(In French, Video on Demand, February 2016) Argh. After Inside Out did much to revive faith in Pixar’s rising fortunes after a string of underwhelming films, here comes The Good Dinosaur to put those expectations in check again. The Good Dinosaur certain has its share of good and remarkable moments. As an animated film, it presents lush outdoor landscapes the likes of which have never been seen so far—the realism is so spectacular that the end credits, playing over landscapes, are worth seeing by their own. It’s even more of a spectacular breakthrough considering that the film often takes place against expansive landscapes, far from the closed rooms of much of computer animation. The script manages to pack some emotion, the characters are often sympathetic, the story is neatly wrapped up and it’s short enough not to bore. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur is also a very basic film: The story is straightforward in a way that Pixar movies never are, going through formulaic plot points in strictly linear fashion. It reuses a big cliché of kids’ movies, and seems to be focusing its energy on fully realizing its landscape rather than buff the script. There are occasional touches of humour (“This is Dreamcrusher. He protects me from having unrealistic goals.”) that paradoxically remind us that this isn’t much of a funny film nor a particularly witty one. It is, in other words, a perfectly competent film that does not reach the next level that Pixar regularly achieved at their best. After Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur a disappointing retreat but hopefully not a sign of Pixar’s future—although their sequel-heavy upcoming slate isn’t exactly a good sign.
(Netflix Streaming, January 2016) Much of the recent criticism of Pixar, in the wake of Cars 2 all the way to Monsters University, has been rooted in the knowledge that for most of its history, Pixar has not only delivered, but over-delivered. Their movies didn’t just have high concepts, they crammed as much invention as possible in those frameworks, to offer sequences never before seen, strong thematic symbolism and deep emotional cues. (Especially in their Ratatouille, Up!, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 home-run.) Their last few films were well executed but far more ordinary. Now here comes Inside Out to bring Pixar back to its former glories: another incredibly high concept, eye-watering emotional moments, and never-seen-before plot points. Consider that it’s a story that almost entirely takes place within a 12-year-old girl’s mind, climaxes on her deciding (or not) to run away from home, celebrates sadness as an essential part of the psyche and plays far differently for kids and adults. It’s nothing short of a tour-de-force and this despite offering a number of metaphors that break down once you stretch them a little. (It’s in the nature of the incarnated emotions and the film’s theory of the mind that you just want to play with the high concept, extend it, try to make it fit in ordinary and ridiculous situations.) Pixar’s technical game is as good as it gets as well, with fantastic animation and a visual motif of “points of light” making up the characters, lending Inside Out a distinctive atmosphere that leaves lesser efforts far behind in sheer polish. As a movie, it’s great but as a reminder of what Pixar can do once it abandons formula, it’s even better.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) No one really demanded a prequel to Monsters Inc, and the fact that Pixar delivered one anyway is yet another cautionary item in the growing list of why the studio had gone from great to merely good. Still, for all of the mixed expectations surrounding the film and the somewhat generic nature of the end product, there’s no use denying that Monsters University is a high-energy, high-concept, high-budget film, carefully plotted and attentively executed with an astonishing amount of near-imperceptible detail. Coming off as I did from an extended diet of low-budget films, it feels like a breath of fresh air and a reaffirmation of the possibilities of imaginative cinema. Oh, all right: Monsters University isn’t that good. It curiously adopts a college-film plot template in a film destined to older kids, presents set-pieces that are a bit scattered, suffers from a drawn-out ending, and doesn’t quite get full marks on the “Revenge of the Nerds” frat comedy character interest scale. On the other hand, well, the money shows: the animation is as good as any other animated movie so far, with the cartoonish nature of its creatures only enhanced by the photorealism of the background. The universe of the first film is expanded coherently, and the lead character work is just fine. As damning as it is, Monsters University apes one of its lead characters by being technically proficient but not quite fully invested emotionally. It’s a pleasant disappointment, a fun but ultimately forgettable piece of entertainment. It’s all well and good to stay in business and generate merchandising opportunities for monster-corporation Disney, but Pixar hasn’t become the dominant animation studio by taking the easy way forward. Is it now happier just delivering the expected?
