Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ranking Pixar

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.


Don Handsome said...

I have what I would call a general and mostly half-baked distrust of animated films. While this distrust mostly extends to all animated releases I make a few exceptions year after year and cough up the dough to see a couple cartoons a year…typically it’s a sure bet that the exception will be made for the Pixar du jour. There is something about a Pixar release that promises more than just a kids movie. They seem to get that animation is best when it shows worlds that can’t be shown with standard photography.

That said, I am wholly not looking forward to Up. I may not even see it. My reason for this stance is simple: I don’t like the way animated films in general and Pixar films specifically do humans. My top three favorite Pixar films are, like yours, Toy Story 1 + 2 and Finding Nemo. I believe this is because these three films deal almost entirely with inanimate or inhuman objects. The computers that make Pixar films breathe life into these unliving or personalityless objects to an extent that can’t be accomplished with objects that should be living. I think this is why I didn’t like other Pixar favorites like The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc. (the monsters weren’t exactly human, but they were human enough), and the second half of Wall-E. I would lump these other four films into the bottom slot of my short Pixar list. To me there is nothing less interesting than the computerized approximation of human traits.

Up appears to be mostly human-dominated and thus I should probably skip it. The two other Pixar films I haven’t seen are A Bugs Life and Cars. Based on my track record (and your recommendation) I should probably see Cars, but will definitely not see A Bugs Life (since that seems like it falls into the Monsters Inc. trap of unhuman humans).

Anyway Vance, thanks for this post. I know you as a blanket Pixar fan and I’m glad to see you weigh your fandom and pose tough questions to your own standards.

Derek Armstrong said...

Don, I have to laugh because I know you've seen A Bug's Life -- I know because we saw it together. Christmas Day 1998, I believe it was. It seems you found it about as memorable as I did.

You will like Cars. Correct me if I'm wrong, other readers -- I know Daddy Geek Boy can attest to this -- but I don't believe there is a single human being in Cars. (Maybe an announcer at the track or two.)

I like the observation about Pixar human characters. I am now thinking about whether that has a subconscious influence on me.

Don Handsome said...

Vance -
Wasn't that "Ant-ee Up" or whatever that Woody Allen ant movie was called (was it really just Antz?) that we saw? Oh well. A Bugs Life sucks. And the bugs are too human like thus supporting my original idea.

Professor Booty said...

While I wouldn't call UP a perfect movie, I will say that it is funny, touching, different, and beautifully rendered. For Don Handsome and those who do not like 'human' characters in Pixar style films: give it another try. The humans in Toy Story 1 are like cave paintings compared to those in UP. They have very cool character design, incredibly unique and believable walks and movements, and I defy you to find me a 'real' actor that can get as much life out of an eye-roll or eyebrow raise.
The voice-acting in UP is spot-on, and matches the animation perfectly. I think it was very brave to have the main character in an animated kids movie be an old man, and there is no pandering to little kids with jar-jars or fart humor. Like the great old disney movies, this is a film for everyone, which deals with important themes of loss, loneliness, greed, and friendship.

Ranking the pixar movies will be tough, and for this list I am going with a rough formula of MOST FUN + IMAGINATIVE + ANIMATION&DESIGN = GOOD PIXAR MOVIE. I like all of them (well, except 10), and they all have beautiful animation, lighting, and good voice talent. Do yourself a favor and watch these on BLURAY on your hdtv. They are gorgeous, especially the most recent 4 or 5.

(list to follow below...)

Professor Booty said...

1. The Incredibles.
What every super hero movie should be. Funny, clever, pokes fun at the genre, better action scenes than hulk or spiderman. Weaved into the fun are important themes of family, tolerance, inclusion of others, hubris, and redemption. A+ and the one I would want to watch again anytime.

While the original is 'more important', the second one is just an absolute joy to watch. More action, better animation, and just more fun. A perfect sequel and just a good watch.

One of the most important movies ever made, it opened the doors, and set the standards of what 'computer' animation can and should be. Basically the Pulp Fiction of animation, it set the template that is still being used over and over again in the genre.

4. UP
Beautiful, magical, and fun. Great animation and a strange and quirky story. Very different but very satisfying. (quick note on 3D: I wish I had seen this in normal 2D...The 3D is not really an important part, and those damn glasses are annoying and make everything a little muddy and gray. Takes away from the gorgeous lighting and pulls you out of these movies more often than not. The one worth seeing in 3D was BEOWULF, if you ever get the chance to see it in IMAX3D, do it.)

5. Finding Nemo
Gorgeously rendered ocean scenes and a nice quest story. Ellen stands out as a perfect sidekick character. A little too cutesy and heart-stringy for me, and stuck in the time when every single animated movie had to have a 'surfer' (read: stoner) character with a hippy-dippy california voice.

