Four years ago, it seemed like animation juggernaut Pixar could do no wrong. Their latest film, Toy Story 3, was being acclaimed as the rare second sequel that both matched its progenitors’ achievements and took an evolutionary step forward for the franchise. In terms of box office, critical acclaim, pop culture cache, and awards, Pixar’s track record was unmatched by any other creative force in Hollywood.
Year after year, the company put out films that were a credit to the “General Audiences” rating, and when one of their trailers announced, “From the studio that brought you…” it meant something.
Cut to present day, however, and we find Pixar on much less stable ground. Their last three films, Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, have been met with much more lukewarm receptions than the company standard. Their ongoing merger with mass media conglomerate Disney has led to a larger emphasis on franchise and commercial material from a company that made its name on content. Behind the scenes, both Brave and the upcoming The Good Dinosaur have had their original director removed from the film mid-production, and the latter has been the subject of delays and a laundry list of costly developmental woes. Many film fans have started to wonder if the studio’s seemingly infallible golden age has finally drawn to a close.
Not all news from the Pixar camp is gloomy and doom-y these days, though. Last week the studio revealed details of the plot for their upcoming film Inside Out. The announcement has been well received by many fans and, combined with the pedigree of director Pete Docter, the alleged involvement of award-winning scribe Michael Arndt, and the recent announcement that fan-favorite composer Michael Giacchino will be on board, has many feeling optimistic about the new film. But a great concept and a talented team is one thing. Making a truly great film is another one entirely. Can Inside Out be the film that recaptures the Pixar magic?
All right, hang on. Let’s get one thing clear before we jump in. Come closer, dear reader. Closer, don’t be shy. We’re all friends here, right? Okay: I am in no way implying that Pixar has become an abject failure in recent years. I don’t think the studio has lost its talent. I firmly believe that Cars 2 is the only subpar film the studio has made to date. Brave and Monsters University? Good films. The point of this article, however, is that if in 2010 you had suggested that Pixar was making movies that were merely good, you would have been keelhauled. This was a studio that was churning out groundbreaking, emotionally devastating, and impeccably crafted films that were at the top of the medium on a global level. What we’re trying to ask is not how Pixar can get back to quality filmmaking – it’s how they might get back to making films that are stratospherically good. Savvy?
Trying to define what made Pixar such a relentless filmmaking warhorse is a task beyond the scope of this article. Much has already been made about their unique creative environment, their pursuit of cream of the crop talent, and their exacting, demandingly perfectionist work model. But if I had to boil their genius down to a single word, I think that I would eventually settle on “pioneering.”
Pixar always made a name for itself by pushing boundaries. Their very existence was tied hand-in-hand with the massive gamble that was 3D animation. Their first feature film hit the cinematic landscape like a technological meteor. By the time other studios jumped on the bandwagon of 3D, Pixar had moved into different kinds of innovation: narrative and thematic. Their films bolstered richer and more involving character arcs and emotional journeys than practically any other film in the market, never mind in the ghettoized realm of children’s entertainment. After that, they dove into formal experimentation, playing with color, design, dialogue, and texture. Every great Pixar film has carried with it an air of, “Can you believe what those mad scientists are doing now?!?”
And that is exactly what was so sorely lacking in their latest films. For all the technical proficiency that went into Merida’s flyaway hair, or the inventiveness that made a family-friendly pic out of the skeleton of a frat comedy in Monsters University, the Pixar of late has felt more grounded than ground-breaking.
So, with all of this in mind, here is a wish list of five things I hope to see in Inside Out, inspired by major innovations that Pixar has given us throughout the years. If Docter and company are able to deliver on all of these, we may well have a film worthy of the Pixar pantheon.
1. A Major Technological Breakthrough
Cross Reference: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Cars… Heck, all of them.
Perhaps their most visible form of innovation, being on the vanguard of technological developments has always been a part of Pixar’s brand. Their debut feature heralded the dawn of a new form of long-form animation, and they’ve made a point of never resting on their laurels. Whether it’s more advanced rendering of hair, intricate depictions of water textures, larger continuous digital sets than what’s ever been done, or countless other advances, all great Pixar films will find challenges in their content that’ll push them to set new benchmarks for technical animation.
What are Inside Out’s chances? Fools, it’s Pixar. No matter what ups and downs the studio has had, it’s remained a technological powerhouse that has advanced the craft of the medium with each of its films. It’s too early to predict what new tech will be unleashed upon the public with Inside Out, but it’s safe to say that it’ll be one of the most impeccably animated films of 2015.
2. A New Setting That is Exciting and Different… But Still Tied to Something Familiar
Cross Reference: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, Ratatouille
Half the fun of a new Pixar release is seeing what crazy new settings they’re going to drop us into, and they rarely disappoint. The studio specializes in finding worlds and locales for their stories that lend themselves to high adventure and spectacle. But the truly great Pixar stories go one step further and make settings that are outlandish and exciting while still being tied to something we know and recognize. Whether it’s taking a small part of our life and making it huge to give us a new perspective on it, like they do in Toy Story and Ratatouille, or combining the fantastic with the mundane, as they do in The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc., it’s a key component to their ability to get audiences excited and keep them grounded at the same time.