(On Cable TV, May 2013) While we’re still a long way from treating Pixar’s newest films as "just another animated movie", the last few offerings from this one-infallible studio have been, well, flawed. Not bad, not terrible, just noticeably less accomplished as their best. Brave comes at a crucial junction in the company’s history, soon after being formally acquired by Disney. As such, it’s perhaps dismaying to find out that the narrative revolves around a princess: that particular Disney tradition feels overused enough that Pixar didn’t need to take it up as well. But let’s not be too harsh, because Brave isn’t the usual princess-in-peril story: in fact, it’s very much a Pixar film in how it tweaks a few expectations, upends usual narrative schemes and even explores new grounds for the company in centering around a strong female character. Our heroine Merida is very much her own young woman, and much of the film’s tension is in seeing her deal with what she wants as opposed to what is expected her… in addition to revisiting her relationship with people she knows. The synthetic visuals of Highland Scotland are beautiful, and Pixar’s flair with CGI-enhanced direction is still as good as ever. The story is engrossing despite a few concessions to the younger set (some easy gags, usually concerning the triplet characters), while the classic rebellious-teenager trope is handled with a fair bit of maturity. In a few words, preconceptions may be the single worst thing running against Brave: approaching it without the burden of previous Pixar and Disney movies may be the best thing in order to appreciate the film on its own terms.
(In theaters, June 2011) For years, Cars held the distinction of being Pixar’s worst-reviewed film, even as it led to massive merchandising sales for Disney. Now it’s about to lose this dubious honour to its own sequel: Cars 2 is, by a significant margin, the least impressive Pixar film, probably their first artistic flop to date. I wasn’t a big fan of the original, with its ludicrous word-building, nostalgic sentimentalism and annoying characters. But Cars now looks like a controlled achievement compared to its sequel, which ditches small-town blues for international espionage comedy and puts the most exasperating character of the franchise front and center. Yes, this time around it’s Larry the Towtruck Guy who gets to star in another just-as-dumb riff on the mistaken-spy tropes, albeit with extra-special what-the-what? sauce given how the film delves into alternate energy source. The villain’s plan barely makes sense in a “wouldn’t there be easier ways to do this?”, the world-building is just as superficial (Dinosaurs? Staircases? Wait: Dinosaurs?) but most damagingly of all, there’s a strong feeling that this is really a movie for kids that has very little to say to the adults. Now, keep in mind that most of this bile is unjustified when read cold –most of it comes from the step down in quality after the extraordinary streak that Pixar managed for so long: After Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up! And Toy Story 3, something like Cars 2 –which clearly manages to satisfy expectations for a kid’s film—feels like a substantial disappointment. There’s nothing really unlikable about the film, nor (aside from some cartoon violence) is it reprehensible or badly made. The visual quality of the film is spectacular, and the numerous side-gags will earn the film at least a second viewing. In a good mood, I may even praise the risks taken by the filmmakers in widening the scope of the series so dramatically (now with planes! And ships!) and how, if the script is using well-worn tropes, it’s not exactly doing so dumbly. Heck, I may even point out that I was enjoying myself during the film. Still, there’s a difference between Cars 2 and the extraordinary output that Pixar sustained over the past half-decade, and it’s that difference that makes the difference. Any other animation studio would kill for a film this good. From Pixar, though, we’re left wondering “Really?”
