Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story

I’m a movie buff and until a couple days ago I’d never seen a Pixar movie.  There, I said it.  In fact I also haven’t seen most of the Dreamworks animated films, or any animated film that Disney has made since The Lion King.   Hearing all that you’d probably assume that I hate animation, but that isn’t true.  I’ve seen and enjoyed many recent animated films like Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly.  I’m also game for some more populist fare like Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf and I also have a moderate interest in Japanese Anime.

What I’ve never had the time for are movies for children.  This is a state of mind that extends far beyond cinema; I don’t have or want children and whenever I’m forced to be near one they very quickly find a way to irritate me.  I have about as much respect for children and the people who idealize them as Werner Herzog did for the grizzly bears that Timothy Tredwell chose to “befriend” in the documentary Grizzly Man.  Call me heartless, but that’s how I feel.  The idea of grown childless people paying money to see a film about talking fish has always puzzled me over the course of Pixar’s rise to fame, and I’ve been on the outside looking in on many a conversation about what The Incredibles says about elitism or what Wall-E says about globalism.

As the years went on my stance on this issue hardened, I went from being passively disinterested in Finding Nemo, to engaging in a militant one man boycott of Ratatouille, to writing rage filled unpublished manifestos about how the praise for Up (a movie I hadn’t seen) was a load of bullshit and that its Oscar nomination was completely undeserved.  But, somewhere around the time Wall-E came out all the praise was starting to eat away at me.  If someone came to me and told me that they militantly refused to see the films of a vital filmmaker like Christopher Nolan or David Fincher just because they happened to work make films for an audience that they disliked I would have laughed in their face, and yet here I was doing the same thing to a collective of filmmakers who have received unprecedented love from critics and audiences alike.

By the time the 230th positive review of Toy Story 3 was posted on Rotten Tomatoes I finally began to wonder why I was being so stubborn.  These movies seemed to have spoken to so damn many people that I was beginning to feel like Armond White, hell I was worse than that guy; at least he sees all the movies he chooses to rail against.  Choosing to avoid this slice of the cinema pie was beginning to seem simply irresponsible; it was simply too big of a pop culture institution to ignore.  So I’ve finally decided it was time to fill in this cinematic blind spot and finally catch up on all the Pixar movies.  I thought about doing this in a cinematic weekend binge, but then I realized what an opportunity I’d created for myself: I could now examine a major cinematic movement from scratch over a relatively short period of time and more importantly I could chronicle it.

That’s exactly what I’m going to do in a series of monthly-ish essays about the films of the Pixar Animation studio that I plan to write over the course of 2011 (and probably part of 2012).  I’m going to start with Toy Story and finish with Toy Story 3 (or maybe Cars 2), and plan to leave no stone unturned between the two.  I also want to examine my own personal attachment (or lack thereof) to Pixar: what led me to never catch the Pixar train, what was I doing instead of seeing this movie, what led to the attitude of dismissal that was at the heart of my disinterest?

I am really trying to keep an open mind, I’m going to try as best I can to go into these movies without trying to tear them down and prove that I was right to avoid them all these years.  However, what I don’t plan to do is cut them any slack if they really don’t live up to the pedestal they’ve been put on for the last decade and a half.  I’ve read countless reviews of these movies claiming that they are masterpieces worthy of being held to the same standard as There Will Be Blood, Blade Runner, and The Godfather and if it doesn’t live up to those standards I’m going to say so, these movies are too heavily praised to be held to the low standard of children’s movies.

Few movies exemplify those inflated standards quite like the first movie on my journey: Toy Story, a film that is widely held as a classic and which was even immortalized between Ben-Hur and Yankee Doodle Dandy on the American Film Institute’s 10th Anniversary list of the 100 best American films ever made. It’s a film that’s been so ingrained in popular culture that it felt like I’d already seen it a dozen times before it ever graced my Netflix queue.  It also differs from some of the other Pixar movies in that my reasons for skipping it had less to do with being too old for it (I wasn’t) and more to do with simply not having recognized it as anything special.  I was only eight years old when Toy Story was released and had just seen and enjoyed The Lion King the year before.  So why didn’t I see it along with my peers?  Well, it just didn’t seem all that special to me and more importantly to my parents (who of course played an integral role in my ability to go to the theaters at that time).  To my parents, this strange “computer animated” thing didn’t seem to like the event that Disney animated films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin had been, to them it just seemed like another kid’s movie and since I (for whatever reason) wasn’t begging to see the thing they saw little reason to bring me.

