It’s hard to think of a studio more singularly adored than Pixar Animation Studios, the creators of “WALL-E,” “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo.” Of course, they weren’t always everybody’s favorite. The studio started out as an experimental, computer-based component to George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic effects house, one that Lucas had so little faith in that he promptly sold the team to Apple founder Steve Jobs, who looked at Pixar as a well to sell sophisticated graphics processors (the initial short films that created so much buzz and attention were supposed to serve as mere tech demonstrations). The artists at Pixar, however always had one clear goal in mind: a feature-length animated movie, groundbreaking in the same ways Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was way back in 1937. Pixar accomplished this (with Disney’s help) in 1995 with “Toy Story” and since then have gone on to achieve an unparalleled streak of critical and commercial success, amassing nearly 30 Oscars and almost $8 billion worldwide (they were sold in 2006 to Disney for more than $7 billion, so they’re finally making a profit!) But, contrary to popular opinion, they’re not perfect.
In fact, there are a handful of nagging problems with Pixar movies to date, that show some of the seams of their successes. And it takes someone who is obsessed with the studio and their films to even be able to point out these issues. It’s also worth noting that when Pixar started, none of the principles were, you know, filmmakers. For lack of a better word, they were technicians, working desperately to craft the new technology to fit their storytelling needs. This makes the studio’s accomplishments (especially early on) even more impressive and explains, at least somewhat, some of their shortcomings.
The most glaring (and frequently written about) problem with Pixar is their severe lack of strong female characters (yes, we’ll get to “Brave” in a minute). When Joss Whedon was brought onboard “Toy Story” to try to fix some major problems with the initial scripts (a three-week job that stretched into a four-month residency), one of his major additions was a strong female character, who would rescue Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) from the clutches of the sadistic neighborhood kid Sid. The problem was that Whedon’s character was Barbie, and toy giant Mattel, unsure of the “Toy Story” property (and about giving their beloved character a voice and personality that didn’t necessarily mesh with their own ideas) denied Disney and Pixar permission (the band of merry mutant toys replaced her). This negated the strong female character from “Toy Story” (Bo Peep is such a nonentity that by the third movie she’s been removed entirely) and set an ugly precedent of marginalizing female characters that the studio has mostly followed since then. Female characters appear in almost all of the Pixar movies, sometimes in prominent roles (like Dory in “Finding Nemo”) but few are what you would consider strong characters. Despite Ellen DeGeneres’ genuinely amazing performance, sometimes Dory feels less like a character and more like a plot device. There are, of course, exceptions, most notably in “The Incredibles,” in which Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), boils down the tenants of feminism into a thirty second speech she gives her daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), while both are facing imminent death. Whedon, who in the years since “Toy Story” had become critical of the studio’s female characters, said that when he was watching this sequence in the theater, his wife leaned over to him and said that it had been written for him. Still, the female characters after “The Incredibles” have reinforced these bad habits, with many being defined solely by their male counterparts (like Jesse in the “Toy Story” movies) or disappearing from the movie entirely (Ellie from “Up” is a barely-seen narrative engine; Kevin the bird, however, is a woman). The response became loudest around the time that “WALL-E” was released, where the studio assigned outdated, binary sex characteristic to genderless droids.
The studio’s response, of course, was “Brave,” a movie that was set to be the studio’s first feature directed by a female filmmaker (Brenda Chapman) and described, at least initially, as the studio’s “feminist fairy tale.” The problem, of course, is that Chapman was fired 18 months before the feature’s completion, largely due to what she perceived as the studio’s glass ceiling and much of the movie’s female-positive message went along with her. Instead, the main character of “Brave,” Merida (Kelly Macdonald) was a feisty, independent woman who learned about selflessness but at the end didn’t seem all that strong; her “awakening” didn’t cause that much change. Also, whatever good came from the film's presumed progressiveness was minimized when Merida was co-opted by the anti-woman Disney Princess brand (and we all know how well that went). This week’s “Monsters University” doesn’t try to fix the problem. Most of the female characters are reduced to a horde of demonic sorority girls (and a brittle dean played by Helen Mirren) although there is a moment when Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) sneak into Monsters Inc. and see one of the scariest monsters, who turns out to be (shock!) a woman. Too bad there isn’t additional information about her and she doesn’t actually speak.
Pixar has an infamous "story first" approach to their movies in which any extraneous detail, if it doesn't directly serve the narrative, is jettisoned into the deep recesses of outer space. When "Ratatouille" started to wander under the guidance of original director Jan Pinkava, with a complicated web of food-initiated flashbacks and dream sequences in which Remy (Patton Oswalt) would vividly visualize the taste sensations he was experiencing (pieces of which you can experience in the videogame version of the movie), he was removed and replaced by "The Incredibles" helmer Brad Bird. Maybe more tellingly, after Disney bought Pixar and installed John Lasseter as, essentially, the head of Disney creative, one of his first orders of business was to promptly fire Chris Sanders, whose "Lilo & Stitch" Lasseter found too weird and aimless. Sanders went on to have a wonderful career at DreamWorks Animation, where he made "How to Train Your Dragon" and this year's delightful "The Croods." "Lilo & Stitch" is the perfect example of a movie that Pixar would never make because it is all about the tiny details that fill up and expand a life, but have little to do with the story. Why does Lilo love Elvis Presley songs? What does one of the aliens cross-dressing have to do with anything else? You easily imagine Lasseter looking at the gorgeous, watercolor backdrops for "Lilo & Stitch" and saying, "So what?" In Pixar movies, character traits and narrative beats are exclusively produced to drive the momentum of the story forward (or double-underline some thematic concern) – there is, ostensibly, no fat on these movies.
The problem, of course, is that too much of this means that there is very little texture to the stories. "Cars 2," which involves a labyrinthine plotline involving secret agent cars and an alternate fuel source that turns out to be deadly, is the best example of this: it's all plot, to the point that nothing ever makes sense because every scene is so busy zigging and zagging to the next pressing plot point. As mentioned before, Dory, a character from "Finding Nemo" that was so indelible that some were predicting an Oscar nomination for DeGeneres (which would have been an all-time first), is really a functional plot device: she sees the boat that takes Nemo but has short-term memory loss (a character trait of the actual fish), so that keeps her from ever really aiding in solving the mystery. While the relationship between Ellie and Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) might be the emotional center of "Up," their entire relationship is summed up in an admittedly beautiful, wordless montage, that isn't exactly lousy with specific details about their lives together or apart. They fell in love, they had some troubles, she died. Does it still make you cry? Sure. But there's also nothing to really hang your hat on. A half-dozen characters in "Ratatouille" feel like they never exist outside of the kitchen, every buggy character in "A Bug's Life" is there for the betterment of the story, and never once in either "Cars" movie is an explanation attempted as to why this crazy cars-world exists. You know why? These "unnecessary" details would take away from the story, but give the projects so much more in return.