Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The First Annual Pixar Showdown

As part of the “Great Movie Tournament” that I’m working on over at The Main Muchacho Blog , I had an exchange with my friend the Brawny Hombre regarding the relative merits of the various Pixar movies. It is his contention that ‘UP’ is an inferior film to Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles (at the very least) and is, aside from the outstanding opening sequence, a weaker entry into the Pixar Pantheon.

This struck me as a patently insane, but I’ll also grant that I’ve never really sat down and thought about them all that much as a group. Individually, sure, but not comparing them to one another.
So… that’s what I’m fixin’ to do.

As with just about all of my lists and rankings and tournaments, my reasoning is my own only and isn’t all that scientific. That’s just how it goes. Feel free to totally disagree with me in the comments. I love that kind of stuff. Oh, and obviously I’ll have to re-evaluate the entire list once Brave comes out in a month.
Starting at the bottom…

Cars 2 I didn’t see it. I had no interest in seeing it. Despite the popularity of the first one, it’s probably my least favorite of the Pixar films I’ve seen, and by all accounts, this sequel is by far the weakest of any Pixar release to date. To provide just a tiny amount of backup for my opinion, Rotten Tomatoes has it rated at 38% Rotten. This means that of ALLLLLL the reviews they consider (198 reviews), only 38% of them could be counted as positive. To be honest, this is kind of embarrassing, but I’ll allow one dud here or there when the AVERAGE rating among all the other Non-Cars Pixar movies was 97% Fresh. That’s 10 movies. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the poorly reviewed sequel to my previously least favorite Pixar movie is my lowest rated, even without seeing it.

Cars There are a lot of good things about this movie. The legendary Paul Newman gives a fantastic voice performance. The art direction is really fun, and interesting too. I love the world they created where everything is car-related.
It’s really striking. There are a ton of little details like that throughout the movie, and if the plot and other voice actors had matched up to the artistry, I think it could have easily been listed higher. It’s essentially Pixar’s version of a classic sports movie. Or even, maybe more accurately, Pixar’s version of Kickboxer. The cocky prodigy who only cares about himself is embarrassed or exiled and learns to care about other people, and maybe finds love. It’s all very familiar. And mostly kinda boring. Also, and I know this is piling on a bit, Larry the Cable Guy voices the rusty tow truck, and well… it’s about as dumb as you’d expect it to be.

Ratatouille Alright, calm down! After getting the two sub-par Cars flicks out of the way early, I’m faced with the challenge of ranking ten movies that I love. It’s like trying to choose among your kids. Except I sometimes think I’d be the kind of parent to definitely have a favorite kid, so maybe this is even tougher. Ratatouille is a fantastic movie. The animation is incredible. The visuals are excellent. The premise is very clever. The characters are all memorable. If I’m going to nitpick, I’d say that the focus of conflict is just a tad bit too divided between the main characters (Remy the Rat and Linguini). I also think that the villain’s objective (to create microwave dinners…or something) is a little silly, even as far as Disney Villain Objectives go. Aside from that, I love the payoff with the food critic (Voiced by Peter O’Toole) and his love of a simple ratatouille. It’s really a touching, and elegant little movie. It’s just that I love the rest of these movies just a littttttle bit more.
It’s almost like… If I have these ten films on DVD and I had to choose the order in which I’d watch. That’s sort of what this list is… Except in reverse order from least likely to most.

Toy Story 2 It’s a beloved film, and rightly so, but to me, it falls just slightly below its brothers. I love the addition of Kelsey Grammar as “Stinky Pete”, and of course, we get the more permanent additions of Bullseye and Jessie. It’s hard to argue against it, so I won’t try.

My only comment is that as I was going through this list, I could readily tell you the plot of each and every one of the movies, but for whatever reason I had a hard time telling you the exact ins and outs for the plot of Toy Story 2. This has to say something right? I actually had to look on Wikipedia to remind myself of certain details.. Like… it being the owner of Al’s Toy Barn who steals Woody, and how Stinky Pete wants to go to Japan. Those seem like major plot points that I wouldn’t have been able to point out without cheating.