I’ve been seeing “Woody and Buzz” merchandise all over the place for the last fifteen years and must have heard that Randy Newman song a thousand times from various sources.  As such my experience finally watching this was… odd.  I guess the first thing that jumped out at me was how dated some of the animation looked.  I’d become so accustomed to seeing superiorly rendered clips from other computer animated films including the two Toy Story sequels over the years that  the primitive look of the movie seemed familiar and yet jarring.  Even more surprising was seeing just what aged well and what didn’t.  I thought for sure that the models for the human toy owners in the movie would look terrible and that the rest of the movie would look relatively good, but that wasn’t necessarily the case.  The humans held up better than I expected, they have kind of weird looking heads but they work as caricatures.  What really seemed dated were the film’s environments, which seemed oddly empty and undetailed.  Various aspects like the headboard of Andy’s bed stood out as particularly strange looking and everything in the movie seems to be very clean and sort of sterile.  Of course this is all a function of the film’s age and I’m not judging, but it’s worth noting just the same.

I’m going into most of these analyses under the assumption that I’m the last person to get around to seeing these movies so I don’t think it’s necessary to give any kind of plot summery here.  Of course the movie is about toys that come alive and talk amongst themselves when the humans aren’t looking, an idea that wasn’t entirely original in 1995 (the Nickelodeon cartoon “Rugrats” had a similar “things talk when people aren’t looking” premise and it debuted four years earlier), but this is definitely the property that took the concept and claimed it as its own.  The central theme here is jealousy; the film is all about Woody’s need to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t going to be Andy’s favorite toy after the kid acquires Buzz Lightyear.  To do this they needed to make Woody a pretty unlikable and whiney prick for a large portion of the film.  That’s not an easy thing to do for a protagonist in a mainstream children’s movie and they do deserve kudos for pulling it off (thanks in no small part to Tom Hanks’ charming voice work).

The film’s first half is largely about establishing the status quo of Andy’s toy collection and the second half is about Woody and Buzz trying to find their way home.  I do wish that the first half had been fleshed out a bit more (the film’s very short running time and quick pace is a bit of a double edged sword) as I felt that there are simply a lot of unanswered questions about what the rules of toy-dom are.  Specifically I would have liked a better explanation as to why Buzz Lightyear wasn’t self aware in the way that the other toys were.  In fact this lack of self awareness on Buzz’s part is one of the film’s biggest holes; couldn’t woody have proven the guy was a toy simply by asking him to fly again (it’s doubtful that he would land on a ball and create a Rube Goldberg series of chain reactions twice)?  More importantly, why did Buzz know to stop moving and pretend to be a toy whenever Andy was in the room?  If he really believed he was a space explorer wouldn’t he want to make contact with these giant beings in his midst?  Maybe there was an explanation I missed but I think it’s a pretty glaring hole.  I noticed a couple of other strange inconsistencies that I don’t think a live action film would have gotten away with as well, particularly the finale, in which Woody is able to escape from Sid’s house by coming up with, organizing, and orchestrating an extremely elaborate escape plan with a number of other toys all in what seems like a matter of minutes.

Those are flaws in the movie but they’re hardly deal-breakers and I probably wouldn’t have dwelled on any of them if this movie hadn’t been held up as a new-classic in recent years.  I’m going to come right out and say, I was not impressed enough by the movie to say that it lived up to its hype, but I did find the movie more enjoyable than I expected.  The film was very watchable the whole way through and I was never bored by it the way I probably expected to.  There were also a lot fewer groan inducing moments of cartooniness than I expected, all though there were definitely a few of those moments that often manifested themselves as either slapstick comedy or in characters sort of overreacting to things.  There were also a couple of annoying side characters like the plastic dinosaur that I could have done without.   In spite of this I thought the movie actually had some pretty good dialogue and some genuine wit at certain points.  I wouldn’t exactly place it alongside the great comedic scripts of cinema history, or even the great comedic scripts of the nineties, but the banter is pretty clever at least for a cartoon.

