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Pixar, DreamWorks, and Related Matters

[Click here to go to the most recent posting on this page. Follow these links to some of my reviews of computer-animated features: Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Shrek 2, Madagascar, Happy Feet, The Polar Express. Click here to go to a complete listing of reviews.]

From Benjamin Sanders, a British visitor to the site: You mention in your review of The Incredibles the problems of stylization in The Iron Giant's character designs, which you say "seemed scrawny, their capacity for expression deliberately suppressed, perhaps in unfortunate emulation of Japanese anime." The implication being that the design inherent in all Japanese anime is to the detriment of the expression of character.

The worry I have with this notion is that it seems to suggest there is only a very limited aesthetic area in which the hand-drawn animated film can operate succesfully. As a result, if animated films are to be succesful in coveying their characters' inner life and thus the true emotive depths of the story, they will end up looking fairly similar. Which would be a shame.

I would like to hear your thoughts on the work of Michael Dudok De Wit and his three short films Tom Sweep, The Monk and the Fish, and the Oscar-winning Father and Daughter, if you've seen any of them. The style of the cartoon characters in both these films is very simple, the faces no more than circles with two dots for eyes, and a line for the nose. The camera is also pulled back and kept away from the closeup, so that the use of facial features, such as cheeks and mouths and noses, is not possible.

Despite such limitations and strong stylization, the amount of life brought about by the way in which these little people move their bodies is delightful, and in the case of Father and Daughter, conveys the simple story, and the issues of loss and longing it presents, most effectively. It's far removed from the type of character design and animation you yourself admire the most (as seen in Bob Clampett's best films), but I doubt such an approach would be as effective in telling the same story.

Indeed in your excellent discussions with John Kricfalusi, you argue against his objections to Disney restraint in the animated feature film, suggesting there should be room for both approaches to animated film making.

In regards to Japanese anime, is this not just another approach that reflects yet further restraint, and a rejection of the overacting often witnessed in Western animated films for a more subtle approach to suit the stories they desire to tell?

As an admirer of Hayao Miyazaki's films, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, I couldn't see the the personality animation of Disney films, nor that of the likes of Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones, or any of their stylistic approaches, working as effectively in telling those stories about those characters. Afterall not all characters are colourful, or flamboyant personalities, some are quiet, reclusive, but all good ones are complex.

In a review of The Incredibles in the Daily Telegraph the critic Sukdhev Sandhu responds to the question of whether the new Pixar film is the masterpiece it is widely acclaimed to be with an interesting answer:

"I'm not sure. The digital flatness of Pixar animation blinds me with its kinetic sophistication, but it isn't textured or human enough to imprint itself on my imagination for very long.

"More than that, though, I'm unconvinced that the future of child-orientated films should lie in pictures that recall quite so many others, from Flash Gordon and Star Wars, to the Spy Kids series. Its turbo energy makes it, at times, just like a junior version of Mission: Impossible. Maybe that's what young audiences want these days: fast and furious barrages of noise and action, films which tell them that 'doing' is everything.

"But there has to be place, in the West, for films that teach their audiences how to look at the world and not to flee from vulnerability or mystery. Japanese anime—Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away—regularly creates such strange fascination. Now more than ever, as consumer societies are provoked to hyper accelerated, corporate-generated over-stimulations, we need artists willing to make pictures that drift and undulate, that are about indefinable moods as much as full-on action, that ache with sadness, wonder, and helplessness, that show to pre-adults that life is often inexplicable and irresolvable."

I think that the type of film that Sukdhev Sandhu would like to see, that deals with issues and moods of characters that animation tends to shy away from or ignore, is achieved by the likes of Michael Dudok De Wit's short animation Father and Daughter.

I think Miyazaki similarly tries to approach his feature animations with the same emotional aesthetic. At times I don't think his animation is complex enough to display all those nuances of melancholy, sadness, and indefinable moods, but I don't think this is the fault of the stylization.

While I'll agree that certain styles might be more conducive to opening up a character's inner life, that shouldn't mean others couldn't work or for that matter, eventually be more effective. After all, the challenge of animation is to bring life to that which has none.

The kind of films Miyazaki and Michael Dudok de Wit want to make, and that Sukdhev Sandhu would like to see, require a different approach to a Disney film, or a Warner Bros. short, and the animated cartoon is flexible enough to accommodate this.

MB replies: I think you're exactly right about animation's ability to accommodate a great many different approaches to, as you say, "opening up a character's inner life." What troubles me is that so many animation filmmakers have used stylization, in its many forms, not as an alternative means of exploring those inner lives, but as an excuse to avoid the challenges posed by character animation.

Miyazaki, for all his virtues, is guilty of this very sin (as you seem to acknowledge by saying that his animation is sometimes not "complex enough"). As I wrote in one of my first articles on the site, Spirited Away—a film I admire greatly—suffers not from stylization, but from Miyazaki's decision, for whatever reason, to reduce his characters to "little more than ciphers, their appearance and their actions almost wholly dictated by formulas. ... To the extent that Chihiro, Miyazaki’s ten-year-old protagonist, wins our sympathy, it’s not because the animation brings her to life (except perhaps in fleeting moments when she slips into the paralysis of fear), it’s because Miyazaki places her in an environment as persuasively weird as those in the most obvious of his sources, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. But how much more powerful the film would be—how much more involving—if Chihiro had been animated so that she were wholly present on the screen (or, for that matter, if she were a real actress in a computer-generated environment)."

I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't seen Michael Dudok de Wit's films yet, but from what I've read about them, they meet character animation's challenges head on, even though he works within stylization of a particularly austere kind. I hope to see those films soon.

As to why filmmakers as gifted as Miyazaki should have seized upon stylization as a refuge from the sternest demands of their medium, I'm sure that the success of Disney animation and its derivatives is the reason. From the early forties on—roughly the point at which Disney animation ceased any meaningful growth—the Disney films have stood like a monolith in the path of anyone who wants to explore new ways to animate characters. In rejecting the style of Disney animation and character design, though, a great many filmmakers—Miyazaki among them—have also rejected the end that style was intended to serve, namely the creation on the screen of characters who are wholly artificial but fully alive.

I suspect it has become harder to make that distinction in the last forty or years or so, with most Disney animated films—and Disney-rooted films like those from Bluth, Pixar, and DreamWorks—offering a kind of animation that repels many people who care about the art form. This degenerate phase was a long time building, but it bloomed unmistakably in Woolie Reitherman's wretched Disney features of the sixties and seventies. Those films were sanctified by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their 1982 book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, which has, regrettably, become a guidebook for many people in animation in the years since.

In the Reitherman films and their artistic descendants, "personality animation" occurs on two levels. On one level, the animator depicts the character; on the other, he instructs us in how we are to regard that character—through the character's self-conscious cuteness, perhaps, or through the indulgent smiles of other characters that are supposed to be responding to that cuteness. Earlier Disney animation was, by contrast, concerned almost entirely with the character itself, trusting that the audience would respond appropriately if the animator revealed the character fully. The difference is huge—and not to the advantage of the more recent films. Too often, the animators of today's films insist through their cues that we care about characters that clearly mean nothing to the animators themselves.

