Friday, August 24, 2007

Family fun from Silicon Valley

A few posts back I bemoaned Hollywood's abandonment of "American" films for the global market; there are, however, a few exceptions to this general rule, and one of them is certainly the films produced by Pixar, now the animation arm of Walt Disney Studios. Over the past dozen years, Pixar has created eight digitally-animated features (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story II, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Cars, The Incredibles, and now Ratatouille) which have been startling in at least two respects: first, their advancing technology yielded ever-more-ravishing imagery (see Ratatouille's dazzling vision of Paris, above), and second, they used this edge of novelty to disguise a surprising commitment to old-fashioned standards of craft. Pixar's films take shape over a period of years, and, despite their almost luminous imagery, lean toward the time-honored technique of witty seduction of the audience rather than the full-frontal assault of most Hollywood product. Indeed, something in Pixar's light but confident touch hearkens all the way back to the heyday of American film comedy in the 30s and 40s, even if their movies also seem utterly in touch with The Way We Live Now.

Perhaps for these reasons, it's hard to find an adult who isn't addicted to Pixar's pictures (even though all have been G-rated) and without Hollywood's prejudice against "cartoons," it would be easy to imagine Pixar's product taking the Oscar for Best Picture most years (consider: Toy Story vs. Forrest Gump; Monsters, Inc. vs. A Beautiful Mind; Cars vs. Crash; is there any real debate?). Needless to say, I concur with the general admiration for Pixar (and its presiding genius, John Lasseter) - for good reason, all of its films have been hits, most have been blockbusters, and several have been showered with Oscars in the "Animated Feature Film" category.

Yet as everyone oohed and ahhed over this oeuvre (even the Museum of Modern Art got into the act), few have pondered the deeper significance of these movies - or how unusual they are in the tradition of "family films." In a way, this is simply because Pixar reflects with such surprising accuracy both the cultural and economic zeitgeist (indeed, sometimes Pixar seems like the avatar of an entire industry) that the content and style of their movies seem overwhelming "natural" and "right" to today's audiences.

In fact, whenever I begin to discuss Pixar skeptically - or simply objectively - I sense people pulling back: some even unconsciously begin shaking their heads, a la Amy Winehouse contemplating rehab ("No, no, no!"). I realize, of course, that any cool appraisal will put many in mind of the self-indulgent tropes of Anton Ego (left), the hilariously funereal critic of Ratatouille. Still, the truth will out, and on careful examination, one begins to see that in the "family film" tradition, Pixar's product has been most unusual.

The first thing that strikes one when pondering Pixar's output is how rarely children figure in these children's films. Children or adolescents have generally been the stars of traditional family fare, but only Finding Nemo has a child as its protagonist - and even there, Nemo shares top billing with his father. In general, Pixar's fairy tales are mainly concerned with adults: Woody and Buzz lead Toy Story, Sully and Mike are the stars of Monsters, Inc., and Lightning McQueen dominates Cars. True, children were no doubt difficult to render in the early days of digital animation (hence the reliance on toys, cars, and bugs) - still, Pixar rarely wasted time on developing young ant or car characters, and it's intriguing that when children do figure in the story, they're usually portrayed as either cute but undependable (Monsters, Inc.), or as dangerous little terrors (Sid in Toy Story, Darla - at left - in Finding Nemo). John Lasseter has often said that the blueprint for Pixar's films is the traditional quest - but it's almost always a quest by a grown-up, as if Pixar's talent, like many in the narcissistic Baby Boom, couldn't help making even their children's films about themselves (and in the case of Ratatouille, barely disguising what is essentially an adult comedy of manners).

There's also a comparative lack of leading female characters in Pixar movies. That staple of the fairy tale - the girl on the cusp of sexual maturity who wanders through the looking glass, or flies off to Oz - has no place at Pixar. There are certainly positive female images in such movies as The Incredibles and A Bug's Life, and Pixar in general exudes a healthy awareness of sex and romance (compare Lasseter's output, say, to that of the sexless George Lucas) - but still, the Pixar mood is overwhelmingly masculine. Sensitive, but masculine. And somehow deeply solitary (like that of a software developer, unsurprisingly); no Pixar movie ends with the hero winning the hand of - much less wedding - his soulmate, or settling down to reproduce.

Instead, everyone is more concerned with their careers. Jobs and the vicissitudes of corporate life loom large in these family films, from the expert consultants of A Bug's Life to the cease-and-desist orders of The Incredibles, and of course the assembly lines of Monsters, Inc. Most recently, Ratatouille (left) concerned the triumph in the culinary rat race of Rémy, a - yes- rodent. Indeed, if traditional children's tales stressed finding your heart's desire, or bravely saving the kingdom, Pixar's tales usually revolve around passing your performance review.

Not that there's anything wrong with that! One could argue that in devising family films sans families, Pixar has cleverly - and discreetly - adjusted the genre to the current culture, which advises its sons and daughters to stave off marriage until ensconced in the economy, preferably with advanced degree in hand. The corporation has replaced the kingdom, and all the dragons (that aren't digital) reside in those dungeons known as corner offices.

But on second thought, maybe there is something wrong with that. The essentially ex-urban Pixar worldview, though often trembling with threat, tends to avoid genuine shock or emotional chaos. Terrible things may loom, but never actually come to pass, and there is nothing wrong with the world at its root. Bambi's mother is never shot, and Mufasa is saved from the stampede. Evil is really just a big misunderstanding, and so life is always manageable.

And that management has a curious political dimension. Family films have never worn their politics on their sleeves, but in a way Pixar does. Its clever satire of corporate folly disguises the fact that Pixarland is permeated by a "green"-yet-corporate collective mentality to which even the family feels somehow secondary (except, perhaps, in Finding Nemo). The hero in Pixar's pictures is generally attempting to master- or save - that collective through exceptional talent or skill; think Steve Jobs leading a strategy session at Apple, and you have the blueprint for Flik in A Bug's Life and Bob Parr in The Incredibles and Rémy in Ratatouille (minus, of course, the famous Jobs arrogance and micro-management - that's fobbed off on the villains!). And I suppose that's great, if you're Steve Jobs - the rest of us, however, are stuck in the collective, where there's little chance of being seen or heard, but where we no doubt belong (another unspoken Pixar assumption is sociobiological - its heroes have to work to succeed, but they've also got better genes - a central trope of The Incredibles). Of course, many in the audience no doubt enjoy being a Beta - it's certainly not so bad when you've got a Pixar movie to watch. And I suppose it's no surprise that Pixar's pictures should serve as a kind of palimpsest for Silicon Valley culture. But if Bruno Bettelheim's thesis is true, and fairy tales are essentially a child's psychological rehearsal for life, then one wonders what kind of life Pixar's vision is a rehearsal for.

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