Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pixar Filmography, Volume 3: Suiting "Up" for "Brave" and Daring Adventures

The Old and the New 

Any company that had four hits in a row would not be open to changing anything. This place was the exact opposite. They were saying, "Look, we've had four hits in a row. We are in danger of repeating ourselves or getting too satisfied, and we need to shake this place up." 
~Brad Bird, on Pixar prior to The Incredibles (2004) ("The Pixar Story," 2007) 

Brad Bird was the first director brought in from outside Pixar Animation Studios to direct a feature film for the studio. His previous credits included his work on "The Simpsons" and the short-lived animated series "Family Dog," as well as the critically-acclaimed The Iron Giant (1999). He was also a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where he was classmates with future directors John Lasseter, John Musker (The Little Mermaid, 1989), and Tim Burton (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, 1985). His first Pixar film—a very dialogue-driven story and a PG-rated action-adventure, at that—was also the first film that really took the studio’s filmography in a different direction, becoming, at the time, the most mature-targeted (specifically teens and adults) feature they’ve made. 

The Incredibles (2004) is set in a world (reportedly a 1960s version of the future a la “Tomorrowland,” “The Jetsons” or “Johnny Quest”) where superheroes are forced by the general public into a relocation program, and thereby forced to live ordinary lives. Citizens have apparently transitioned from being in need of heroes to, sadly, believing they don’t need saving—those who wanted suicide, those who were hurt in vehicle wrecks, etc. This places stress on Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible, voiced by Craig T. Nelson), who just can’t seem to put his old life, nor his pride, behind him. His nuclear family (a rarity in family films today), meanwhile, have struggles of their own. Wife Helen (a.k.a. ElastiGirl, voiced by Holly Hunter) tries to keep everybody and everything in balance. Daughter Violet (voiced by essayist Sarah Vowell) prefers shielding herself from everybody else—she can literally turn invisible and create force fields at will. Son Dash (voiced by Spencer Fox) can run super-fast, yet goes through angst when he’s held back from competing on the track team at school. 

The Parr family (clockwise: from top): Bob (Mr. Incredible), Helen (ElastiGirl),
Jack-Jack, Dash, and Violet 
All of these characters can clearly do amazing things. Bob certainly wants to, more than the mundane job he has at an insurance company (which really doesn’t help people, to begin with). He also dismisses mediocrity and conventionalism—an interesting story element is that the Parr family have “leftover” dinner nights. But when he’s called back into action by a mysterious organization, he sees it as a golden ticket to relive his glory days, until he discovers a plot where former superheroes have been killed off by a desperate “wanna-be,” named Syndrome (voiced by Jason Lee), who takes things too far by replacing real heroism with copycat heroism. And it’s not long before the rest of the Parr family come to Bob’s rescue. 

Teamwork and family have been crucial story elements in every Pixar film to date, from Woody & Buzz and the other toys in the Toy Story films, to Mike & Sulley in Monsters, Inc. Here, the importance of working with others (not individually) gradually changes in Bob and in his entire family as they learn to embrace their abilities and identities and fight as a family. At the end of the day, it’s not “special powers” or gadgets that win. It’s those that have them and what they choose to do with them. In other words, doing together what we can’t do as individuals. A scene where Violet shields Dash from enemy bullets, followed by Dash speeding inside her force field, show how even more “incredible” they are.

A family of supers, ready for action
Trivial facts:
- “We’re superheroes. What could happen?” There were actually many enormous challenges in bringing this big movie to life, included the animation of human characters, clothing and fabric; said elements under water, in the wind, and so forth. 
- The city of Metroville is, according to IMDb, a combination of Metropolis and Smallville. On that same superhero note, some sources have found character similarities to Marvel’s “Fantastic Four,” as well as similar story elements to the popular DC graphic novel “Watchmen”.
- First Pixar film to get a PG-rating (“for action violence”) and with good reason, considering the intense situations its main characters often go through. 
- Director Brad Bird voices Edna Mode (“E.”). He originally did this as a temp track (much like the late Joe Ranft did for Heimlich the caterpillar in a bug’s life, 1998) and offered the role to Lily Tomlin, who, in turn, believed that Bird was the perfect person to voice the character. 
- Late veteran Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson make cameos as animated caricatures of themselves. 