There has been, with this change in the animation itself, a change in the way some of its most prominent practitioners talk and write about it. The tone has been not just smug and self-congratulatory, but curiously ingrown, so that people like Thomas, Johnston, and John Lasseter can linger lovingly over a technically accomplished piece of animation—Thomas's animation of the squirrels in The Sword in the Stone, for instance—without ever acknowledging that the animation is embedded in a dreadful film and may even have contributed to that dreadfulness.

(When I interviewed Thomas and Johnston, they usually responded to my questions with the weary condescension of elderly theologians who had granted an audience to an initiate with only a clumsy grasp of the True Faith. The last time I interviewed them together, in 1987, I asked them in effect why, if the animation in the Reitherman features was so good, the films were so bad. Their replies sounded like answers to a question of some kind, but not the one I had asked.)

It has always been difficult for anyone who wants to make a character-driven animated film to ignore the Disney cartoons. There is now the added complication that so much Disney-derived animation has become a continuing affront, an affront compounded by the willful obtuseness of many of the people who make that animation and profess to admire it. Given these circumstances, so conducive to fury and contempt, it's understandable that filmmakers would be tempted to scrap the whole tradition—the emphasis on a character's inner life, as well as the drawing and animation style—as they try to make films that look and feel very different from anything Disney-related. I hope they'll do the latter, but not the former.

[Posted December 3, 2004]

From Gene Schiller: I like your opinionated style—extreme viewpoints make for good reading. But a few comments.

Regarding Disney's Sword in the Stone [mentioned in MB's reply to Benjamin Sanders, above], I believe I understand your general antipathy, but here's what I think the layman sees: narrative cohesion; amusing, expressively drawn characters; clever dialogue and colorfully detailed settings and effects which help create an aura of magic. This, along with some useful lessons for the small fry, presented without a trace of self-consciousness or condescension. I found it a nice, nay, even flawless entertainment. I can see why Frank, Ollie, and Woolie were proud of it.

I think you underestimate the significance of the human voice. Animated drawings, no matter how realistically rendered, are still animated drawings which can only begin to approximate human feelings and complex thought patterns. The voice is your anchor in reality.

I like your comment on The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie that your favorite scene is the one in which the pencil stroke of the human hand is evident. That's why I like stop-motion. Unlike the more sophisticated product of CGI, one can always detect the human hand, whether in the meticulously crafted figurines, or in the ingeniously contrived sets and special effects. It's the fun of showing what can be done with limited means and limitless imagination.

From John K. Richardson: I'm convinced that there will eventually be the capability for more spontaneity in the acting in CGI films. It just seems to me a matter of ever more transparent and speedy interfaces, which I believe will come in time. (Of course, I'll always want a steady diet of hand-drawn cartoons as well.) In Nick Park's stop-motion work, especially Creature Comforts, the spontaneous nature of the voice work seems to have inspired incredibly natural gestures that defy the obviously meticulous work of the animator's hand. It's irony in motion, and that heightens the humor for me.

About hand-drawn conceptual art for CGI: I think it's natural and good to do it that way. We don't design car bodies by sitting down with pieces of sheet metal and fiberglass to see what we can make of them. It's true that cars could have a nice sort of found-art look to them if we did, but cars need organically conceived bodies (for aerodynamic reasons) and so do most CGI humans (for different reasons). Incidentally, I actually sometimes like the feeling that a stop-motion or CGI film has been laboriously constructed.

You showed a remarkable amount of restraint (which could actually be a sort of super power) in not mentioning some tiny things in The Incredibles that it's true don't matter that much in the grand scheme of things. But as much as I loved the film, I want to at least mention those little compromises to someone. Some of the extras are still so un-cartoony, most glaringly for me in the prologue's b/w shot of angry picketers, and in the school principal (actually a speaking part). In Pixar's last two movies, I was often thinking, "Come on, come on! That could've been so cartoony! I know you guys can do it! I've seen it!"— whether it was a particular background or a character. But that must just be a lot harder in CGI than I realize. It was still a great cartoon movie.

By the way, am I the only one who has thought about Pixar releasing 3D versions of their films? Maybe there are too many "cheats" to make it feasible. But it sure could bring on another 3D craze.

[Posted December 24, 2004]

From Aaron Hazouri: I recently had occasion to see parts of both The Incredibles and SpongeBob SquarePants again. "Parts?" you ask. A group of (presumably) well-meaning fellow art students asked me to join them in viewing the latest Jim Carey flick, of which I could stomach approximately a fourth. So, I wandered in and out of theaters, and I thought I'd send you my slightly revised feelings on SpongeBob and The Incredibles.

SpongeBob is, after all, little more than an expanded television cartoon, thrown up on the big screen (as you noted in your review). While still amusing, SpongeBob is lacking the real wit and cleverness of the best cartoons and relies on fairly easy gags (though I still find many of the drawings entertaining). The Incredibles, on the other hand, did little more to endear itself to me. The emotional conflict between Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, particularly, grated on my nerves; perhaps it reminded me of unhappy memories from childhood, who knows, but their arguments were just a touch too "real," and made the film far less enjoyable to me. That—and Frozone was shamefully wasted! Pixar's films, so far, have been full of wonderful design, great animation, and solid stories, yet still have lacked that certain "spark" that puts my favorite animated films (Pinocchio, Dumbo, and The Iron Giant) a cut above everything else.

[Posted January 9, 2005]

From Bill Benzon: I've seen WALL•E twice and was yawning an hour in, both times. But I managed to get back into the film by the time things ended. I was skeptical about all the pre-release buzz about Pixar taking a risk with a film that goes forty minutes without dialog! The first forty minutes rolled along just fine, surprise surprise. (Remember the pre-Ratatouille hype about eek! a rat?) The film looks good, but I do wonder why they bothered with lens flares in a medium that really doesn't have lenses at all. Well, they're after the look of '70s SF films, that's why. That sort of "realism" seems contrived.

I thought there was a glaring contrast between the realistic textures of the earth-bound scenes and the smooth-bloat of the humans on the spaceship. Some people were bothered by the inclusion of live-action footage; for some reason, that didn't bother me. But the smooth skin of those humans, as though they were blown-up baloons, that was bothersome.

And then there's the ecological message. I understand that there's a problem and it's real real serious; but that understanding is outside the film. I just imported it into the film because the film called for it. Well, that's what I think the filmmakers did as well. This is a boy-girl story about a dorky but lovable boy-robot who scores way above his league in the looks department. That's fine by me. I don't know what that message was supposed to be doing in there, but it didn't articulate with the main action in a way that made in compelling or even all that noticeable in any but an intellectual way. Imagine a Road Runner cartoon in which Wiley Coyote sues Acme Corp. for selling defective merchandise. He looses because the judge is a road runner and thus biased. Road Runner wins again. An effective filmic treatment of corruption in the judicial system? I don't think so.

It's not clear to me exactly what went wrong here. But the complicating action in the WALL•E and EVE story didn't follow from the ecological premise in an interesting way. It was just your standard computer-gone-nuts story. So we've got boy-&-girl vs. the crazy computer for a plot. That ecology stuff is just there clanking around the margins. I mean, the man vs. nature theme of Bambi is far more convincing.

I re-read the Mark Mayerson essay and he's right about the disconnect between the robot plot and the ecological plot. Though perhaps it's even worse than he said it was. After all, WALL•E seems to have benefited from the disaster. As the movie opens the whole world's his sandbox and he gets to spend all his time playing in it. What fun! He's the self-sufficient Robot Caruso and he's doing fine. Yes, he does watch and re-watch the Hello Dolly! tape (and it is a tape, not a DVD), and that, I suppose, indicates that he has a sense of something missing in his life. But it doesn't really grab you; you see that something's missing, but you don't feel it. And you see the lack because you're importing your knowledge of human life into this movie where there are no human beings (so far).

