Pixar Was Never a Masterpiece Factory
the studio has always played to critics instead of children and manipulated with cheap sentiment
Pixar’s new film Elemental took an absolute drubbing at the box office, leading to a lot of fretting and assessing of the studio’s history. This in turn has amplified the frequently-overpowering mythologizing that has always followed the company. Consider this passage from Dan Kois’s review, which is quite strange.
Lots of people have proclaimed the decline of Pixar, and they’ve always been wrong. Even at the very beginning, when the company spent three years rewriting the script for its very first feature and observers worried that Disney was throwing good money after bad, it turned out Pixar was simply inventing something brand new—and the result was Toy Story. Each time naysayers have declared the end of the company, Pixar has responded by releasing a masterpiece. In 2013 Monsters University represented its second mediocre sequel in three years, and the company announced that it had nothing in the hopper for 2014. But then: Inside Out. In 2017, after The Good Dinosaur, Pixar’s first real flop, and then the one-two sequel punch of Cars 3 and Finding Dory, the Atlantic ran a piece called “How Pixar Lost Its Way.” But then: Coco. Even the fiasco of Onward’s early pandemic release and box-office cratering was immediately erased by the artistic triumphs of Luca and Turning Red.
OK, so except for all of the bad movies Pixar has made lately, they only make good movies? I guess the question here is what “the decline of Pixar” really means. In general, though, I think the common critical claim about Pixar hasn’t been that they don’t make any quality films anymore, but rather that their perceived impeccable run from decades past is over. I also think that there’s more ammunition for that position than Kois makes clear. He doesn’t mention Cars, usually the film that people name as a streak-breaker for Pixar; I don’t actually mind Cars, since I understand that it’s a movie that was made for kids rather than for critics, but a lot of people hate it. The pleasant but defiantly mediocre A Bug’s Life doesn’t get referenced, perhaps under the theory that it happened before Pixar’s renaissance. Kois doesn’t mention Brave, a thematically-confused movie with ample script problems that speak to its time stuck in development hell. (The trailer depicts Merida riding across wind-swept plains and climbing mountains, but the actual movie takes place in a small handful of locales it keeps leaving and returning to repetitively, giving it a profoundly cramped feeling.) He confines Cars 2 to a hyperlink despite the fact that it’s the film most likely to be named as the company’s nadir. He names Finding Dory but doesn’t linger, probably out of necessity - that movie is so fucking Dreamworks it would undermine his review’s basic conceit. Onward’s pandemic-era release is namechecked, but not the movie’s generic themes and insufficiently-developed world. All in all, I’m confused by the notion that following up some bad movies with some good ones constitutes a consistent history of excellence. There’s a register here that I can always detect, in culture writing, the register of someone trying to talk themselves into something.
Of course, some of this just comes down to taste. I’m already on record with my annoyance at Turning Red, which dramatizes a mother-daughter generational conflict in such a way as to suggest that the mother has no legitimate point of view and that her only purpose in life is to aid in her kid’s self-actualization. Luca… is cute, I guess? It’s precisely the kind of minor animated confection that Pixar aficionados used to disdain, but it’s inoffensive. Inoffensiveness doesn’t amount to an artistic triumph, though. But then, if I’m going to disagree with Kois’s specific critical taste, then I may as well make the broader point: Pixar has made a lot of good movies and a couple of excellent ones, but their reputation as an artist collective of world-historic geniuses was always misplaced. There was always something profoundly cynical about how they tweaked the nostalgia and sentimentality of aging adult viewers, especially critics. I think they exploited the way our digital culture works, flattering the sensibilities of the reviewer class and earning plaudits for what were often mediocre movies. It’s appropriate that Steve Jobs was involved in Pixar’s history, as the company is the Apple of movie studios - producing some legitimately great work, then being celebrated for a lot of not-very-good work, riding the halo effect to fame and fortune.
So, the good. I adore Ratatouille. It’s an endlessly inventive film, filled with deft character sketches and subtle little grace notes. It’s also an admirably ill-tempered and frequently prickly movie, hard to love, I think intentionally so. I admire the filmmakers for being willing to put a movie out there that’s so obviously thought and not felt, such a movie for the mind rather than for the gut. It’s also great because it affirms my own views on human life, as all great art does. But I do have to say that Ratatouille wasn’t really made for children. I know that sounds crazy; a movie that’s fundamentally about the fickleness of talent and the persistence of advantage in an unequal world, not for children! But, honestly, it amazes me that more people weren’t talking about this at the time, the movie’s indifference to pleasing what was ostensibly Pixar’s core audience. I guess the funny rat does run around a lot. But Ratatouille is unabashedly a movie of ideas, ideas that largely go over the heads of kids. And I do think that this is a problem with contemporary media writ large, that everything that’s ostensibly made for kids is really just for their parents, under the cynical pretense that enough funny animal characters will keep the brats happy. It’s just that, when the movie is as good as Ratatouille, I’m willing to overlook that fact. I’m not willing to do so with a lot of other Pixar movies.
