Pixar By Numbers – Part 4

With this week’s films, we see the end of Pixar’s critical high point and the beginning of a bit of a lull in film quality, though I tend to disagree with the critics here. Although Toy Story 3 can be seen as the last truly great movie from a critical standpoint, the films that followed it were less concerned with winning Academy Awards and more concerned with entertaining their young audiences who had had to endure several years of films that were clearly aimed at older audiences.
So, we’ll see how they hold up.

We’ll start with…

Up (2009)

Overview: After the death of his wife, Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) decides he’s going to take his house to Paradise Falls, an exotic locale in South America where his wife always wanted to visit. He straps thousands of balloons to his house and sets off, not realizing that plucky 8-year-old Russell (Jordan Nagai) has hitched a ride, hoping to achieve his “assisting the elderly” badge. But once they get to Paradise Falls, they meet Carl’s childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who isn’t quite the stalwart hero Carl and Ellie thought he was.
The Concept: 10/10
Who doesn’t want to run off to an exotic locale in a flying house when the real world proves to be too lame to handle? This one doesn’t really have a specific world (cars, toys, monsters, fish, etc.), but it is clearly in the vein of adventure stories like The Lost World or The Land that Time Forgot where intrepid explorers find a world sheltered from the rest of world and meet wonderful creatures and beautiful locales. While this particular world plays fast and loose with the laws of physics, the image of Carl’s house floating through the clouds, suspended by balloons is just magical.
The Characters: 9/10
Carl is not really a character that younger audiences will relate to or understand very well, but he is such a wonderfully created character. His whole arc is a complex one and involves him discovering a great many things about others and about himself. The biggest one is learning to recapture the crazy, free-flowing joy that Ellie embodied and to not become bogged down in a desire to keep everything from changing. Russell is a fun, lovable character, but I feel like he’s not given as much characterization. He definitely embodies the adventurer spirit that Carl and Ellie had as kids, and he pulls Carl out of his comfort zone, but for most of the movie, he’s a catalyst rather than a character. His own arc which involves him coping with the reality that his father doesn’t care to be involved in his life is tragic and poignant, but it gives Carl the opportunity to fill the hole in Russell’s life just as Russell gives Carl the friendship he lacks living all by himself. The rest of the characters are a bit less nuanced. The villain, Charles, is very much a classic movie villain with simplistic motivations and not much depth. I love Dug dearly, but again, he’s a pretty simple character.
The Story: 7/10
The characters are what gives this move its weight, but the story is actually a bit flimsy. Things tend to just happen for convenience’s sake a bit too often (such as a single storm taking Carl to South America in a few hours or Russell just happening to be under the porch when the house takes off even though we see the porch from multiple angles as it’s taking off and there’s no sign of Russell). The emotional narrative is great, but the action itself seems more just “this happens then this happens” so as to get the characters to the next emotional moment.
The Humor: 9/10
This is more of a serious movie than a funny movie, but I do like its moments of humor. The “squirrel!” running gag is cute, and Dug’s characterization is much like many dogs I have met in real life. Often times, the humor is more cute than hilarious. It’s more reserved, but well placed throughout.
The Heart: 9/10
The 9 is for Carl’s beautiful story and for the first ten minutes. I took a point off because this one feels like it’s trying to hard. This was the first Pixar film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award (while, in the past, they’d focused their attentions on getting the Best Animated Feature award), and it feels a bit Oscar-bait-esque. The prologue is emotionally devastating, but Pixar and Disney have always had the monopoly on emotionally devastating animated love stories (think of shorts like Paperman or Feast or Lava). Overall, it’s a good movie, but I get the feeling that it takes itself a bit too seriously, trying too hard to give us the feels that, with previous Pixar films, felt a bit more effortless. The more times I watch it, the less of a reaction I have to it (whereas Finding Nemo always makes me feel the same way as when I first saw it). But the general public proclaims this to be the best Pixar film, so I will give it a 9 in this category because it’s touched so many people.