Then EVE arrives. How and why is a mystery. But, as Mayerson notes, it's hard to take his attraction to her seriously. He has no sense of why that plant is important, just that it is. For that matter, neither does EVE. It may be her "prime directive," but she doesn't seem to understand what it's about. It's merely her programming. Neither WALL•E nor EVE have any awareness of what's at stake here. She's just following her directive, and he's following her, mechanically. Without awareness their lives can't intersect with the lives of the humans in a meaningful way. More and more the film looks like an example of what Herbert Marcuse used to call "repressive desublimation." You're allowed to look at the nasty truth just enough to feel that you're doing your duty by the truth, but not so much as to want to actually do something on behalf of that truth, thereby threatening the existing order. "Don't worry, be happy, the cute little robot will save us. Or at any rate, we can feel warm and fuzzy watching him try."

As a cute critter film, this is fine until EVE arrives. That much of the film has no plot, just WALL•E doing his daily rounds. But that's interesting and well done. Once EVE arrives, from that point we have this mechanical plot that just goes through the motions. It's a device from which to hang a bunch of vignettes that just wave in the breeze like wet laundry.

[Posted July 23, 2008]

From Mark Kausler: You came to the same conclusion I did years ago, that this "computer animation" is not animated drawings, but digital puppeteering! Getting a character across or doing really felt-out acting is difficult. It is not to say that it is impossible to make a good picture with the process, but it's more of a hobble than a supercharger. I feel the same way about Flash, it is really puppeteering with drawings.

From Ricardo Cantoral: You were spot on with your review. Pixar is honestly in decline and WALL•E is the sad evidence. The people at Pixar were on the verge of re-energizing the animated feature film, but now they simply are falling into cliches. The WALL-E robot isn't even the least bit animation friendly—it has the stiff limitations of an actual robot. Why would you animate a character with real-life handicaps? In general, none of the film needed to be animated at all, because there isn't a single bit of character animation. The humans simply look like huge beach balls with generic expressions.

The most untentionally hilarious thing about the film is the camera's constantly focusing on WALL-E's and EVE's "eyes." Why? So I can read their emotions? WALL-E's eyes are ere telescopic, reflective lenses. You might as well look at a pair of glasses and wonder what it's thinking. EVE's eyes are simply large, egg-shaped dots.

I guess there's just no hope for feature animation in this country. The future of real art will have to be independent from artists with something to say.

From Thad Komorowski: I want to write up a response about the limitations of CGI, but at the moment, I'd rather just look at some real films rather than subject myself to phoniness.  What CGI will never have is humanity and individuality.  We know it's a Bill Tytla or a Frank Thomas or a Ken Harris or a Rod Scribner scene because their skill, style, and timing is all over it.  I defy anyone to point out individual artists in The Incredibles.  It can't be done.  It's as if a live-action director is using robots rather than actors. Ultimately, it's a form of control that hinders talent and individuality rather than advances it. [Posted July 28, 2008]

From Brian O'Donnell: I haven't seen WALLE yet. I'll wait for the DVD release but it looks pretty sterile and mechanical to me. I think that the animation of mechanical objects is best left to shorter subjects, like commercials. Cars seemed incredibly long to me. There is something about the suspension of disbelief in animation that lends itself to shorter movies. Seventy-five to 90 minutes seems like a long time in animation, and the two hours of Cars especially wore me out.

From a visitor who prefers to be identified only as "Andy": While I cannot argue with your issues with the plots for WALLE and Kung Fu Panda (those are opinions), I found the end of your article, "The End of the Line," very interesting—your comment that "What's clear from WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda , as never before, is that computer animation is a dead end, a form of puppetry even more limited than stop motion" When Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast came out, film animation was considered reborn. Faster than you could sharpen a pencil, every major studio executive said, "Animation makes money."  For the next decade, theaters were inundated with unmemorable animated movies.  Slowly, thanks to studio executives, hand-drawn animated films became formulaic. Proof of this lies in Katzenberg's "Ten Commandments of an Animated Movie." Then Toy Story came out.  You can attribute some of Toy Story's success to a fascination with a new medium, but it is a well-made film with a strong story. Pixar followed up Toy Story with A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2.  Studio executives erroneously concluded: "Two-dimensional animation is dead.  Audiences want CG films." As with their attempts to create hand-drawn animation, they felt that the medium would outweigh such things as plot and character. They dismissed strong storytelling and a passion for animation as reasons for Pixar's successful run.

Your comment that I quote above is no less dismissive of the medium of CG animation, even though your list of the shortcomings in the characters and plots of WALL•E and Kung Fu Panda would stand no matter what the medium—hand-drawn animation, stop motion, or another medium. 

You added a comment about Brad Bird: "I wouldn't expect Brad Bird to say so, but perhaps an awareness of the medium's limitations lay behind his decision to move into live action for his next film, 1906."  I wish I could find the quote by him, but to summarize he essentially said that when he has a film he wants to create, he will work in the best medium for that film. That statement summarize what every Hollywood executive and you seem to have forgotten—the medium does not matter. Plot and character do. One more quote stands out from Brad Bird: "It's just happened that the newer, better, fresher stories have been done in CG. If studios idiotically assume that all you need is a computer and someone to control it to get a smash hit, the inevitable headline down the pike will be 'Audiences losing interest in CG films.' Well, no, they won't be, any more than they are particularly interested in them now. Artists make the film, and they either make good decisions or bad decisions, and there’s nothing magical about the equipment. It’s just a tool. And I think the people that will survive are the best storytellers."

MB replies: Actually, where films are concerned, the medium does make a difference, frequently a huge one. Sound versus silence, black and white versus color, hand-drawn animation versus CGI—in all such cases, the filmmaker who thinks "the medium does not matter" is inviting disaster.

A problem with movies, though, has always been that the success of one medium almost invariably forecloses the choice of another, even when it might be best for the subject matter. Would Sweet Smell of Success be better as a color film? Or a noir classic like Out of the Past? Of course not; but in the last few decades color has become a de facto requirement, except when a filmmaker with the clout of a Woody Allen (Manhattan) or a Spielberg (Schindler's List) insists on black and white.

Likewise, CGI is now the default position for animated films. Computer animation is a wonderful tool, and I can readily imagine enjoying both Kung Fu Panda and WALLE a good deal more if they had been made as hand-drawn films but with a generous and judicious use of CGI, as in Brad Bird's Iron Giant. As I've said more than once, however, I think CGI is severely limited as a tool for animating characters. Perhaps John Lasseter's support for hand-drawn animation at Disney through The Princess and the Frog, combined with his growing reliance on machines as the principal characters in Pixar's films, amounts to his tacit acknowledgment of that limitation.

[Posted August 8, 2008]

From Gordon Kent: I haven't seen Kung Fu Panda. It's more a choice to simply avoid Dreamworks "animation" since I've never been anything more than disappointed—the highest compliment I can give them.

I did seeWALLE. It is indeed filled with every mistake that's been listed.  It is another Andrew Stanton film, and Finding Nemo was of no interest to me at all.  I didn't care if Nemo's dad found him or if Nemo found his dad...or if anyone found Nemo. I had no interest in him or his problems. There was only one bright spot for me: that was the seagulls saying "Mine!"  I thought that was hilarious. But not quite worth my money or time.

