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I'll say it: Pixar has gotten kind of boring
My requisite occasional hot take
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Let me start this with a question or two: When was the last time a Pixar movie surprised you? When was the last time you were genuinely excited to see a Pixar movie?
I’ll answer those questions for myself in a minute, but before I do, let me try to illustrate why I’m asking them in the first place. In the summer of 2008, I was editing a tiny little movie blog—and, granted, a movie blog is the sort of environment where people are predisposed to get overly excited about movies, but seemingly everyone orbiting the blog was convinced the new Pixar movie WALL-E was going to be a masterpiece. Our writers, our editors, our commenters—we all frequently disagreed about stuff, but we were unanimous about how great WALL-E was going to be.
And then it came out and we all agreed that it really was that good. One of the writers for the site wrote a review comparing it to the classic arthouse film Koyaanisquatsi, and the review itself won an award.
And I don’t know if WALL-E was genuinely a masterpiece; I only offer the story as an illustration of the impossible amount of goodwill Pixar had generated for themselves at that point. As far as we were all concerned, they were the saviors of animation.
Flash forward to 2023, though, and I’m realizing—for the tenth or eleventh time in a row—that there’s a new Pixar movie out and I can’t summon any real enthusiasm for it.
To illustrate how bad things have gotten, it might be helpful to back up another ten or twenty years for a moment and talk about who the saviors of animation were before Pixar—not that we really need to, since said saviors basically never shut up about their “renaissance.” By the mid-nineties Disney had brought animation back from the dead with a string of mega-hits—but only at the expense of forcing every one of them through the same formulaic sieve (feisty/beautiful princess! hunky/witty hero! ugly/problematic villain! 2.8 wacky sidekicks! 5.7 showstopping songs!—you know what I’m talking about). By the time Pixar came around, this obligatory formula was wearing extremely thin—but then, with off-the-wall masterpieces like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, Pixar had shown the world that an animated movie could be…anything. Hence our enthusiasm for WALL-E.
But now, Pixar movies feel every bit as dully formulaic as nineties Disney movies did. That isn’t to say Pixar is making bad movies; while I have yet to see their three most recent films (because, again, my enthusiasm for them has been pretty low), I did eventually get around to Coco, Incredibles 2, Toy Story 4, Onward, Soul, and Luca, and I thought they were all genuinely pretty good—and then promptly never thought about them again. They were all just sort of blandly likable—and worse, nearly all of them were returning to the same, increasingly dry, formulaic well: “What if [metaphysical thing happened], but it was all a metaphor for [trite moral lesson guaranteed not to offend nice, white, liberal wine moms]???” Judging from the trailer, their new one, Elemental, just looks like more of the same.
That isn’t to say that Pixar writers are writing their scripts with a fearful eye toward the increasingly boring Twitter mobs—although that may be part of the problem—just that they seem uninterested in trying to surprise or amaze anymore. You’re not going to see them attempt anything as daring as Ratatouille’s fearless narrative rule-breaking, The Incredibles’s bald Objectivism, or WALL-E’s sly political satire.
Speaking of which, here’s the moment I knew the winds had shifted for Pixar: Not to overload this piece with WALL-E-related anecdotes, I hope, but shortly after I saw that one, I discovered a fictional website someone at Pixar had put together for the film’s villainous, world-swallowing big box store, Buy n Large.Among other things, the site included promotional materials for a prescription drug guaranteed to give you “shopping bliss” even when you were buying their cheap, useless crap. A friend of mine (as it happens, the one who wrote that award-winning review) described the site as “remarkably subversive”—which I thought overstated it a bit, but certainly captured how weirdly dark and cynical the site was for a Disney release.
Within a few months, though, I noticed the Buy n Large URL now redirected to a bland page on Disney.comencouraging you to buy WALL-E on DVD. And while I have no idea why the original site was taken down, it struck me then (and now) as emblematic of the inevitable Disneyfication of Pixar. How long can you seriously question the selling of crap to the masses when you’re in the selling-crap-to-the-masses business? Not long, it turns out.
That Disneyfication, by the way, is the piece of the puzzle I’ve left out thus far. I doubt it’s a coincidence that the movies that I’d guess most people would agree constitute Pixar’s creative apex—Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up—were all produced during their much-publicized feud with Disney. At the time, Pixar was feeling mistreated by the Mouse House and was looking to strike out on their own—a situation that gave them both a lot to prove and a villain to rage against. In 2006, though, they finally gave in, and allowed Disney to swallow them whole—and that former creative fire mostly evaporated. Pixar dutifully took their place in Disney’s ever-expanding stable of reliably unchanging brands, cranking out the same stuff ad infinitum. Just as we all know what a “Star Wars movie,” a “Marvel movie,” or a “Disney Princess movie” is, we now all know exactly what to expect from a “Pixar movie”—it’s consistency, after all, that keeps the customers coming back. No one buys a Big Mac hoping to be shock-and-awed.
Feel free to tell me I’m being unfair—maybe it’s less that Pixar has gotten worse and more that we’ve all just gotten used to their house style. Maybe it’s not possible to consistently surprise or amaze people forever. Maybe you either die an animation hero or live long enough to see yourself become an animation villain. I don’t know.