I dunno, but this seems significant to me. Despite the great, deep characters, and despite the amazing animation and dialogue… I can’t remember major plot points. Something about it doesn’t stick with me.

Wall-E Okay… wow. I know for sure that I’m gonna hear about this one, but just remember.. at this point it’s levels of love, not levels of dislike. I’m gonna have to be a little nitpicky.

There are so many great things about Wall-E. The utterly amazingly detailed post-apocalyptic world where we meet Wall-E. The nearly wordless opening 30 minutes where you’re just transfixed. The beautiful, simple (and yet totally compelling) love story between two robots. The great details about the ship, and the less than subtle nods to H.A.L. with OTTO. There are really only two things that deduct points for me…

First… I don’t really like ‘Hello Dolly’, so the “It Only Takes a Moment” repetition is tough to take. Seems like they could have chosen a different movie musical from which to pull the love theme. (I told you I was being nitpicky)

Second… While I totally agree with the message of the film about conservation, and about living an active lifestyle, I do feel like it’s a little tiny bit heavy-handed in execution.

Points are awarded for the phenomenal closing credits sequence where the Earth is re-built and re-planted. Fantastic.

Toy Story It’s the movie that started it all with Pixar, and it’s really a fantastic film. I love Tom Hanks. I love Tim Allen (in this movie at least). The animation is clever. All of the physics-related or toy related details they give the toys, like when Woody is a rag-doll versus when he’s “alive” or how the Green Army Men all have those flat plastic discs where their feet are… those are great little details. Randy Newman gives us one of the great Disney songs ever, in “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.

Maybe, most importantly, Toy Story introduced us to a very specific and very beloved world and paved the way for all of the phenomenal adventures to come.

My only issue with it is that the scale seems fairly small. TS 2 takes you to airports and toy stores and planes and all kinds of places. TS 3 takes you to multiple homes, a day care center, an absolutely TERRIFYING trash dump. The first movie just feels small in comparison. That’s all I have in terms of complaints. Weak argument, right? I mean come on! It’s a fantastic movie. I’m not going to pretend it’s bad just because there are other ones I prefer.

Monsters Inc. I’m not gonna lie. I love this movie. I was reminded of this just the other day when I watched the first half-hour of it kind of randomly at the Tofu Muchacha’s sister’s house.
It’s awesome, and hilarious, and awesome. The door sequence is excellent. The stuff with the abominable snowman is awesome. Randall is a truly evil villain. The Pun-derful texture they give Monsteropolis overall is so fun, and so detailed that it certainly merits enough rich material to bring on the sequel “Monster University” coming in a couple of years. I can’t wait. I predict a film closer in quality to Toy Story 2 than Cars 2. No question.

Billy Crystal and John Goodman are both excellent also, and work so, so well together. Heck… they even managed to find something for the long lost Jennifer Tilly to do. It’s hard to argue against Monster’s Inc…

Here’s my attempt in 2 points.

First… Boo is gone for a really long time, and there’s absolutely no mention of her parents. You have to feel pretty bad for these poor people whose daughter disappears from her bedroom in the middle of the night and is gone for 24 hours or so. I sometimes get distracted by the logistics of what would have happened had Boo been a real person and really went missing. I’m almost certain Nancy Grace would have been involved.

Second… The final solution (no… not that one) is a little twee…” Laughter is 100 times more powerful than screams. “ I get that we’re talking about a children’s movie, so it makes sense in context, but It’s a tad corny for my taste.

Here’s where we get deep into the nitty gritty of Pixar Movie Rankings. My Top 5

5) The Incredibles The Incredibles features my favorite villain (Syndrome). My favorite premise (super heroes coming out of retirement to save the world). My favorite genre (super heroes again), and some of the most unforgettable scenes in all of Disney filmdom, and probably my favorite dialogue:

Example A: Frozone – “Honeeyyyy…. Where’s my super suit?”
Mrs. Frozone
“Why do you NEED to know?”

– “
You tell me where my suit is, woman! We are talking about the greater good!”