That said, I have to admit that despite all its problem's I was entertained by WALLE.  I can't explain why. many things about it made me happy in a forgettable sort of way. Not every movie is Citizen Kane. Not every animated movie is Pinocchio.  I like some movies simply because they make me smile.

As to comments written about WALLE regarding the medium of CG, I had one animation friend point something out to me that may be true—I haven't considered every CG movie to know if it is or not. There has yet to be a truly romantic moment in CG— no kiss like in Snow White or any number of movies. Not even the kindness in the face of the Blue Fairy when she addresses Pinocchio. There is a lot of fun and there are nice character moments—especially in Brad Bird movies—but no real romantic moments. I don't think that real warmth can be achieved—yet—in CG. The moment that I remember coming closest to human emotion is is in Ratatouille, when Anton Ego tastes the ratatouille and is transported back to his childhood

Obviously there is drawing and human control of the CG process.  However, one can't deny that the mechanical part of the process is an intrusion that removes humanity no matter how much care is taken. I'm not sure that one can ever expect machines to understand the peculiar irrationality of human behavior that brings about the intensity of real emotion. Among other things, emotion is what comes about when logic is overwhelmed by whatever life  experience is being lived through at the moment. Can computers ever be overwhelmed during experience? Absolutely. They shut down. You have to turn them off and restart them. A computer can't untangle itself from being overwhelmed like a human being—not even to lash out in anger from overuse.

I don't know if any of that makes any sense at all...but sense is all a computer can make.

MB replies: I think there's some real feeling expressed between the characters in The Incredibles, as when Mr. Incredible reveals to his wife his fear of losing her, and certainly Ego's epiphany is wonderful, but for the most part I agree that the shortage of warmth in most CG movies is undeniable; thus the wisecracking that fills the gap in DreamWorks features, and the sentimentality that serves the same purpose in Pixar features like Andrew Stanton's. And there's also no denying that much of the warmth in The Incredibles is owing not to anything in the animation but to the excellent voice performances (for which Brad Bird's direction deserves much of the credit, of course).

From "Rubi-kun": To be fair, I'm not an expert on the process of animation, so maybe  the animation of machines is simply "effects animation," but if  "effects animation" can create a well-defined character like the bumbling romantic collector-geek that is WALLE, then I have to say  that it's as powerful as most "character animation." There's a simple explanation for why WALLE and EVE are more sentient  and, well, human than the humans in the movie. The passage of time  has destroyed the other WALLE units,so it would make sense that the one  remaining WALLE would be in the process of breaking down, and part  of that process could be the the breaking down of programming. Since  his programming has become glitchy, he evolves into an individual. As for EVE, well, WALLE's energy rubbed off on her and activated whatever AI she was capable of.

How does Stanton in the least portray the future setting as  realistic? Grim to some extent, but it's clearly meant as a dark  comedy and not some realistic drama. Right from the beginning the  juxtaposition of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" to the giant trash skyscrapers was strange enough to be both funny and a bit creepy in  the context of the movie but purely in the realm of comic  exaggeration (though once they get into space, the scenes with the  human globs aren't that far removed from the realm of possibility, which increases both the laughs and the creep factor).

And on the other side of the spectrum of large to small, the videotape WALLE watches is a Betamax. Have you ever seen a Betamax tape fall apart over the years? Have you ever seen a Betamax? A small detail like  that is clearly just for the sake of humor and not be taken oh-so- seriously like you seemed to think the movie was supposed to be. The  movie is sentimental because WALLE is a sentimental character, but it's primarily a comedy and a satire.

And a damn good one at that. I have to say I enjoyed WALLE more than  any Pixar movie to date, with the possible exception of The Incredibles. Rewatching the film might put things in perspective more  for both of us, but still, I think you might have misinterpreted some parts of the movie.

MB replies: Actually, I've owned one or more Betamax VCRS for many years, and I still have one (and a number of Beta tapes with cartoons not yet available in other formats). And then there's the laserdisc player and the shelf full of laserdiscs...

I continue to resist the idea that WALLE is "primarily a comedy and a satire." I can readily imagine the story as being presented in that way—especially in a hand-drawn film with some resemblance to Futurama—but the prevailing tone in WALLE, as reinforced most emphatically by the music, is entirely different, dominated by romantic longing. My most serious problem with WALLE may actually be that, as he did in Finding Nemo, Stanton tries to have it both ways: here's a satirical comedy, if you want it to be one, or a unique love story set in a somber but plausible future, if you want it to be that. For me it succeeded as neither, emerging instead as a very cold contrivance; but I will indeed see it again, when it appears on DVD, and my opinion may change.

From Roberto González: I really did like the 20 first minutes of WALLE. I agree with you about the animation; those characters are more limited than any others Pixar has used. But they tell the story surprisingly well, and it was actually like watching a Buster Keaton film during the first half hour, even though it was more like a live-action movie with remote-control robots than an animated one.

But there was something about the design of the humans that really didn't work. I like cartooniness, and even the idea of humans being really fat in the future, but these characters didn't work within the realistic textures of WALLE. Once the human plot started the movie lost most of its interest. It's an odd movie, and I doubt it is one of the best animated movies ever or a sci-fi classic, as some reviewers have said. It's too limited to be the first thing, and too simple in its story to be the second.

I actually enjoyed Kung Fu Panda. Yes, it's not believable at all that Po, the panda, could win the fight with Tai Lung, and that could have been managed a little better. There are actually some things in the fight that are connected to his previous training, and it's kind of believable for a moment, but then they just go "what the heck" and Po seems to know a lot more than he actually should know. It wasn't very logical, but I found it kind of funny. It's an entertaining movie even with its simple plot. And I did like that it didn't become way too serious. For example, I really enjoyed the fact that Po, even after defeating Tai Lung, is still panting when he has to climb the stairs again. He doesn't become a perfect hero at the end of the day.

Also I really did like the visuals. You say there is a lot of talking, and I agree, but in some scenes the film is visually funnier than other CGI efforts, and more cartoony. The comedy style may not differ much from Shrek, but the designs and visual style make the gags a lot funnier to me. And most of the gags are actually related to the characters and the story.

MB replies: To give Kung Fu Panda its due, I did enjoy it a lot more than I enjoyed WALLE. In Imax especially, it's a very good-looking movie. It's by no means a bad film, just too formulaic in its story, and too predictable in its animation, to be very interesting.

[Posted August 18, 2008]

From "Rubi-kun": Funny that you bring up Futurama when discussing how WALLE could be done more effectively as a straight-up comedy. While Futurama was mainly a comedic series, there was quite a bit of heavier emotion in a few episodes. In particular, I'm thinking of the episode "Jurassic Bark," where Fry finds his old dog fossilized and is faced with the  dilemma of whether to revive him or not. It's an absurd scenario, but the episode's primary focus is Fry's sadness. And then the ending scene comes in where not only is there the somewhat depressing plot twist where it is revealed that Fry's dog wasted its life waiting for Fry to return to the pizza parlor, but they also throw in some really sad music to push it just to the point of making eyes water. Futurama also has its fair share of romance, and it fluctuates greatly in how said romance is presented: sometimes its just for laughs, but at other times its a source of honest drama. I love Futurama, but it  seems to "have it both ways" just like you accuse Andrew Stanton [director of WALLE] of doing.