Two of my other favorites are among the few from the studio that are really, truly dedicated to entertaining children. I love Toy Story 2 so much, which manages the feat Pixar so often can’t really pull off - it presents a meaningful and deep thematic narrative, about obsolescence and getting left behind and about finding family, without playing directly to adults and critics. Contrast that with the beloved, manipulative, fundamentally false shell game that is Toy Story 3, a movie that was written to please New York Times subscribers and the kind of critics who go to Sundance, rather than children. (Toy Story 4, forget it, I don’t even know what’s happening there.) The characters from Woody’s Roundup are a natural fit without being instant best friends, in the usual habit of this kind of movie. And Buzz Lightyear has never been used better, allowing the main Buzz to have grown and matured while still tying in a funny and clever story based on the Lightyear mythology. Wall-E is famously bifurcated, with the first half being a nearly dialogue-free tone poem and the latter half a (now PROBLEMATIC) story about saving humanity. But I never agreed that the first half is good and the second bad, in a simplistic sense, given that the story of the portly captain defying the ship’s AI in an effort to return the human species to our natural origins is actually a lot of fun. The Incredibles sometimes feels like a lecture, to me, and drags in places, but it’s also a really convincing portrayal of a family unit. Coco is pretty; Finding Nemo is simplistic but fun and beautiful to look at; Soul is fine.
If I wanted to define what I dislike so much about a lot of Pixar, I’d point to Up and Inside Out. The case against Up is pretty simple: movies are more than the quality of individual ten-minute scenes. It’s truly crazy, how much of the commentary on that movie defaults to discussing the same moving but maudlin ten minutes. But people have to fixate on that scene to keep the pretense that it’s a great movie alive, as the rest of it is the kind of talking-dog dreck that Pixar fans used to turn their nose up towards. (I urge you to try and rewatch that movie with fresh eyes, skip the famous ten minutes, and conclude that there’s anything worth celebrating in the movie.) Knowing that they can throw ten minutes of real effort at critics and coast the remaining hour and a half is the kind of cynicism that you’ll find all over Pixar’s history, if you bother to look for it. They’re incredibly savvy critical operators and always know how to flatter the desire of middle-aged critics to experience that sense of wonder they felt when they first saw ET. Of course wanting to experience wonder is a legitimate critical desire, but if you let it manipulate you as a professional reviewer of movies, you’re a mark. And if you look around the internet a bit you’ll find that an astonishing percentage of the words spilled on Up have been about that one scene. There’s more to the movie!
Kois apparently thinks Inside Out is some kind of masterpiece, and clearly he’s not alone. Personally, it’s hard to think of many movies that I find more comprehensively insulting and fraudulent. For one thing, it’s an exploration of early-adolescent emotions that includes no truly dark ones; protagonist Riley feels mad and sad, but she does so in entirely digestible, unthreatening ways. An actual older child might experience indefensible violent urges or proto-sexual feelings, emotions and impulses that force the audience to confront the actual dark nature of our unspoken impulses as older children, but we can’t have that in our corporate product! An actual exploration of human emotions would consider those things that we feel but can’t justify, especially for someone so young. But, nope, there’s none of that here. But it’s the raw emotional manipulation that Pixar has made its stock in trade that renders Inside Out an incredibly cynical text. In the years since its release I’ve been referring to particularly emotionally manipulative acts in movies as “the bing bong.” When a movie pulls a particularly ham-handed effort to grab the audience’s heartstrings and give them a strong tug, that’s the bing bong. A bing bong is a plot element that’s contrived for no other reason than to force a particular emotional response outside of the flow and rhythm of the plot itself. It’s named after the Inside Out character Bing Bong, Riley’s childhood imaginary friend who has one and only one purpose in the movie: to die. To die and force you to feel sad about it.
That’s what I hate about Pixar: the studio is forever grabbing you by your lapels, shaking you, and shouting “YOU WILL CRY NOW!” And that’s not what I want as a consumer of movies; I want to be respected enough, trusted enough, that the filmmakers allow me to have natural emotional responses. Ratatouille has no bing bong. Neither does the original Wreck-It Ralph, which helped demonstrate that Disney still had the chops itself. Neither does Paranorman, a Laika movie that’s better than 90% of everything that Pixar has ever put out. Pixar has every ability to make great movies without engaging in the dishonest theatrics that so many of their movies feature. The problem is that, since so many critics have given them a pass for this stuff for so long, they have no incentive to stop.
The context of relentlessly, fawning critical adulation comes up huge here. Were Pixar just another studio, the fact that they’ve put out some great movies and some bad ones would be unremarkable. But then Pixar would be… just another studio. And for almost three decades, our critical class has been in almost universal agreement that Pixar produces one masterpiece after another, to the point where the peer pressure has become immense. Cracks are finally really showing in that edifice. What’s fair to Pixar, those who read reviews, and the culture of film criticism is to stop treating Pixar as a font of unique mastery, which also amounts to holding them to unachievable standards. You can’t fairly compare their current films to their past work while creating a false history about how good they once were. Monsters University is just as indicative of who the studio is as The Incredibles. I haven’t watched Elemental yet, but when I do I’ll give it a fair viewing and hope to be entertained. And there’s a very good chance I will be. But, given the fact that the central conceit appears to be symbolizing differences in ethnic background by portraying characters as made of fire or of water…. I’m not optimistic.