This is one aspect where the recent crop of Pixar films has not been as effective as their predecessors. Cars 2 and Monsters University were trips back to worlds they had already established which didn’t add enough to their settings to make them feel new. Brave took the viewer into a world that was new for Pixar, but which felt very familiar to anyone who had just seen Tangled and How to Train Your Dragon, never mind some of the older Disney fare. It’s time for Pixar to design a new playground for its audience, one that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.
What are Inside Out’s chances? Extremely good. The basic premise of Inside Out (getting the interior workings of a young girl’s mind as she goes through a tumultuous stage in her life) seems tailor-made for a great Pixar setting. Inside the mind can be as outlandish and over-the-top as the animators can dream up, while the outside can keep us grounded in the identifiable world we understand. Very promising.
3. A New Way to Have Our Heart Broken
Cross References: Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, Up
What’s that you say? You never recovered from this moment? Or this one? How about this one? Look, Pixar has spent nearly two decades making bank from their unparalleled ability to shatter our heart with a tactically deployed nuclear scene, and we, being the masochistic dogs that we are, love them for it. It’s not just their ability to dream up sad content for their films, it’s the expert way they’re able to get us involved. The subtle character development, the careful framings, the sudden reversals, it’s all masterful. Whether it’s a blindsiding sudden revelation that recontextualizes a character (as Jessie’s flashback scene does) or a slowly building realization (a la the opening of Up), Pixar’s expertise at finding new ways to reduce us to a puddle of tears is one of the reasons we love them.
What are Inside Out’s chances? Who knows? If there is some devastatingly tragic content in the film chances are we won’t find out about it until we go see the film, which will make it all the worse. With that said, given how much overlap this film has with the creative teams of Up and Toy Story 3, it might be a good call to bring a box of tissues on opening night.
4. At Least One Formally Innovative Sequence
Cross Reference: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up
Look Lasseter and company, you guys brought this one on yourselves. We were perfectly happy with flawlessly plotted, emotionally rich, complex-character-filled films. You were the ones that started to get really creative. You were the ones that started playing with extended tracking shots, with long stretches of film that perfectly convey meaning without dialogue, and with gorgeous montages that walked us through entire human lifetimes. You showed us you can pull off the most sophisticated filmmaking on the planet, and now we expect it from you every time. Okay, I realize how spoiled I am sounding, but in the late 2000’s Pixar began to really push the envelope not just in technological development, but also in the way they used film form and visuals to tell stories. If they want to make a film that can compete with their big guns, they’re going to have to find some way to come up with something that is just as cutting edge on a purely filmmaking front.
What are Inside Out’s chances? Again, hard to say at this point. The creative roster is there, and the setting lends itself well to harebrained visual excess, but we may not know for sure until we see the film.
5. Something Innovative… for Pixar
Cross Reference: The Incredibles, Brave
For all my praise of Pixar’s pioneering spirit, there are certain common threads that reliably run through almost all of their oeuvre to this point. They’ve been widely and loudly criticized for their lack of female protagonists. (a complaint which Brave tackled valiantly, but with mixed results if public opinion is to be trusted.) Only slightly less vocal are the fans that point out how practically every single Pixar film is a “buddy film.” In other words, almost all their films revolve around a central friendship between two characters, which becomes the main focus of the narrative. Woody and Buzz, Sully and Mike, Marvin and Dory, Remy and Linguini, Wall-E and Eve, Carl and Russell… it’s a very prevalent central conceit, one which very few of their films deviate from (the main exception being the family-focused dynamic of The Incredibles). The great Pixar films of the future will be groundbreaking relative to what every other filmmaker is doing, but they will also push boundaries in terms of the studio’s previous films. They will recognize the recurring patterns and challenge them, making films that stand out from their siblings as much as they do from the crowd.
What are Inside Out’s chances? Very, very promising. It’s already encouraging that Riley, the character whose mind we’re entering, and Joy, the main emotion the film centers on, are both female (or at least female-coded, in the case of Joy), but the fact that the mental landscape focuses on five emotions that all seem incredibly diverse seems to suggest that the narrative arc will be focused away from the typical “buddy film” storyline. Again, there’s plenty of time for more familiar elements to come into focus, but what we’ve seen of Inside Out so far seems to suggest that Pixar is taking this property in a very different, very exciting direction.
Pixar seems to be in a transitional period right now, figuring out how to serve different masters and a shifting identity. With any luck, the two original properties they have coming out next year will see an end to these growing pains and a return to mold-shattering form. The glimpses we’ve had at Inside Out suggest that the project has the potential to be another pioneering masterpiece from the animation giants. Here’s hoping that Pete Docter and company find new ways to reinvent the wheel and blow us away.