Saturday, November 06, 2004

Pixar Prospects

Just saw The Incredibles today. Very good, possibly my favorite Pixar film yet, although like Finding Nemo, it lacks the constantly-topping-itself third act that distinguished all the films from Toy Story to Monsters, Inc.

For the first time, the Pixar short before the movie was just plain dumb. Some nonsense about a dancing sheep getting sheared and a stupid bouncing jackalope. Extremely unimpressive. Weird that they would pair their edgiest film yet with their most infantile, but there you go.

Also included was the trailer for Cars, the next movie from our Emeryville friends, which--man, I just don't know. I'm about as big a fan of sentient car movies as you're likely to find, but Cars, well--doesn't look good. Hard to believe, since it's Pixar, but it just looks uninspired.


-It looks like a feature-length Chevron ad.

-The hillbilly-sounding pickup truck. It's a redneck voice in a truck, complete with buck teeth. If there's a cheaper target for comedy, I haven't seen it.

-Fucking windshield eyes. If you wanted to make one change and make me like this movie about 75% more, you would make the headlights the eyes. It's the natural choice, and even the Chevron cars do it. Putting the eyes in the windshield is in the spirit of old-school Disney cartoon car depictions, most notably "Susie, the Little Blue Coupe," an animated short you can find on the Love Bug DVD (only due to the thematic similarity--there's no actual link between them). Anyway, I hated it in the old cartoon, and I hate it here too. Windshield eyes are stupid, and distance me too much from the idea that this is an actual functioning car, and if there's actual eyes that blink filling the windshield , how can a human possibly drive the car? Well, this leads to the next point...

-It's apparently a world without humans. A bizarre car-planet where NASCAR-like races have their checkered flag waved by a Mini Cooper holding a flag, and the spectators are other cars. Previous Pixar movies tended to involve sub-worlds related to the real one, like the secret world of bugs or toys or monsters or superheroes living among us. Oh yeah, or fish. But to postulate an alternate universe inhabited by living cars? A bit much, perhaps. Couldn't this have been to cars what Toy Story was to toys?

-Back to the NASCAR bit that takes up a big chunk of the teaser. Between this and Herbie: Fully Loaded, isn't Disney stepping on its own toes a bit? How many sentient car movies with stock-car racing tie-ins can an audience see in one year? It seems like it's asking a lot for the answer to be more than one.

-It seems unambitious. We've gone from toys to bugs in nature to hairy monsters to underwater environments to actual human characters, and each step seemed like a bigger, more exciting challenge for computer animation. But it seems like Cars could have been animated as easily as Toy Story. Just a lot of smooth surfaces.

-I still have no sense of the story or the point of view of the movie. Since all beings are cars, I have no sense of how they relate to the world, since the whole world created is now foreign. A year ago, when our only glimpse of The Incredibles was Mr. Incredible struggling to buckle his belt (it's not in the movie, by the way), we got it--middle-aged superhero past his prime. The whole concept was clear and we instantly wanted to see it. Cars shows us a redneck truck hitting a bee, a sportscar that hits a swarm of bugs, then a bunch of stock cars jockeying for position, then the redneck truck and the sports car expressing enthusiasm about the movie. Well, I'm glad they're excited. I wish I were. I really want to like any movie about cars.


-You can't hear it too well in the online version, but that's Green Day they use over the racing bits. It was much more effective in the theater.

-Owen Wilson is the sports car. Once I realized this, I liked it much better, even though the sports car still doesn't say anything funny. Virtually anything Owen Wilson says is funny simply for hearing him say it.

-I do like cars. And it's Pixar, and however lame this teaser is, they have done no wrong for six movies, so how bad could it be? On the other hand, as the bouncing jackalope short reminds us, nobody's perfect.

-It's sad to think that all the wonderful characters Pixar has created from Toy Story up through The Incredibles will be Disney's to wreck with their inevitable crass, awful sequels and cut-rate direct-to-video tie ins. Maybe Cars is Pixar's fuck-you farewell film to Disney, closing out their contract without giving away any more of their good characters. Unfortunately, given the advance development time required, as well as the fact that it would not do Pixar any good to leave Disney on a flop, this is probably not the case.


Zack said...

