Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Toy Story

The ultimate trip

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On Saturday, I was lucky enough to see 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times, but watching it on a pristine new print from the fourth row allowed me to pick up on tiny details that I’d never noticed before, such as the fact that David Bowman, stranded at the end in his celestial hotel room, ends up wearing a blue velvet robe startlingly like Isabella Rossellini’s. I was also struck by the excellence of the acting, which might sound like a joke, but it isn’t. Its human protagonists have often been dismissed—Roger Ebert, who thought it was one of the greatest films of all time, called it “a bloodless movie with faceless characters”—and none of the actors, aside from Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL, are likely to stick in the memory. (As Noël Coward reputedly said: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.”) But on an objective level, these are nothing less than the most naturalistic performances of any studio movie of the sixties. There isn’t a trace of the affectation or overacting that you see in so much science fiction, and Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and particularly William Sylvester, in his nice dry turn as Heywood Floyd, are utterly believable. You could make a strong case that their work here has held up better than most of the more conventionally acclaimed performances from the same decade. This doesn’t make them any better or worse, but it gives you a sense of what Kubrick, who drew his characters as obsessively as his sets and special effects, was trying to achieve. He wanted realism in his acting, along with everything else, and this is how it looks, even if we aren’t used to seeing it in space.

The result is still the most convincing cinematic vision of space exploration that we have, as well as the most technically ambitious movie ever made, and its impact, like that of all great works of art, appears in surprising places. By coincidence, I went to see 2001 the day after Donald Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council, at a very peculiar ceremony that was held with a minimum of fanfare. The event was attended by Buzz Aldrin, who has played scenes across from Homer Simpson and Optimus Prime, and I can’t be sure that this didn’t strike him as the strangest stage he had ever shared. Here are a few of Trump’s remarks, pulled straight from the official transcript:

Security is going to be a very big factor with respect to space and space exploration.  At some point in the future, we’re going to look back and say, how did we do it without space? The Vice President will serve as the council’s chair….Some of the most successful people in the world want to be on this board…Our journey into space will not only make us stronger and more prosperous, but will unite us behind grand ambitions and bring us all closer together. Wouldn’t that be nice? Can you believe that space is going to do that? I thought politics would do that. Well, we’ll have to rely on space instead…We will inspire millions of children to carry on this proud tradition of American space leadership—and they’re excited—and to never stop wondering, hoping, and dreaming about what lies beyond the stars.

Taking a seat, Trump opened the executive order, exclaiming: “I know what this is. Space!” Aldrin then piped up with what was widely reported as a reference to Toy Story: “Infinity and beyond!” Trump seemed pleased: “This is infinity here. It could be infinity. We don’t really don’t know. But it could be. It has to be something—but it could be infinity, right?”

As HAL 9000 once said: “Yes, it’s puzzling.” Aldrin may have been quoting Toy Story, but he might well have been thinking of 2001, too, the last section of which is titled “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.” (As an aside, I should note that the line “To infinity and beyond” makes its first known appearance, as far as I can tell, in John W. Campbell’s 1934 serial The Mightiest Machine.) It’s an evocative but meaningless phrase, with the same problems that led Arthur C. Clarke to express doubts about Kubrick’s working title, Journey Beyond the Stars—which Trump, you’ll notice, also echoed. Its semantic content is nonexistent, which is only fitting for a ceremony that underlined the intellectual bankruptcy of this administration’s approach to space. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter when I say that Trump and Mike Pence have shown nothing but contempt for other forms of science. The science division of the Office of Science and Technology Policy lies empty. Pence has expressed bewilderment at the fact that climate change has emerged, “for some reason,” as an issue on the left. And Trump has proposed significant cuts to science and technology funding agencies. Yet his excitement for space seems unbounded and apparently genuine. He asked eagerly of astronaut Peggy Whitson: “Tell me, Mars, what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?” And the reasons behind his enthusiasm are primarily aesthetic and emotional. One of his favorite words is “beautiful,” in such phrases as “big, beautiful wall” and “beautiful military equipment,” and it was much in evidence here: “It is America’s destiny to be at the forefront of humanity’s eternal quest for knowledge and to be the leader amongst nations on our adventure into the great unknown. And I could say the great and very beautiful unknown. Nothing more beautiful.”

