About 20 years ago, a weird new sort of cartoon graced the screens of our theaters. It wasn’t drawn by hand, but animated using computers. It was odd, it was cool, it was new. At 8 years old, that kind of stuff mattered. I desperately wanted to like cool things, and this movie seemed like it was made for me. So, I managed to convince my mom to let me tag along with my older sister who she was going to the theater to see this movie with some friends (much to the embarrassment of my sister). That movie was TOY STORY, and it was my first encounter was the studio known as Pixar.
This film about toys that came to life when their owners weren’t around was funny, it was sweet, it had great characters, and most importantly, it had a great story. It was instantly my new favorite cartoon movie. “How can that be your favorite?”, a friend asked me upon that apparently ludicrous statement. “They don’t even sing!” It didn’t matter to me, I hadn’t even noticed. I was transfixed on something else, something I couldn’t even quite put my finger on. At least, not at that time.
Now, 20 years and 15 films later, I am perhaps even more obsessed than I was then with this company we know as Pixar. You, dear reader, have heard of them too, unless you just emerged from being cryogenically frozen at some point in the early 90s, and you probably like them too. You may not flock to the theater for nearly their every release like I nearly almost always do (alright, fine, I admit I didn’t see THE GOOD DINOSAUR yet. I’ve been busy, I’ll get to it!), but you’ve probably seen a handful, and probably have a favorite.
So why is it that at nearly 30 years old, I still hold these movies so dearly? Is it an attempt to connect with a sense of nostalgia that everyone goes on about these days? No, that is not the point of this blog post. I say that the reason why I still care, why audiences still care, why critics still care is because of what Pixar cares about.. Something that other films don’t always care enough about. A good story.
I’m aware that lauding praise on Pixar isn’t exactly a new thing. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel, or make some daring controversial statement with this blog post. I just want to talk about people who make great movies… well, mostly great movies. They’ve admittedly had some missteps. Of their 15, as of this date released films, only 1 scores rotten on Rotten Tomatoes, CARS 2, a film that even a diehard fan like me has avoided seeing.
They also have a few films that I wouldn’t call great. Brave was a bit uneven in my opinion, and Monsters University was a sort of a let down. The first Cars movie has its moments, but it is certainly no high watermark for the animation company. But, I’m not hear to talk about the faults, I’m here to talk about the successes.
Now, where was I, I got a bit distracted. Oh, right! A good story! What do I mean by that? I’ll admit, defining what is GOOD in terms of a story is difficult, if not impossible. Everything, especially in art, is subjective. But there are some elements that show an extra level of care. In this video, screenwriter Michael Arndt (writer of LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and TOY STORY 3) explains some of the storytelling rules he learned while at Pixar, specifically on how to start a story. Now, starting a story is INCREDIBLY important. As Billy Wilder once put, if you have a problem with your third act, the problem is with your first act.
A lot needs to get set up in that first 25 or so pages. You need to introduce us to a world, to a tone, and most importantly, to a character. In the video I listed above, Arndt talks about how TOY STORY, FINDING NEMO, and THE INCREDIBLES set up their world and characters in a way that invests us in the story. For this post, let’s look at a different movie. INSIDE OUT.
INSIDE OUT begins literally at the beginning of a person, the birth of Riley. The hero of the story we’re introduced to in this opening scene though isn’t Riley, it’s Joy. Her emotion in charge of happiness. From the get-go, we see what Joy’s primary purpose in life is. To keep Riley happy. Baby Riley sees her parents for the first time? Joy’s time to shine. But, any good character should also have a foil, someone diametrically opposed to them. Who better to stand opposite Joy than Sadness, the second emotion we’re introduced to. Sadness’s purpose in life… well… she doesn’t really have one. She’s just pouty, lethargic, and well… sad. She isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Her issue lies in, well, who she is. Sadness.
As Arndt explains, and I touched on a bit in my my post about NIGHT AND THE CITY, every good character needs a flaw. To make this character more understanding and sympathetic, that flaw should grow out of that characters primary passion. Their purpose. In the case of Joy, she wants to keep Riley happy all the time. So, what happens when Sadness is responsible for one of Riley’s most important new memories, what the film calls a core memory, something that defines who she is as a person?
Joy scrambles to fix the problem. In trying to get rid of this core sad memory, she accidentally sends herself, Sadness AND Riley’s other core memories into longterm memory, where they are essentially lost. Now, because of Joy’s passion, she’s created a situation where she has lost her favorite thing. Making Riley happy and keeping Riley happy. Because we care about her and we care about Riley, we care about her quest to get back to the main control room with the other emotions so that she can make Riley happy again.
But, a story of Joy trying to get back to the control room alone wouldn’t be very interesting. Remember what I said about a great character should have a foil? Well, the fact that Sadness is with Joy on this journey makes for ever greater storytelling.
It’s at this point that I’m going to look at an unlikely example for an article about kids movies, SOUTH PARK. Think what you will about South Park, but the creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone know a lot about telling good stories. It’s because of this that you often see two very different characters having to work through something together in a lot of episodes. These two characters? Eric Cartman, the overweight, narcissistic, racist, possibly evil child, and Butters, the good-natured, agreeable, gullible, and naive child.
By putting those two characters that are so different in a situation where they have to work together, it adds depth and intrigue to the story. That is why seeing Joy and Sadness work together to solve their problem makes for a compelling movie.
Now, I know what some of you might be thinking now. If Pixar follows this same basic outline for their stories, doesn’t that make them formulaic? Well, no more than any other movie is formulaic. There are certain rules to storytelling that all movies just rend to follow. If the story you’re telling is interesting enough, and you care about the characters enough, then it will always feel fresh and it will always feel new. I mean, some even theorize that there are really only two plots anyways, and that everything you’ve ever seen or read has just been a variation on them. A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Seriously, try it out. It works for everything. Sometimes, a movie can even be both.
So, how does Pixar compare to it’s contemporaries in the world of animation? Dreamworks seems to do fairly well financially and with critics, but I personally don’t think they have the mark of quality that Pixar has, at least most of the time. And while you may think Pixar has a bit of a formula worked out for their stories, ever notice that Dreamworks movies are almost always about a loser/loner/outsider that discovers they have a special ability/talent/trait that will eventually help them and the rest of the society that will then lead to them being accepted, and also usually getting the girl?
I suppose I really can’t knock that approach too much either, considering that it is a standard hero’s journey. Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and pretty much every super hero follow that same path roughly as well.
So, if everyone is just recycling and rehashing the same stories over and over and over again, why is it that Pixar is getting a blog post dedicated to it? Why do they have that mark of quality that I mentioned? Well, it’s their brand. They aren’t THAT company that makes computer animated movies anymore, there are tons of them now. Kids aren’t just going to see Pixar movies because they look pretty and have bright colors. There’s something magical about the story of toys that come to life, though. Something fascinating about monsters who are afraid of humans,. Something we find special in the story of a clown fish that travels across an ocean to find his son.
This is the reason why after over 20 years, I’m still watching these movies and taking them seriously. This is the reason that I’m always excited to see what they do next, even if their line up seems a bit sequel heavy. Are they going to be able to keep this magic alive? Hard to say. INSIDE OUT did a fantastic job of recapturing a magic that I thought they may have lost, and it’s one of my favorite films of the year because of that. I guess I’ll just have to keep watching, and hoping that they can continue making me feel that there is still some wonder and magic to be had at the movies, and I hope you guys keep going too…. and I guess I should probably go see THE GOOD DINOSAUR, too.