"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.