Thursday, June 4, 2009
What's wrong with me?
What's wrong with my inner child?
When I left the theater after Up last night, I felt ... well, not underwhelmed, but let's just say, less whelmed than I wanted to be. And this is the third straight Pixar film I've left feeling that way: generally impressed with its storytelling, certainly impressed with its animation, and recognizing I'd seen a quality film, but without that sense of wonder a Pixar film is supposed to instill in me. Which Pixar films used to instill in me without fail.
For most people, the triumvirate of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up represents Pixar at its absolute finest, which is why my current Pixar funk is all the more troubling. I don't usually mind being out of synch with popular opinion, but it does make me wonder why I'm out of synch -- are they wrong, or am I? Am I just getting older? Does it take transcendence across the board to really transport me?
Like I said, it's not that these aren't very good movies, movies worth praising sturdily. But the breathless rhapsodizing about these three films has been out of scale with what I believe they deserve. It's as though a certain segment of the filmgoing population has decided that Pixar is a lifeboat in a sea of animation mediocrity, and therefore, everything that Pixar produces must be heaped with adulation in order to demonstrate the distance between Pixar and its competitors. Well, I'm going to deliver my first (second? third?) of many controversial statements in this post -- I actually liked Dreamworks' middlingly reviewed Monsters vs. Aliens better than Up. (Even if, on some levels, Monsters vs. Aliens probably rips off Pixar's Monsters Inc.) There, cast me out, and never trust my opinion again.
The problem with Pixar is that its films are all basically excellent. This sets the bar way too high, and makes some films suffer when compared to each other, or when compared to the expectations you have for them. I admit it's very possible I liked Monsters vs. Aliens more than Up because I was not really expecting to love Monsters vs. Aliens, but was expecting to love Up. When the former exceeded expectations and the latter came up short, it blurred the strengths of these movies relative to each other, in my mind at least. (Another factor: I found the 3-D extraordinarily vivid in Monsters vs. Aliens, and somewhat subdued in Up).
Then again, why be apologetic about it? The essence of being a movie fan -- any kind of movie fan -- is that you like what you like, and you don't what you don't. Trying to "pretend" you like something more than you do only does yourself a disservice.
So I thought the tenth release by Pixar was the perfect opportunity to post my first list in a long time -- my personal rankings of Pixar films from 1 to 10. I know you don't usually comment, but if you're reading this and you care about this topic, I'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section. Plus your own rankings, though I don't expect you do to go into the same detail I do.
Without further ado ...
1. Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter). The most amazing thing to me about Pixar is that it arrived on the scene as a fully developed entity, totally sophisticated in the animation department and the story department right out of the gates. Pixar's first film will probably always be my favorite -- I can't think of another time when I felt such awe sitting in a movie theater. So much so that I saw Toy Story again ... the very next day. Not only is the concept delicious -- what do your toys do when you're not looking? -- but the characters are wonderfully rendered, with Woody's insecure sarcasm and jealousy providing the perfect counterpoint to Buzz's obliviously optimistic machismo. Sure, the human characters looked a little clunky, but who cares? The moment I saw those little green army men come to life, I knew I'd never seen anything like this, and probably wouldn't again.
2. Toy Story 2 (1999, John Lasseter). Until four years later, that is, when Toy Story 2 nearly did the impossible: outshine Toy Story. Over time I've decided that the original is the superior effort, but the margin is razor thin. The old characters are back, some good new ones are added, and the adventure of saving Woody from an evil toy collector is almost as good as saving Buzz from a sadistic neighborhood brat. Plus the video game opening is just awesome.
3. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton). Pixar's best non-Toy Story movie is another epic quest, this time a neurotic clown fish trying to find his sole surviving offspring in a vast ocean full of diverse creatures. What I love so much about this film is that two sets of characters and two parallel stories -- Nemo also must figure out how to escape from domesticated life in a fish tank -- are carried off with equal panache and poignancy. Plus, Ellen Degeneres' performance as the absent-minded Dory is absolutely wonderful -- I say this as a person who's not particularly an Ellen fan.
4. Cars (2006, Joe Ranft). This will undoubtedly be my most controversial ranking on the list, but see my previous comment about surpassing expectations. Cars looked like Pixar's dreaded slumming into total Saturday morning cartoon baby-ishness, its "screw you" to Disney as the final film in the initial agreement between the two companies. But it ended up having huge amounts of soul and cleverness, at least in my humble opinion, and the colors really pop off the screen. The desert looks great, and I loved the affection for cars and for the American southwest on display here. And even though the cars have googly eyes, it doesn't come across as stupid. A pleasant surprise that shot it all the way up to #4. Let the disagreements begin.
