Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Toy Story 3

The secret villain

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Note: This post alludes to a plot point from Pixar’s Coco.

A few years ago, after Frozen was first released, The Atlantic ran an essay by Gina Dalfonzo complaining about the moment—fair warning for a spoiler—when Prince Hans was revealed to be the film’s true villain. Dalfonzo wrote:

That moment would have wrecked me if I’d seen it as a child, and the makers of Frozen couldn’t have picked a more surefire way to unsettle its young audience members…There is something uniquely horrifying about finding out that a person—even a fictional person—who’s won you over is, in fact, rotten to the core. And it’s that much more traumatizing when you’re six or seven years old. Children will, in their lifetimes, necessarily learn that not everyone who looks or seems trustworthy is trustworthy—but Frozen’s big twist is a needlessly upsetting way to teach that lesson.

Whatever you might think of her argument, it’s obvious that Disney didn’t buy it. In fact, the twist in question—in which a seemingly innocuous supporting character is exposed in the third act as the real bad guy—has appeared so monotonously in the studio’s recent movies that I was already complaining about it a year and a half ago. By my count, the films that fall back on his convention include not just Frozen, but Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia, and now the excellent Coco, which implies that the formula is spilling over from its parent studio to Pixar. (To be fair, it goes at least as far back as Toy Story 2, but it didn’t become the equivalent of the house style until about six or seven years ago.)

This might seem like a small point of storytelling, but it interests me, both because we’ve been seeing it so often and because it’s very different from the stock Disney approach of the past, in which the lines between good and evil were clearly demarcated from the opening frame. In some ways, it’s a positive development—among other things, it means that characters are no longer defined primarily by their appearance—and it may just be a natural instance of a studio returning repeatedly to a trick that has worked in the past. But I can’t resist a more sinister reading. All of the examples that I’ve cited come from the period since John Lasseter took over as the chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and as we’ve recently learned, he wasn’t entirely what he seemed, either. A Variety article recounts:

For more than twenty years, young women at Pixar Animation Studios have been warned about the behavior of John Lasseter, who just disclosed that he is taking a leave due to inappropriate conduct with women. The company’s cofounder is known as a hugger. Around Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices, a hug from Lasseter is seen as a mark of approval. But among female employees, there has long been widespread discomfort about Lasseter’s hugs and about the other ways he showers attention on young women…“Just be warned, he likes to hug the pretty girls,” [a former employee] said she was told. “He might try to kiss you on the mouth.” The employee said she was alarmed by how routine the whole thing seemed. “There was kind of a big cult around John,” she says.

And a piece in The Hollywood Reporter adds: “Sources say some women at Pixar knew to turn their heads quickly when encountering him to avoid his kisses. Some used a move they called ‘the Lasseter’ to prevent their boss from putting his hands on their legs.”

Of all the horror stories that have emerged lately about sexual harassment by men in power, this is one of the hardest for me to read, and it raises troubling questions about the culture of a company that I’ve admired for a long time. (Among other things, it sheds a new light on the Pixar motto, as expressed by Andrew Stanton, that I’ve quoted here before: “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best—and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.” But it also goes without saying that it’s far easier to fail repeatedly on your way to success if you’re a white male who fits a certain profile. And these larger cultural issues evidently contributed to the departure from the studio of Rashida Jones and her writing partner.) It also makes me wonder a little about the movies themselves. After the news broke about Lasseter, there were comments online about his resemblance to Lotso in Toy Story 3, who announces jovially: “First thing you gotta know about me—I’m a hugger!” But the more I think about it, the more this seems like a bona fide inside joke about a situation that must have been widely acknowledged. As a recent article in Deadline reveals:

[Lasseter] attended some wrap parties with a handler to ensure he would not engage in inappropriate conduct with women, say two people with direct knowledge of the situation…Two sources recounted Lasseter’s obsession with the young character actresses portraying Disney’s Fairies, a product line built around the character of Tinker Bell. At the animator’s insistence, Disney flew the women to a New York event. One Pixar employee became the designated escort as Lasseter took the young women out drinking one night, and to a party the following evening. “He was inappropriate with the fairies,” said the former Pixar executive, referring to physical contact that included long hugs. “We had to have someone make sure he wasn’t alone with them.”