Example B:
Edna: It will be bold! Dramatic! Bob: Yeah! Edna: Heroic! Bob: Yeah. Something classic, like, like Dynaguy. Oh, he had a great look! Oh, the cape and the boots...
: No capes! Bob: Isn't that my decision?
: Do you remember Thunderhead? Tall, storm powers? Nice man, good with kids.
: Listen, E... Edna: November 15th of '58! All was well, another day saved, when... his cape snagged on a missile fin!
: Thunderhead was not the brightest bulb...
: Stratogale! April 23rd, '57! Cape caught in a jet turbine! Bob: E, you can't generalize about these things...
: Metaman, express elevator! Dynaguy, snagged on takeoff! Splashdown, sucked into a vortex! No capes!
Yeah… it’s all really good, actually. I thought about just giving you like 500 Incredibles quotes, but I figured that would be dumb. It’s fun, and clever, and maybe best of all… It gave me an idea for a play about super villain henchmen that never really got off the ground, but now that I’m thinking about it, I should re-visit.

Also… Syndrome is a great villain and Jason Lee does a really nice job voicing him.

Good stuff. The only reason it doesn’t rank higher is that it lacks a certain emotional impact that the others seem to do better.

Speaking of…

4) Up You want to talk about emotional impact? The first 10 minutes of this movie arguably comprise the most emotional, gut wrenching, knee-bucklingly emotional opening to a movie… maybe ever.

The Brawny Hombre contends that it’s all downhill from there, but I love super-cranky old codgers, so Carl Fredricksen is especially entertaining for me. I also think that the thing that differentiates this one from say… Toy Story is that while Toy Story remains fairly small scale, this film intentionally creates a broad and varied world spanning thousands of miles and environments. The scenery is so pretty to look at too.

On top of that, you have one of the most hilarious yet dangerous villains in Disney history with Charles Muntz and his hoard of hyper-intelligent dogs (except for Dug, who happens to be fantastic). I tell you… hearing Alpha talking in that crazy high voice throughout a lot of the movie… that makes me laugh every. Single. Time. Priceless.
I mentioned something about how Muntz is both funny and dangerous. In my opinion, it should be the goal of every writer to create villains with the highest combined dynamic of “Funny” and “Dangerous”… at least in the Disney world. The best examples of great Disney villains (Captain Hook, Ursula) are the ones who are fun and funny, and yet you believe the mean to do real damage. Muntz is that kind of menacing.

But you know… ultimately, even though I love the whole movie, and the bit at the end where Carl gives Russell his grape soda badge makes me cry like a tiny baby… The true grace of this movie lies in that opening sequence which is so beautifully written and executed that there’s really nothing bad that can be said. Here are some quotes from notoriously tough movie critics:

David Denby, The New Yorker: “
The marital sequence is one of the most moving animated episodes ever made. It’s like looking through a family photo album and knowing that every picture represents a crucial moment of experience.”

Tom Long, Detroit News: “This graceful, visually eloquent and emotionally rich sequence may be the best few minutes of film you'll ever see.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Those first scenes function as both a prologue and a life story compacted into 10 breathtakingly beautiful minutes - it's a Pixar short, really, and possibly the best the company has ever done.”

These guys pan pretty much everything they can (as do most movie critics), and each of the three were completely taken aback by this opening sequence. Hard to argue.
I think, though, what I love the most about this movie is the late-life arc of Carl. Seeing him go from emotionally shut-down, to joyfully childlike, to lovingly paternal, to at peace… It’s a lovely journey.

3. A Bug’s Life As opposed to Up, which gets me by being really emotionally impactful, A Bug’s Life gets me for perhaps the opposite reason… It barely takes a single moment really seriously, and it’s so light-hearted and fun.. it’s definitely the first Pixar movie I’d choose if I just need a ton of laughs.

Highlighting the humor are the dozen or so great performances. Dave Foley as Flick, Julia Louis Dreyfuss as Atta, Phyllis Diller as the queen, Richard Kind as Molt, David Hyde Pierce as Slim, Joe Ranft as Hemlich, Dennis Leary… It just keeps going and going and going. The voice talent may be the greatest ever assembled just for sheer comic clout.