“Good Food” and Fearlessness
The old generation of heroes in The Incredibles includes the Parr parents (Mr. Incredible & ElastiGirl) and other friends (e.g., Frozone), whereas the new generation includes the Parr children, as well as new super-suits and the aforementioned “wanna-bes”. In Ratatouille (2007), there are two generations of chefs, each countered by different forms of criticism. The first generation is represented by renowned chef Auguste Gusteau (voiced by Brad Garrett), who was passionate about food, and about making fresh and original dishes for his guests at his equally-renowned restaurant. His main criticism comes from the infamous food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole), who refuses to believe in Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” 

The next generation of chefs inadvertently follows from the most unexpected source. His name is Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt), and he happens to have, as he puts it, “a highly developed sense of taste and smell.” His problem: he’s a rat, and he comes from a family that makes a living by pilfering garbage. Despite criticisms from his colony-leading father, Remy chooses to take risks and search for new edible ideas just waiting to be discovered and created, not to mention those that will “add something to this world.” When Remy is separated from his family one day, he ends up in the city of Paris, and at Gusteau’s famous restaurant, where the current head chef, Skinner (voiced by Ian Holm), has been recycling old restaurant recipes and even branding the founder’s name on frozen foods. Remy gets an opportunity to fix a dish that’s been tampered with, and he ends up making something satisfying out of it, much to the amazement of an unbeknownst food critic.

Remy and Linguini serve up surprising dishes
Remy finds an unexpected ally in the form of a newly-employed garbage boy named Linguini. Through the eventual use of puppetry and slapstick, they turn Gusteau’s restaurant into the toast of the town. But things do come at a cost, including friendships, family, identity, self-interests, and lifelong dreams. When Remy’s father tries to talk his son out of his unconventional ambitions, Remy refuses to go with the motions of how the world really sees him. “This is the way things are,” says his father. “You can’t change nature.” Remy retorts, “Change is nature. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.” Indeed, Remy’s words echo being real in our character, what we’re passionate about, and in recognizing that others play a significant role, whether large or small, in helping us in that. 

In the 2010 Pixar short, “Day & Night,” there’s an excerpt from a radio broadcast by motivational speaker and writer, Dr. Wayne Dyer, juxtaposed with the personifications of daytime and nighttime, specifically on “fear of the unknown.” Says Dr. Dyer, “They [people] are afraid of new ideas. . . They are loaded with prejudices, not based upon anything in reality, but based on. . . ‘If something is new, I reject it immediately because it’s frightening to me.’ What they do instead is just stay with the familiar. You know, to me, the most beautiful things in all the universe are the most mysterious.” Says another character in Ratatouille, “The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”

Trivial facts:
- The film was originally conceived by initial director Jan Pinkava (“Geri’s Game”), who was replaced by Brad Bird during a reportedly difficult production. Pinkava is still credited as a co-director in the end credits. 
- Renowned chef Thomas Keller served as a consultant on the film, and is even featured in an insightful documentary short, on him and Bird, on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.
- Pixar artist Lou Romano (a production designer on The Incredibles) voices Linguini. 
- This was the last Pixar film to use the CGI-custom-made Walt Disney Pictures logo that debuted in Toy Story in 1995. 
- The word “ratatouille” was spelled phonetically in posters and ads, alongside the film title, to help audiences with its pronunciation. 

The Sky’s the Limit
And speaking of new ideas, probably the most original and oddest idea of all for a Pixar film was the story of an old retired balloon salesman and widow who ties thousands of balloons to his house and flies to South America. But when he finds a stowaway in the form of a young wilderness explorer named Russell, things take an unexpected detour. Add in a talking dog named Dug and a multi-colored flightless bird named Kevin, and it sounds like a bunch of unrelated things up in the air. The result that became Up (2009) couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the sky was the limit. 

Like the film’s main characters, Up goes to places Pixar has never been before. Places that are amazing, sometimes dangerous, and have full doses of reality. (Although dogs with collars that allow them to talk probably wouldn’t count in that last one, unless, of course, you suspend your disbelief.) Beginning with a romance between two dreamers, Carl and Ellie promise they will go to South America one day and live there like their hero, famous explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer). Their dream continues after they marry, work, and hope to start a family. But tragedy and disappointments strike in unexpected places. Through an unforgettable four-minute montage (told via imagery and Michael Giacchino’s bittersweet score), we see snippets of the ups and downs of life as Carl and Ellie pay the bills, are unable to have children, and end up in other circumstances that put their dreams on hold. And when Ellie dies, Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) feels lonely, gray, and disappointed in never fulfilling their dreams. In fact, Ellie represents a bittersweet presence for Carl, as well as a driving force for him. According to the filmmakers, “If we don’t get the audience to fall in love Ellie, then they’re not along for the ride” for why Carl needs to go on this adventure. And what an adventure it is. 

Ellie and Carl
We’ve all heard of “escapist” entertainment, but there has never been such entertainment (or enlightenment) portrayed on screen quite like this. Up seems to draw inspiration from the works of Disney story veteran Joe Grant (Dumbo, 1941) and master animation director Hayao Miyazaki (Castle in the Sky, 1986). This is a story that takes to the skies and balances laughter, heartbreak, aging, angst, danger, adventure, and disappointments in life. As director Pete Docter and company did in Monsters, Inc., and as Brad Bird and company did in The Incredibles and Ratatouille, many parental and/or adult themes are explored here; never mind that this is a “cartoon”. The running motif of Carl hanging onto his house (and his stuff) illustrates his lifelong promise to Ellie, yet his unwillingness to let go and move on. In fact, the theme of surrendering dreams and recognizing the people and other cherished moments around us, including our own homes, becomes the most realistic theme in this story. Ellie’s “Adventure Book” from her childhood (without spoiling anything) can be a metaphor for how the adventures we each have in our own lives are not quite (nor always) what we expect or hope. 

