Part 3! In the late 2000’s, Pixar began to reach out to adults more and more and created some of their most critically acclaimed films. It was at this point that Pixar began to move, in the eyes of the public, beyond merely a maker of children’s movies, but a maker of good movies that were anticipated by everyone, adults included. While some of the films made at this time tend to edge toward the self-congratulatory, there’s no mistaking the artful Pixar style that develops at this point. But before that happens, there’s…
Cars (2006) Overview: Hotshot rookie car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) thinks he can do everything on his own, but when he’s stranded in the Route 66 town of Radiator Springs, he must learn to rely on others such as lovable oaf Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) or the charming Sally (Bonnie Hunt) in order to achieve success.
The Concept: 7/10 The idea of a world populated by cars is fun and, though not 100% original, it is handled well. Much like Pixar’s earliest films, there are many car-related gags throughout, and even if you’re not a racing fan, the world that the Pixar animators have brought to life is very cleverly done (even though it’s probably Pixar’s least coherent world concept)
The Characters: 7/10 Perhaps this would be different for younger viewers, but McQueen really isn’t a likable character until the final third of the movie. He’s uncaring, arrogant, lazy, and all of his problems are of his own doing. He’s a decently well-rounded character, but he’s not a main character you really empathize with. I do like the Radiator Springs folks, especially Fillmore, the hippie van voiced by George Carlin (who sadly passed away two years after this film came out, as did the legendary Paul Newman who voiced Doc Hudson). The rest feel a little flat. They have some fun moments, but they don’t have the effortless cohesion of the circus troupe from A Bug’s Life. Doc Hudson is a beautifully realized character, and I do like Sally, though I wish she was given a bit more depth. She ends up being a very passionate travel guide for most of the movie.
The Story: 7/10 The story is actually pretty well done, if a bit predictable. There are lots of stories with cocky lone wolf characters, and even some where they end the movie not so “lone” anymore, but I think the way this one blends the single car/community of cars idea with the present/past theme is well done. McQueen doesn’t just learn to rely on others who become his friends, he learns to respect his icons from the past and what their careers and successes mean to them when others are so quick to brush them off. In a sense, the writes took several cliche plot fragments and blended them into something that is actually pretty unique. There are a few moments where the plot drags a bit, and, because this is basically a sports movie, the ending is a bit predictable, but the character arcs are well-written, and the theme of nostalgia for a simpler time is well developed.
The Humor: 7/10 Mater is fun and lovable, but he often draws attention away from the rest of the cast. The rest of the humor comes from sight gags, celebrity cameos, and some fun “secret” adult humor (like the two fanatical teen girl cars who “flash” McQueen before being escorted away), but a lot of it becomes forgettable when all you can remember are Mater’s hilarious one liners. It’s funny, and clever at times, but it’s hardly the sublime writing of The Incredibles or the brilliant comedic timing of Monsters Inc.. It’s not bad, but Pixar’s done much better with other films.
The Heart: 6/10 This isn’t a tearjerker by any means, but I do like its recurring theme of nostalgia. It’s not something kids will really get since the idea of “slow down and look to the past rather than driving really fast and winning trophies” wouldn’t have registered in 10-year-old Me’s brain. But like many Pixar movies from this era, it’s speaking both to adults and kids. Kids appreciate McQueen’s realization that he’s stronger with a team, and adults look back to a simpler time when cross country travel wasn’t a race to a destination but rather a journey of exploration. The sequence detailing Radiator Springs’ decline is sad, but in a more general way.
Overall Score: 34 = 68/100 Next up we have…
Ratatouille (2007) Overview: An ambitious rat named Remy (Patton Oswald) dreams of being a chef, much to the consternation of his father (Brian Dennehy), but when he runs into hapless Linguini (Lou Romano) a garbage boy in a gourmet French restaurant, the two become partners in “crime” with Remy cooking fantastic dishes and Linguini pretending that he’s the one cooking. But Linguini can’t keep Remy a secret forever, especially when he falls for fellow cook Colette (Janeane Garofalo), and when head chef Skinner (Ian Holm) begins to suspect that there’s more to Linguni’s success than meets the eye.
