able to deliver pretty much every single time. However, the other animation studios got completely left behind. Maybe some day, Pixar will start disappointing then we will be able to say that they really ruin it when they try to go back to what made them successful

    • Yep – Pixar are simply amazing. Nobody has a better track record. It’s more everybody elso who is no so consciously and half-heartedly attempting to ape them. I can’t help but feel that if the studios went their own ways we’d have so many better family films (and films full stop).

  2. that picture comparison is hilarious.
    its hard to blame Pixar for making terrific movies though

    • Yep. I wouldn’t have had them so high on the list myself, as their damage to the whole “family” genre is more than offset by their contribution to it. Ah well…

  3. Disney were GOING to release The Wild and then Dreamworks pipped them to the post with Madagascar. The Wild cost so much they let it out with a feeble release some time after Madagascar. There was apparently a mole at Pixar I have been told.

  4. I can’t wait for the Pixar sequels, purely because I love the characters so much. That’s what great about Pixar, they make you fall in love with the characters first, then you buy everything else.

    Dreamworks have their own charm, they make warm and funny films. Just not as well as Pixar. HTTYD was good.

    • Haven’t seen Dragon yet, I must confess. And I do love Pixar’s characters, and I have faith, but it just seems odd to start with Cars, which was the only film which skirted around the “alright” level for me.

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