The 2001 of pixar movies. Incredibly brave and ambitious to make a movie with little dialogue and really only a couple main characters. What you don't notice until you look for it, is the amazing advances in camera and lighting work in WALL-E. It is 'shot' as though with real cameras and lights, with shallow depth of field, gorgeous atmospheric work, and even consideration as to where the camera-man would fit in wall-e's little house.

7. Ratatouille
Watching the foggy Seine river at dusk is worth the price alone. Stunningly rendered and sumptuously lit. A nice romance and 'you can do it if you really want it' message. Good voice acting from Patton Oswalt and the rest of the cast.

Like, um, 'vance?', I had no interest in Cars when it came out. It looked like 'hot wheels the movie', and seemed like a shitty riff on the aardman 'chevron' cars.
But it is really just an animated remake of 'Doc Hollywood' (like, really, exactly like DH). This is a good thing. A nice, 'slow down and look at what you are missing' message. Good Owen Wilson before you got tired of Owen Wilson. Gorgeous on BLURAY too.

9. Monsters Inc.
For some reason this one didn't really do it for me. Great 3rd act action with the 'doors' scene. The whole thing seemed a little too kidsy and hard for me to buy into. (like BEE-MOVIE, but, well, a lot better than BEE-MOVIE). I have been over Billy Crystal since City Slickers 2, so that didn't help.

Other than my happiness that what's-his-name from News Radio was the lead, not much else to grab onto. They took all the voices and character types from TOY STORY and made them bugs. Weird shiny, poorly designed bugs. SQUISH !!

DGB said...

Been holding off on this one till I saw UP. Well I saw most of UP (the Bean wanted out with less than 20 mins to go).

I was a little underwhelmed by UP as well. Now I believe that even the worst Pixar movie is far and above a better movie than most out there. Yes, UP is a beautiful and poignant movie. But it just didn't blow me away. I would actually place it near the bottom of my Pixar list.

1. The Incredibles - Vance, I would love to hear your problems with the story, cause in my opinion nobody's going to do a better super hero movie. It's everything a comic book movie should be, but being that it's all original that makes it shine even more.

2. Toy Story 2 - The "Empire Strikes Back" of the Pixar movies.

3. Toy Story

4. Finding Nemo

5. Wall E - A bold, yet quiet film that's both beautifully rendered and has a lot to say about humanity and love.

6. Ratatouille - Another gorgeous movie with a great story about being an outsider. For a foodie like me, this movie was heaven.

7. Monsters Inc - There is great imagination in this movie. It also may be one of their most exuberant comedies. I think this one is wholly underratered.

8. A Bugs Life - Simple, but great characters.

9. Cars - Story wise, this movie doesn't hold up to the rest. It's very formulaic. But it's one of the most visually striking movies they've done. I've seen this movie countless times with my son, so I have an appreciation for how they've dressed up a basic story with a lot of great details. But I don't really connect with this one emotionally. Plus, it's way too long.

10. Up - Maybe there's something in those last 20 minutes that would bring it all home for me. There's a lot to like here, but I'm not excited at the thought of having to sit through it again to see how it ends. Pixar movies shouldn't make me feel like that.

Vance, one more piece of Toy Story trivia...It was Disney, not Pixar, who put Toy Story 3 into motion. Disney owns the rights and the characters. They were going to do it sans Pixar when it looked like Pixar was leaving. When Pixar basically bought up most of Disney, they took over the project, scrapped everything that was being done and started over.

Derek Armstrong said...

Since two of you ranked Incredibles #1, my conclusion is that I must have been in a bad mood the day I saw it. Let's see ... November 5, 2004. Nope, the Red Sox just won the World Series a week before, so I couldn't have been in that bad a mood. Then again, I was having a difficult year. I'll definitely see it again soon to see if my opinion still holds.

Thanks everyone for your responses. DGB, I'm glad to hear I didn't take crazy pills before Up.

Unknown said...

Here's my list of the top 9. Yes, 9.
I have not seen Cars. For some reason, the running time kept me out of the theater. BTW, my list will be similar to that of Professor Booty's...Great minds...

1. The Incredibles
Why can't every super hero movie be this good? Just be glad that somebody got it right. FUN FUN FUN!

2. Toy Story 2
Taking familiar characters we love and going to infinity and beyond with them.

3. Up
Thank God I had on my 3D glasses to hide the tears. Also, great use of music.

4 Toy Story
The movie had my with the little plastic flap/circle that was on the helmets of the Army Men. You remember it, and so did the filmmakers.

5. Wall-E
Saw it again on an airplane with no sound. Didn't need it.

Probably the best animated of all the films. The kitchen sequences have a detail that you won't find in a real kitchen.

7. Finding Nemo
We are now heading into the Pixar films that are geared a little too much toward the kiddies. But, Willem Defoe as a fish? Sure!

8. Monsters Inc.
Saw it once. That was enough.

9. A Bugs Life.
I think Kevin Spacey was an evil grasshopper. Makes me long for a very hot and sunny day, with a powerful magnifying glass.