This is the final part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.
Here we are, at long last we’re at the end of the road, the finale of Finding Pixar: A Skeptic’s Journey. When I first started this project I wasn’t exactly sure where it would end. Cars 2 hadn’t come out yet and I wasn’t sure whether it would turn into yet another cause célèbre for critics, which seemed unlikely given the icy reception the first Cars received but you never know, maybe the Pixar guys were making that sequel out of an intense desire to to redeem the franchise. As it turns out Cars 2 became Pixar’s first outright critical failure, earning a measly 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and the public wasn’t much interested either, to date it is the studio’s second lowest grossing film and likely would have been the lowest grossing if not for ticket price inflation. I saw the trailer for Pixar’s next film, Brave, the other day and it wasn’t doing anything for me and frankly I’m beginning to feel like I finally caught up with Pixar just in time to see it finally collapse under its own weight. Maybe this series has unintentionally captured the studio’s “classic era” from beginning to end, and what more appropriate way to end the era than the way it began: with a Toy Story movie.
Part of why I thought Cars 2 might have had a shot at success was because Pixar had made a successful sequel in the past. As readers of this series will know, I thought the first Toy Story was a pretty shaky effort and that Toy Story 2 was a substantial improvement. When we left Buzz, Woody, and company they were still the beloved belongings of Andy but there was a clear foreshadowing that they would eventually find themselves abandoned and forgotten much the way the Jessie character had once been. The people who saw that film when it first came out were left hanging for an entire decade, but I had the benefit of knowing that there was a third sequel down the line that would explore the final destiny of these toys and when I turned the film off I was much more excited to see how the series would end than I initially thought I would be.
The thing is, by the time I finally got around to seeing Toy Story 3 Pixar had changed a lot, they’d raised the standards and what they did with the first two Toy Story films seemed pretty distinct from what Pixar had become. That can be seen to some extent in the film’s look because this is one of the few Pixar movies of this era that isn’t much of a technical breakthrough. The film mostly recreates the aesthetics of the first two films, they do use modern technology to do this but you’re only going to make that old Woody design look so good, the new toys like Stretch and Lotso look tellingly better. There are certain elements of the film that do look good, namely garbage and garbage bags, which they decided to make look hyper-real for some reason. I’ll also give them credit for stepping up to some degree when it comes to human characters, these models don’t look wonderful but they don’t have cartoony exaggerated features or anything.
When I analyzed Up I was a little bit baffled by the fact that so much praise was heaped upon the film’s first fifteen minutes when most of the rest of the film was largely an adventure movie. Similarly Toy Story 3 crams a lot of emotional material into its beginning and ending but operates like a genre film for much of its running time. Specifically it emulates a prison escape movie with the Sunnyside Daycare Center sitting in as the prison, Lotso the bear sitting in as the warden, and his assorted goons acting as the guards. This all seems a little cutesy at times, but it does provide the film with a fairly fun second act which would have operated well enough as a sort of short film unto itself. That said, a bunch of talking toys making their way through mundane settings is never going to be as exciting or as epic an adventure as a chase across space or a journey across a hidden South American jungle, so these adventure aspects do fall short when compared to other recent Pixar movies.
It ultimately isn’t the adventure material that had people talking at length in 2010; it was the bookend material in which the toys need to deal with Andy’s impending departure. This is all predicated to some degree on a bit of a conceit. Why did Andy, a seventeen year old college bound teenager, still have any of these toys at this point? Has he really had a damn toy chest sitting idle in his room this whole time when he should have moved other toys like bongs and condoms? I suppose I can except this as a necessity to get the film going but it’s a bit harder for me to accept how concerned Andy seems to be about these things by the time the film ends. I could maybe imagine a teenager going through the trouble of anonymously dropping these things off at a daycare center, but would any real seventeen year old drive to a virtual stranger’s house, approach her child and give an extended speech about giving these things a home? I’m sorry, but that’s a bunch of bullshit. Any real teenager would have dumped these things in the dumpster shortly after they left the driveway. Scratch that. Any real teenager would have dumped these things shortly after they entered middle school.
The film critic and provocateur Armond White received a lot of flack in 2010 for saying that Toy Story 3 “strictly celebrates consumerism.” As usual, White misses the forest for the trees in his analysis, but he does have a point; Pixars lionization of these inanimate objects borders on the ridiculous at times. This is an entire series of movies based around the near worship of material goods, it’s enough to make me want to shout “dude, they’re just toys” to John Lasseter’s face. Granted, we’re supposed to feel for these toys because we see them talk, but that only really applies to the fantasy world of the film, it doesn’t have much bearing on real life. At least that’s how I see it, frankly that’s something that I’ve never connected to with this series and that’s largely unchanged.
Thematically I feel like this is otherwise largely a retread of what we saw in Toy Story 2. The first sequel already explored the fact that these toys would one day be abandoned and it also explored the notion that they would one day need to decide between trying to stick with Andy or move on to a different living situation. One sees how much Toy Story 3 borrows from Toy Story 2 when one considers the character of Lotso, who bears a striking resemblance to Stinky Pete. Both Lotso and Pete were formerly abandoned by a previous owner and are resentful of this, they both have ironically silly names given their menacing status in their respective films, they both try to hold the heroic toys in captivity for their own gain, and they both suffer remarkably similar fates at the end of their respective films. Granted, Lotso does have the added dimension of being a dictator of sorts over his domain, but otherwise they’re damn near the same character. Granted, I might have seen it as less of a retread if I’d seen Toy Story 2 twelve years ago instead of eight months ago, but it sticks out nonetheless.
