Lauded, showered with praise and awards, raking in billions at the box office, and beloved by audiences everywhere. Pixar films have made a significant impact on contemporary culture. Yet by digging just a little bit beneath the surface, it’s regrettably obvious that Pixar’s films are far from cutting edge: they’re rather average. The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but everyone believes he’s wearing the finest robes.
This may be hard to accept and it’s going to take some explanation. So let’s set the parameters so that this most explosive of statements isn’t misconstrued. The argument is based purely on artistic merit and creativity and that means:
1. Box office grosses are no indicator of either
2. Awards are not an impartial form of measurement
3. Taste is personal and just because you think Pixar’s films are the best doesn’t mean they actually are the best
Why is it necessary to exclude these parameters? Because they are subjective and open to manipulation. Box office grosses are too closely tied to marketing budgets, awards are at the whim of private organizations or studios, and individual taste goes without saying. As proof, I freely admit that the generally panned Goro Miyazaki film Tales from Earthsea is a personal favorite. Such a statement alludes to my taste in animated films, but it does not affect my ability to persuade you that it is the best using irrefutable facts.
Back to Pixar though, and to say that they make average films is to place them halfway between the extremes. The studio does not make bad films, (of that their technical and creative talent is obvious,) but how far away from the other extreme do they fall?
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Secret of Kells, and My Neighbor Totoro all lie much closer to generally accepted animated excellence (for differing reasons of course.) In contrast to these films, Pixar’s are remarkably safe. They convey a narrowly defined range of themes, they are content to reuse a ‘house style’, and sequels aside (another demerit), their stories are far from unique to filmmaking as a whole.
As a result. no Pixar film has pushed the artistic envelope: they have appeared to without actually doing so. They have not revolutionized animated filmmaking outside of their technology. Their films have sparked imitators aplenty, but then financial success will always do that. What Pixar’s films haven’t done, is inspire others to make a creative leap. The Looney Tunes and MGM shorts of the day developed as rapidly as they did because the teams behind them were determined to outdo each other creatively. Today, animated films (and especially CGI ones) do not compete creatively, but rather financially. Studios create with an eye to outdoing another studio at the box office first and foremost; any artistic developments as a result are rather coincidental. After all, no studio was inspired to create a CGI film because of Pixar’s artistic genius, they saw a concept that was profitable and wanted a piece of the pie for themselves!
To get to the crunch of the issue, you have to consider how Pixar’s films are viewed by the general population. A cross-section of society will reveal fans in every age, race, gender, and socio-economic bracket. Their films appeal to all, and in turn are remarkably popular. This is possible primarily because the films are average. They do not appeal to anyone in particular, and as a result, appeal to all. In doing so, they out their average-ness. As evidence that this is true, here’s Simon Cowell explaining why he’s been so successful at finding musical stars:
“I have average tastes. If you looked in my collection of DVDs, you’d see Jaws and Star Wars. In the book library, you’d see John Grisham and Sidney Sheldon. And if you look in my fridge, it’s children’s food — chips, milkshakes, yogurt.”
Nobody denies that Jaws and Star Wars are not great films, but artistically they are decidedly middle-of-the-road blockbusters. For large-budget films looking to break records, pushing the boundary is too risky, and promises too little reward. Studios that decide to put hundreds of millions of dollars into a production are extremely careful that they will make that money back, and that contrasts with many independents and smaller studios, who are often happy just to get a film made and seen by people. As a result, they take greater liberties with financial restraints, and can push artistic boundaries as a result.
Does this perhaps exemplify that Pixar’s business model is actually to avoid creating superb films? Walt Disney recognized that it was shorts that made his bread and butter, but that features promised a route to explore then untried aspects of animation. Imagine if Pixar released a film with casual abandon of all financial goals. Imagine if John Lasseter was told to make the best film he could. Would such a film look anything like the Pixar films we’ve seen until now? I very much doubt it. For all the artistic talent that resides within Pixar, it has to either be fantastically wasted, or not as great as we’ve been led to believe.
At the end of the day, it’s fine to look to Pixar as a model for certain things such as its CGI technology, its managerial structure, or even its campus; but to look to them as a creative leader and innovator is wrong. They do not reside on the cutting edge of feature animation, and to accept such a belief is to drink some very strong Kool-Aid.