Pixar, Wall-E and Rubber Soul

Oswald from Switzerland sends me the following message, which started my mind spinning:

"Your describing Wall-E as a kind of 'Rubber Soul' movie is about the most original way of exactly telling me what to expect without any spoilers (although I love Sgt. Pepper, I was always more interested in Rubber Soul and Revolver)."

Thanks for all the kind words, as always. The thought popped into my head somewhere during the first act, and it really does describe where Pixar's heads are at now. Ratatouille was the first real step away from the old formulas, in a lot of ways, and Wall-E cements that trend. So maybe, in a sense, Ratatouille was Pixar's answer to "Help!" Me and my endless music analogies.

This is to be expected; after all, how much longer can you just push computer graphics? Pixar has always had an edge over their rivals with the technology. Goodness knows the artists are without peer. But that means reaching a plateau sooner or later. The only other direction to evolve is through the story and characters. And it's here that American animation so desperately needs to evolve.

The Pixar artists have already mastered the computer technology. That was the focus of their first two evolutionary phases. Phase One would cover their early years, the experimental short films of John Lasseter and company, under the umbrella of George Lucas and then Steve Jobs. There's a certain charm to these first shorts; while the technology is constantly being pushed, there's an iconic quality to the characters. These are simple, fun little stories, charming and endearing. And it was nearly all unchartered territory. Younger kids today have no idea how brand spanking new computer animation was in the 1980's. The computer graphics in the movie Tron were a revelation to kids hooked on Atari and Intellivision (it may have been light on story, but it was definitely fun).


Pixar broke open the boundaries of computer graphics animation with Toy Story, and this is where their Phase Two begins. This movie is the archetype that all CGI cartoons still model themselves after. Really, is it possible to imagine any Hollywood animated movie without Toy Story? Heck, they'd be forced to come up with some original ideas themselves, instead of shamelessly stealing from Lasseter. Why are all these movies still obsessed with buddy road trips and standup comedy acts? For the love of Elvis, please don't make me watch another cartoon with Robin Williams.

All of those great Pixar movies - A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars - continue to refine and perfect these formulas. The focus is still largely on the technology, pushing computer graphics farther and farther, and each picture reveals another important barrier broken. It is notable that no significant rivals emerge for a great many years. This is all trailblazing stuff.

There's a lighthearted sense of fun to these movies, and it would be unfair to expect more. It's all bright colors and dazzling sights. Story is always toted as the main focus, but I find that notion doesn't sit well with me, never really has. The two Toy Story movies have the best stories and the most developed characters, and that's probably why these are my favorites of the period. There's a spirit of childhood nostalgia, both good (the first movie) and the sad (the second movie). Too often, however, Pixar's movies rely upon formulas, melodramatic plots and happy endings all. These are very tightly structured songs.

Perhaps this reflects the studio's continuing growth and maturation, perhaps it reflects their tight relationship with Disney that made their worldwide success possible. Who knows? In any case, that relationship is really what defines this period, and it's the anticipated breakup that leads us towards the next evolutionary leap.

This may have been forgotten now, but Steve Jobs (Pixar) had soured on Disney over the years, and was openly planning to break free completely at the end of the current contract, after the sixth feature. I think the kids were becoming restless, too. They've always been the obsessive, geeky kind, not the sort of mindless corporate suits which have completely ruined Hollywood. Not that I have any opinions on the matter.

The politics of what eventually became the Disney merger was pretty dramatic itself. Edward Jay Epstein chronicled much of it online at Slate. Pixar had searched around for a new parter, but was frustrated because of one clause in the Disney contract: Disney held the rights to all the Pixar characters. This became their trump card; they announced the building of their own CGI movie studio, where they would crank out an endless supply of Pixar clones and sequels and knock-offs. In short, Disney was out to dilute and destroy the brand. This made things impossible for other studios. How could you compete with an unknown movie against a Toy Story 3 and the Disney brand? Would moviegoers even tell the difference?

Doesn't this come back to the primary issue with American animation? In our country, "animation" means "babysitter," and that's all it's expected to be good for. It's just a simple distraction for the kiddies, to get them out of your hair, while you collapse on the bed or couch after a long day at your useless jobs. Most parents will stick their kids in front of anything.

