Sunday, June 12, 2016

Ranking the Pixar Films - Part 1.

Only five days remain until we'll be able to revisit our favorite animated talking fish in Finding Dory, so what better way to celebrate the occasion than to look back at the preceding history of its creators at Pixar Animation Studios...
Since its initial inception in 1986, the Emeryville based production company has continually pushed the boundaries for what can be achieved both in groundbreaking animation, and in deeper storytelling equally appealing to both children and adults. Initially specializing in short films, much like Walt himself, co-founder and former Disney animator John Lasseter's ambitions stretched far beyond five minute shorts based on animate unicycles and dime-store knick-knacks, and instead looked towards pushing their young technology to its limits by creating the world's first fully computer-animated feature film. Some called them mad, some predicted that it would bankrupt the studio and end careers (sound familiar?), but no matter how many executives warned them against it, they pressed forward to the march of their own beat.

The result of their hard work was Toy Story, and I think the rest from that point is history. With a total now of seventeen films, some of the most beloved animated movies ever produced, and both children and adults having been captivated by the magic of their original and endearing worlds, Pixar has stood right alongside Disney and Ghibli as the greatest name in all of animation, even overtaking their older sibling for years with their output. While eventually hitting their first true dud in 2011, and falling into a slump before gaining back their mojo with Inside Out, that still wasn't enough to taint the fond memories and powerful feelings that their films had stirred up in viewers before. The crews spare no expense in animation and art-direction, their stories are enchanting and heartbreaking, and as new creative forces begin making their mark within the studio, their variety of output promises to be no less engaging as ever. So in hope that their latest will be just as terrific, today I'll start ranking all of Pixar's films from worst to best. It's especially tough to form given that their portfolio includes countless great movies that I could switch around on any given day, and as always, I hope you enjoy reading and will feel free to leave your own rankings.

Number 16
Cars 2
The closest Pixar has ever actually come to making a bad film, while not without its moments or its merits, it also is most assuredly not a good movie. Both long and cluttered with far too many characters, it lacks any of the traditional depth of Pixar's best work, stripping itself of any of the subtlety or subtext. Little more than a ploy to milk the multi-billion merchandising empire, the film feels less like its made to hit a general audience, and cater mainly to kids. Key in this is the protagonist switch from Lightning McQueen to Mater, a character who is just fine in brief tangents, but make him a star, and he will get on your nerves quick. Some part of me does have a soft spot for the loving spy movie tributes of the film and director John Lasseter's obvious enthusiasm for the project, but I wish that this idea had been reserved for its own IP rather than try and paste it into a thoroughly unnecessary Cars sequel. The film does have some admittedly enjoyable elements, including a smug Formula 1 racer voiced by a genuinely funny John Turturro, but without any of the same clever background details, nothing about the film will leave you anxious to come back for more.

Number 15
Monsters University
I admittedly liked this movie quite a bit when I first watched it, but it sadly has lost some of the original impact it held since then. It's perhaps a bit unfair to compare it to the original film, since that's a high bar to top, but it's sadly inevitable considering that since we know the outcome of the future, the stakes have never been lower or more artificial in any Pixar movie than they have here. In fact, in the uncomfortable position of seeing all of Mike's big dreams come to fail, one can't help but have their mind wander due to logic gaps. Why value the knowledge of scaring intricacies if knowledge alone won't cut the job for those who just aren't scary? Is Mike really the first to only meet half the requirements in the college's history? If this college has educators and coaches, why doesn't it form an entire bloody curriculum out of turning non-scary students into future coaches for actual scarers? Well, even if there's much about the film that doesn't work, what helps hold the film together is John Goodman and Billy Crystal's once again terrific chemistry with each other, as well as its meaningful ending moral of persevering even in the face of disappointment, that there's nothing wrong with failing situations beyond your control, as long as you don't let those limitations define you. It's a touching and sweet way of ending a generally cliched and disappointing movie. 

Number 14
Up until its sequel came out and shut everyone up, this was commonly agreed upon as the worst film to come from the studio. I can hardly say I wasn't of the same mentality, but my view was always a bit more optimistic in comparison. If this was the worst film your company had made, you were obviously doing something right. No doubt it was derivative, overlong, and a bit more for kids than it was for adults, John Lasseter's return to the director's chair nevertheless possessed genuine enthusiasm for the world and the characters that it had established. There was such a charming innocence in the approach to the project, showing some great culture and tribute to the soulful and forgotten ghost towns left in the dust due to the rise of interstate roads, as well as utilizing some thrilling race sequences, and even if its characters didn't possess the same depth we'd come to associate with Pixar, a good deal of them were still charming to behold, even Mater before he became Pixar's Jar Jar Binks. But more importantly, it still held those classic Pixar moments of subtlety and deep introspect, from a thoughtful montage of Radiator Springs' downfall set to James Taylor's "Our Town", to the noble ending that values human (or motor) connection and good sportsmanship over fame and glory. It's a very touching moral to end on, and it's a shame they had to ruin it with the sequel. Hopefully the third film won't be nearly as dreaded.