Whether or not the reference in Toy Story 3 was deliberate—the script is credited to Michael Arndt, based on a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and presumably with contributions from many other hands—it must have inspired a few uneasy smiles of recognition at Pixar. And its emphasis on seemingly benign figures who reveal an unexpected dark side, including Lotso himself, can easily be read as an expression, conscious or otherwise, of the tensions between Lasseter’s public image and his long history of misbehavior. (I’ve been thinking along similar lines about Kevin Spacey, whose “sheer meretriciousness” I identified a long time ago as one of his most appealing qualities as an actor, and of whom I once wrote here: “Spacey always seems to be impersonating someone else, and he does the best impersonation of a great actor that I’ve ever seen.” And it seems now that this calculated form of pretending amounted to a way of life.) Lasseter’s influence over Pixar and Disney is so profound that it doesn’t seem farfetched to see its films both as an expression of his internal divisions and of the reactions of those around him, and you don’t need to look far for parallel examples. My daughter, as it happens, knows exactly who Lasseter is—he’s the big guy in the Hawaiian shirt who appears at the beginning of all of her Hayao Miyazaki movies, talking about how much he loves the film that we’re about to see. I don’t doubt that he does. But not only do Miyazaki’s greatest films lack villains entirely, but the twist generally runs in the opposite direction, in which a character who initially seems forbidding or frightening is revealed to be kinder than you think. Simply on the level of storytelling, I know which version I prefer. Under Lasseter, Disney and Pixar have produced some of the best films of recent decades, but they also have their limits. And it only stands to reason that these limitations might have something to do with the man who was more responsible than anyone else for bringing these movies to life.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2017 at 8:27 am

The time factor

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Concept art for Toy Story 3

Earlier this week, my daughter saw Toy Story for the first time. Not surprisingly, she loved it—she’s asked to watch it three more times in two days—and we’ve already moved on to Toy Story 2. Seeing the two movies back to back, I was struck most of all by the contrast between them. The first installment, as lovely as it is, comes off as a sketch of things to come: the supporting cast of toys gets maybe ten minutes total of screen time, and the script still has vestiges of the villainous version of Woody who appeared in the earlier drafts. It’s a relatively limited film, compared to the sequels. Yet if you were to watch it today without any knowledge of the glories that followed, you’d come away with a sense that Pixar had done everything imaginable with the idea of toys who come to life. The original Toy Story feels like an exhaustive list of scenes and situations that emerge organically from its premise, as smartly developed by Joss Whedon and his fellow screenwriters, and in classic Pixar fashion, it exploits that core gimmick for all it’s worth. Like Finding Nemo, it amounts to an anthology of all the jokes and set pieces that its setting implies: you can practically hear the writers pitching out ideas. And taken on its own, it seems like it does everything it possibly can with that fantastic concept.

Except, of course, it doesn’t, as two incredible sequels and a series of shorts would demonstrate. Toy Story 2 may be the best example I know of a movie that takes what made its predecessor special and elevates it to a level of storytelling that you never imagined could exist. And it does this, crucially, by introducing a new element: time. If Toy Story is about toys and children, Toy Story 2 and its successor are about what happens when those kids become adults. It’s a complication that was inherent to its premise from the beginning, but the first movie wasn’t equipped to explore it—we had to get to know and care about these characters before we could worry about what would happen after Andy grew up. It’s a part of the story that had to be told, if its assumptions were to be treated honestly, and it shows that the original movie, which seemed so complete in itself, only gave us a fraction of the full picture. Toy Story 3 is an astonishing achievement on its own terms, but there’s a sense in which it only extends and trades on the previous film’s moment of insight, which turned it into a franchise of almost painful emotional resonance. If comedy is tragedy plus time, the Toy Story series knows that when you add time to comedy, you end up with something startlingly close to tragedy again.