Does that mean that Toy Story 3 is a completely unnecessary sequel? No, not at all. Pixar has learned a lot since they made the first two Toy Story films and with this installment they’re able to show what this series can be when given a more confident execution. A lot of the logical flaws I had with the first two films are largely absent from this one, or at least they aren’t as readily prevalent. They’ve also done a lot to tone down some of the annoying side characters from the first two films like that stupid dinosaur, who rightfully doesn’t have many lines in this one. More importantly, this final sequel allows Pixar to give the series some degree of closure. To have left these characters where they did at the end of Toy Story 2, with the characters never facing the end of their relationship with Andy, would have seemed wrong in some way and I completely understand why they’d want to correct that. Still I wish that they’d found some new thematic ground to break while they were at it. I suspect that it was this new thematic ground that they were trying to find in the decade it took them to finally make this thing and I don’t think they ever really did. So, while they were able to make a perfectly functional sequel with some very enjoyable moments, they weren’t able to make that same leap forward that they did with Toy Story 2 and as such I think they’re going to see this as a little bit of a missed opportunity.
The Short Program: Day & Night
Over the course of this retrospective I’ve been up and down on the shorts that Pixar had been producing, which had slowly grown kind of formulaic and predictable over time. Every once in a while they’d make a Gerri’s Game or a Boundin’ that would just seem really cool, but all too often I’d leave the shorts with a feeling of “that’s kind of neat, but I’ll forget about it a few minutes into the actual movie and never think about it again.” In general I’ve had the feeling that Pixar had just outgrown the short film format and that these five minute trifles just weren’t representative of what they were capable of when they were at their best anymore. That said I think that the last short film I’ll be analyzing, Day & Night, is awesome and just might be their best work to date.
That this won’t be an average Pixar short is apparent at first glance as the whole film takes place against a black backdrop with a pair of silhouettes representing day and night the only illuminated objects. These two objects essentially look like traditionally animated cartoon characters but they are filled with CGI animated landscapes of idealized Norman Rockwell Americana at either day or night for each respective character. The two initially distrust each other and fight, but they gradually come to realize that a lot of cool things tend to happen at both times of the day and they start to hit it off.
The visual creativity here goes without saying and the message that is telegraphed here (be open to new ideas) seems like a somewhat hokey moral, but it’s the subtext that’s really interesting. This isn’t really about morality or the day night cycle, it’s about the animation community. Pixar was once shunned by traditional animators as an unwanted outsider and I’m sure that there were people at Pixar who viewed the old guard as a bunch of dumb old fogies. The two sides would fight amongst each other at first, much as the day and night characters do here, until they finally realized that they were both capable of doing neat things and accepted each other. That this short is visually a manifestation of traditional and computer animation working together to make something beautiful only underscores the notion that good things have come from a united animation community working together that will continue to make good things going forward.
Pixar Found- An Epilogue
In the last year I’ve spent a good eighteen and a half hours watching these movies and written upwards of 30,000 words about them. By all standards I have found everything that I’m going to find about Pixar at this point and I wish that I had more to say about them in final analysis besides “I guess they’re pretty good at what they do.” I knew going into this that there were a handful of narratives that might come forward. I genuinely hoped that after a few movies I’d start to love these movies every bit as much as the public at large had and build a narrative of the skeptic turned believer, but that never really happened. The only Pixar movie that really truly achieved some degree of greatness was WALL-E, and I was decidedly less than in love with many of their other films. On the other hand I knew that I might have ended up hating all these movies and would have been able to build the narrative of the unconverted skeptic who would bravely declare that the emperor had no clothes in the face of hyperbolic praise by critics and audiences, but that never really happened either. Quite the opposite, I’d say I at least liked every Pixar movie except for the first Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Cars and I even found things to like in all three of those.
I suppose at the end of the day this is all just going to have to boil down to the fact that these movies really just aren’t made for me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect their craft and that there aren’t many things I’ve found to enjoy in their best films like The Incredibles or Ratatouille, but even when they were at their best there were still certain childish elements that just kept me at a distance from them. In short, these are Disney movies, I don’t think most of them are that far removed from the Disney movies I saw when I was a kid like The Lion King and Aladdin. Most of the hype about this studio I’d heard made it sound like some kind of great leap forward for animation, but really it feels more like a continuation of an existing legacy to me. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Lasseter and company had simply made all these movies under the Disney banner in place of all the nonsense like Chicken Little.
Will I be seeing the rest of Pixar’s movies going forward? Not necessarily, I certainly have no intention of seeing Cars 2 anyway. That doesn’t mean I won’t have an open mind going forward, if Pixar releases another movie with an interesting premise that gets the critical reception that they’re accustomed to I’ll probably check it out. I might not necessarily be there day one and I might wait for it to come out on Blu Ray, but I won’t have my head in the sand. That goes for the larger spectrum of family films as well, in fact there’s a good chance that I would have skipped seeing Martin Scorsese’s Hugo had I not done this project and I do plan to go back and see a few other family movies I’ve skipped in the past. I doubt I’ll ever be a fully fledged fan of family movies, just as many people aren’t ever going to be fans of horror movies or westerns or what have you, but I will give them a chance and give credit where it’s do.