Sense of Wonder: How does Pixar keep "Up" the quality?
Having seen UP (2009) this weekend, I’m regretting remarks I made on the Chronic Rift podcast a few weeks ago, suggesting that the film might fall short of Pixar’s usual standards. As we know from the ecstatic review (including one from Cinefantastique’s own Dan Persons), there is quite a bit of sophisticated, adult story-telling in UP that is not even hinted in the coming attractions trailers, so instead of a silly fantasy about a grumpy old man and an annoying kid sailing through the air in a house lifted by balloons, I found myself watching a very rich film, filled with drama, pathos, humor, and action-adventure that pleased on almost every level, offering much for both children and their parents to enjoy.
I was particularly surprised that the plot centers around a journey to a “lost world” – a plateau in South American that bears a striking resemblance the the plateau in South America from th1925 silent film THE LOST WORLD, which was the first feature film to bring dinosaurs to life with stop-motion (courtesy of Willis O’Brien, who went on to KING KONG in 1933). There is something wonderfully cool about the visual reference, as it calls out to the Sense of Wonder that many of us felt as children, when we experienced so many fantastic adventures on the movie screen, which opened a window onto worlds that did not exist in the real world – but seemed as if they might, thanks to the incredible magic of the movies.
This kind of sprawling visual glory, filled with aerial excitementand vertiginous danger (which someone maintains its power to thrill despite the film’s good natured humor) is balanced withquieter character moments that engage the audience in a way that most summer blockbusters (see X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE or LAND OF THE LOST) fail to do. In a way, UP is a little bit like WALL-E, in that it begins with a long, essentially non-dialogue sequence that tells a very moving love story before the more conventional thrill ride begins, and although UP will not replace WALL-E in my heart, it deserves to stand alongside that masterpiece as another example of the seemingly endless supply of brilliant imagination and stunning crafstmanship that typify the Pixar output.
Which brings me to the question posed in my title: How does Pixar manage to maintain such a phenomenally high quality? We have long since passed the point where the law of averages should have caught up with them, yet like a gambler on a winning streak they keep defying the odds. Not only that: no matter how good their films, you would expect that the journalistic balance – thanks to critics ever eager for a new storyline – should have shifted from “The new Pixar film is great” to “The new Pixar film is a disappointment.”
I myself have fallen prey to this tendency. After the thrill of THE INCREDIBLES, I wrote reviews suggesting that CARS and RATATOUILLE were good but not up the the standards of previous Pixar films. However, upon reviewing those films on DVD I find that they stand up much better than expected, making me want to retract much of my earlier criticism.
That sort of resiliency – the ability to bounce back and overcome the fatigue of familiarity that makes viewers compare the latest offering unfavorably to the fondly remembered first experience – is truly remarkable, and I find myself marvelling at how Pixar manages to pull this off, time after time.
When I think back on the relative short history of Pixar, it seems as if John Lasseteremerged as a full-fledged genius with TOY STORY in 1995. When word came down that he would turn the directorial reigns over to someone else for TOY STORY 2, which was conceived as a direct-to-video title, it seemed as if Lasseterwere moving into an executive position and letting the company drones do the actual work, and I feared the company would turn into a factory, turning out technically competent but uninspired DTV flicks (rather like Disney, with their numerous spin-offs laying waste to their classic legacy).
Instead, TOY STORY 2, which Lasseter ended up co-directing with Ash Brannon, turned out to be another theatrical blockbuster – and possibly an improvement upon the original. Since then, Lasseter has turned over the directorial reigns to a series of talented people, who have crafted a series of films that remain consistent in the qualities that identify them as “Pixar” products, without every descending into anonymous hackery.
In this regard, writer-director Brad Bird’s THE INCREDIBLES emerged as something of a stand-out, in that its action-adventure tone and human characters set it apart from previous Pixar films. This distinction made Bird seem less like a company man and more like an old-fashioned auteur, who had managed to craft a personal work within a studio system.
Yet as good as THE INCREDIBLES is, it no longer seems like an anomaly. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E is every bit as amazing and unique – it demands to be regarddas a great film, not just a fun animated movie. Likewise, with UP, Director and co-writer Pete Docter has shown that he too can deliver a film that is more than just “another” Pixar movie.
In short, we have reached a point at which we cannot finger an individual “star” in the Pixar firmament, an artist whose work shines brighter than the rest. Initially, it may have been John Lasseter; then it seemed like Brad Bird, and now Andrew Stanton and Pete Docterhave laid their claim with films that are as least as good as – and in some ways better than – those that came before. How can you have so much talent in one place without reaching a critical mass that leads to a mushroom-cloud explostion?
All joking aside, at least part of the reason for Pixar’s consistent quality is that, no matter who directs, there is almost always a brain trust of story development people and writers who contribute to each screenplay. What is remarkable is that this consistency has not hardened into a rigid formula. Each new film emerges with its own personality and its own delights.
With ten features films to their credit, Pixarhas yet to falter. It’s only human nature that viewers may prefer one title over another, but there’s not a one of them that is not worth repeat viewings. And the new ones seem to keep getting better and better.
In a way, it’s nothing short of a little min-miracle, which I wanted to acknowledge with my own little “amen.”