[Posted September 30, 2008]

From Bradley J. Bethel: I read your review on WALL-E, and there's a couple things I need to point out.

From your review: The animation of machines is effects animation, and that's really all we see in the first part of WALL•E.

I don't think the controversy over the robots' characterizations can be fairly blamed on the computer animation. Animated cartoons have been produced before where the attempt was made to make a character out of what is in reality an inanimate object. If we were to discount machines as legitimate characters, wouldn't Tex Avery's One Cab's Family be dismissed as well? Or any Bender-related episode of Futurama? Even Cars was said by John Lasseter himself to have been directly influenced by Disney's Susie the Little Blue Coupe. And why stop with machines? It would depend on whether an animal, plant, or an element of life is intended to be a character that determines whether we can call the subject an "it" or a "he"/"she."

With Pixar, the one advantageWALL•E has over Cars is that in WALL•E, the lead characters exist in "our" universe, one that is set 700+ years in the future, but nevertheless one where humans exist. It is because of this definitive identity that "our" universe gives to both WALL•E and EVE, as well as the unintended circumstance of WALL-E's being all alone, that we can try to imagine the characters as male and female beings attempting to overcome their primary obstacles. With Cars, our connection with the characters stops at the difficulty of accepting that a machine can exist in a universe without humans.

Perhaps people are still hurting from the direct competition between hand-drawn and computer animated films that, thanks to misguided media management some time ago, has created this current hostility towards computer animation. However, it is with WALL•E, and a few other recent CGI films that a line has to be drawn between identifying the limitations of computer art, which would otherwise be attributed to the person using the computer, and creating double standards for the mediums. As seen in The Incredibles and Chicken Little, attempts are in progress to emphasize more of the animation principles, such as pushing physical exaggeration into the computer imagery. And most of Pixar's films have brought a lot of appeal to their characters.

WALL•E's faults, which were fairly minuscule, lie more in its plot development than in computer art.

[Posted October 6, 2008]

From Gordon Kent: I finally saw Bolt and twenty minutes or so of The Tale of Despereaux.

Watching Bolt, I finally figured out something that has troubled me about CGI from the beginning that I hadn't been able to explain to myself...

For me animation has always been about fantasy. It's about being transported to a world that I know doesn't exist and yet I believe in it. I believe an elephant can fly when I watch Dumbo soar with the crows. I believe in Never Never Land. I believe that a wooden doll is alive and doesn't need strings to move.

CGI seeks to replicate the world. To make a fantasy seem real. And in so doing it takes away both the fantasy and the reality. CGI attempts to ground its characters and make them seem as if they actually exist. And yet I believe the animated Dumbo can fly while I don't believe that the new CGI Dumbo they use in commercials is really flying.

When I watched Bolt it all crystalized. This is a movie that isn't really bad, per se, but it isn't engaging. And I think what separated me from believing in the movie was the CGI. I think this movie could have been a darn sight more charming had it been hand drawn. The story would have still had problems, but I'm pretty sure the characters would have been more endearing and I would have cared about them more. The act of dulling everything down in art direction with CGI was enough to make me a viewer instead of a participant. I just didn't care.

This certainly isn't true of all CGI—I thought the underwater world Pixar created for Finding Nemo was beautiful and way beyond "real"—even though I never cared if Nemo was ever found. 

The characters in Bolt were too "straight" (aside from the comedy relief of Rhino). Despite the "fact" that they were 3D in effect, they were very 2D in personality.  One need go no further than the Agent to see that.  No nuance.

I think when characters are exaggerated in a way to make them "cartoony" as in The Incredibles and Ratatouille, CGI works... but if your goal is to do something that "looks" real, why not simply make it real and be done with it? 

As far as Despereaux goes, I was watching it with two other people and I think they wanted to leave after ten minutes (maybe three).  I made them watch ten more minutes just to make sure it was as truly awful as I thought it was...

Where have I seen a movie before about mice and cooking? Hmmm... Let me think...

This one was beyond ugly in design and its execution was off as well. The timing of the acting wasn't even good. You'd think that would be the one thing they could control completely. But you'd be wrong.

The voice talent are all "name" actors—and all give a lifeless performance. 

I honestly can't think of a good thing to say about what I did see of this film so, in the wise words of Thumper's mother, I'm not going to say anything (more) at all...

[Posted January 19, 2009]

From Geoffrey Hayes: Generally, I'm in total agreement with you regarding computer animation. You've helped clarify some of the reasons it doesn't work for me. Two exceptions: I think Ratatouille is a masterpiece and I am inordinately fond of Kung Fu Panda. I know you're not. I think it employs real artistry and the humor is refreshingly slapstick as opposed to the current trend toward wise-ass humor and the dreaded [pop-culture] references. I never thought there would be a year where I preferred a Dreamworks film to a Pixar film. (I loath Shrek in all its incarnations.)

Which brings me to WALL•E and Bolt. Here, I couldn't agree with you more. In the beginning, I thought Pixar was wise to limit their characters to dolls, insects or monsters. The technology wasn't advanced enough to portray convincing human characters; witness the odd children of Toy Story. But now it seems like an easy way out. Disney has long had a tradition of animating wordless, inanimate objects and imbuing them with personality, like the magic carpet in Aladdin. WALL•E fits right into this tradition—as a supporting character, not as the star of a film.

Now, I can't say I hated watching WALL•E. There are far worse ways to kill two hours. But I can't fathom the acclaim it's gotten. I certainly have no desire to see it a second time. The same holds true for Bolt; pleasant, witty, but bland and instantly forgettable. Where is the old Disney magic? Perhaps, as one of your readers pointed out, had the characters been hand-drawn I might have found them more appealing. Still, the story was unoriginal, even strained. The similarities to Buzz Lightyear were too obvious to be ignored. Has Disney forgotten about their previous "Penny" in The Rescuers—not to mention "Jenny" in Oliver & Co.?

I thought that when John Lasseter took over the reins at Disney things would improve, but he's starting to believe his own hype. Much was made about how "painterly" Bolt was supposed to be. Sorry, but those cityscapes looked pretty photo-realistic to me. And as for the film having "heart"? Again, I didn't see it. Both The Princess and the Frog and Rapunzel have the potential to reinvigorate Disney. (The few stills I've seen of PATF have far more magic than anything I've seen in a computer-generated film) but my fear is that they will "work" as films; that is, hit all the right buttons, have a tight, well-paced plot and technically good animation, yet lack that one ingredient that all the classic Disney films have: true magic.

Watching the Disney animated classics, even the lesser ones, filled me with such inspiration that I wanted to go home and create something wonderful of my own. To date, none of the Pixar films (not even Ratatouille), however much I might admire them, nor the three Disney computer movies has had this effect on me. And that is just sad.

[Posted February 5, 2009]

Bolt 3-D

From Oswald Iten: I’m an ardent supporter of 3-D and I have never had an unpleasant experience as far as head-aches are concerned. I personally believe that 3-D—in spite of our ability to read two-dimensional depth cues—is a useful stylistic device not unlike 5.1 compared to sound emanating just from the front speakers (be it mono or 3-way stereo). Both devices (3-D and surround sound) enhance storytelling best when their use is not noticed consciously but only felt. I don’t think that having to wear special glasses helps in this respect, though.