That witty scripting is probably one of the things in the movie that was probably a step up from what Disney had been delivering and, within the animation genre, it probably seemed pretty fresh back in 1995. The fact that it is neither a fairy tale of any kind or a musical is also something that probably differentiated it from the fare that Disney had been putting out up to that point as well.  The absence of music numbers in particular probably gave this a leg-up, I’ll take Randy Newman over the upbeat Broadway music that Disney had been pushing any day and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” has endured as one of those really memorable movie songs.  However, I don’t think that Pixar has really surpassed Disney at this point, which is saying something when you consider that I’m not exactly that studio’s biggest fan either.  When you think of a movie like The Lion King (which, admittedly, I haven’t seen in a very long time), which was about a son rising up to avenge his murdered father in a royal family against the backdrop of the African Serengeti, and compared to that Toy Story just seems kind of small scale and underachieving on most levels.

So, I’ve watched my first Pixar movie and it didn’t make my eyes bleed.  I definitely don’t think this is that classic that it’s been called by many people.  It’s certainly a technical milestone in that it was the first feature length computer animated film and deserves a place in history next to movies like The Jazz Singer (which also isn’t all that great beyond its status as a milestone), but I staunchly don’t think can be called a classic and it decidedly did feel like a movie for kids in spite of all the claims to the contrary.  This is a good movie… for a cartoon.  Every virtue I found in the movie seemed to mainly be an improvement over other children’s cartoons, not so much when weighed against movies for adults.  Of course I didn’t expect Pixar to be at their best coming out of the gate (the bulk of their acclaim didn’t really seem to start rolling in until around the time The Incredibles came out), and this hasn’t dissuaded me from the whole endeavor of this essay series, but Toy Story hasn’t won me over.  I remain a skeptic.

The Short Program: Luxo, Jr.

Though the studio is widely known for its feature films, another major part of its legacy comes from the series of short films that have appeared in front of their features and I intend to follow along with these miniature works along with their big brothers.  The short film that was attached to Toy Story was The Adventures of André and Wally B, a crudely made minute and a half long piece that John Lasseter made in 1984, before Pixar even officially existed.  It was a simple slapstick piece that showed some promise in its rendering of a landscape but otherwise it is strictly a cartoon, not exactly the piece many will bring up when they want to talk about Pixar’s early days.

No, the movie that will go down in history as Pixar’s beginning and mission statement is a two minute long short they made two years later called Luxo, Jr.  This short wouldn’t be seen by audiences until it was attached to Toy Story 2, but in the interest of printing the legend I’m going to talk about it here.  Luxo, Jr. reportedly caused shockwaves in the animation community and proved the viability of Computer animation as a medium.  This film about a father and son table lamp gave the studio their first (and far from last) Academy Award nomination and it even inspired the logo that the studio uses to this day.  That’s an awful lot of praise for something that barely runs longer than two minutes, but I can see where this would have gotten people very excited.

On a technical level it certainly looks promising.  This was made only a year after Dire Straits’ now archaic looking “Money For Nothing” video, and yet the movie looks almost like it was made only a few years ago.  The lamps look like lamps, the desk looks like a desk, the balls look like balls, but most impressively the lighting that the lamps give off produce realistic shadows.  Of course you also need to consider that the short is designed to hide the medium’s limitations, the subjects are inorganic objects (which are drastically easier to make on a computer than living organic things) and the background is minimal and black.

However, what’s really impressive here has less to do with technology than it does with the way the film is able to give personality to the faceless objects that it depicts.  You can really see an interaction between a father and a son in front of your eyes simply through the “body language” (for lack of a better term) that the two lamps give off in the short.   The anthropomorphization of inanimate objects would obviously be a specialty of Pixar’s in the future.  Of course this is at its heart a one-joke tech demo, but you can absolutely see a budding talent at work in the film.

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I Saw the Devil(3/11/2011)

            It always amazes me how certain countries at certain times become major cinema hot-spots.  In the late forties Italy was a major hotspot, in the fifties Japan was a major location, in the sixties France was even more prominent than it usually is, in the seventies the United States was a great place for legitimate art, in the eighties we saw some interesting movies coming out of Eastern Europe, and in the nineties we saw a rise of interesting films from Iran and China.  In the 2000s there were a handful of hot spots like Romania and Mexico but the country that really emerged as a newly discovered place for awesome movies was South Korea.  What was particularly interesting about Korea was that a lot of the movies coming out of it could appeal to both high brow critics and to genre fans looking for bloody violence.  Korea’s breakout filmmaker was obviously Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho has become a critical darling as of late.  A director who has been in the strange position of being the third or fourth most famous director coming out of Korea is Kim Ji-woon, the director of A Tale of Two Sisters and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird.  Ji-woon has now come forward with a new film, I Saw the Devil, which should make a quality bid for his importance to the Korean New-Wave.