Up bridges the gap between generations of moviegoers, old and young, including, but not limited to, such a moment between generations where a baton of sorts is passed down from the former to the latter. (How, I won’t say.) More significantly, this is a story that wonderfully and creatively caricatures people from our grandparents’ generation, as well as the stories and experiences they are full of. It’s a culmination of so many emotions, moments, and memories of life, and would serve as something of a precursor to Docter’s next feature film (set inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl). This is animated poignancy (and, according to the filmmakers, “simplexity”) at its best. 

Kevin, Russell, Dug, and Carl
Trivial facts:
- Screenwriter/director Tom McCarthy, known for indie favorites The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008), contributed to the story with Docter and co-director Bob Peterson. 
- Carl’s facial expressions and gruff personality were reportedly inspired by late veteran actors Spencer Tracy and Walter Matthau. 
- Bob Peterson (who voiced Roz in Monsters, Inc., and Mr. Ray in Finding Nemo) voices the dogs Dug and Alpha. 
- This was the first animated film in history to open the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.
- An exact replica of Carl & Ellie’s house was built in Herriman, Utah, in the early 2010s.

A Hero’s Brave Journey
Brave (2012) presents a completely different world than the one Carl and Russell journey to in Up. Set in the highlands of Scotland (in a kingdom known as DunBroch), this ancient medieval world is amazing to look at, from the kingdoms to the mountains to the waterfalls to the wood sprites (known as “Will o’ the Wisps”). It may not be the first film audiences think of from Pixar in terms of its storytelling, but it’s still worthwhile. 

Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald) is a Scottish princess who, despite the insistence of her stern mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), would much rather arch and be adventurous than take on the responsibilities of a princess. (Even ElastiGirl believed that female heroes, and not just men, should fight.) This takes a critical turn when Merida refuses to go through with betrothal, by means of one of the descendants of the three clans fighting for her hand in marriage, and decides to change her fate. Merida tells us earlier that, according to legend, fate is “the one thing we search for, or fight to change.” Fleeing the kingdom upon drawing a line between herself and her mother (literally with a tapestry, as well as figuratively), she comes across a witch’s cottage and makes a deal for a spell that will change her mother. (“That will change my fate.”) This curse she brings upon her mother and her kingdom leads to an unexpected (and unusual) twist that showcases the lessons that mother and daughter learn not only about each other, but also about their family, what leads to a broken and fallen kingdom, and what must be done to make things right. 

Some critics and audiences have accused this film of being too-Disney, considering the reportedly-hypocritical fact that Merida has become an official “Disney princess” in merchandising and so forth. And while there is some truth in that, what the filmmakers were aiming at (and succeeded in) was telling a story about an unconventional female protagonist (a first for the studio) who goes beyond the expectations of what a princess is or should be, as well as giving her depth and complexity in learning what it means take responsibility and doing what’s best for her family and her kingdom. Even one of the clan lords comes to see that to win one’s hand, he must first win her heart. Similar to Remy’s words on deciding to make a difference in terms of change and influence, Merida illustrates the ancient themes of “fate” and “destiny”, specifically in terms of the direction she takes in life and what she will do. (This is a theme that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and should be discerned.)

The characters and accents in Brave are very authentic, thanks, in part, to the contributions of a vocal cast that includes Scottish actors McDonald, Billy Connolly (King Fergus), Kevin McKidd (Lord MacGuffin), and Craig Ferguson (Lord Macintosh). The action is, at times, more serious and intense than in previous studio efforts, maybe even more than The Incredibles. And Patrick Doyle’s evocative score (echoing James Horner’s score from Braveheart, 1995) adds to the epic and emotional sweep of this world, as well as the mother-daughter story at its center.

A mother-daughter moment from childhood
Trivial facts
- This film, along with John Carter in 2012, was dedicated in memory of former Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, who passed away the year before. Brave also has something in common with The Hunger Games (also released in 2012), in that Merida and Katniss Everdeen, respectfully, are both archers. 
- The original title of this film was “The Bear and the Bow,” with Disney story veteran Brenda Chapman as the initial director and Reese Witherspoon as the original leading voice. Chapman was later replaced by Pixar story supervisor Mark Andrews (The Incredibles, "One Man Band") during production difficulties (as was Witherspoon, due to scheduling conflicts). Chapman is still credited as co-director and was reportedly happy with the final film, and that Andrews stayed true to her vision. Plus, the bear element remains essential.
- One critic noted that the animation of Merida’s curly red hair (reportedly done by “six graduates of Brigham Young University’s highly vaulted computer-animation program,” IMDb) was solely worth the price of admission.

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