We watched WALL*E last night. It was the first time I’d seen the movie since the theatre, where I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I would have liked.
(Aside, I really like going to the movies. I love seeing movies in theatres with awesome sound, with huge screens, in optimal viewing conditions. We saw WALL*E in the only theatre in Lake Chelan, an old movie theatre with original seats from the 1930’s, a non-awesome sound system, and non-optimal viewing conditions apart from the fact we were on a nice time away with our family. Oh, and Autumn had to go to the bathroom three times, never went each of the times we ventured into the vintage restrooms, and finally, during the last act of the film, when I refused to take her a fourth time, proceeded to wet her pants. While sitting on my lap. So I had no idea what happened really until they landed back on earth. Which is why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked. As you can probably imagine.)
I love Pixar films. They are not your typical animated movies. They remind me of the movies Walt Disney did when he started back in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Walt didn’t make his movies for children. He was making films for adults. Somehow, here in our country, we’ve relegated animation to the realm of Saturday mornings, appropriate for kids and nobody else. As a result, most animated films, even recent ones from Disney (I’ll give you Brother Bear and Home on the Range or Chicken Little), but especially most of the Dreamworks movies (especially the later stuff, Madagascar, Shrek 2 or Shrek 3) and pretty much anything else, are geared for children or adults of average intelligence. Great filmmaking doesn’t happen when one’s goal is to see how many pop culture references one can insert into a film. Unfortunately, sarcasm and irony have become the norm in most animated movies, so we don’t get great stories.
Walt was all about the story. If it didn’t advance the story or got in the way of it, it was out. Even if it cost a lot of money in the long run. Money wasn’t important. Story was. This is why those early Disney films are tight, deeply felt stories. No extraneous characters, no laugh at the expense of the character’s story development. The “Golden Age” films were amazing not just for what they were doing with animation, but for the stories being told–stories that nobody else in filmmaking was even trying to tell. Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dubmo, and even Fantasia. These movies were met with excitement by adults because they saw them as a whole new way of telling stories.
We tend to forget that Walt was hailed as a genius after Snow White. He was loved by film crictis, intellecutuals, artists, the avant garde. He was considered ground-breaking and cutting edge. Nobody said, “Oh, it’s a cartoon, that’s for kids.”
Fast forwad to 1995 and Toy Story. Cutting edge technology, amazing animation, but all of it is about the story. If you don’t care what happens to Woody and Buzz, it doesn’t matter when they get captured by Sid. It doesn’t matter whether or not Buzz can see himself as having value after the poignant “I Will Sail No More” scene. It doesn’t matter wether or not Woody will realize that his value comes not from his position, but from his relationships. So Toy Story changed everything again.
Pixar has released only a handful of movies since 1995. Every single one of them is technologically amazing, but even more, each one tells a compelling and powerful story about finding your place in the world–which is, after all, the story we are all trying to answer, isn’t it?
After Toy Story came A Bug’s Life, which suffered because of a clash of ego between Michael Eisner and his former employee and new Dreamworks founder Jefferey Katzenberg. Dreamworks rushed the movie Antz (which is one of the ugliest animated films ever made) into production to ensure it was released before A Bug’s Life. But the …Life is the better film. A basic retelling of The Grasshopper and the Ants, it used wonderful characters, in a beautifullly realized setting, to help tell a story of value and belonging.
(And I will have to admit how much I love that Pixar doesn’t make a big deal about the voice actors (much like Disney did until The Jungle Book). Who cares who voices a character? The voice is only a part of the performance. Without an amazing animator making the character live, you only have a voice.)
Toy Story 2 is the rare sequel that is even more powerful than the film it inspired. To think a toy’s midlife crisis would speak so deeply to questions of our own ideas of value, of place. And the interaction between Buzz and the “toy” Buzz raise great questions of identity. Monsters, Inc. is one of my favorites, in part because of the strength of the characters, but also because of the strength of the design. It’s a great experience with a dazzling technical display in the door sequence toward the end. Finding Nemo is a beautiful tale (tail!) of filial love, of growing up, and the passage adults and children must take together toward growing up. The Incredibles is probably the greatest superhero ever made. Incredible acting, animation, design, music, etc. It was probably the best film of the year it was released and speaks deeply to contemporary issues of family, of being alike vs. being equal. Cars has its detractors, but as a celebration of the American southwest, the US car culture, and most of all, an appreciation of a past that is all too quickly slipping away in the name of speed, there are few better films. Ratatouille was again, a story of family, belonging, and finding our place in the world–and it made cooking look better on film than any movie before or since. Which brings us to Pixar’s most recent film, WALL*E. Virtually dialogue free for the first hour, it takes two robots who can say little more than each other’s names and the word “Directive” and make us care about not only them, but the humans they encounter. Sure, it may be a little too “PC” for some people in its anti-consumerism and ecological underpinings, but still…no cheap jokes, no catering to the lowest common denominator, and the only pop culture references are there for a purpose (the Hello, Dolly songs, for example).
Pixar has made exactly 10 movies in the past 13 years, and every single one of them stand today as works of art. Not just because of great design, but because they tell great stories. They don’t look at animation as something for kids only. They make intellgient, brilliant movies, for adults and kids to enjoy together. And they aren’t afraid of taking chances. A story about toys coming to life, sure, that’s a gimmee. A story about a fish looking for his son? A rat who loves to cook? A superhero going through a midlife crisis? A robot who has outlived his purpose and falls in love? None of these sound that good on paper…
But brought to life, well, it’s exactly what Walt was passionate about. Getting that story told.
You can talk about Slumdog Millionaire or Benjamin Button, but they will not stand the test of time WALL*E will. The best picture of the last year was about a little robot who helped us find our humanity again. And I’m guessing that the best movie of this year will be about an old man, a boy scout, and thousands of balloons: their next film, simply titled Up.