I love the fantastic “Bug World” versions of things we have in the real world. Other movies do this, especially in the Pixar universe (Monsters Inc is the biggest example), but none do it better, or more cleverly than A Bug’s Life. (The “Big City” is a heap of trash under a trailer, which if you think about it really would be the big city for a tiny bug from the country. ) I love the riffs on “life as a bug” which… you know… makes sense since the movie is called “A Bug’s Life”. My favorite one is the joke about the bug zapper…
Bug 1: “Harry, No! Don’t look at the light!

Bug 2: “I can’t help it… it’s so beautiful”….ZAP!!!

Oh man… I’m laughing right now.

Maybe the best thing about the movie, though, is Kevin Spacey’s performance as Hopper, the scariest villain in Pixar’s history. He’s so evil and nefarious, he requires a hoard of super dumb, cartoonish henchmen to lessen his “Evil Quotient”. I mean… Hopper is a total monster. And I LOVE it.
Actually, it’s very possible that my love for this movie is enhanced by my love for “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” at Disney’s Animal Kindom, where the moment where Hopper pops up in a burst of smoke and terror, and the children in the crown invariably start crying. Wow do I love that. I know it’s a sick kind of thing to admit, but it’s so counter-Disney in a way… He’s so scary and mean. It’s awesome, and unexpected.

The writing is funny. The visuals are beautiful. The performances are perfect… It’s just a truly wonderful movie, full of fancy and so light-hearted. Yet, paradoxically, it features the scariest villain in the whole discussion, and it all manages to work in concert to create a fantastic movie.

2) Toy Story 3 The Brawny Hombre and I were debating whether Toy Story 3 or Memento should fill the last spot in our Best Movie Tournament. He was leaning toward Memento (ultimately the choice was his, as we alternated picks), and he asked me to make the case for Toy Story 3. Here’s what I said:

Sequels are never “necessary” per se, but in this case, I do feel that it’s the strongest of the 3 Toy Story films, and partly because it found the absolute perfect balance of allowing the audience to bank all of that built up love and nostalgia for the characters while providing them still plausible stakes. The ending provides a payoff that was 3 films in the making, and the fans who grew up with it found more emotional impact in that ending than maybe any movie ever.
Looking back at the relatively short paragraph, I’m pretty surprised at myself for being so brief. It turns out to be a pretty good point, though.

Really… There are basically two ways sequels go.

The majority capitalize on the familiarity the audience has with the characters to make self-referential jokes, rehash old storylines, or maybe just force a bunch of 2nd rate plotting and movie making on an audience who is basically captive by their collective fondness for the original. The Hangover 2 (and the coming 3rd movie… I mean… the luck these guys have) . All of the new Star Wars movies. The last Indiana Jones movie. The 2nd and 3rd Transformers movies. Pirates 2, 3, and 4 to increasing degrees. These are all movies with fantastic first installments, where the movie-makers all took advantage of every inch of good will and nice feelings people had, and kind of trashed them.

The other type of sequel takes the love people have for the original. For the characters and for the world it created, and deepen those connections through good story-telling. It’s possible that Toy Story 3 is the greatest example of this in animation history.

You could almost look at the first 2 fantastic installments as exposition. As glorious, rich background to contribute to the tapestry of the third. I’m sort of having a difficult time totally explaining this…

Basically, all of the things you know about the characters from the first two movies, and all of the love you have for them only accentuates the emotion as it builds throughout Toy Story 3.

When Lotso (a really excellent villain who is at times sympathetic, sad, tragic, evil, sociopathic, and occasionally all of those at once), tells Woody that he was never loved, the audience KNOWS this isn’t true, so it’s more gut wrenching when Woody has the same doubt.

In the end, I believe that Toy Story 3 could arguably be the greatest “Third” installment in any film series, with the possible exception of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, though that’s an interesting debate.

1)Finding Nemo
Perhaps a controversial top pick based on how incredibly popular the likes of Up and Wall-E and The Incredibles all are…

To me, Finding Nemo was the movie that most solidified Pixar’s place in my mind as being truly superior to all other animation production companies. Before that there were some entertaining movies that demonstrated some great story telling and great visuals, but it wasn’t until Finding Nemo that I felt like they were really doing something totally new, totally clever, and insanely watchable. I have 8 reasons it’s my favorite.

