Sunday, January 3, 2016

Pixar Filmography, Volume 3: Sequels Necessary?

There’s no question about it. The Twenty-first century, more than any other period in the history of film and box-office success, has been occupied mostly by franchises. Up until a few years ago, Pixar had (mostly) built a strong reputation for original stories that challenged the status quo and became idiosyncratic in and of themselves. That may have somewhat changed in the late 2000s with the announcement of a third chapter in a film series involving talking toys. (A sequel to Cars and a prequel to Monsters, Inc. would soon follow.) 

Breaking Away

“We don’t make sequels just for the sake of making them,” said Pixar editor Lee Unkrich (in an interview in early 2010), “but in this case, we truly love these characters [Woody, Buzz, and company] and this world. They’re the foundation of our company. We think of them as people. We don’t think of them as cartoon characters, and so we really wanted to visit that world again. But we didn’t want to do it if we couldn’t come up with something great.” 

Released eleven years after the first two films, and in an era that’s become more tech savvy for kids and young adults, Toy Story 3 (2010) surpassed expectations and amazingly improved its story with perhaps the most profound portrait of community and family ever put on film, and not just a Pixar one at that. It also did so in a way the previous films didn’t. The first movie (released in 1995) was a buddy picture, focusing primarily on the relationship between Woody and Buzz Lightyear. The second film (released in 1999) was a search-and-rescue story, led by Buzz and company on a quest to save Woody from a greedy toy collector before being shipped to a Japanese toy museum. In this third outing, directed by Unkrich, it’s not just Woody and Buzz’s lives at stake, but all of Andy’s remaining toys, as they attempt a prison escape from a daycare center. 

The film opens with a fantasy combining different genres from western to science-fiction, only to be revealed as a creative (and constantly surprising) mash-up in Andy’s imagination, and as his childhood memories are recorded by his mother. But as Andy gets older and is ready to go to college, there are certain things he doesn’t seem ready to let go of, nor is he sure what exactly to do with them. The same goes for the remaining toys (including Jessie the cowgirl, Rex the dinosaur, and Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head), as they wrestle with what will become of them. “Is our time ending?” “Will our purpose (as toys) be complete?” “Will we ever be played with again?” 

The gang's back, and making a break for it.
The film does shake things up for Pixar, just as The Incredibles did with superheroes, adult themes, world dominance, and spy thrills; as Ratatouille did with international cuisine, and in art-house fashion; and as Up did with the oddest idea made profound, tear-jerking, and funny. True, it’s still the same toy characters. But it’s an entirely different genre, so to speak (e.g., prison escape), and is still funny, touching, and universal. That’s not to say the film isn’t dark or mature in its themes. It does continue to deal with the relationships between toys and their owners, as well as the issue of being outgrown or forgotten. It also portrays the concept of toys living without owners, and the misguided feeling of meaninglessness. Self-appointed daycare leader Lots’o Huggin’ Bear (or, Lots’O, voiced by Ned Beatty) stands out as the most complex and the most tragic character in the film. It seems he wants other toys, especially new ones, to suffer as he did (having been replaced by a new one himself). The message of doing what’s best for everybody, and not what we think is best or want we want to be best, comes into play here, as does the theme of family versus imprisonment—the former of which Woody and company obviously exemplify. 

The film respects the legacy of the first two films, while introducing old and new characters to a new generation of filmgoers. Its success led to three short spinoff films, as well as two T.V. specials on ABC. Without spoiling anything, the film does have a sense of continuation, in terms of being the end of one chapter and the beginning of another one. It evokes the lesson of learning (or choosing) to let go and move on, while not forgetting where we come from, and respectfully and lovingly illustrates the opportunity to continue to live life. As Woody says, “This isn’t goodbye.” 

Fast and Furious

After Toy Story 3, including fifteen years of a string of consecutive hits with critics and audiences, one would think that Pixar could do no wrong. The following year, however, they experienced what would be the beginning of a three-year slump. 

Director John Lasseter was inspired to make Cars 2 (2011) after the 2006 original’s international tour. The final film mainly takes original characters (and new ones) around the world. Specifically, Lasseter imagined what Mater the tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) would do and how he would react in the real world—in places he’s never been before. In the film, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) serves more of a supporting role as he races in the World Grand Prix. Meanwhile, Mater, through a series of manic mishaps and misunderstandings, is caught up in international espionage with experienced secret agents. The irony is that his auto expertise, hometown experiences, and enthusiasm inadvertently serve him well in the secret agent field. (Talk about an unlikely hero.) The plot also involves Gremlin cars, and a supposed conflict between electric and gas-powered vehicles (a convoluted plot element that many film critics didn’t like. WALL*E certainly had an ecological/environmental subtext as well, though that film still had heart).