Robert De Niro in The Godfather Part II

And thinking about the passage of time is an indispensable trick for creators of series fiction, or for those looking to expand a story’s premise beyond the obvious. Writers of all kinds tend to think in terms of unity of time and place, which means that time itself isn’t a factor in most stories: the action is confined within a safe, manageable scope. Adding more time to the story in either direction has a way of exploding the story’s assumptions, or of exposing fissures that lead to promising conflicts. If The Godfather Part II is more powerful and complex than its predecessor, it’s largely because of its double timeline, which naturally introduces elements of irony and regret that weren’t present in the first movie: the outside world seems to break into the hermetically sealed existence of the Corleones just as the movie itself breaks out of its linear chronology. And the abrupt time jump, which television series from Fargo to Parks and Recreation have cleverly employed, is such a useful way of advancing a story and upending the status quo that it’s become a cliché in itself. Even if you don’t plan on writing more than one story or incorporating the passage of time explicitly into the plot, asking yourself how the characters would change after five or ten years allows you to see whether the story depends on a static, unchanging timeframe. And those insights can only be good for the work.

This also applies to series in which time itself has become a factor for reasons outside anyone’s control. The Force Awakens gains much of its emotional impact from our recognition, even if it’s unconscious, that Mark Hamill is older now than Alec Guinness was in the original, and the fact that decades have gone by both within the story’s universe and in our own world only increases its power. The Star Trek series became nothing less than a meditation on the aging of its own cast. And this goes a long way toward explaining why Toy Story 3 was able to close the narrative circle so beautifully: eleven years had passed since the last movie, and both Andy and his voice actor had grown to adulthood, as had so many of the original film’s fans. (It’s also worth noting that the time element seems to have all but disappeared from the current incarnation of the Toy Story franchise: Bonnie, who owns the toys now, is in no danger of growing up soon, and even if she does, it would feel as if the films were repeating themselves. I’m still optimistic about Toy Story 4, but it seems unlikely to have the same resonance as its predecessors—the time factor has already been fully exploited. Of course, I’d also be glad to be proven wrong.) For a meaningful story, time isn’t a liability, but an asset. And it can lead to discoveries that you didn’t know were possible, but only if you’re willing to play with it.

Beyond good and evil

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Ponyo

First, a toddler movie update. After a stretch in which my daughter watched My Neighbor Totoro close to a hundred times, she’s finally moved on to a few other titles: now she’s more into Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s other great masterpiece for children, and, somewhat to my surprise, the original Disney release of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. All, thankfully, are movies that I’m happy to watch on a daily basis, and seeing them juxtaposed together so often has allowed me to draw a few comparisons. Totoro still strikes me as a perfect movie, with a entire world of loveliness, strangeness, and fine observation unfolding from a few basic premises. Ponyo is a little messier, with a glorious central hour surrounded on both sides with material that doesn’t seem as fully developed, although it’s not without its charms. And Winnie the Pooh impresses me now mostly as an anthology of good tricks, gags, and bits of business, as perfected over the decades by the best animators in the world. It’s sweet and funny, but more calculated in its appeal than its source, and although it captures many of the pleasures of the original books, it misses something essential in their tone. (Really, the only animator who could give us a faithful version of Milne’s stories is Miyazaki himself.)