So, as I've said, if we're going to make better movies, we need to start making better audiences. But I rant enough on that topic. It's damn near the thesis of the Conversations on Ghibli blog. But this brings us, and Pixar, back to the only place anyone could turn to: Disney. Which is where Steve Jobs pulled off one of his greatest business deals.

This is the atmosphere where Cars and Ratatouille are born. I've argued before that Cars was really a movie about the studio itself, caught between its past and future, caught in the crossroads between the indie artist and the corporate (Disney) behemoth. You could see that movie ending three different ways. In the end, being good artists, they chose the hardest route available: to create their art through the machine itself.

Cars was envisioned as the final movie with Disney; Ratatouille was to be their first as true independents. This is why it was such a crucial test. Would the Disney merger mean hedging thier bets? Would it mean creative compromise? Taking the safe route? Sticking to the old predictible, if profitable, formulas? For me, at least, this was the grand drama of Brad Bird's movie. Impressive, isn't it, that Bird is the one chosen to lead the Pixar studio into uncharted territory? He also has the knack for being inventive and subversive, for pushing the boundaries, within the formulas of the system.

It is true that there's nothing new with animal characters, and wacky slapstick, and cartoon chases that go all the way back to the silent era. What is new is a deeper impression of the emotions, a need to go below the surface. Ratatouille isn't a movie about the goofy outcast proving himself and achieving fame. In this movie, fame is not only elusive; it is spurned outright. The "success" of the climactic meal before the food critic does result in the restaurant's triumph. Then it is shuttered because of the rats. In this world, the hero can never become a success, certainly not in the way the heros from Toy Story or A Bug's Life could. Remy the Rat is free to pursue his art, but he must be a guerilla artist. He must work in the shadows. The movie's final shot, of the new restaurant's sign, carries a double meaning - a pun to its patrons, a sly wink and a nod to the viewers. I promise you that those diners have no idea their food was prepared by rats, or about that second "restaurant" above the ceiling boards.

Notice, again, how Brad Bird was fully aware of the squeamish nature of rats - many people are honestly repulsed by them - but this is a fact he gleefully accepts. He throws it in your face, with succeeding stampedes that remind me of all those Ohmu stampedes. Recall, again, those cooks who walked out when it is revealed Remy is the Svengali of their kitchen. The cliched plot requires them to all return in time for the movie's climax, where all is forgiven and friends are made. This event never takes place. Those cooks walked out for good.


With Ratatouille, we can clearly see that Pixar is moving into a new era. The computer technology is beyond reproach; no other movie studio save Ghibli can match the skill of these artists, and Ghibli has famously kept CGI at arms' length (apart from the short films of Yoshiyuki Momose). Pixar are the uncontested masters of their art. But the marketplace is cluttered with cartoons like never before. It's becoming harder and harder to retain those audiences. Those parent's we've mentioned, the ones looking to Buzz and Woody as surrogate babysitters, now have a whole menu of choices. Sticking to the formula simply won't work anymore. For if the day comes when Pixar is just another cartoon studio, churning out lifeless drones set for the lowest-common denominator (cue Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams), they'll be finished.

For the true artists, there is only one direction to go.

So now it's the year 2008, and Pixar's newest movie is a sincere, heartwarming romance on par with Charlie Chaplin...and the most wickedly whip-smart picture of the year. These guys and gals at Pixar are hungry. It's almost as if they're beginning all over again, and they are driven by the deep need to prove themselves.  This is exciting to watch.

Pixar are now firmly into Phase Three, their Rubber Soul period. It's much like the Second Miles Davis Quintet, which spanned the middle to late 1960's. The period when Miles, the great American artist, kept pushing himself, driving his art into new and uncharted territory, desperate to outrun the competition, desperate to outrun his own famed reputation. And he was backed by the best band in the world, save one (The Beatles). The resulting albums evolved rapidly from the hard bop of ESP, to the abstract rock of Filles de Killemjaro, and finally to the great paradigm shift, the great break - fusion.

