So, there’s a brand new Pixar film on the horizon: Inside Out. I say “on the horizon” but it’s actually already been released in the States. Here in the UK we have to wait a couple of weeks longer: it will be landing on July 24th apparently. As a minor, gripey aside, why do a lot of Disney releases still keep on with the staggered release dates? In these days of online connectivity it seems ridiculous to make some countries wait weeks when a film is already out elsewhere, it just seems a recipe for spoilers and / or piracy. I haven’t forgiven Disney yet for making us wait MONTHS for Wreck It Ralph. I was so excited for that film but while the States got it in, I think, October / November, it was something like February before it reached our side of the pond and I’ll admit my enthusiasm was waning by that point. So a couple of weeks delay here is a vast improvement, but why any delay? We get Marvel films simultaneously (indeed, we got Age of Ultron first!) I just don’t understand the logic.
Release schedule grumbling aside, let’s talk Pixar, then.
They’ve produced some of my all time favorite films over the years, especially during the period of the late noughties, which – looking back – seemed a bit like a Pixar golden age. Yes, there’s a retrospective, possibly even nostalgic, tone to that statement, because I have to say I haven’t been so impressed with the studio’s output since 2010. It felt like the magic was lost when they started churning out too many sequels and prequels. But my interest has been rekindled a little by Inside Out: an original story – their first for a while – and, from what I’ve seen and read about it so far, an interesting choice of subject, set inside the mind of a young a girl and featuring her personified emotions. The film’s overall message, that a little sadness is necessary in life, seems a brave and important one to emphasise in a family film. So I’m reasonably interested to see it, although I’ll admit the scene in the trailer which showcased Dad’s inner emotions (which mostly consisted of ignoring his wife and tactlessly misreading the situation) felt a little too much like it was playing up to crass stereotypes. I hope the rest of the film is a little more nuanced than this scene, but you know, even if it isn’t, at least they’ve released this and not Cars 3.
The imminent release of Inside Out seems like a good time to reflect on Pixar releases of old. So after some chin stroking, I’ve put together my Pixar Top Five. I think most of us have a Pixar film or two that inspires particular fondness, so comparing lists is a good way of comparing tastes. I’ve love to know how your preferences stand against mine….
5. Toy Story 3 (2010)
One of the things that really turned me off Pixar in the past few years is all those sequels: Monsters University? Unnecessary. Cars 2? Well I never even liked Cars in the first place. The one exception to the rule that Pixar sequels are generally inferior, and to the wider and well known experience of “sequelitis” (with each subsequent sequel being a little more disappointing than the last) has to be the Toy Story franchise. The third film, directed by Lee Unkrich, delivers some of the trilogy’s finest moments. Toy Story 3 beautifully wraps up the story that began fifteen years previously, with the release of the first film (and first full Pixar movie) way back in 1995, ending it on a triumphant and throat-lump inducingly emotional high.
The Toy Story franchise does actually lend itself to sequels since the core of these films is the contrast between the human children, who grow up and move on, and the toys who remain fixed, unaging and just wanting to be played with. Such longing for continuity in a world defined by change and aging is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, and though this is evident in all 3 of the Toy Story films (including 2 with its digs at mint-in-sealed-box collectors) it’s in 3 – which sees Andy now 17 and preparing for college – that this really comes to the fore. It’s impressive how the film manages to combine a wistful, sobfest core with some engaging Great Escape style action (as the toys plot their exit from the rough handling toddlers of the Daycare centre), and some fantastic humour – often revolving around new cast addition, the ultra-narcissistic Ken doll. Oh, and who can forget the genuine, edge of seat terror of the incinerator scene?
Memorable scene: Barbie’s turn disguised as high-heeled astronaut Ken.
Favourite quote: “But the thing that makes Woody special, is he’ll never give up on you… ever. He’ll be there for you, no matter what.” Andy passing on his toys to Bonnie.
This was a beautiful ending to the trilogy and I was saddened by news that Toy Story 4 is now on the agenda. I really think Pixar should have stopped here. Yes the toys can technically go on until their plastic rots but that doesn’t mean they need another cinematic outing. But then – cynical mode engaged – with Toy Story being perhaps the easiest of all Disney franchises to merchandise (toys of toys, anyone?), another sequel was probably inevitable, however unneeded.
4. Up (2009)
Going in to the cinema for this one I remember having no idea what to expect: a cranky old man and a floating house?!? This Pete Docter directed picture certainly had originality, but it didn’t seem to have as clearly expressible a schtick as many of the studio’s other ventures. I went to see it anyway, on the strength of the two films that had preceded it, both of which I adored (see below). And it turns out I was not disappointed. Up walks a fascinating line as the film that manages to combine some of the silliest, and most kid-friendly scenes in the Pixar oeuvre (talking dog dirigible chase anyone?) with some of the most understated, adult and – ultimately heart-breaking ones. Plenty of good films can have their audiences reaching for the tissues by the end, but Up packages its biggest sobs in the beginning. The early montage that shows Carl and Ellie growing up and growing old together, lovingly painting their nursery only to learn that they can’t have kids, grieving, then just getting on and enjoying life and each other until death divides them, is just a masterpiece of emotive cinema. All conveyed in just a few minutes, and without a line of dialogue, it’s a more genuine and more affecting love story than most so-called romance movies achieve in two hours.