1… Finding Nemo is mind-blowingly beautiful. Maybe it’s an easy mark to set a movie with “realistic animation” in the great barrier reef (or you know… whatever similar Australian reef it’s set in). Maybe that’s what we call “Low hanging fruit”, but it’s also perfectly executed. Spectacularly executed. The initial reveal of the coral reef when the colors brighten and the big blue world opens up… It’s one of those “wow” moments.
2… The scope to Pixar movies to that point had been, for the most part, fairly small-scale. The Toy Storys primarily take place in regular sized rooms with tiny toys. A Bugs Life takes place almost entirely on a little tree island in the middle of a field. Monsters Inc was slightly larger, but still dealt with a neighborhood, or a factory, or even the side of a mountain.

And then Finding Nemo comes out and it starts off so small and unassumingly, but suddenly the boat shows up, takes Nemo away, and our characters are faced with the biggest environment possible. The Ocean. I love the possibilities for which this allows.
3… Casting Albert Brooks and Ellen Degeneres as the two primary voice actors was genius. They’re both so funny, and they play off of each other so well. I could watch Dory and Marlin speak develop their lovely, innocent friendship for like…ever. It’s just a wonderfully written relationship.

4… All of the extra characters and interactions are each spectacularly fun and funny. The three sharks (Bruce, Chum, and Anchor) having their “Meat eaters Meeting”. The school of shiny fish giving Dory directions to Sydney (Swim THROUGH it not OVER it). The awesome encounter with the Angler Fish. The little Boston accented crabs, and how can we forget the hilarious and slightly terrifying Seagulls.

5… The entirety of the dentist office. It’s just a hilarious and heartening “B” location. The wacky initiation rituals, Gill’s parallel disability to Nemo’s, the horrible menace that is DARLA! It’s so awesome.

6… It’s ends up being so emotional and moving, with Marlin finally trusting that Nemo can take care of himself even if just a little, and letting go. This act of faith saves the life of Dory, saves all of the fish in the trawler’s net, and improbably tips over the fishing boat. It sounds kind of silly, but it’s really a nice little climax for a movie without a true villain. It’s an Odyssian journey with episodic stumbling blocks and personal development, rather than a film with a single goal of defeating the bad guy.

7… The jarring beginning of the movie… I’m a total sucker for giving movies that are ostensibly meant for kids having dark or difficult scenes, and the death of Nemo’s mother (Marlin’s wife) at the very start of the film is pretty shocking, and pretty scary. I can imagine taking a 6 year old kid to see that, and watching their face just freeze in shock when that barracuda obliterates the nest. Amazing and gutsy choice.

8… It spawned my favorite Disney live show! At some point I’ll write a whole blog about the awesome “Finding Nemo: The Musical” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It’s so well done, and so catchy. The Tofu Muchacha have the soundtrack on CD and listen to it in the car regularly. It was written the same folks who created Avenue Q, and that sort of professionalism and polish show throughout the show with how clever, and polished it is.

So anyway… that’s my list. It’s probably not the same as your list, and that’s awesome. The coolest thing about Pixar, is that (with the possible exception of Cars 2), each of the movies could potentially make the argument for being number one. I even acknowledge that many of my reasons are nothing more than my fumbling articulations of a gut reaction when I wrote out the list. I knew only 2 things going in… Cars 2 was my least favorite, and Finding Nemo was my favorite.


  1. Guess I'll have to see Toy Story 2 and 3, now. And give Incredibles another chance.

    Wall-E might be my fave, of those I've seen.

  2. Isn't the song in Wall-E "Put on your Sunday Clothes" from Hello Dolly? That is what I remember but that wasn't my favorite movie so I might be wrong.

    Oh, I was at Disneyland/DCA the other day and we were hanging out in the lobby of the Animation Bldg. They have all these screens surrounding a bunch of couches and you can sit there as long as you want and watch drawings/animation/art of all Disney animated movies play along with music from the films. We sat there for a bit and the beginning of UP started playing. That is my favorite part of UP (besides the dog) but guess what? They cut out the baby part!! I guess they deemed that too much for a day at DCA. I thought it was weird because it continued on to the end when Ellie had died.

    Great blog, as usual!!