I wouldn’t want to see a movie just because it is in 3-D as I would never want to see a movie just because it is in color instead of black and white, but if a movie I’m interested in was intended to be seen in 3-D I most certainly want to see it that way. In a perfect world, 3-D movies would lose something if they were seen in 2-D—unlike the hybrids we are currently getting. There used to be a time when IMAX movies were specifically made to be seen on a screen that encompasses our whole field of vision. Nowadays many of them are featuring more close-ups and cuts because they are also available on DVD. I hope with 3-D features it will be the other way round.

As I haven’t seen Coraline yet (it won’t open till later this year in Switzerland) let me take Bolt as an example. It's a rather forgettable film, but the 3-D is used very carefully though, avoiding most of the obvious traps. It didn’t make me too aware of the screen framing, and unimportant foreground objects didn’t distract from where the focus of a shot was supposed to be. So the fairly conventional editing was no problem, it all felt natural.

However, my eyes have never been able to adjust to the grey-green sunglasses effect, which is especially annoying because the extra amount of light tends to flatten out a lot of detail. But with the glasses on, these white areas still look slightly grey. Maybe a white dog as protagonist isn’t the best choice given these limitations. Now for the green tint of the polarized glasses: when you tilt your head to the side it vanishes in favor of a slightly red tint.

There is another problem with digitally projected 3-D: the colors overall (even when I took off my glasses to make sure) were rather off compared to the standard 35mm print. This has been the case with every digital cinema projection I have seen so far, but never to the same extent. In this case, colors haven't just been different, they looked simply wrong. Even during Tokyo Mater there was no primary red and a lot of other gradual distinctions were lost in mushy greys and greens. In an animated film this could well be attributed to style, and having muted colors may be unexpected nowadays but very welcome. But color distinction and nuances of the 35mm print not only looked immediately “right,” there was also a broader range of colors on the whole.

Like you, I was always wondering how filmmakers are taking color changes resulting from different projection formats into account. But on Bolt it either went completely wrong or these digital projectors—unlike 35mm machines—can be color-calibrated by theater staff members, which makes matters worse. I know all of this sounds picky, but apart from giving the film a different mood, readability suffered in some scenes. So even though I like 3-D as a concept, standard 2-D exhibition may still be the better way to see some movies.

[Posted March 18, 2009]

Happy FeetFrom Henry Baugh: Reading your Happy Feet review, it seems that your main complaint about the film was its use of photo-realism in place of caricature, like Pixar or any of those. You don't really seem to elaborate on why it's a poor artistic choice except to say that the story is dull (although your summary of the story seems less like one thereof and more of just a give-away of the ending, which really is just one part of the whole), but I have to wonder, would you lob the same complaint at Watership Down or The Plague Dogs?
 
That, and the dialogue—the "wall-to-wall dialogue." I don't really have much to say about that—ironically—except that it seems a little silly.

Well, that and that weird bit of kind of overblown defensiveness at Miller's remark in the Post, which turns into a kind of snide jab at the use of motion capture, where I'd before thought you'd been ambivalent about it.

Actually, there isn't really a whole lot of "reviewing," here—it's just a bunch of snide remarks about the elements of the film, without any elaboration. "Think of the birds as so many lame Las Vegas lounge acts." Well, alright. I mean—"Neither can I remember when I've seen a movie in which so much astounding technical expertise was placed in the service of such puerile ideas." Well, okay. What are these puerile ideas?

You even—and I may be wrong - seem to contradict yourself, at a point. You say, "That's sanctimonious nonsense, especially since in their behavior the film's penguins bear no more resemblance to real animals than do the deer in Bambi." But, not two paragraphs later, you go on with, "absent the constant chatter, the penguins would be as difficult to tell apart as the birds in March of the Penguins, the live-action documentary released in 2005."

 I'm not going to say the film doesn't have flaws, because it does—all films do—but, really. This is a bit much. Perhaps it's just me.

MB replies: It's hard for me to respond to such comments without just saying, "Read the review again." I think it's clear, for example, which of the film's governing ideas I think are puerile, that is to say, foolish or childish (short answer: most of them). And I've made clear any number of times, including in pieces I linked to in the review, what I think of motion capture, its limited potential and serious shortcomings.

I don't know how Watership Down fits in here, but, for what it's worth, I reviewed the hand-drawn Martin Rosen version in Funnyworld No. 20, back in 1979, and I lamented then that John Hubley was removed from the director's post. Hubley's version, we can tell from the little of his work that was used, would have been anything but photo-realistic, and I'm sure it would have been vastly superior to Rosen's wretched film, with its "realistic" but badly drawn and animated bunnies.

Finally, there's no contradiction in what I say about the penguins in Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. My point was not that the penguins in one film look and behave like the penguins in the other, but that the penguins in each film look and behave like other penguins in that same film. As I say, it's only through their dialogue that the penguins in Happy Feet have anything like distinct identities.
     
[Posted April 20, 2009]

From Henry Baugh, responding to MB's comments above:It's hard for me to respond to such comments without just saying, "Read the review again." I think it's clear, for example, which of the film's governing ideas I think are puerile, that is to say, foolish or childish (short answer: most of them).

See, that's the thing, though. It wasn't, and isn't. That was the entire point of the message. You're doing the same thing, here. You're alluding to them, but you're not presenting them with any real elaboration.

I don't know how Watership Down fits in here.

Stylistically, this and Watership Down are very similar (as some reviews noted, eerily so in some places), although this does benefit from a vastly larger budget, and a better director.

Hubley's version, we can tell from the little of his work that was used, would have been anything but photo-realistic, and I'm sure it would have been vastly superior to Rosen's wretched film, with its "realistic" but badly drawn and animated bunnies.

 I'll certainly give you "badly animated." Rosen made a vast leap from this, to The Plague Dogs. Though "badly drawn" is, I think, a bit of a stretch. I'm uncertain why "realistic" is in quotes. There's a bit of anthropomorphization about the face, as there was here as well, but that's about it. However, do you really think that an overly caricatured look would've worked for Watership Down? It doesn't seem like it lends itself to that type of story. Because, again—that is what is important, at the heart of it, isn't it?

As far as Hubley's work goes, I'm uncertain that that style would have worked for the entirety of the film, whatever hackles the film's chosen look might raise, or whether it was supposed to in the first place.

Finally, there's no contradiction in what I say about the penguins in Happy Feet and March of the Penguins. My point was not that the penguins in one film look and behave like the penguins in the other, but that the penguins in each film look and behave like other penguins in that same film.

Geez-a-lou, you're going to have to make this a little clearer. It's a little like a Chinese riddle.

As I say, it's only through their dialogue that the penguins in Happy Feet have anything like distinct identities.

Well, apart from the smaller idiosyncrasies that each of the focal characters has, anyway—that was one of the highlights of the character design, for me. While it may not have been as obvious as you would've liked, Miller kept inside the realist approach—at least, visually—while still giving each character (that we care about) a distinct look. The Elder Noah is old, and thin—one critic called him "something chiseled by Rodin"—among other things. Mumble has those blue eyes, and the remaining down. The Adelies all had distinctive head-crests. Each character, while still keeping with the physical combination of King and Emperor (or Adelie or Rockhopper) penguin that was the base, had their own distinct "shape." And, on and on. But, that was the purpose of giving them such distinct voices, from the first—one of them, anyway. Because of the approach they were going with, and it's a similarly used technique elsewhere, as well.