You’ve stuck with me this long, though, so I should probably go ahead and answer those first two questions.
I think the last time a Pixar movie genuinely surprised me was 2015’s Inside Out. I’ll have to spoil the end, but it’s an eight-year-old movie, so whatever: Throughout the film, the characters kept repeating the mantra “Riley needs to be happy!” and as a red-blooded, Disneyfied American, I took them at their word on that. At the film’s thematic climax, though, I found myself genuinely floored by its acknowledgment that there’s more to being human than being happy, and there is, in fact, a time to mourn. That “lesson” wasn’t exactly new to me, but I can’t say I expected to see it in a release from the Happiest Conglomerate on Earth.
As for the last time I was excited to see a Pixar movie—it’d be nice if I could say WALL-E, since that would put a nice little cap on this piece, but I think it was actually The Good Dinosaur, which came out later in 2015. To be clear, TGD is actually a terrible movie—the rare Pixar film that isn’t a solid B-plus or better—but the visuals are gorgeous. My then-two-year-old daughter kept making me replay the trailer for her, over and over, and I couldn’t wait to take her to see the full film. Then I did, and it turned out that no one had bothered to write a coherent script to go with those gorgeous visuals (so basically, it was a Laika movie in Pixar clothing). I dunno, maybe the main reason I’m so aggressively bored of Pixar is that I’m still salty over that Good Dinosaur bait-and-switch.
As a related exercise, I took a second to ask myself what was the most recent animated movie to surprise me, and I think it was actually Puss in Boots: The Last Wish. That’s the latest one from DreamWorks—the studio that my movie blog friends and I all used to deride as Great Value™️ Pixar—and as a sequel to a spinoff to a sequel, it really had no right to be any good. But it was! It took the fairytale / spaghetti western combo of the first Puss in Boots and pushed it into Nolanesque levels of metaphysical convolution, all while just sort of trusting its young audience to “get it.” (And the kids—well, my daughters, at least—really did.) And it did all that with style—embracing a manga-inspired low-frame-rate approach for its action scenes that managed to make me forgive DreamWorks for foisting twenty years of frenetic ugliness onto the universe. It’s possible The Last Wish surprised me mainly because I walked in with relatively low expectations, but the fact remains that I enjoyed it more than any Pixar movie in almost a decade.
But I’d love to hear what you all think about this. Am I being too hard on Pixar? Is it unreasonable to expect that they wow me with every release? Do you plan on seeing Elemental? Should I? Let me know in the comments. 🕹🌙🧸
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Stuff I’ve been enjoying lately
True story: In the first draft of my second novel—the one I’m “on sub” with right now, as it happens—I included a secondary character I based on myself at age fifteen. I thought it might be fun, or something, but every time I tried to write a scene for the guy, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Geez, this guy’s an asshole.” I ended up cutting the character out completely in subsequent drafts because I couldn’t make him anything other than completely off-putting. Teenage boys are just the worst.
Maybe that’s why I put off reading The Catcher in the Rye till now—because I couldn’t imagine a book about a teenage boy being smug and antisocial and generally awful could possibly be any good. Chalk that one up as yet another one of my bad calls.
I know that Catcher is universally considered one of the greatest novels of the last century, so I probably don’t have to pitch it to you here (and I’m unlikely to say anything new about it), but in brief: What Salinger has done here is nothing short of alchemy. Catcher is a story about a young man fighting a war against his own testosterone—and, usually, losing—and yet I couldn’t put it down. I’m honestly not sure how he did it; I might have to re-read this thing a few more times before I figure it out.
I generally find hyper-masculine stuff really obnoxious, but maybe that’s why Catcher appealed to me so much. Holden Caulfield is a protagonist who, at his best, is at least aware of the fact that puberty has turned him into a proverbial bull in a china shop, even if he’s struggling to figure out what to do about it.
My impression is that I’m far from the only one to have an ambivalent relationship toward puberty (particularly my own, natch)—but puberty, of course, is the price we pay for a world that contains adults. Maybe there’s a time to mourn, and a time to grow hair in weird places and get random awkward boners. 🕹🌙🧸
WALL-E won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and it’s currently sitting at 95% on RottenTomatoes, so I guess it’s pretty good. I rewatched it with my kids last year and I thought it didn’t hold up super well, but they say they loved it. Then again, they haven’t asked to rewatch it since, so who knows.
Ratatouille probably ranks among my top ten films of all time, but multiple people have told me they hated it because “it broke the rules of storytelling” (apparently I only hang out with dour, pedantic nerds)…which, fine, but the “rules of storytelling” are advice for writers, not a measuring stick for amateur critics. If a movie breaks the rules and still makes me feel the feels, that’s to its credit, not a black mark against it.
I should say, for the record, that I think Ayn Rand was wrong about almost everything—but it’s still fascinating to me that her philosophy was allowed to guide a family movie back in 2004. Try doing something anywhere near that interesting now, at least at Pixar, and see where it gets you.
The site won’t work unless your device is ancient enough to have Adobe Flash installed, but if that’s you, you can see the archived version here.
For what it’s worth, my kids actually have gone out of their way to rewatch The Last Wish (see footnote #1 for context). That’s high praise.