Saturday, June 10, 2006

Formula Pixar

[Cross posted at]

It only happens once a year or so, but this weekend saw the release of a new movie from Pixar, Cars. With high expectations we went along and those expectations were not disappointed. I left with the same feeling of money well spent as I had for all previous Pixar experiences in recent times including The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Monsters Inc. I also knew that I would be spending more as our DVD collection expanded later this year.

Pixar movies are formulaic but not in the way that ‘formula’ gives movies a bad name. Pixar’s formula is ‘higher level’ but simple: “write a movie with a plot and characters for adults and then work out how to make it appealing to kids.” And there are two general plot themes: personal growth and societal revolution. Most Pixar movies have both but with an emphasis on one or the other depending on the movie.

Before going into this, it is worth remarking how most recent animated family features try to copy the Pixar success. After all, if you can make a movie that parents and children love to see, you will rake in the dollars. According to BoxOfficeMojo, Pixar movies occupy the 11, 26, 39, 46, 96 and 99th places on the worldwide all time box office hits. As there have been only 6 movies, that is a remarkable effort. But the copy-cats, take for example, Chicken Little, get it wrong. They have a plot for kids and then put in a few 'in' jokes and famous voices to appeal to parents. [This is not to say that other studios can't achieve something. Dreamworks has its own formula going as Wallace and Grommit, Madagascar and the Shrek movies attest; but their formula is different -- something I will comment on more after next week's viewing of Over the Hedge. Also, the first 10 minutes of Robots was superb even though the rest of the movie left alot to be desired].

That is not the Pixar way. Monsters Inc and A Bug’s Life were all about societal revolution. In the former, the basic idea was that current production methods could be changed for clear welfare gains (you know moving from a scare to a humour driven economy) and in the latter, a simple statement against grasshopper oppression. Each was about an individual questioning the basis of an economic system and eventually winning out through revolution. In contrast, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and, of course, Toy Story are all about personal growth of the main character. In each case, the main character is stuck in a view of their own place in the world and how they live their life and is challenged to do something differently. As I will get to in a second, Cars falls well into this latter class.

It is only in Toy Story 2 where the plot is more kids-centric: an evil doer does something evil and people are saved by friendship. Nonetheless, it worked anyway because the characters were so well-developed in the previous movie. Also, it did not suffer from the traditional Disney approach: get rid of a parent (usually be initial or prior death), fight evil and make sure the child leaves the movie clutching adoringly their parent’s hand.

On to Cars. This is not a movie that appeals to adults because of a few in jokes (they are there and they are great but it is secondary). The main things are the plot and the characters. The characters have the usual Pixar appeal (snapshots of people we know and others with mental challenges; although not quite up to the forgetful Dory in Nemo). The plot follows that of many sporting movies: main character has a chance at the big time if they can just beat the traditional champion and the more ruthless competitors. In other movies, those characters are one in the same, but in Cars they are distinctly split into two. The personal growth for the main character, a car named ‘Lightning McQueen,’ is to eventually face a choice between being ‘legendary’ and winning.

And that, of course, is its adult appeal as it is that choice which is not often presented in other movies. I am not sure whether my children understood it but I was happy to have them see it. Usually, winning and legendary are one in the same and there is no questioning of this. Last year, I forked out money for two movies with exactly the same plot: Racing Stripes and Herbie Rides Again. In each, the main character was an underdog who had to convinced others that they had the right stuff even thought they weren’t sterotypical winners (one was a zebra and the other the VW bug; each of which physically could never win). And, of course, they had the right stuff. In Cars, it is more complicated than that with a Shakespearean edge and sudden flash of insight. No one will claim it is subtle but it wasn’t till the last minute that I realised what the plot was all about.

There is also a bit of societal revolution in Cars. Our main character gets stuck in an off the main road town, Radiator Springs, and eventually works out that the world that is passing it by doesn’t realise what it is missing.

The rest of Cars is to make this story appealing to kids. Let’s face it, this is quite shameless. We all know that a world full of humanised cars is going to do the trick. You can see the toys and merchandising woven into the animation. Nonetheless, it is enough to give us an excuse to get the family out and see the movie.

Cars passes the key adult test: would I want to see this movie even if I didn’t have kids? Yes, it does and having kids only complements the experience. I do recommend, however, that you do not leave until the curtains close. The movie continues right up to the very end of the closing credits and you will be disappointed if you rush out too early.