5. Monsters, Inc. (2001, Pete Docter). The world of monsters was another wonderful way for Pixar to flex its imaginaton and animation capabilities, and Billy Crystal and John Goodman are terrific as the lead scare-mongers who are anything but ferocious. I loved the giant (albeit Men in Black-style) headquarters where they worked, and I remember being really tickled by the kid who voiced the baby, known as Boo. There are some slow patches here, but this is a winner.
6. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird). The Incredibles is much beloved -- even by me in a sense, as I ranked it #9 out of 59 movie I saw that year. But compared to some other Pixar films, I think it comes up short in the story department. Love the idea, love the character design, love the world it creates, love a bunch of things about this film -- but I don't love the script. I didn't think it was the best idea for what to do with the characters, and I think the narrative suffered as a result.
7. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton). What I like about Wall-E is what I think most people like about it -- it is the most different from other Pixar films. I'm not suggesting Pixar needed to vary from its winning formula, or that it even really has a formula. Just that it was incredibly bold to set a "children's movie" on a dystopian post-apocalyptic Earth where all humans have evacuated, and those of the species who still survive are blobs flying through the universe on the spaceship version of a cruiesliner. But it doesn't mean that this film didn't leave me feeling a little cold and lonely. I was bombarded by other people's affection for it, but I just couldn't bring myself to their level. I liked the love story but didn't love the love story.
8. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird). My my. Paris looks absolutely wonderful, and the animation is as lovingly detailed as in any Pixar film. However, I must say, I thought the plot meandered, and the result was an over-long movie. I like the message of finding your creative bliss, and there were a lot of things about this movie that really impressed me, but in the end, I left the theater with my socks firmly on.
9. Up (2009, Pete Docter). I don't want to say too much about Up because many of my readers won't have seen it yet. I will say that I had a bad hour leading up to showtime, so it's possible that colored my impression of it. And I also felt myself clawing at the 3-D glasses a bit, so there's that. And since I only saw it 24 hours ago, it might end up deserving to be higher on this list. But let's just say that outside of a couple terrific passages -- the opening marriage montage is classic Pixar -- this is a weird movie full of curious decisons, some of which are downright head-scratching. There's something very abstract, even European, about the idea of a house carried away by balloons. Up needed more of that vibe.
10. A Bug's Life (1998, John Lasseter). And here's where there's a real drop-off. I agonized over some of the other decisions on this list, but not this one. Pixar may not have known that it would eventually be able to create one brilliant film per calendar year, but it still seems strange that this was the best the three years after Toy Story could produce. I don't give A Bug's Life an actual thumbs down, but I do have to think about it for a moment. Certainly there's some good stuff in it, but the story is boring, the character design is lacking (the ants are blue?!), and it's just not very memorable. For me it also suffers in comparison to Dreamworks' Antz, which came out the same year and was a more satisfying realization of the concept, though I know I'm in the minority on that one.
As I just performed this exercise, it was difficult, because Pixar is so good that it feels uncharitable to call any of their movies even relatively bad. (Except A Bug's Life, that is). And I'm struck with the notion that I really need to revisit some of these films, especially the ones people love much more than I do.
But I do think there's probably a reason that four of my top five choices are four of the first five movies Pixar made. Not that they got worse over time, but that I got older. That I became more jaded and less receptive to the flights of fancy that are Pixar's bread and butter. My generation is the first to come of age with a wealth of different animated movies to choose from. The older generation had one Disney movie a year (or maybe every other year), and that was it. Us? We have animated favorites ranging from The Secret of N.I.M.H. to The Iron Giant, not to mention all the movies in Disney's 1990s revival. And so it is that many of us have proudly carried our love of animated movies into our adulthood, determined to never lose our ability to love children's movies. It's what keeps us young, keeps us from admitting that we're actually adults.
But we are adults. And it's only logical that our affection for these movies would deteriorate just a little bit, even if we'd rather not acknowledge it.
I guess the proof will come on June 18, 2010. If there's anything that can cure my Pixar blues, maybe it's the release of Toy Story 3. After 11 years, Pixar's best two films will finally get their long-awaited, long-discussed, once-destined-for-a-DVD-release sequel. And if that can't do it for me, maybe nothing can. (Oh, except possibly Cars 2, scheduled for release in 2011. See? Other people liked Cars too. Hence, Cars 2. See what I did there?)
Here's hoping I'm still a kid.