But the truly scary thing is that if Trump believes that the promotion of space travel can be divorced from any concern for science itself, he’s absolutely right. As I’ve said here before, in the years when science fiction was basically a subcategory of adventure fiction, with ray guns instead of revolvers, space was less important in itself than as the equivalent of the unexplored frontier of the western: it stood for the unknown, and it was a perfect backdrop for exciting plots. Later, when the genre began to take itself more seriously as a predictive literature, outer space was grandfathered in as a setting, even if it had little to do with any plausible vision of the future. Space exploration seemed like an essential part of our destiny as a species because it happened to be part of the genre already. As a result, you can be excited by the prospect of going to Mars while actively despising or distrusting everything else about science—which may be the only reason that we managed to get to the moon at all. (These impulses may have less to do with science than with religion. The most haunting image from the Apollo 11 mission, all the more so because it wasn’t televised, may be that of Aldrin taking communion on the lunar surface.) Science fiction made it possible, and part of the credit, or blame, falls on Kubrick. Watching 2001, I had tears in my eyes, and I felt myself filled with all my old emotions of longing and awe. As Kubrick himself stated: “If 2001 has stirred your emotions, your subconscious, your mythological yearnings, then it has succeeded.” And it did, all too well, at the price of separating our feelings for space even further from science, and of providing a place for those subconscious urges to settle while leaving us consciously indifferent to problems closer to home. Kubrick might not have faked the moon landing, but he faked a Jupiter mission, and he did it beautifully. And maybe, at least for now, it should save us the expense of doing it for real.

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.

Totoro and I

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My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

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April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

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

Blinn’s Law and the paradox of efficiency

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Disney's Frozen

Note: I seem to have come down with a touch of whatever stomach bug my daughter had this week, so I’m taking the day off. This post was originally published, in a somewhat different form, on August 9, 2011. 

As technology advances, rendering time remains constant.
—Blinn’s Law

Why isn’t writing easier? Looking at the resources that contemporary authors have at their disposal, it’s easy to conclude that we should all be perfect writing machines. Word processing software, from WordStar to Scrivener, has made the physical process of writing more streamlined than ever; Google and Amazon have given us access to a world of information that would have been inconceivable even fifteen years ago; and research, editing, and revision have been made immeasurably more efficient. And yet writing itself doesn’t seem all that much less difficult than before. The amount of time a professional novelist needs to spend writing each day—let’s say three or four hours—hasn’t decreased much since Trollope, and for most of us, it still takes a year or two to write a decent novel.

So what happened? In some ways, it’s an example of the paradox of labor-saving devices: instead of taking advantage of our additional leisure time, we create more work for ourselves. It also reflects the fact that the real work of writing a novel is rarely connected to how fast you can type. But I prefer to think of it as a variation on Blinn’s Law. As graphics pioneer James Blinn first pointed out, in animation, rendering time remains constant, even as computers get faster. An artist gets accustomed to waiting a certain number of hours for an image to render, so as hardware improves, instead of using it to save time, he employs it to render more complex graphics. This is why rendering time at Pixar has remained essentially constant over the past fifteen years. (Although the difference between Toy Story and Cars 2, or even Brave, is a reminder that rendering isn’t everything.)

Disney's Frozen

Similarly, whatever time I save by writing on a laptop rather than a manual typewriter is canceled out by the hours I spend making additional small changes and edits along the way. The Icon Thief probably went through eighteen substantial drafts before the final version was delivered to my publisher, an amount of revision and rewriting that would have been unthinkable without Word. Is the novel better as a result? On a purely technical level, yes. Is the underlying story more interesting than if I’d written it by hand? Probably not. Blinn’s Law tells us that the leaves and grass in the background of a shot will look increasingly great, but it says nothing about the quality of storytelling. Which seems to imply that the countless tiny changes that a writer like me makes to each draft are only a waste of effort.