While the first film recalled nostalgia of the 50s and 60s, this film replaces that in favor of Hot Wheels action, entertainment, and spy thrills. The film is great fun to look at, what with its “car”-ification of characters and countries, and its meticulous designs of Japan, Italy, and London. The film also includes as diverse a voice cast as the first film had, including John Turtorro as an Italian Formula One race car, and Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer as spy cars with gadgets. The subplots involving international espionage and world racing give the film global appeal, which last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron also did really well. This gives Cars 2 a visual, childlike charm, yet is a bit concerning, considering that some characters do end up dead. One such scene, with an interrogation, involves torture and ends with an exploding engine. 

Lightning McQueen and Mater
There’s not much character development, although these characters do pick up where they left off in the last film. The importance of friendship is challenged. Yet, that message is not forgotten in the form of residents of Radiator Springs. The theme of identity and reality check, particularly in how others see us or how we see ourselves, proves significant as well. Along with that is the point that our imperfections remind us of our mistakes and are deemed “valuable” by how we grow from them. Lastly, the races don’t matter as much as the spy thrills, which plays well into the reiterated theme that winning isn’t everything. Plus, it’s the small things that save the day.

Cars 2 is considered to be the studio’s biggest critical misfire. (It carries a 39 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with mixed-to-negative reviews.) Many critics considered the film a “lemon,” like the adversary cars themselves. The same went for the tied-in merchandising. There were a minority of critics, including the late Roger Ebert and Peter Travers, who did enjoy the film. Lasseter, like McQueen, also stood by and defended his pet project and stated he’s proud of the film, particularly audiences’ response to it. In my opinion, when you read more about Cars 2 on, you may appreciate it a little more. 

Animal House

Monsters University (2013) presents a creative and funny representation (er, “monsterization”) of college life, parodying frat houses and archetypes, including the underdogs. Quite literally, it’s an “animal house”. The film finds how Mike and Sulley (voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman) met—in college. Both dreamed of becoming scarers, yet both did not begin as the best of friends. (As the film’s tagline states, “Before they were incorporated, they were educated.”) 

Mike is portrayed as the book-smart student, while Sulley is the lazy and ignorant but natural-born scarer from a famous family. Soon-to-be-rival Randall is portrayed as Mike’s one-time roommate, known as “Randy” and wearing glasses. (The latter wants to join the in-crowd from the get-go.) For most of his life, Mike has been looked down as somebody who had no potential in him to do great things. Like the original, both Mike and Sulley want to be best at what they do, although Mike is clearly more ambitious than Sulley is. (For Sulley, the message is just because some of us come from a great family, that’s not enough to make ourselves “great”.) Their bitter initial rivalry soon costs them, and gets them kicked out of the “Scaring Program.” But when Mike sees an opportunity to get back in, by means of an annual “Scare Games” competition, he strikes a deal with the stern Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), and soon he and Sulley end up in the outcast fraternity on campus, titled “Oozma Kappa” (or, simply, “OK”. Think an “Island of Misfit Scarers”). 

Oozma Kappa fraternity: (l-r) Squishy, Don, Sulley, Mike, Terri, Terry, and Art
Director Dan Scanlon (“Mater and the Ghostlight”) pays homage to the 2001 original, including some scenes on the scare floor and brief cameos from some original characters. There’s so much attention to detail, as well as different “scare” techniques involved. The comedy is great and hilarious, thanks, in part, to the cast of supporting characters who help carry and/or steal the show. Such include undeclared student Art (voiced by Charlie Day), middle-aged Don Carlton (voiced by Joel Murray), and Squishy (voiced by Peter Sohn). There’s even a pig mascot. And while fun, the movie changes the backstory of how Mike and Sulley met. (In the original, it’s implied they’ve known each other since fourth grade.) 

On one hand, if it would have been more about the supporting characters (and had mentioned that Mike and Sulley had known each other long before college and rivaled as far back as then and ended up in the same school), it could have been better. Yet, if you think of it as an alternative film apart from the original, it’s fine. And it is entertaining.

Its central messages are worthwhile, particularly doubts and expectations towards Mike and Sulley, respectfully. There are also themes of identity and reality, in terms of what we are each capable of and not capable of, yet recognizing our differences and uniqueness, and how examples can bring out the best in others and change the world, step by step. As with the first film, the theme of dying to dreams is present; dying to everything we work for and an awareness of what we work for. I’m reminded of dreams and ambitions I had in college, in terms of wanting to be “great” as Mike wanted to be. Yet, I eventually chose a different direction and saw how I could still contribute to what I was passionate about. In terms of how these characters learn that, the film’s story is written brilliantly and surprisingly. 

To Infinity and Beyond . . . With What's Next . . .

As far as the critical and industry view goes on Pixar making sequels, the studio's lineup includes new installments for Finding Nemo (next summer's Finding Dory), Toy Story (a fourth film, reported to be a "romantic comedy"), Cars, and The Incredibles. As far as original stories go, there's the recently-released The Good Dinosaur (a good and amazing film) and the upcoming CoCo (from Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich). We also can't make the mistake that Pixar will always make perfect movies, though we can be excited for them. (You can read an old post I wrote on the matter here.) Even some of Disney's films weren't great. Even so, we can expect (and hope) that Pixar will continue to make worthwhile films with stories and characters that are transcending and universal, even if they're new installments in franchises. 

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