Up is a brave film to start with a sequence like this, that may delight adults but which I know left many kiddies squirming in their seats. I think it was also a laudable move to make a kid’s film about a grumpy elderly man. Yes, Carl softens as the action progresses (but never fully, that’s part of his appeal), and yes there’s an adorable supporting cast of a cute kid and dopey talking dog, but really this is Carl’s story and older characters very rarely achieve protagonist status in family films. It’s a tender, humorous, big-hearted story but it isn’t one that screams “merchandise potential” in the way that many of Disney’s other properties do. I can’t find the link now but I’m sure I remember reading at the time a story about how some of the big chain stores rejected the chance to stock Up toys because they didn’t think they’d be popular enough (and then, presumably kicked themselves when they saw the talking Dug plushie!)
I like the old-timey adventure vibe that this film manages both to ape and to ridicule, and though it does all get a bit silly with the dog-piloted planes (silly even by the standards of a film about a balloon powered house) by that point I was far too emotionally invested to really criticise. This isn’t Pixar’s best film, but I do think it may be the one with the biggest heart.
Memorable scene: the initial triumphant lift off of Carl’s house: a beautifully animated sweeping panorama, punctuated by more intimate glimpses through windows into the lives of the other city inhabitants. There are lots of Pixar in-jokes and references to their other films to spot in this scene too.
Favourite quote: “My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.” Dog psychology. Nailed it.
3. The Incredibles (2004)
Will there ever be a good Fantastic Four movie? There’s a question. With the 2005 / 2007 duo having been a bit on the ropey side, and the trailer for this year’s reboot looking frankly awful, you may be tempted to answer in the negative. But the real question is, do we even need a Fantastic Four movie when we already have The Incredibles: not just one of my favourite Pixar films, but, I truly believe, a strong contender for one of the best superhero films of all time. Even though the ten years since its release has seen the birth of the MCU and the levelling up of superhero cinema, this Bird Bird directed film still holds its own, combing some great action sequences with an endearing central premise, exploring the pitfalls of super-powered family life.
I can see why superheroes would be drawn to date and marry other superheroes. If your significant other is powered up too, you can avoid the classic Superman / Mary-Jane angst situation of having a loved one who is always going be a major kidnap risk / villain target. But superpowered marriages can mean superpowered kids, and its the scenes of hectic family life: dinner table squabbles, and willing The Flash-like Dash to reign in and just come second on school sports day that give this film such charm. There’s a great supporting cast here too, from Samuel L. Jackson’s super-cool turn as Frozone, to the now iconic superhero fashion designer Edna Mode, daaahling.
Although this is very much a mainstream family film it still manages to be quite thought provoking. Violence is sanitised, of course, but the film still goes out of its way to pause to and show regret for the collateral damage that mounts and mounts usually without a backward glance in superhero films. Bird also takes a dig at the ineffectual child-friendly villains so common to Saturday morning cartoon marathons, when Helen (Elastigirl) warns her kids ”Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys aren’t like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you are children. They will kill you if they get the chance. Do not give them that chance.”
And of course you can also play spot the reference! Often affectionate, sometimes playful, sometimes critical, the film draws on plenty of other staples of the superhero oeuvre, The Fantastic Four, Watchmen, even Hellboy, spotting the allusions here makes for fun viewing.
Memorable scene: Bob Parr in the office. We’ve all been there, getting steadily more wound up by bureaucracy, customers or colleagues but fortunately for the structural integrity of offices everywhere most work-based meltdowns are not experienced by people with super-strength.
Favourite Quote: “No capes!”
2. Wall-E (2008)
On a blog with the tagline ”Expect robots” I guess you were expecting this one to be on the list. Indeed, you were probably expecting it to be my number one. It’s almost there, but not quite. One thing that has always impressed me about Pixar is that the studio thankfully understand that making ‘kids films that adults can enjoy too’ isn’t just a case of slipping in some veiled dick jokes but actually of providing content that works on multiple levels. Indeed, with Wall-E and the film occupying the number one spot on this list, I sometimes suspect there may even be more for adults to enjoy than there is for kids.