And none of them, tellingly, has any villains. Beatrix hasn’t been left entirely innocent of fictional villainy, and she already knows that—spoiler alert—Hans is “the bad guy” and Kristof is “the good guy” based on her limited exposure to Frozen. Yet I’ve always suspected that the best children’s movies are the ones that hold the viewer’s attention, regardless of age, without resorting to manufactured conflicts. You could divide the Pixar films into two categories based on which ones lean the heaviest on scripted villains, and you often find that the best of them avoid creating characters whom we’re only supposed to hate. The human antagonists in the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo are more like impersonal forces of nature than deliberate enemies, and I’ve always been a little uneasy about The Incredibles, as fantastic as so much of it is, simply because its villain is so irredeemably loathsome. There are always exceptions, of course: Toy Story 3 features one of the most memorable bad guys in any recent movie, animated or otherwise. But if children’s films that avoid the easy labels of good guys and bad guys tend to be better than average, that’s less a moral judgment than a practical one: in order to tell an interesting story without an obvious foil, you have to think a little harder. And it shows.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

That said, there’s an obvious contradiction here. As I’ve stated elsewhere, when I tell my daughter fairy tales, I tend to go for the bloodiest, least sanitized versions I can find. There’s no shortage of evil in the Brothers Grimm, and the original stories go far beyond what most children’s movies are willing to show us. The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is as frightening a monster as any I know, and I still feel a chill when I read her first line aloud. The wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother whole, and as his punishment, he gets killed with an axe and sliced open with sewing shears. (At least, that’s what happens in the version I’ve been reading: in the original, Little Red Riding Hood herself proposes that the wolf’s belly be filled with heavy stones.) The queen in “Snow White” attempts to kill the title character no fewer than three times, first by strangling her with a lace bodice, then with a poisoned comb, before finally resorting to the apple to finish the job. And when you sanitize these stories, you rob them of most of their meaning. As I noted in my original post on the subject:  “A version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless.”

So why do I value fairy tales for their unflinching depictions of evil, while equally treasuring children’s films in which nothing bad happens at all? I could justify this in all kinds of ways, but I keep returning to a point that I’ve made here before, which is that the only moral value I feel like inculcating in my daughter—at least for now—is a refusal to accept shoddy or dishonest storytelling. Miyazaki and the Brothers Grimm lie on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they’re unified by their utter lack of cynicism. One might be light, the other dark, but they’re both telling the stories they have in the most honest way they can, and they don’t feel obliged to drum up our interest using artificial means. In Miyazaki, it’s because the world is too magical for us to need a bad guy in order to care about it; in the Brothers Grimm, it’s because the world is already so sinister, down to its deepest roots, and the story is less about giving us a disposable antagonist than in confronting us with our most fundamental fears. When you compare it to the children’s movies that include a bully or a bad guy who exists solely to drive the plot along, you see that Totoro and “Hansel and Gretel” have more in common with each other than with their lesser counterparts. There’s good in the world as well as evil, and I don’t plan on sheltering my daughter from either one. But I’m going to shelter her from bad storytelling for as long as I can.

The Toy Story of our lives

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Toy Story That Time Forgot

A few weeks ago, Pixar announced that Toy Story 4 is officially in production, with the dream team of John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich, and Andrew Stanton advising the writing duo of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. (I don’t doubt the talents of the latter two, but I still smile a little at the thought of that meeting: I’d like to think that it consisted mostly of four big, nerdy guys in Hawaiian shirts being inexplicably charmed by Jones’s pitch for the franchise.) Like many fans of what I’ve come to see as the best series of children’s films ever made, I’m tickled, but cautious. It’s not so much the fear that a mediocre fourth movie would undermine my feelings for the first three—heck, I’ve been through that process before. Rather, it’s the fact that a perfectly fine arrangement already exists, in the form of the animated shorts about these characters that Pixar has continued to produce. I’m not sure I need to see Toy Story 4, but I’d happily accept a run of shorts that went on forever, if it means we get more miniature masterpieces along the lines of Partysaurus Rex.