You seem to be faulting this film for not being a traditional animation, really—what it comes down to—when, again from the first, the filmmakers had admitted that it wouldn't be. Multiple times. Myself, I'd love to see Miller do a "squash and stretch" Chuck Jones-esque animated film, really—he mentions in either the Leonard Lopate or the KCRW interview the dinners the two of them had together—in the future, perhaps.

MB replies: "Faulting this film for not being a traditional animation"? Hardly. As I say in my review, "the story is, to be charitable, jejune, barely conceivable as a dud funny-animal comic book from the '50s." The story would still be hopeless even if it were made as a traditional hard-drawn cartoon—unless it were played for laughs, which obviously was never a possibility. A bad idea can't be turned into a good idea by dressing it up in fancier feathers; to think otherwise is one example of what I mean by puerile ideas.

The live-action penguins in March of the Penguins look a great deal alike, certainly to human eyes. The penguins in Happy Feet also look a great deal alike; as I've said, I think they're distinguishable from one another mainly through their movie-star voices, which the penguins in March of the Penguins lack. Geez-al-lou (whatever that means), I don't know how to make that comparison any clearer.

It has been a long time since I read Watership Down and then saw the movie, but my strong recollection is that the movie's rabbits look and move like no more than approximations of the real thing; they are, in short, "realistic"—that is, intended to resemble real rabbits (see the still below)—but not realistic. I don't recall anything in either the book or the movie of Watership Down that is at all similar to, or remotely as silly as, the mass tap-dancing and the beak-syncing in Happy Feet. That alone would seem to rule out any serious comparisons between Watership Down and Happy Feet.

Watership Down

[Posted April 25, 2009]

From Henry Baugh, responding to MB's comments above: Faulting this film for not being a traditional animation"? Hardly.

Actually, that's what the bulk of your complaints constitute, really. It's photo-realistic, it utilizes motion capture, and on and on. You even treat its photo-realism as a criminal flaw, and not only for the garbled reason you've given me here, but—as in your January posting—because it 'lacks artistic merit' (which is paraphrasing, but it gets the point across, in a fix).

As I say in my review, "the story is, to be charitable, jejune, barely conceivable as a dud funny-animal comic book from the '50s."

 I was there.

The story would still be hopeless even if it were made as a traditional hard-drawn cartoon—unless it were played for laughs, which obviously was never a possibility. A bad idea can't be turned into a good idea by dressing it up in fancier feathers; to think otherwise is one example of what I mean by puerile ideas.

And, now we're going in circles, essentially, because you haven't actually—oh, I give up.

The live-action penguins in March of the Penguins look a great deal alike, certainly to human eyes. The penguins in Happy Feet also look a great deal alike; as I've said, I think they're distinguishable from one another mainly through their movie-star voices, which the penguins in March of the Penguins lack. Geez-al-lou (whatever that means), I don't know how to make that comparison any clearer.

You are repeating yourself, again without elaboration. It's still not really clear what you've meant, from the first. I even sent that section of your response (and the section of my original message that was its precursor) to a friend of mine, and he's not even sure what you're trying to get at—he got out of it that you were saying that the penguins in Feet acted like those in March, but even that doesn't really seem to make a lot of sense.

"Geez-a-lou" is an expression of exasperation. Whether it's well-known or not, I'm not sure—but, I picked it up from watching Peter Boyle.

It has been a long time since I read Watership Down and then saw the movie, but my strong recollection is that the movie's rabbits look and move like no more than approximations of the real thing.

(Well, of course they'd be approximations of the real thing—what an odd thing to say.)

Then you should go and watch it again, I think. The animators paid strong, strong attention to the movements of flesh-and-blood rabbits—but, an even stronger and more obvious example is the dogs from (natch) The Plague Dogs. The principle is the same, but it's far more apparent there. Where in Watership Down, they added to the behavior of the rabbits—that is, within the parameters they'd set for themselves, they extended and anthropomorphized gestures—there's none of that in The Plague Dogs.

The screenshot below—what are you referring to, exactly?

I don't recall anything in either the book or the movie of Watership Down that is at all similar to, or remotely as silly as, the mass tap-dancing and the beak-syncing in Happy Feet.

"Beak-syncing." I like that.

Of course, being a tap-dancer myself (you see, here's my bias), I'm not sure whether I should be offended or just laugh at the implication (whether intended or not) that tap-dancing isn't something that can be taken seriously.

 Oh, well.

MB replies: As I've told Henry Baugh by email, I don't care at all for his rhetorical technique, which amounts, at best, to quoting out of context. For example, he claims in the first part of his response that I'm really attacking George Miller's use of motion capture in Happy Feet. But in the second paragraph of my review I say: "As I've indicated in writing about Polar Express and Monster House, I don't have a problem with motion capture as such. The idea of seeing a wonderful tap dancer like Savion Glover transformed into a twinkletoed beast is actually appealing." It's only because Henry's method permits picking apart an opposing position in highly misleading fashion, as an exchange veers further and further away from the review that provoked it, that my views could be so badly distorted.

To summarize: The techniques that George Miller uses are not what I find so objectionable about Happy Feet. Rather it's Miller's use of motion capture and computer animation's photo-realism, among many other things, to coat a contemptibly silly story with a veneer of seriousness.

Just for the record (and as should be obvious from the preceding quotation from my review), I do think tap dancing can be taken seriously, especially when the tapper is as gifted as Savion Glover. How anyone could watch the Nicholas Brothers and not take tap seriously is beyond me. And good animation is never "an approximation of the real thing." In one way or another, it is itself "the real thing."

[Posted April 27, 2009]

From Brendan Loundz: Logic Police like you bore me, particularly in the context of animated films.

" In earlier Pixar films there have been cheats that I had trouble forgiving (in the original Toy Story, when Buzz Lightyear still believes he's a real spaceman, what is he thinking, why is he inert, when his owner Andy plays with him?), but I wasn't aware of any egregious sins in the new feature." [Quote]

In fiction you can bend rules, break them, make new rules and even IGNORE certain things that aren’t fundamental to the story that you are telling.

Had Lasseter chosen to have Buzz remain active instead of simply going inert, then they’d probably have had to dedicate a whole 15 to 20 minutes of their 81 minute film simply to resolve that one issue. None of which would really have helped the story progress in the way that they intended it to.

They chose to trim the fat and left that logic flaw there because taking the time to “explain” everything about their fiction in a REAL WORLD CONTEXT applied to it by ‘critic over analysis’ would only draw out or subvert the intent of their film.

Most viewers, both children & adult, don’t seem to notice that flaw at first, if at all. And most who do simply let it go because they seem to understand the implicit rule of fiction.

In fiction you can tailor your logic to just the aspects that you wish to present. Leaving room for the subtraction or invention of elements so as to only convey what is essential to getting your sentiment across.

Over applying a real world context to fiction muddies the water and often prevents you from clearly seeing the bottom.
Basically, it’s too much time spent on 'meaningless' explanation or exposition relative to what it is that you want the viewer to see and understand about your story.

“But the real world has credibility”
But fantasy is fun and incredible.
Most of the time it’s a balance, as well as a choice.

Having a logic flaw isn’t necessarily a sign of bad film making. In fact, to me it can reiterate that the film maker was clear about where they wanted to spend their time and what they wanted to say with it.