(In Theaters, July 2010) Making a sequel to a beloved film is usually a loser’s game: We can all name follow-ups to classics that were derided, pilloried or (worse) forgotten. But if anyone can buck the trend, it’s Pixar, a studio so sure-footed in its choices since the original Toy Story back in 1995 that even their most disappointing films have been a cut above average. So there is no surprise and considerable cheer if Toy Story 3 once again proves to be an extraordinary achievement. Even its status as a sequel becomes an asset as the story ages along its characters, features long-running payoffs (“The Claw!”) and hits an emotional climax that wouldn’t be nearly so effective if it didn’t mark the end of a 15-year journey: its surprising thematic depth about loss and renewal actually depends on it being a sequel. As for the rest, it’s classic Pixar top-shelf material: Thrilling action sequences, numerous sight gags, honest character development, inventive sequences and a rhythm that makes everything go by the blink of an eye. Any comparisons with the previous two movies will highlight the exceptional quality of the computer animation, which is particularly effective in dealing with human figures –and fortunately so given the importance that they play in the narrative. But it’s the emotional impact of the film that will remain long after the incredible detail of its visuals have been forgotten: Unlike Up, the script wisely keeps its bawling moments for the end, and thus caps a complete film experience that delivers everything one could wish for in a mass-market entertainment blockbuster. As usual for Pixar (not that they should be taken for granted), Toy Story 3 is a solid choice for year’s end consideration and one of the finest “Part Three” ever made so far. The only way it could be better is if there is no “Part Four”. Ever.
(In theaters, June 2009): Will Pixar ever stop surprising audiences? It’s not enough for them to keep producing the best animated films on the face of the planet: They have to take insane chances with what they try to do. Up may be for kids, but it talks to adults by starring an old cranky man who seizes upon his last chance for adventure; it may be a comedy, but it starts with the single saddest ten minutes of film in recent memory. I’ll argue that the film never completely recovers from the strength of this first segment (even the comedy rings hollow when confronting death and loneliness), but I have to acknowledge the insane artistic ambition of the entire thing. The risk-taking never stops: The cast of characters for the entire film is tiny, half of them aren’t human, and the blatant symbolism of a character walking around with an entire house’s worth of baggage never feels forced. (On the other hand, the mean-spirited climax strikes a false note.) Ultimately, I may not love Up (and Wall-E) quite as much as I love Ratatouille, but it’s impossible to take a look at Pixar’s last few films and feel that they’re not trying to do things that other filmmakers won’t even contemplate.
(In theaters, July 2007) After a temporary half-eclipse with Cars, the Pixar team returns in full force with an unbelievably slick film about a gourmet rat and the pleasures of gastronomy. An unlikely mixture, but one that works well: through a mis-matched pair of protagonist who each need something from the other, we’re able to explore the inner workings of a French restaurant. But as usual for Pixar’s best offerings, there’s a lot more under the surface here: Terrific comedy, strong details, sweet romance, superb action scenes, heartfelt moments (including a number of epiphanies, a rare-enough emotion in movies) and exceptional characterization. None of it would be possible without a solid script that allows itself third-act curveballs (it’s not over until it’s really over) and some of the best computer animation ever seen so far. Pixar takes pain to make it appear as easy as they can, but there’s a lot of sophistication under the surface. Witness, for instance, the cleverness in which the photo-perfect food and backgrounds are integrated with the more stylized human and rodent characters: It allows identification and sympathy for the cartoons, while immediately exploiting all we know about food and the physical world. There’s a neat bit of synesthesia at play during some of the sequences, and very clever use of imaginary characters as an expository device. But the mechanics are there for a good reason, and the result is nothing short of a movie-long delight. Funny, thrilling and effortlessly accessible, Ratatouille, like director Brad Bird’s previous The Incredibles, immediately vaults to the top of this year’s list of films.
(Second viewing, In theatres, July 2007) Worth seeing a second time? Certainly! Freed from the constraints of the story, I’m left to enjoy the flawless slapstick animation, the details of the photo-realistic backgrounds, the way the filmmakers set up the shots and the reaction of the crowd around me. A few flaws appear (I’m not too thrilled at who says the line “That’s bad juju”, or the dumb line “I hate to be rude –but we’re French”. After all, you seldom hear “I hate to be the immature product of a delusional capitalistic imperialist society –but we’re American”), but they’re really minor things: The film holds up in every aspect, sign of the meticulous care in which it was fashioned. Ratatouille confirms its place in the yearly Top-10 list, and makes a serious contender for best-of-the-year honours.