Am I the last guy in the world to not like Pixar?

I appreciate their technical craft, but they use character designs straight out of a "how to draw cartoons" book for 13 year olds. Why is that? Kuzco and Lilo and Hercules and Mulan all seem more real to me, because they all have their quirks. I don't think it's attributable to the use of CGI, either, because Vivi and Steiner (from Final Fantasy IX) were dripping with personality compared to Pixar's dreck.

As long as Pixar's character designs are that generic, I will continue to prefer Disney proper (and Cat Soup, and Miyazaki, and Batman: The ANimated Series). I liked Lilo & Stitch and Emperor's New Groove better than any Pixar movies, so far. I will say that Incredibles looks the most promising (and Cars the least).

Kevin said...

Kenny, you're forgetting Pixar's longstanding tradition of making awesome movies promoted by awful, awful previews. The trailers for Finding Nemo were so bad I was considering not seeing it. They played the same 'belt-buckle snaps' promo for the Incredibles for the last year. Undoubtedly, as more is revealed, Cars will be shown to be a brilliantly realized world.

'Boundin', Pixar's short, was their (losing) Oscar Animated Short nominee. I think they just wanted to do a singing cartoon for once.

Kenny said...

The character designs in the past have been perhaps on the bland side, but they are clean and expressive, perfectly serviceable. I quite like the Lilo & Stitch character designs, but I don't know about your other examples. Kuzco has a lot of personality but I don't know that it breaks the mold of Disney character designs. Even more conventional is Mulan, which is straight out the same house design book that informed Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and everything that came before. What were the quirks, the Asian eyes?

As for Hercules, I thought those designs were trying way too hard, to the point of being distracting. Aside from the art style, Hercules and Mulan both followed the same formulaic "hero starts out as an impossibly clumsy oaf" slapstick opening. Which reminds me that these two movies are so inferior story-wise to any Pixar film that the bland character designs are a non-issue. (Lilo holds its own and Emperor is good for what it is, which is a well-executed farce.)

Clean, functional character design doesn't bother me. What I can't stand are American cartoons that are ugly for the sake of being ugly, like Spongebob Squarepants or The Wild Thornberries. Or Hercules.

It is true that hand-drawn animation allows a certain expressiveness that CGI has yet to match, and I wish it weren't being abandoned on a grand scale. That said, the stories Disney has been telling with its hand-drawn animation (post-Lion King, Lilo and Emperor excepted) haven't been nearly as worth sitting through as the ones from Pixar. Home on the Range? Was anyone interested in seeing that? Anywhere? And then they blame the animation style for it tanking.

Every Pixar movie has a different style of characters, so it's hard to see where they all follow the same style. Yes, the people looked like ugly dolls for the first four movies, but they were thankfully never the focus. With The Incredibles, Pixar has figured out that the best way to computer-animate humans is to abandon creepy photorealism and caricature them. Certainly in the CGI animated field, Pixar does better than the obnoxious looking creatures of Ice Age (ugly for ugly's sake), and their stuff also looks better than Dreamworks' upcoming Madagascar. Shark Tale looked dumb to me, too--celebrity caricatures imposed onto fish.

By the way, Incredibles is written and directed by the guy who did your beloved Iron Giant movie, so you (Zack) ought to like it.

Zack said...

Well, I didn't defend Disney's stories, for a reason, although I definitely prefer Lilo and Emperor to any Pixar movies, as whole movies, not just for their art.

I can accept a live action movie being unattractive because I can imagine that there were not conscious choices leading to that ugliness. For CGI (and traditional animation), there is no such excuse. I don't mean to be unfair to Pixar sepcifically here, as they are so much better than the rival CGI movie studios.

I saw Incredibles today. It was very good, and easily my favorite Pixar movie. Actually maybe my favorite superhero movie now that I think of it. That is, I'm not sure what superhero movie I enjoyed more. Maybe a hypothetical parallel world X-Men without Halle fucking Berry in it. Maybe that was better. I don't know, I still don't like the character designs, but Incredibles is definitely good enough to watch again (unlike Bug's Life, which I am quite satisfied to never see again, or Nemo, which I was quite satisfied to turn off halfway through to watch the Rock vehicle The Rundown).