The Concept: 9/10 I can’t decide if this film would count as magic realism, but the idea that a rat can control a human being using only his hair is marvelous and so wacky that it could only work in a Pixar film. Rats are favorites for animation, so we’ve seen them before in film and books, but the idea behind this story, a rat who wants to be a chef, is unique enough that it doesn’t seem like a cliche at all.
The Characters: 8/10 When the characters are good, they’re great. Remy is an interesting character because he’s stuck between two places. He hates that rats are thieves, yet he frequently has to fight the urge to steal (and sometimes fails). He can be snooty and stubborn, but he’s still likable because you see how much joy he gets from creating incredible food. I also adore Colette; she’s tough and doesn’t shy away from speaking her mind, but she has a soft spot for Linguini and only ever shows vulnerability when she’s trying to articulate her feelings for him. I also have to say that I love Anton Ego, the English food critic. He’s gruff, opinionated, and insulting, but once you see beyond his prickly facade, you really grow to love him. He’s definitely my favorite character; his review/monologue at the end about what constitutes art is just beautiful. The rest of the cast tends to fade into the background. The other cooks in the kitchen aren’t given enough real characterization (I can’t even remember their names without IMDb‘s help). The villain, Skinner, is a bit simplistic, but Ian Holm does a brilliant (and unrecognizable) job of voicing the dispassionate chef who would much rather sell cheap frozen food than run a classy restaurant.
The Story: 9/10 The plot is sort of all over the place, with the three acts each feeling very different. When Linguini ousts Skinner as head chef and takes over, it feels like the movie is wrapping up…but then there’s a third act where Remy’s growing jealousy of Linguini leads him to pull everything down around them. It’s marvelously written, and I think it feels more organic that way. Others may disagree with me and say that it throws off the pacing, but I think it gives the whole film a more European feel. Think of a film like Amelie which has that sort of free-flowing organic texture to it. It’s not often what North American audiences are used to, but I think it’s true to the heart of the film itself.
The Humor: 9/10 There are a number of laugh out loud slapstick moments (especially regarding Remy’s learning curve as he figures out how to manipulate Linguini, human puppet-style). There are also a number of subtler moments of humor that adult viewers will appreciate. It’s not as overtly funny as Cars or Toy Story, and it’s not quite up to the quality of writing as Brad Bird’s previous Pixar entry The Incredibles, but it’s still very well done. I love the scene where Linguini is trying to tell Colette about Remy, but he can’t figure out how to say it and he comes across as so awkward and creepy that she pulls out her pepper spray if he tries anything strange.
The Heart: 8/10 This is definitely Pixar’s most charming film. It leaves everyone with good feelings and a desire to go eat something. In terms of the character’s arcs, I do like how Remy’s source of conflict is genuinely complex, and you really feel for him, especially when his father shows him what humans do to rats in the film’s darkest scene. And Anton Ego’s moment of shock when Remy’s take on Ratatouille sends him back to a warm moment from his childhood is just beautifully done, and something many folks can relate to. Also, I appreciate the sheer joy that comes from watching Remy cook and enjoy his food. It’s not depressing or much of a tearjerker, but it really leaves its viewers uplifted.
Overall Score: 43 = 86/100 And finally…
Wall-E (2008) Overview: On an abandoned and trash-filled Earth, a lone cleanup robot named Wall-E meets a scout robot named EVE who, upon discovering a lone plant on Earth, is whisked to a massive vessel, the Axiom where humanity’s descendants live in mind-numbing comfort, their lives controlled by robots and advertisements. Having clung to the outside of the ship, Wall-E must find EVE and stop the ship’s robot contingent who don’t intend to ever let humanity return to Earth again.