So where is Pixar driving towards? What is our end goal? I always point to the Japanese masters, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, but these are our teachers. The new paradigm will be something different, something new. I would die happy if Pixar could create something as sublime and masterful as Gauche the Cellist, My Neighbor Totoro, Whisper of the Heart, Omohide Poro Poro. But when Pixar finally breaks the barriers imposed upon American animation, the new paradigm will prove a surprise. It will be different. How? In what way? I can't say. They must be willing to push themselves further than ever before, and push the audiences further than ever before.

It is altogether possible, and very likely if history is any judge, that Pixar's masterpieces will be ahead of their time. The parents will be completely lost, and maybe some of the kids, too. But some will get it. They will become the artists of the next generation, the new trailblazers of the year 2028. For evidence, closely examine the following: Pet Sounds and Ramones; Miles and Coltrane; Citizen Kane; Horus and Heidi.


That is the promised land for American filmmaking and animation. That's where we need to go. And I believe Wall-E is that latest, crucial step. Certainly helps a lot that it's such a great movie. I'm already itching to see it a second time, and maybe a third. If you're a believer in the new paradigm, in the promised land, you'll drag friends and family back with you for repeated viewings. It's always said that art is a two-way conversation. Which means it's up to you to carry your load. Isn't it good, Norwegian Wood? Rubber Soul, man. Rubber Soul.

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was very entertained by "Wall-E's" story. The way this animation, by Pixar, was created, i found it very entertaining! The story, the grapichs by Pixar...truly remarkable! But while all stories created by Pixar mentioned, what about movies like The Final Fantasy "The spirits within" or a segment of "the animatrix"?
I like the way they portray animation with a disney kind of touch but what i find truly amazing are movies like Final Fantasy or Animatrix. Kinda reminds me of a short animated movie made about bruce lee... the way that CGI develops in that direction is more attractive from my point of view.
I mean, i am not an expert in the vield of CGI but i do have my eyes focussed on the future with regards to VR...!
Am i making any sense here?
Btw, i wanted to add... all movie titles mentioned in this article entertained me to the fullest!

Tricky said...

I realise that my comments my not be completely relevent to this article. It's just that i don't want to see titles left out like Final Fantasy or that segment of Animatrix...
But...one remark i want to leave is that i did find the storyline behind Wall-E very remarklable, almost interesting....

Roger said...

Wall-E was great. Pixar has always been good about keeping the human beings very exaggerated, not like a lot of animators that try to make them copies of real humans. We like the impossible when it comes to animation, so a robot love was perfect. I think they are poised to make some of the best stories in movies because true adult audiences are unwillingly to eat anything but mush.

Anonymous said...

Wall-E was a great disappointment. Beautiful graphics, and I loved the robots! However, the story was just full of leftist propaganda that made me sick.

What made me more sick was seeing the overweight people in the audience watching this movie that mocked them as stupid, mindless, loveless human beings.

Sick movie.

Anonymous said...

Wall-E was a great disappointment. Beautiful graphics, and I loved the robots! However, the story was just full of leftist propaganda that made me sick.

What made me more sick was seeing the overweight people in the audience watching this movie that mocked them as stupid, mindless, loveless human beings.

Sick movie.

Jeremy said...

This is brilliant satire. Almost Platonic in its perfection in ridiculing the widespread overanalysis of mediocre popular culture. Nice job.

This line is priceless: ""All of those great Pixar movies - A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars..."

Oh no, hang on. You're serious!

Pixar films are overrated, particularly Toy Story. In terms of visuals, they're ahead of the curve. Fine. But beyond that, they're not awfully exceptional. Certainly most of the films in the above quote are moderately tedious with the exception of Incredibles. Cars, for instance, is thoroughly bland and formulaic.

I haven't seen Wall-E, but it does at least look a bit more promising.

But folks, let's keep Pixar in perspective. At best it does little more than reflect the state of the general film industry in the US - highly polished visuals and general production values combined with formulaic and easily digestible narrative and superficially entertaining dialogue.

Pixar makes reasonably entertaining middle brow entertainment. To claim anything more is simply OTT.

JamieO said...

From a brand perspective - Pixar / Disney would probably never do a non-family movie, but it would be interesting to see what would happen if they applied their skillsets into new genres. You can see the growth in Anime as a result of CGI advances through movies like Appleseed and Final Fantasy.