The nice thing about the Toy Story shorts is that they meet a particular need while leaving our memories of the movies untouched. Much of the appeal of these films comes from their almost frightening emotional resonance, and while it’s unfair to hold a short cartoon to the same standard, I love these characters so much that I’m glad just to be treated to a few brief vignettes of their lives. As we learned from Cars 2, cleverness alone can’t sustain an entire feature, but it’s more than enough to fill six minutes, and the format of the animated short allows Pixar to revel in a few crucial aspects of the franchise—its ingenuity and humor—while not having to strain for the intensity of feeling that the movies achieve. In that regard, it’s revealing that the longer specials, Toy Story of Terror and last night’s Toy Story That Time Forgot, tend to hit beats that we’ve seen before: the villain in the former feels more than a little like his counterpart in Toy Story 2, and the latter introduces an army of toys who don’t know that they’re toys, of which Buzz drily notes: “Incredible, isn’t it?”

Toy Story That Time Forgot

More than anything else, this is what gives me pause at the prospect of Toy Story 4. The first three movies seem almost inevitable in the emotional ground they cover: the series gradually became a meditation on growing up, and now that Andy has gone off to college, it’s hard to envision what remains to be told. Still, I’ve been surprised before, and if anything, Toy Story That Time Forgot serves as a reminder of how much feeling can still be plumbed from these characters and their situations. For most of its length, it’s a cute diversion, maybe a notch below the best of the shorts so far. (It lost me a little during its long middle section, which takes place entirely within the plastic world of the Battlesaurs: a lot of the fun of these stories arises from the element of scale, with the toys’ adventures set against the baseboards and table legs of the larger everyday world, and we lose this when the action unfolds in artificial surroundings.) Yet by the end, I was unexpectedly touched by its message, like that of The Lego Movie, which implies that toys find their greatest meaning when they surrender to a child’s imagination.

Obviously, it’s hard to separate my response from my own experience as a father, which is a fairly recent development—my daughter wasn’t even born when Toy Story 3 was released. And I see a lot of Bonnie in Beatrix. She’s just arriving at the age when she starts to tell stories involving her toys that I couldn’t have anticipated: she’ll sling her Hello Kitty purse over her shoulder and announce that she’s taking the train to work, or explain that Mr. Bear needs to have his diaper changed, and she’s already beginning to spin private narratives using the figures in our plastic nativity set. And even if my feelings have been shaped by where I happen to be in my own life, I can’t help but think that if there’s one last region for the series to explore, it’s here—in the strange closeness that emerges between a child, her toys, and her parents. (So far, the series has only given us hints of this, notably in the form of the intriguing clues, which can’t be dismissed, that the little girl who gave away Jessie the Cowgirl grew up to be Andy’s mom.) Toy Story has a lot to say about small children, but it’s been oddly indifferent so far to families. That’s the fourth movie I’d like to see, and I’ll tell this to anyone who wants to listen, even if it means I have to take a meeting with Rashida Jones.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2014 at 9:38 am

Parks and Rec and the comedy of affection

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Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

“In a good play,” Christian Friedrich Hebbel says, “everyone is in the right.” This is also often true of books, movies, and television shows. I love a good villain as much as anyone, and I’ve created a lot of them in my own novels, but when we’re presented with a work of art that creates real drama and interest without resorting to neatly drawn lines of good and evil, it’s a reminder of how artful such stories need to be. It’s easy to slide in a generic bad guy for the protagonists to react against, and much harder to tell stories that arise organically from the conflicts between fundamentally sympathetic people, but if it works, the result is often worth it. This is especially true of comedy and children’s entertainment. It’s the reason, for instance, why the best recent family movies—the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, most of Miyazaki—have only incidental villains or none at all, preferring to create conflict through the interactions between the primary characters and their adventures in the larger world. (I’m willing to give a pass to Toy Story 3, but only because Lotso is arguably the most nuanced and interesting movie villain of the decade.)