Born of contradiction, a Disney film that overtly criticises consumerism, Wall-E a masterclass in putting meaningful adult content in a mainstream family picture. The film works in the present as a quirky romantic tale of a funny little robot desperate to make friends. It hearkens back to the past; Wall-E adore 60s musical Hello, Dolly! while his own dialogue-free capering fondly evokes the heyday of silent cinema. And the film also looks to the future with a gaze that is – while not entirely without hope – certainly grimly critical and surprisingly dystopian given the context. The film’s all-too believable vision of our planet buried beneath mountains of useless junk and of humans who have lost any meaningful connection with each other, having evolved into pampered blobs living shallow lives on a luxurious spaceship, would be a depressing one if it weren’t conveyed through Wall-E’s charming lens of curiosity, enthusiasm and childlike wonder. The film has a complicated relationship with technology. It expresses nostalgia for simpler times, suggesting that humans risk becoming infantilised if all our work duties and responsibilities are taken over by machines. But it also presents robot characters who are far more endearing and relatable than the film’s humans. And the ending suggests that, in order to survive and repair the Earth, humans and robots will need to work together.
It’s a wonderful film. Is it is a depressing film? I loved every minute of it but the first time I saw Wall-E I distinctly remember thinking that all those people were doomed: how could they begin to look after the Earth when they couldn’t even take care of themselves? Although Wall-E and EVE’s love story is touching, it’s only if you stay for the end credit sequence – which shows how the people and the bots cooperate to begin planting and clearing – that this film can really be said to have anything approaching a hopeful ending. The accompanying song, “Down to Earth,” by Peter Gabriel works perfectly here too. But still, a happily ever after fairytale ending this ‘aint, and though that may be surprising for a family film, it’s just why I like it.
Memorable scene: Wall-E and EVE’s fire-extinguisher propelled zero gravity space dance.
Favourite quote: “W-W-WALL-E” By far the best moments in this film are all dialogue free.
1. Ratatouille (2007)
Rats are one of my favourite animals. B and I had already been keeping pet rats for a couple years before this Brad Bird directed picture came out. We’d also been so taken with the city of Paris during a weekend break there that we chose to go back to the city for our honeymoon. Some of our favourite comedy sketches are by American comedian Patton Oswalt (who voices Remy in this movie). Oh yeah, and we both enjoy food and cooking too. Pixar didn’t make this movie for kids, they just made it for me; I am the target demographic.
So you see there are lot of quite personal reasons why Ratatouille is one of my all time favourite films. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve seen it (I still find watching this and episodes of Rescue Bots to be the best comfort viewing whenever I get ill). I think only a rat lover could appreciate just how right the animators get Remy and friends in this film. No, real rats don’t talk or walk on their hind legs and they certainly don’t aspire to become gourmet chefs, but there’s so much about the mannerisms of these enthusiastic little creatures that this movie gets right. The animators spent a lot of time bonding and playing with pet rats and it really shows. As a rat lover, it’s also so nice to see a film where rats aren’t the bad guys for once. I’ve described several of the films in this list as “brave” in different ways, and while this is probably the most humbly straightforward of all in terms of its narrative, it is brave to take a species who still inspire such (undeserved) repulsion and to bring them not only into the limelight, but into the goddamn kitchen! If you’ve never seen it, do watch the accompanying short film Your Friend the Rat in which Remy and his brother recap the history of their kind and attempt to redress all the negative PR they attract.
Admittedly, Ratatouille wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test: there are only 3 women in it (and that’s including a female rat who hardly speaks), although I am fond of the character of Collette, the tough female chef making her way a male dominated kitchen. I guess we can’t have everything.
Ratatouille is Pixar’s most stylish film, the Parisian vistas are glamorous and gorgeous and the food all looks delicious. It’s also probably the studio’s most intimate and restrained work. What’s at stake here? Not the fate of the world but the reputation of one restaurant. Meanwhile, the obligatory chase scene isn’t a super high-speed highway pursuit but a man on a scooter chasing a rat along the pedestrianized banks of the Seine. Although Remy makes his entrance smashing through a pane of glass, this is a quiet film that explores notions of what it means to make art and to review it. Those aren’t themes that would have appealed much to me as a kid, although the cuteness of Remy and Emile surely would have done. Even the ending is restrained: the restaurant does get closed down, but they open elsewhere and find success on a smaller scale. Disney films are famous for those big, all singing, all dancing, life affirming messages. Although Ratatouille does stress the value of being true to yourself and following your dreams, it’s a quieter, more realistic message that – from an adult perspective at least – feels rather more refreshing and easier to swallow. That’s not to imply that a symbiotic, human-rat culinary partnership is any way realistic, of course. But you know what, the scene where Linguini risks everything to reveal his secret and defend Remy, it still makes me cry ever single time.
Memorable scene: Linguini’s first, incredulous and entirely one-sided with an almost drowned Remy on the banks of the Seine.
Favourite quote: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new….” Anton Ego’s reflection on his restaurant experience; I never expected such insightful commentary from a Disney film!
I’m not sure what Walt would think about the fact that for me, the best thing from the House of Mouse happens to be a rat but those are my favourite Pixar films. I’d love to hear what yours are.