Where you wrong to point out that logic flaw?
No.
If I were a film or animation critic writing a thorough piece on Toy Story, I might choose to point it out as well.

The difference being that I would give them praise for their decision in keeping focus on the larger story, while you would condemn them on the basis of that one small logic omission at the expense of their story focus.
Your negative spotlight on this slight imperfection in the varnish suggests that you didn’t want to spend as much time looking at the greater functionality of the floor beneath your feet.

If anything, be critical of a film that makes a fictional element or story point MORE convoluted by trying to give it an additional layer of “explanation”, “logic” or plot importance. Whether they succeed or fail at it, they're simply trying to explain a device, rather than tell a story.

A vivid example of this unnecessary embellishing can bee seen in Disneys Repunz… I’m sorry, “TANGLED”.

Tangled - Alternate Storybook Opening 1 (Glen Keane Version)

Tangled - Alternate Storybook Opening 2 (Nathan Greno & Byron Howard version)

Byron Howard (alternative opening 2 intro):“You’ll also notice the new idea that's shown up is the 'Pure Drop of Sun' which is actually in the final movie and helps explain the magic throughout the rest of the story.”

Um... NOPE, it doesn’t.
It simply adds another convoluted layer to the element of the ‘magic flower’ that, in this context, didn’t really require any further “EXPLANATION”.

It’s a magical flower, we don’t need to know how it came into being or what it's infused with, you’re wasting time with an ‘explanation’ that doesn’t really enhance anything or lead to anywhere.
Just accept it as pure ‘magic’ and move on with the story.

Alternate Storybook Opening 1 is generally much better than Opening 2… the only part where Alternate Storybook Opening 2 enhances the story AT ALL is in the sequence where Mother Gothel cuts baby Rapunzels hair and it withers in colour, so she takes the child. Now THAT was a brilliant addition, which was lacking in the first sequence; where Gothel simply took the child.

In trying to create, do or even say anything you have a limited scope; the first being time, the second being context.
Trying to say, point out or cover everything in a fiction so that it SOMEHOW matches with the scrutiny of a real world context is absurd.

Use the K.I.S.S principle, tailor your reality and omit any “logic” if it doesn’t add anything to the context of the story that you are seeking to tell.

After all this I hope that you get my point.
Although, being Michael Barrier, I’m sure you'll disagree with it.
At any rate (and for some reason) I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For Additional Clarity:

Toy Story
Fictional element / device = Toys come alive when people leave the room.

Rapunzel / Tangled
Fictional element / device = Magical healing (through song?) Flower / Hair.

Source Code
Fictional element / device = Consciousness being projected into the body of another person.

Groundhog Day
Fictional element / device = Reliving the same day over and over.

Etc, etc… (many movies)

Real word context = the extrapolation of the fictional device in real world (beyond the screen) terms.

Be honest, does the version of Toy Story that plays out in your mind with that extrapolated scenario you sited [first quote] do anything better, or add anything of real significance to the context of their story?

Is it time well spent in the limited time frame of a film?

If so, then perhaps you could write up a fan fiction and share it with all of us.

MB replies: In my review of Tangled, I say of the horse Maximus:

Remarkably, and wonderfully, we're given no tedious "back story" explaining how Maximus came to be so strange and compelling; he is who he is. He is in wonderful contrast to Mittens, the cat character in the wretched Bolt, Disney's previous CGI feature, who lays out her sad life story in tedious detail.

I always prefer that cartoons state their business directly, without wandering off into unkempt fields of exposition or explanation. I hate watching a movie tie itself into narrative knots with some clumsy device like Tangled's magic flower. And I greatly admire filmmakers who find clean, economical ways to deal with troublesome plot points. Perhaps John Lasseter and his colleagues tried but couldn't find such a means to deal with Buzz's inertness. If so, they were wise to tough it out and simply offer Buzz's inertness as a fact of life in Toy Story's universe, however bothersome that inconsistency is to me and a few other fogeys who can't shake our skepticism about CGI animation in general.

I don't agree with filmmakers who say, in effect, "Hey, it's a fantasy, anything goes." Fantasy by definition requires a willing suspension of disbelief, even more so than other forms of fiction. When a filmmaker demands of his audience that it suspend disbelief not just once, but over and over again, he had better offer sustantial rewards in return, through sustained inventiveness of a very high order. It's hard for me to think of any filmmakers who've met that test. (Tim Burton? Not for me.)

What I find particularly annoying about some of Pixar's recent films is that they demand repeated suspensions of disbelief, offering as a lure the opportunity to wallow in synthetic sentiment. Up is the perfect example—and the most frustrating, because it could so easily have been a much better film. So little effort was required on the part of the writers to make the ascension of Carl's balloon-powered house seem entirely plausible; Russell's tiresome back story could have been so easily peeled away; Charles Muntz could have been made an interesting character instead of a pasteboard villain.

It's as if Pete Docter and his colleagues deliberately made a film full of gaping narrative holes because they wanted to test the limits of their ability to manipulate their audience's feelings. And, of course, their test was successful: if Buzz's inertness passes unnoticed, so do the much more substantial flaws in Up's story, all of them forgiven in the sunset glow of the Carl-Ellie romance.

[Posted June 12, 2011]

From Kevin Hogan:It was last night when I was watching Cars 2 that I finally realized what has been bothering me recently about John Lasseter and Disney/ Pixar’s recent work. It was not that the film was awful (it was), that a spy action sequel spits in the face of a low-key/ nostalgic original (it does), or that the film is another example of Pixar’s failure to challenge itself as a company (it certainly was). It was that John Lasseter, and perhaps Pixar in general, is suffering from Chuck Jones Syndrome.

Chuck Jones Syndrome: When an artist becomes overly aware of what made their work great, and the quality of future projects declines due to the insufferable use of those characteristics.

With the late Mr. Jones, the interestingly stylized backgrounds of the Road Runner cartoons became stuffy by the time Robin Hood Daffy came about (as did the character designs and the film itself). The inventiveness of a cartoon like Duck Amuck became patronizing in Rabbit Rampage. I could go on, of course.

I believe John Lasseter is showing similar symptoms. Previously, he had a clear pattern for films like Toy Story, A Bugs Life, Toy Story 2, and Cars (Buddy movie plot + subtle cultural references + “Love and family” over “personal glory” resolution= Blockbuster). However, I did not find that the films felt overly conscious of the formula during viewing. Each film, although similar, felt like a genuine effort in and of itself.

Alas, more recent films such as Cars 2 and Brave inform me that Mr. Lasseter has become aware of the formula and loves it. Cars 2 seems to scream out, “We know your kids loved Mater—eat your heart out”. It also shouted, “McQueen’s lesson about humility worked well last time. Let’s do it again here.” Brave’s three obnoxious boys reminded us that Mr. Lasseter is very aware of our culture’s need for snot jokes/Nickelodeon style humor. Brave’s princess found out that responsibility to family is more important than selfishness; I know this because the point was hammered into me. What worked for Woody and Buzz years ago is not only copied, but plastered over the screen with the artfulness of a corporate-suit monkey.

I have always been personally able to overlook style and animation flaws in Mr. Lasseter’s work, as I found the stories to be engaging and the films to feel sincere. I cannot do that any longer. Chuck Jones Syndrome has hit Pixar, and I expect Monsters University to be as awful as Cars 2.

[Posted September 17, 2012]

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