Number 13
The Good Dinosaur
As much as I fully admit to liking this movie, I most likely will never be able to get over how much potential the studio squandered when making it. Countless times animation studios have attempted to make a realistic, documentarian dinosaur movie in the vein of Walking with Dinosaurs, and countless times those same studios betrayed it by having them talk. Which is why I find myself disappointed that The Good Dinosaur, Pixar's first box office failure, fell victim to the same pitfall by having full voice-overs, because if any studio could have pulled this project off, it was Pixar. The seeds are certainly there, as many of the best moments in the film are those based in silence, using only the natural sound design, ambiance, and music as background accompaniment to the powerful character designs and expressions. Even Sam Elliot as a T-Rex rancher can't help me overlook that issue. Still, never let it be said that The Good Dinosaur isn't a gorgeous film, possibly the most photo-realistic film the studio has ever produced, and even the cartoonish character designs are still some of the most thoughtful and expressive of their resume. It's a very sweet adventure whose heart is in the right place, making great use of its leading duo of a dinosaur and his boy, and even a few tearjerking scenes that pack a wallop. I may never forgive the wasted potential, but I won't lose sleep over it either. 

Number 12
A Bug's Life
"Second Product Syndrome", a phrase used by Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs, is a condition often seeing studios hitting great first success, but failing to understand what made that product so great to begin with, often seeing said companies fall into obscurity and closure after their failed follow-up. It was a scary possibility to think of when Pixar took on their eventual post-Toy Story project, but thankfully A Bug's Life still kept true to the spirit of what made Pixar the standout they'd been built up to be. Essentially a mix between The Magnificent Seven and The Three Amigos, what A Bug's Life may have lacked in Toy Story's refreshing originality and depth, it more than made up for with great character interaction and pure, unabashed entertainment value. One of the funnier films the studio has ever made, so much of the movie's charms and great laughs are owed to the energy and tenacity of main character Flik, and the brilliantly matched chemistry of the numerous circus bugs mistaken for warriors. It's these characters and these unique personalities that anchor the film, and while its villains are two-dimensional, at least Hopper makes for a humorously deadpan and menacing tyrant, voiced with relish by Kevin Spacey. It's just a fun, adventurous epic of miniature proportions.

Number 11
Monsters, Inc.
With John Lasseter finally deciding to hang back as more of a consultant and let his pupils take on directing, the reins were then handed over to Pete Docter, a mainstay within the company since its beginnings. Having conceived the idea of a film about Monsters who scare children as a means of business, Pete Docter soon proved that he would leave no stone unturned in his imagination, building from the ground up an ingeniously crafted world featuring creatures of countless shapes and sizes, and populating it with lovable and interesting characters. Chief among these included the team up of Sully and Mike, respectively voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, who bounce off of each other like a fast-paced tennis match, and ground the movie thanks to their terrific and touching chemistry. Not only that, but before even the likes of Zootopia worked in naturally integrated themes and ambitions into its great story, Monsters, Inc. was a very thoughtful and subtle look at shady global superpower operations, specifically those relying on foreign energy in favor of cleaner, more efficient domestic means of power. Still, those issues never become overbearing to the viewer, with the studio interested in simply telling a good, well rounded story with endearing characters, and then working in those weightier issues. It certainly set Docter apart as a bold future auteur in his own right, and anybody who had to follow an act like this must have surely, justifiably been nervous. 

Number 10
I may end up losing some points for this one, but I don't care. Released during Pixar's slump, immediately following Cars 2, a lot of pressure was placed on Pixar's fairy tale to bounce them back. It almost seemed unfair, but given how highly anticipated it was, it wasn't a surprise when viewers were disappointed by its Little Mermaid meets Brother Bear story. But I can't be the only one who thinks that judgment was a little harsh, can I? Commonly criticized for following in the tropes that its cousins at Disney had popularized, "a story we've all heard before" if you will (though why Wreck it Ralph got a free pass despite suffering from those very issues, I'll never know), Brave manages to overcome that familiarity purely through its executions of those story beats. "Legends are lessons that ring with truths" is a line that defines Brave from start to finish, particularly in the at odds stubbornness and need for closure and understanding between mother and daughter, directly confronting the consequences of your reckless actions, and walking the line between diplomacy and action. The film is also quite clever in subverting many fairy tale tropes, including Kelly MacDonald's spunky and charismatic Merida showing genuinely complex and relatable motivations, and I can't tell you how great it was when the movie came out to have a Disney princess not be driven by unneeded romance. The production design is a marvel, the score by Patrick Doyle is one of Pixar's best, and it's such a fun and funny thrill. As far as I'm concerned, it's Pixar's most underrated effort.

Number 9
Toy Story
As innovative to cinema and as vital to modern computer animation as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was to hand-drawn animation, Toy Story was one of the true game-changers at its time, establishing the gold standard for what all films set within the medium should strive to achieve, and was a particular breath of fresh air at a time when blockbuster cinema was dominated by paper-thin disaster epics spawned by the rise of CGI. Of course, just the novelty of how fabulous the animation looked was impressive enough (even if the company would eventually improve upon it), a seamless fit for the numerous plastic characters, but the film had more going for it than merely pretty cosmetics, namely Pixar's habit of reworking and ironing out the story for years before animating a single frame. So much of the heart of the movie comes from the fierce, but playful rivalry between Woody and Buzz Lightyear, eliciting countless laughs and brilliant little subtleties that continue to shine on repeat viewings. While numerous cash-ins and rip-offs soon took the template of toys and various other inanimate objects coming to life, and applied it to their narrative, Toy Story's execution of the premise, as well as its top notch writing and fantastic characters ensures that it still comfortably sits above all of them. Often considered among the finest efforts in the studio's history, its an ageless movie that yields brand new charms for every passing generation, and would only set the studio up for bigger, greater things to come.

And that's gonna be it for me today. Yes, it ended up being such a lengthy presentation for me that to hammer everything out all in one go would have been far too long, so for today, I'm going to take a break, but I'll be back on Wednesday, June 15th to finish off the second half in anticipation of Finding Dory. See you then...

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