It’s also why Parks and Recreation is the best comedy on network television. Community may rise to greater heights—although I’ve become increasingly skeptical that we’ll ever see those heights again—but on a weekly basis, Parks and Rec is a marvel of magical, inventive, organized storytelling. And a big part of its appeal is that we like everyone involved. The show doesn’t mine laughs out of manufactured conflicts, but out of the fact that the characters are funny, richly developed types who can’t help colliding with their coworkers, however good their intentions may be. It’s a truism that television, which relies on our willingness to invite the same people into our homes every week, depends on creating characters we like, but few other shows have ever delivered on this promise so beautifully. Last night’s wedding episode, which made my wife tear up, is a reminder of how emotionally rewarding this kind of storytelling can be, especially when sustained for season after season. We love these characters, and it’s largely because they love one another.

Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman in Parks and Recreation

And it didn’t have to be that way. The first season of Parks and Rec was notoriously rocky, with characters who were little more than stereotypes and a tone that failed to distinguish itself adequately from that of The Office. Yet the show righted itself soon thereafter, largely because of the affection I mentioned above—in particular, the affection of the writers for their own creations. Their first great realization was that Leslie Knope wasn’t a clueless bureaucrat, but a hero who loved her job, was smarter than most of the people around her, but was endlessly carried away by her own enthusiasm. The second was even more crucial: Leslie’s boss Ron, despite his philosophical dislike of all forms of government, liked and respected Leslie as well. As a result, a premise that could have generated a string of tired conflicts became, instead, a show about the wary dance between two friends. (For this, we can probably thank 30 Rock, which quickly came to a similar conclusion about Liz and Jack.) The rest of the cast began to flower right away, and with the addition of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, the picture was finally complete.

It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this show’s evolution has been. In some ways, its uncertain start is what made its ultimate blossoming possible: this wasn’t a show that was perfectly conceived from the beginning, but one that gradually discovered the potential of its characters, setting, and cast, and it’s a miracle that it was allowed so much time to find its true form. Best of all, after an initial run of seasons in which our affection for the characters allowed us to enjoy episodes that were only mildly amusing, the show has become consistently hilarious. True, in the last season, the show has introduced its first real villain, in the form of Councilman Jamm, and the results haven’t always been great—his storylines are usually the weakest part of any episode. To the show’s credit, however, Jamm always gets a swift comeuppance, to the point where we suspect the writers just want to get back to the real business at hand. What began as a satire of local government has evolved into a show in which, weirdly, wrongdoing is punished and idealism thrives. It’s something that no one could have expected when this series began. And I hope it has the chance to grow and surprise us for years to come.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2013 at 9:21 am

The Pixar problem

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A week ago, in my appreciation of Hayao Miyazaki, I wrote the following about Pixar:

Pixar has had an amazing run, but it’s a singularly corporate excellence. The craft, humor, and love of storytelling that we see in the best Pixar movies feels learned, rather than intuitive; it’s the work of a Silicon Valley company teaching itself to be compassionate.

Which I still believe is true. But the more I think about this statement, the more I realize that it raises as many questions as it answers. Yes, Pixar’s excellence is a corporate one—but why does it strive to be compassionate and creative, when so many other studios seem ready to settle for less? Faced with Pixar’s historic run of eleven quality blockbusters in fifteen years, it’s easy to fall into the trap of saying that Pixar’s culture is simply different from that of other studios, or that it has a special, mysterious genius for storytelling, which, again, simply avoids the question. So what is it, really, that sets Pixar apart?

It’s tempting to reduce it to a numbers game. Pixar releases, at most, one movie per year, while the other major studios release dozens. This means that Pixar can devote all of its considerable resources to a single flagship project, rather than spreading them across a larger slate of films. If every studio released only one picture a year, it’s nice to think that, instead of a hundred mostly forgettable movies, we’d get a handful of big, ambitious films like Inception, or even Avatar. Of course, we might also end up with a dozen variations on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So I suspect that there’s something else going on here that can’t be explained by the numbers alone.