Slowly the concept that a CGI movie must be a cartoon and thereby targetted at kids is failing - and I am all the happier for it. Without the confines of reality to bind them, great storytellers can craft masterpieces with the tools today. I think bold attempts such as A Scanner Darkly are the first step towards a beautiful cinematic future.

Anonymous said...

I like your commentary but why do you spend so much time hating on Bush? It just comes across as silly.

Anonymous said...

For all the people offended by the "leftist" angle of Wall-E ... stop it. You're putting stuff there that's just not there. I can guarantee that Stanton intended no great political message. He wrote this thing long before "An Inconvenient Truth" or the real movement on global warming arrived.

How many sci-fi movies address issues in the future, whether post-nuclear, apocalyptic, fascist, etc. developments? In Wall-E, mankind encounters a problem with waste, but where's the war? Where's the terrorism and torture?

No, you have fat people on hover lounges on the web drinking milkshakes. And its some of the ROBOTS who are the bad guys - 2001 HAL-style.

It's just a movie. Pixar and Stanton are just telling a great story with a great message about love and self-reliance if you just look at it objectively. We've become so politically polarized lately that it seems EVERYTHING is being seen through a caustic lens. Just chill...

John said...

This was a good review and very well thought out, but you ruined it by inserting your political views and anti-Bush/Cheney-agenda into a topic that is unrelated to both.

Steven Long said...

I really enjoyed the commentary and think you're right about somethings and hope you're right about others.

I fear that Pixar has a great deal of freedom now, because success earns freedom. If the next film is an incredible, original, innovative film, a step in a new direction and gives folk like you great hope in the future... but gets tepid reactions at the box office and performs poorly in media sales (DVD, bluRay, digital download, or whatever) then the freedom will be gone.

The artisans become slaves to shareholders.


and re:
"seeing the overweight people in the audience watching this movie that mocked them as stupid, mindless, loveless human beings"

I disagree, Wall-E was portraying the directions they could go, not where they are. Those overweight people in the audience don't likely perceive themselves as stupid or mindless, they know whether or not they're loveless. Just because they shared one similarity (obesity) to those onscreen doesn't mean that they're being attack.

We should take a poll of the overweight people who watched Wall-E and see if it hurt their feelings.

Anonymous said...

Pixar is anything but reflective of standard Hollywood.

It's made up of a collected group of CalArts animation grads from the 70s and 80s who moved up North when Disney was dying financially and creatively. They merged with the technologists from Lucas and birthed a new media: full-length, 3D animated features, launched via Toy Story.

You'll never know the effort, the risk and the emotional investment these guys put into these first films, and the growing pains and cultural challenges they've dealt with, now that Disney is back in the picture.

I know we faun over Pixar, and it's natural for folks to react negatively in response, but seriously, these guys have made an historic contribution to animation and film itself. Nothing lasts forever, and Pixar will probably stumble one day, but I have nothing but respect and admiration for these guys.

If you only knew that talent up there in Emeryville, you'd know how fortunate moviegoers are, and will continue to be, given what Pixar's upcoming roster of films will deliver.

Anonymous said...

suck a dick

John said...

http://mises.org/story/3037

Tricky said...

holy Crapper! I didn't expecpt all these comments so soon (which is my shortcoming i guess...?!) All i wanted to state that i was fascinated by the story itself, no matter how outrages, but still. It was never my intention to provoke others into turning this into an political kind of comment of such. all that mattered to me was the story itself. But, if you would take a look at the storyline and the way humans are being portrayed as being Obese in the long run (to my it does contain a certain truth to it, from my point of view). But besides that, it wasn't my intention to relate my comments with any political underline or to challenge anyone in a political point of view! All i wanted to say was that i enjoined every movie / storyline mentioned, its just that i am still waiting for a better quality for the way characters are being displayed. Again, i am someone who is more interested in CGI in a serious point of view in relation to VR. I mean i am already amazed by the way characters are being displayed on screen. I don't wish to attract issues in this like Bush/Chaney with a political sense to it, that wasn't my initial point of view in reference to my comment. It's a known fact that we are already f*cked. I was just commeting on the quality, the story line etc..

Tricky said...

i can only hope i didn't offend anyone...

Anonymous said...