The Concept: 8/10 The environmental and anti-capitalist message of the film is pretty blunt and at times you feel a bit beaten around by it, but preachy though it is, it’s a daring subject to tackle. The reveal of the two major environments of the film, Earth and the Axiom, are both equally chilling. Earth for its barrenness and its brown haze, and the Axiom for its ubiquitous ads keeping everyone suitably distracted. In one terrifying shot, babies are being taught their ABC’s and B is “Buy & Large: your very best friend” (Buy & Large is the monopolistic corporation that ends up running (and destroying) the Earth, taking control of its banks and government).
The Characters: 10/10 Because the main characters are primarily non-speaking robots, there isn’t as much of a chance to get to know them through their dialogue (as in Finding Nemo), but the animators give so much expressive weight to these robots that you just fall in love with them. Wall-E desperately wants a friend, and the scene where he tries to befriend EVE and slowly gains her trust by showing her his quirky collection of trinkets is just so sweet and touching. Once we meets humanity’s doughy descendants, we’re faced with humanity’s lingering desire to fight for what’s right (even if they are all comfortable and distracted constantly by screens). I love the captain character (Jeff Garlin). He starts out just a figurehead who really has no power on the ship, but once he realizes what Earth is and what humanity’s potential is, he begins to fight back against his robot first mate who has been keeping the truth from him. It’s just fantastically done.
The Story: 10/10 The concept is a bit preachy, but the story is marvelously written, combing great action scenes with beautiful moments of pathos and joy without ever slowing down or feeling uneven. Plus, I love how the relationship between Wall-E and EVE is written. It’s an odd choice for a romantic pairing, but Wall-E carries the whole thing, expressing his thoughts solely with his eyes and hands. His favorite video tape (a recording of Hello, Dolly!) becomes the through line for the whole narrative, representing both the love and friendship Wall-E craves and the spark of the human spirit that we believe the people have lost to the soul-sucking Buy & Large corporation.
The Humor: 9/10 Even though this is generally a more serious film, it does have its share of funny moments. It’s generally all physical comedy since there’s so little dialogue and the bewildered human characters aren’t given much of a chance to be funny. Wall-E and the tiny M-O are the source of a lot of the comedy. Wall-E is the hapless romantic who is constantly falling/getting struck by lightning/getting smacked, and M-O is the obsessive little cleaner robot who can’t stand “foreign contaminants” and who furiously cleans everything he can reach. There are a lot of laugh out loud moments, and the slapstick humor helps to lessen what could otherwise be an oppressive Blade Runner-esque narrative, but overall, I think the dialogue-based humor of previous Pixar entries leaves more of a lasting impression.
The Heart: 10/10 I think the emotional core of this film is Wall-E’s desire to hold hands with someone, and that is so simple and elegant that it really gives this a lot of punch. EVE is a carefree soul as well (which we see in her taking a moment to fly about and revel in her freedom after the drone ship leaves her on Earth), but she has a hard edge and tends to be more business-like (she also packs a crazy disruptor blast that can level buildings), and so it’s Wall-E who shows her how to tap into that more fun and fancy free part of herself that she often doesn’t allow herself to enjoy. I adore the “define dancing” scene because it’s really the first moment these two have to just have fun together. The moment where the captain decides to take his fate into his own hands and stands up to his first mate is also a really powerful moment. He’s fighting for the fate of the human race, and he is also taking responsibility for the Earth’s destruction, vowing to fix things once he gets back. It’s no wonder this film gathered six Academy Award nominations. It’s a beautiful story.
Overall Score: 47 = 94/100
Here’s the new rankings. It looks like Nemo is holding fast to his number 1 spot, but Wall-E did manage to squeeze ahead of Monsters Inc (both are tied on Rotten Tomatoes, but I placed Wall-E in front because I love the overall visual style better).
1. Finding Nemo (96)
2. Wall-E (94)
3. Monsters Inc. (94)
4. The Incredibles (92)
5. Toy Story 2 (88)
6. Toy Story (86)
7. Ratatouille (86)
8. Cars (68)
9. A Bug’s Life (64)
See you next week!