And as much as I hate to say it, Pixar’s special quality does, in fact, seem to boil down to a question of culture. So where does culture come from? Two places. The first, more accidental source is history: studios, like artists, tend to be subconsciously defined by their first successful works. In Pixar’s case, it was Toy Story; for DreamWorks, it was Shrek. And the contrast between these two films goes a long way toward accounting for the differences between their respective studios. Because its first movie was a classic, Pixar was encouraged to aim high, especially once they saw how audiences responded. If the first Pixar movie had been, say, Cars, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation.

The second factor is even more important. For reasons of luck, timing, and corporate politics, the creative side of Pixar is essentially run by John Lasseter, a director of genius. And his genius is less important than the fact that he’s a director at all. Most studios are run by men and women who have never directed a movie or written a screenplay, and as talented as some of these executives may be, there’s a world of difference between receiving notes from a Wharton MBA and from the man who directed Toy Story. The result, at best, is a climate where criticism is seen as a chance to make a movie better, rather than as inference from overhead. As a recent Wired article on Pixar pointed out:

The upper echelons also subject themselves to megadoses of healthy criticism. Every few months, the director of each Pixar film meets with the brain trust, a group of senior creative staff. The purpose of the meeting is to offer comments on the work in progress, and that can lead to some major revisions. “It’s important that nobody gets mad at you for screwing up,” says Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3. “We know screwups are an essential part of making something good. That’s why our goal is to screw up as fast as possible.” [Italics mine.]

In other words, it isn’t true that Pixar has never made a bad movie: it makes bad movies—or parts of movies—all the time. The difference is that the bad movies are reworked until they get better, which isn’t the case at most other studios. (And at Pixar, if they still aren’t any good, they get canceled.) And because the cultural factors that made this climate possible are as much the result of timing and luck as intentional planning, the situation is more fragile than it seems. A real Pixar flop, with its ensuing loss of confidence, could change things overnight. Which is why, in the end, what I said of Miyazaki is also true of Pixar: if it goes away, we may never see anything like it again.

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2011 at 12:02 pm

The best movies of the year

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First, the bad news. This was a terrible year for movies. Some combination of recessionary cutbacks, the delayed effects of the writer’s strike, and a determination to convert every imaginable movie to muddy 3D resulted in stretches of up to two or three months when multiplexes were basically a wasteland. And even if this cinematic dead zone turns out to be temporary, it’s hard not to see it as karmic comeuppance for the Academy’s recent decision to bump the number of Best Picture nominees to ten, an act of desperation that is looking more misguided with every passing day. Still, there were some very good movies released this year, including one that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost enough to make me think that this year was better than it actually was:

1. Inception. After a decade of extraordinary productivity, Christopher Nolan is beginning to look like nothing so much as two great directors working as one: the first is obsessed with pushing the bounds of filmic complexity on the narrative level, while the other has devoted himself to mastering every aspect of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Inception is the ultimate result of this paradoxical partnership: it’s one of those rare movies in which every aspect of the production—acting, story, visual effects, art direction, stunts, music, editing, even costume design—is both immediately exhilarating and endless to meditation. I only wish there were more of it.

2. Toy Story 3. I was hard on this movie yesterday, so let’s set the record straight: this is the best Pixar film since Finding Nemo, and one of the finest animated movies ever made. It’s touching, exciting, thematically rich, and very funny, with an enormous cast of characters—both existing and new—who are so engaging that I’m sad we won’t have a chance to see them in other stories. (Fanfic, as usual, is ready to come to the rescue.) It’s enough to make me wish that I were ten years younger, just so I could have grown up with these toys—and movies—on my playroom shelves.