And yet here’s the thing: I still needed all that time. No matter how efficient the physical side of the process becomes, it’s still desirable for a writer to live with a novel, or a studio to live with a movie, for at least a year or so. (In the case of a film like Frozen, that gestational period can amount to a decade or more.) For most of us, there seems to be a fixed developmental period for decent art, a minimum amount of time that a story needs to simmer and evolve. The endless small revisions aren’t the point: the point is that while you’re altering a word or shifting a paragraph here or there, the story is growing in your head in unexpected ways. Even as you fiddle with the punctuation, seismic changes are taking place. But for this to happen, you need to be at your desk for a certain number of hours. So what do we do in the meantime? We do what Pixar does: we render. That’s the wonderful paradox of efficiency: it allows us, as artists, to get the inefficiency we all need.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2014 at 9:00 am

Toy Story of delight

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Toy Story of Terror

Breaking Bad may be over, but last night, my wife and I watched what emphatically ranks as a close second in our most highly anticipated television events of the year: Toy Story of Terror, the first of what I hope will be many Pixar specials featuring the characters from my favorite animated franchise. Not surprisingly, I loved it, even if I’d rate it a notch below the sublime Partysaurus Rex. It’s constructed in the usual shrewd, slightly busy Pixar manner, with complication piled on complication, and it packs a startling amount of plot into a runtime of slightly over twenty minutes. A big part of the appeal of the Toy Story franchise has always been its narrative density: these aren’t long movies, but each installment, especially the latter two, is crammed with ideas, a tradition that the shorts have honored and maintained. And although it may not rank among the greatest holiday specials ever made, it gave me a hell of a lot of pleasure, mostly because I was delighted, as I always am, to see these characters again.

I’ve spoken frequently on this blog about the power of ensembles, which allow a television show to exploit different, surprising combinations of characters, but I don’t think I’ve really delved into its importance in film, which operates under a different set of constraints. Instead of multiple seasons, you have, at best, a handful of installments, and often just one movie. A rich supporting cast can lead to many satisfactions in the moment—think of the ensembles in Seven Samurai, The Godfather, L.A. Confidential—but it also allows you to dream more urgently of what else might have taken place, both in the runtime of the movie itself and after the story ends. When a great ensemble movie is over, it leaves you with a sense of loss: you feel that the characters were doing other things beyond the edges of the frame, pairing off in unexpected ways, and you wish there were time for more. (It’s no accident that the franchises that inspire the most devoted fanfic communities, from Harry Potter to Star Trek, are the ones that allow fans to play with the widest range of characters.)

Toy Story of Terror

And I don’t think I’ve ever felt this so keenly as I have with the characters from Toy Story. Over the course of three films and a handful of shorts, the franchise has created dozens of memorable characters, and it’s remarkable how vividly even briefly glimpsed figures—Wheezy, the Chatter Telephone—are drawn. Part of this is due to the fact that toys advertise their personalities to us at once, and you can mine a lot of material from either underlining or subverting that initial impression, as in the case of Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, who stands as one of the most memorable movie villains of the last decade. But it’s also thanks to some sensational writing, directing, and voice acting in the established Pixar style, as well as the ingenuity of the setting and premise itself. At its best, the franchise is an adventure series crossed with a workplace comedy, and much of its energy comes from the idea of these toys, literally from different worlds, thrown together into the same playroom. Andy’s bedroom, or Bonnie’s, or any child’s, is a stage on which an endless number of stories can be told, and they don’t need to be spectacular: I’d be happy just to watch these toys hanging out all day.

That’s the mark of great storytelling, and as time goes on, I’ve begun to suspect that this may be the best movie trilogy I’ve ever seen. I’ve loved this series for a long time, but it wasn’t until Toy Story 2 came out that it took up a permanent place in my heart. At the time, I was working as an online movie critic, and I was lucky enough to see it at a preview screening—I almost typed “screaming,” which is a revealing typo—packed with kids. And I don’t think any movie has ever left me feeling happier on leaving the theater, both because the film itself was a masterpiece, and because I knew that every child in the world was going to see it. Ten years later, Toy Story 3 provided the best possible conclusion to the central story, and I don’t think I want any more movies, as much as I want to spend more time with these characters. But the decision to release additional shorts and specials was a masterstroke. For any other franchise, it might have seemed like a cash grab, but I can’t help but read it as an act of generosity: it gives us a little more, but not too much, of what we need. And it makes me a little envious of my own daughter, who, if all goes according to plan, will grow up with Woody, Buzz, Rex, and the rest, not just as beloved characters, but as friends.

Written by nevalalee

October 17, 2013 at 9:00 am

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