If you believe that Bush and Cheney are responsible for "polluting the earth to the brink of human extinction," you need a good stiff dose of reality. 1. The pollution of the earth by humans began long before B&C, and it will continue long after them. In a historical perspective, their contribution will be as unremarkable as those who came before or after.
2. The human race is nowhere near being "on the brink of human extinction." Do we need to be more responsible stewards of our environment? Absolutely. Will life become increasing less pleasant, with greater illness and disease, more unsightly wasted landscapes, and the extinction of many species we enjoy and many more that we don't? Quite likely.

But the human race is much, much, much more resilient and resourceful than you give us credit for. You really run the risk of eliminating your credibility when you make statements that sound like this: "The quality of life for generations after us might be decrease incrementally for the forseeable future. This must mean that all human beings are going to be wiped out!" You really sound like a hysterical ninny when you do that. Just stick to the film critique, which you are much better at, and leave the politicized "science" out of it.

Anonymous said...

I think you can separate the technology and stories Pixar presents. Pixar hits it out of the park each time because the technology draws people in but the stories and characters stand on their own.

Daryl Surat said...

The comments are presumably the result of this making the front page of Digg. Podcasters get no love from Web 2.0 portals! It's my own fault for never writing Top 5 lists.

The main problem with seeing Wall-E multiple times in the theater is that you run the risk of also seeing that trailer for Beverly Hills Chihuahua multiple times. This is a risk I'm not willing to undertake.

I also must disagree with your assessment of Cars. To steal a line from someone else--it's what the AWO does best!--Cars was basically Doc Hollywood, only with NASCAR and at the end the hero learns absolutely nothing.

regeya said...

"However, the story was just full of leftist propaganda that made me sick."

Gee, one of the overriding messages I got from the movies is that people shouldn't rely on the government to bail them out. That's LEFTIST propaganda???

Tricky said...

I regret to say this but ok, i do believe this planet is not worthie of its inhabitants. From what i have gathered over the years, you need a lot more to convince me that humans are doing any good to this world... At this moment in time i stopped reading newspapers and such, why? We are destroying not only ourselves but consider the damage we are doing to this world and for what reason? Selfgain, economical reasons, self preservation? what?!
Hell with that, we are all organisms who should respect ONE an OTHER and RESPECT where we originated from and that's one thing we do not, as Humans.
Damn, why do we get into this? i was just commeting on the storyline, i didn't wanna get into this. Not because i am a coward or such but these political and humain issues are subject that confront us everyday. I just thought that i could leave an 'inocent' coment, on this site. about the movie.
My point of view about humans and the way they handle this world is almost related to what "mr smith" said.... The human race is a virus. It reproduces and exploits what this world has to offer. Thats makes me sad.
Nevertheless, the way this discussion is heading, in reference to a Movie and my initial comment. I'll just keep my mouth shut cause it does indeed seem that i am offending people... My apologies...

Tricky said...

one minor correction: "inocent = innocent" and "coment = comment"

warplayer said...

I agree with most of your points here, but I have just got to point out that Cars is nearly a point-by-point remake of Doc Hollywood. They have never made mention of this and don't acknowledge it in any way. I find that odd.

Anonymous said...

""Wall-E was a great disappointment. Beautiful graphics, and I loved the robots! However, the story was just full of leftist propaganda that made me sick.

What made me more sick was seeing the overweight people in the audience watching this movie that mocked them as stupid, mindless, loveless human beings.

Sick movie.""



Yeah, because it isn't true that Americans are NOT getting fatter, and that the climate is NOT changing. Where in the hell have you been for the past ten years, in a cave with Bin Laden?

Wall-E is a CLASSIC! This is what a movie, excuse me a film is all about. Great story telling with the use of visuals. Pixar was able to tell a great wonderful story and the main character says at most 4 words in the whole movie. That is the oppitomy of story telling, and that is what films are suppose to do. To tell a story visually. Hitchcock was absolutely right when he said that sound killed the movie industry. Silent film era will always be the greatest film era because that is the true essence of filmmaking, and when sound was added into movies, it made a lot of guys from then to now lazy. Wall-E is a throwback to a classic silent film.