3. The Social Network. Over the past few years, David Fincher has gone from being a stylish but chilly visual perfectionist to a director who can seemingly do anything. Zodiac was the best movie ever made about serial killers and journalism, as well as the best Bay Area picture since Vertigo; The Social Network, in turn, is the best Harvard movie of all time, as well as a layered, trashy story of money and friendship, with an Aaron Sorkin script that manages to evoke both John Hughes and Citizen Kane. It’s almost enough to make me excited about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

4. Exit Through the Gift Shop. Even more than Inception, this was the best film of the year for inspiring endless heated debate. Months later, I’m still not sure what to think about the strange case of Banksy and Mr. Brainwash, which is some combination of cautionary tale, Horatio Alger story, fascinating reportage, and practical joke. I do know that it’s impossible to watch it without questioning your deepest assumptions about art, commerce, and the nature of documentary filmmaking. And even if it’s something of a put-on, which I think at least part of it is, it’s still the best movie of its kind since F for Fake.

5. The Ghost Writer. Roman Polanski’s modest but wickedly sophisticated thriller is a reminder that a movie doesn’t need to be big to be memorable. The ingredients couldn’t be simpler: a tight story, an impeccable cast (aside from Kim Cattrall’s distractingly plummy British accent), and an isolated house on the beach. The result is one of the great places in the movies, as real as Hannibal Lecter’s cell or the detective’s office in The Usual Suspects. By the end, we feel as if we could find our way around this house on our own, and the people inside it—especially the devastating Olivia Williams—have taken up residence in our dreams.

6. Fair Game. Aside from a pair of appealingly nuanced performances by Naomi Watts (as Valerie Plame) and Sean Penn (as Joseph Wilson), Fair Game doesn’t even try to be balanced: it’s a story of complex good against incredible, mustache-twirling evil, which would be objectionable from a narrative perspective if it weren’t so close to the truth. At its best, it’s reminiscent of The Insider, both in its sense of outrage and in the massive technical skill that it lavishes on intimate spaces. It’s impossible to watch it without being swept up again by renewed indignation.

7. The Town. True, it’s slightly confused about its main character, who comes off as more of a sociopath than the film wants to admit, and I have problems with the last ten minutes, in which Ben Affleck, as both director and star, slips from an admirable objectivity into a strange sort of self-regard. Still, for most of its length, this is a terrific movie, with one of the best supporting casts in years—notably Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, and the late Pete Postlethwaite. The result is a genre piece that is both surprisingly layered and hugely entertaining, with a fine sense of Boston atmosphere.

8. The Secret in Their Eyes. Technically, this Argentine movie—which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film—came out last year, but I’d feel irresponsible if I didn’t include it here. Like The Lives of Others, which it superficially resembles, it’s one of those foreign films, aware of but unimpressed by the conventions of Hollywood, that seems so rich and full of life that it passes beyond genre: it’s funny, romantic, and unbearably tense, and contains one of the most virtuoso action sequences this side of Children of Men. I don’t know what to call it, but I love it.

9. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. A week doesn’t go by in which I don’t think fondly of Knives Chau, Scott Pilgrim’s hapless but unexpectedly resourceful Chinese-Canadian love interest. The film in which Knives finds herself is equally adorable: it has enough wit and invention for three ordinary movies, and it’s one of the few comedies of recent years that knows what to do with Michael Cera. It’s something of a mess, and its eagerness to please can be exhausting, but it still contains more delights per reel than any number of tidier films.

10. The American. Despite opening at the top of the box office over Labor Day weekend, this odd, nearly perfect little movie was mostly hated or dismissed by audiences soon after its release. The crucial thing is to adjust your expectations: despite what the commercials say, this isn’t a thriller so much as a loving portrait of a craftsman—in this case, an assassin—at work, as well as a visual essay on such important subjects as the Italian countryside, a woman’s naked body, and George Clooney’s face. It’s perilously close to ridiculous, but until its ludicrous final shot, it casts its own kind of peculiar spell.

Honorable mention goes to Winter’s Bone, A Prophet, Tangled, and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as to parts of The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, and even Black Swan, which really deserves a category of its own. (As for Tron: Legacy, well, the less said about that, the better.)

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