Overall Score: 44 = 88/100

And then…

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Overview: When Woody, Buzz and friends are mistakenly donated, they must find their way home. Unfortunately they end up at Sunnyside Daycare where the toys are all subject to the whims of cult-leader Lotso (Ned Beatty) and his sidekick Ken (Michael Keaton). Hurt that Andy has seemingly outgrown them all, the other toys are quick to trust Lotso, but Woody refuses to give up on Andy, even if he’s going off to college in a few days.
The Concept: 9/10
Tackling what happens when owners outgrow their toys is tough, mostly because it’s horrendously depressing. I think it’s handled well in this one, but the overwhelming sadness and anger that pervades the story, though dramatically powerful, makes this more of a cathartic therapy session than an enjoyable movie-going experience for me, personally. The poster tagline calls it “The Breakout Comedy of the Summer” and while it does have funny moments, it hardly feels like a comedy overall.
The Characters: 10/10
The characters are all in top form as always. Jessie still has some lingering resentment left over from her own previous owner donating her, and that informs a lot of her character’s decisions. Lotso has a similar story, though his ego (and lack of friends who call him out on his crazy) lead him to becoming a villain. My favorite character in this one is Mrs. Potato Head who, because of her missing eye, becomes the seer of the group, almost like she’s some sort of Delphic oracle. In the previous movie, she was a fun caricature, but in this one, she’s a fully realized character who goes with them on their adventure instead of staying at home. She’s just wonderful. I also love how, though they’re not given much screen time, Andy and his mom are really beautifully presented. You feel like you’ve known them forever, even though they’re side characters. Spanish Buzz is also laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The Story: 7/10
Plot-wise, this story is very similar to The Brave Little Toaster, a film that was conceived by many folks who would then go on to found Pixar. Toaster was going to be the first CGI animated film, but it was rejected by Disney. It was then made anyway by Hyperion animation and then bought by Disney for home video release. The story involves several household objects who, after their owner goes to college are accidentally forgotten and must find their way back to him. They also end up in a junkyard near the end and wrestle with whether or not their owner really wants them back. Toy Story 3 has better characters and a less episodic plot, but the feel of the film (and the source of the character’s anger and confusion) feels very similar. It’s not a bad plot, by any means. It’s a briskly written jailbreak story, and it’s got a solid emotional core, but it feels less original than the previous films in terms of its narrative.
The Humor: 8/10
The humor in this one is great as always, but like Up, it feels weighted down by the more serious plot points. Spanish Buzz, Ken’s confused toy-identity (action figure or doll!?), and Bobbie’s acting troupe of toys are wonderful, but as I mentioned before, this doesn’t feel like a comedy overall. It’s more like an episode of House where you’ve got brilliant witty repartee between characters…and then someone dies tragically and the episode wins an Emmy award for Best Drama. That’s sort of how this one is.
The Heart: 10/10
If there’s one thing I learned from this movie, it’s that I’m a horrible person for only keeping a handful of toys from my childhood. No seriously, this movie is emotionally devastating every time I see it. The scene between Andy and his mom as they stand in his empty room and she tells him she’s going to miss him was the moment where I started weeping softly to myself in the theater. And then when Andy hands over all his toys to Bonnie I was openly sobbing into my friend’s shoulder. Inside Out is the only other Pixar movie to slay me in quite the same manner, but the melancholy truth that, no matter how much you love your toys, they will never be played with in the same way once you grow up, is pretty gut-wrenching. It may not be the most bright and uplifting Pixar film in the canon, but its emotional core is strong and it works as an incredible movie in general.

Overall Score: 44 = 88/100

And then finally…

Cars 2 (2011)

Overview: When Lightning McQueen gets invited to participate in a series of races around the world in order to promote a new environmentally friendly fuel, his friend Mater gets accidentally involved in a world of espionage, murder, and conspiracy after having been mistaken for a spy by suave spy car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his partner Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).
The Concept: 8/10
I like that Pixar took a completely different direction with the sequel, moving away from Radiator Springs and instead giving us a fun, globetrotting spy story. The “dumb lug gets mistaken for a spy” concept has been done to death, but it’s a fun genre, so I don’t mind so much.
The Characters: 7/10
Finn McMissile is a great character. I love the intro scene where he lays siege to the oil platform. I would have been completely ok if he had been the main character and the Radiator Springs guys were left at home, to be honest. Holly Shiftwell is very much the “Bond Girl” character and, interestingly enough, reminds me of Holly Goodhead from Moonraker. Both are sort of window dressing and, while strong characters, you don’t connect with them much. As for the main characters, this is really Mater’s story. McQueen is sort of a side character, the racer whom Mater is working to save from the bad guys. I think Mater is fun but, he’s Mater, so there’s not a lot of deep character development aside from him and McQueen learning to understand one another better. The rest of the gang isn’t given much to do except say stuff on the side.
The Story: 7/10
The bumbling spy who accidentally saves everyone is a character we all know. We’ve seen him in Johnny English and Spy Hard. The twists and turns and the reveal of who the bad guy actually is is genuinely clever, but the rest is pretty predictable. While I appreciate that Pixar backed off from the self-indulgent heaviness of Up and Toy Story 3, I think this one tends to feel a little too flat just because it follows an established comedy genre so closely. Pixar is known for being quirky and doing things we’ve never seen before and, aside from the mechanics of how cars do things like go to the bathroom or scale rooftops, this one feels pretty familiar.
The Humor: 8/10
If there’s one thing this movie does well it’s comedy. Mater, as always, is hilarious, and the James Bond homages are fun. The comedy feels a little forced at times, such as the “Japanese toilets are confusing” trope that we see everywhere, but overall, this is a fun, enjoyable movie. It doesn’t tax the mind that much, but it does entertain, and at the end of the day, that’s what counts. For really young kids, this (and its prequel) is a fun Pixar gateway film.
The Heart: 6/10
It’s hardly a heavy movie, so it’s more sweet than emotionally gripping. I do like how Mater’s character is developed somewhat, and he and Holly have some cute scenes, but overall, this is a movie more concerned with action and comedy rather than emotional moments.

Overall Score: 36 = 72/100

The new rankings are as follows. We’ve had several ties, so I’ve turned to Rottentomatoes.com to break the ties. The results are actually pretty surprising in some cases:

1. Finding Nemo (96)
2. Wall-E (94)
3. Monsters Inc. (94)
4. The Incredibles (92)
5. Toy Story 2 (88) (shockingly, this one has a 100% fresh rating on RT. I was not expecting it to beat Up).
6. Toy Story 3 (88) (this one has a 99% fresh rating)
7. Up (88) (this one has a 98% fresh rating)
8. Toy Story (86) (this one is 100% fresh)
9. Ratatouille (86) (this one is 96% fresh)
10. Cars 2 (72)
11. Cars (68)
12. A Bug’s Life (64)

Join me next week as we wrap this whole thing up and look at the results!


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