I'm sick of you Sly FOX's righties that complains about any little crap in movies, "whaaa whaaa, there lefties views in this movies, whaaa whaaa" STFU! Clearly you don't no sh!t about filmmaking, so shut the f&ck up before you open your mouth.

Scott said...

Amazing what the digg effect brings to your door, eh? It's nice when a post sparks intelligent conversation, but I say ignore the political/ideological flamers; if they don't want to read your material, they don't have to. Freedom to use your own voice is the most important thing here.

That being said, I agree that WALL-E represents a step forward for American animation. I was blown away after seeing it, and I came in with very high expectations. It's clear you've thought a lot about the subjects of animation, art, and culture and I enjoyed the post.

@Daryl Surat: Totally agree with your sentiment on Beverly Hills Chihuahua. I can't go into a movie theater now without having PTSD flashbacks.

Tricky said...

guys, come on don't cuss on eachother. What's the need. Please keep it clean and cool!! Oke, there is the possibility that one and other might differ from opinion but please, withhold yourseld from terms like "STFU"...! It's a movie we were talking about, Gsus!

Tricky said...

and No i am not a 'Bitch' i just respect the other's opinion as should you. Period!

Ron said...

The whole point behind using animation to tell a story is to visually portray characters and scenery that cannot be made with live action, that's why films like Final Fantasy and Polar Express are awful attempts at animated movies, and thus are pointless to use the medium in that way.

Even the Shrek movies display awful animation simply becaue they try to make the characters as real as possible, since it's virtually impossible to make them 100% as real as live action, you're left with animated corpses. It's a disturbing and often ugly effect. The closer you get to making CG animation look real, the more of the faults you subconsciously detect, and therefore lookfs down right awful.... including that Bruce Lee 3D clip made ages ago... it's an abomination and there's no point to it.

Pixar movies are CARTOONS. They are not trying to make everything look as realistic as possible, and that's why their films work. They approach it as artists did for the old Disney films. 101 Dalmations, Sword in the Stone, Aristocats, Robin Hood, and even the more recent flicks like Tripplets of Belleville, Iron Giant and any Miyazaki film. These are all traditionally animated cartoons... Pixar use their computer-generated 3D modeling & animation techniques to achieve the old 2D style, always trying to achive that same effect, recapture that same old magic, by doing so they get closer and closer in creating real 'cartoons' and that's how they keep getting better, both in timing and aesthetics.

Shrek and Kung Fu Panda are two completely different films. Both in story and in visual aesthetic, however they were created using the exact same digital methods. The difference is, Kung Fu Panda (like Wall-E) has strong character development, great story, great voice actors, awesome character designs and amazing animation and environments... Final Fantasy did not!

Kung Fu Panda is the first non-Pixar 3D animated film to have the same "effect" that most of Pixar's films already have, and that's the effect you get when you try to capture the design and animation sense of the old classic Disney films. They stylize the designs, caricature and exaggerate the characters in a way that makes it artful and above all the story telling is top notch.

An awesome script with great compositions and brilliant character development is what Pixar films have above all other animated movies of the last 12 years.

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Admiral Neck said...

"Cars was envisioned as the final movie with Disney; Ratatouille was to be their first as true independents. This is why it was such a crucial test. Would the Disney merger mean hedging thier bets? Would it mean creative compromise? Taking the safe route? Sticking to the old predictible, if profitable, formulas? For me, at least, this was the grand drama of Brad Bird's movie. Impressive, isn't it, that Bird is the one chosen to lead the Pixar studio into uncharted territory? He also has the knack for being inventive and subversive, for pushing the boundaries, within the formulas of the system."

That's an interesting point (one of many in this post), but wasn't it originally meant to be Jan Pinkava's project, with Bird brought in later? I say this with only minor knowledge of what went on with the helming of the Ratatouille project, as the reasons for the change of director seem to be hidden from view. Would Ratatouille still have been their first "post-Disney" film, or would it have been Wall*E?

Helene Bloom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
albert said...

This is the best article I have dugg in the eight months on digg.com. I made sure to see the movie first before returning to read the article.
I can't wait to see it again. And I can't wait to see what comes out next

IronYuppie said...

I would love to know your thoughts on Pixar's status now since the release of Up and Brave, but also the implications of Wreck It Ralph's production as being a hybrid joint effort with Disney.

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