            The film begins with a woman named Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) pulled over to the side of the road with tire problems.  A man approaches and offers to help, but she decides to wait for a tow truck instead, a good choice given what tends to happen to people who accept offers like that in movies like this.  It wouldn’t save her though; the man, a serial killer named Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik), soon bashes in the window of the car with a hammer and proceeds to brutally murder her.  When news of this reaches her fiancé Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), a cop or government agent of some sort, he swears revenge and begins to track the killer down.  He is not content to simply murder the killer or even to murder him elaborately, instead he wants to track him down torture him, release him, then track and torture him again.  This proves to be a more elaborate game than it originally seemed and it quickly escalates into a dangerous cat and mouse chase between the two, who in the tradition of the genre are not so different.

            The film is a very slickly produced thriller which, like a lot of these Korean films, is made with all the production values you’d expect from a Hollywood film.  The film has that dark but clear cinematography we’ve come to expect in a post-Fincher world and the film also has some really cleverly filmed set-pieces.  The movie also has some excellent acting from Oh San-ha and Jeon Kuk-hwan, but without a doubt the best performance here comes from Choi Min-sik, the actor who starred in Oldboy and who is back on the screen after a self imposed exile from acting.  Here he plays a truly detestable killer, one who starts off like a sort of brutal hobo but then emerges as a sort of sleezy bastard, and who by the end of the movie does indeed start to seem like the devil himself. 

            Kim Ji-woon has been one of the harder Korean directors to peg down.  His A Tale of Two Sisters was a strange sort of horror film that I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t really “get” and his next project was a hyper-crazy genre piece.  This new film is much more clearly part of the “Asia Extreme” field.  Early in the film I was tempted to call it a cross between one of Park Chan-wook’s revenge movies and one of Bong Joon-ho’s police procedurals, but as the film progressed it became clear that it was much closer to the former than the later.  The theme here is most certainly revenge, which incidentally is a theme that I’m a bit touchy about.  I hate revenge movies when they’re just looking for cathartic thrills, and are clearly on the side of the avenger and revel in their quest.  Fortunately most revenge movies made with any ambition does make at least cursory attempts to show the toll that revenge takes on the avenger, how it drains them and ultimately fails to satisfy them.  This movie takes that even further, Soo-hyun’s quest actually has consequences that reach beyond himself and his prey: it spills out into the populace making it particularly hard to justify what he’s been doing.  This brings up questions about justice itself: do we seek justice in order to protect the populace or to seek out retribution?  Soo-hyun choose the later over the former with dire consequences.

            Of course, by dire consequences I mean bloody violence.  This movie has already achieved great notoriety in world cinema circles for its graphic content and I think it lives up to its reputation.  Most of the movies these days that generate controversy for violence like Antichrist usually just earn their reputation from one or two very graphic scenes, this one is more infamous for the quantity of its violence.  There’s probably nothing here that will be beyond what a hardened film buff has seen before, but it just keeps happening.  You know that scene in Oldboy where Oh Dae-su pulls out a man’s teeth with a hammer?  Imagine a movie that has the better part of twenty scenes like that.  Well… maybe most of them aren’t that gross, but there is definitely a cumulative effect.  In fact it gets a bit numbing after a while, about two thirds of the way through the movie I was beginning to get a little sick of all the violence, and by the end I really actively wasn’t interested in Soo-hyun’s final revenge.  This might have been by design, geared to make you as exhausted by the end as the protagonist, but the effect isn’t really pronounced enough and it really just kind of feels like a movie that’s been poorly paced.

            I Saw the Devil is in many ways the movie that this wave of Korean cinema has been leading up to: it’s violent, well made, and a little off-beat.  It’s like the ultimate serial killer movie, after this film there is no need to ever watch another episode of CSI or to see another Eli Roth style torture porn film.  That said, this is a movie that is only recommended to a very specific audience.  If you didn’t like (or haven’t seen) some of the other “Asia extreme” movies, skip this.  If you’ve liked some of those movies but don’t necessarily want to see that aesthetic brought to the next level, skip this movie.  But if you’ve got the stomach for this and the interest in seeing this kind of thing pushed to the limits you’ll find in I Saw the Devil an extremely well made travel into the heart madness.

***1/2 out of Four