Animated features used to be special. But as this summer’s crop shows, they seem to have become assembly-line products
Is Pixar in a bit of a slump? I remember a time when a release from this animation studio was an event — now, it’s just a movie. When the first Toy Story film came out in 1995, it blew our minds because it was so different from the animated features we were used to seeing, the ones from Disney about beauties and beasts and sad little mermaids. There was a snap to the visuals here, something young, hip, irreverent. But more than the technology, it was the storytelling that pulled us in.
This was hardly the classical narrative we were used to, which we had to imagine occurred “once upon a time,” but one that was unfolding around us, now, in the rooms of children everywhere. The conceit that toys had a life, a life as much their own as it was tied to their owners, was pure genius. In the traditional animated feature, the human figures provided the emotion and drove the story. The talking teacups and candlesticks — the things — were just around for comic relief. But here, the things were the protagonist, the humans the sidekicks. As I said, genius.
I don’t remember enough of A Bug’s Life, which came next, but I recall being quite entertained. And then came two flat-out masterpieces. Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc., followed by the disappointing Finding Nemo. (People love it, I know.) And then, the incredible The Incredibles, which, instead of saying that we should blend in with the rest of the world, exhorted us to celebrate our weirdness — a truly subversive message for a family-friendly entertainer.
I love this film. The characters are so inventively written, the situations so affectionately pulled from superhero myths, it’s impossible not to fall in love with it each time you see it. At least for me, The Incredibles was the Pixar high point for a while. The next few films — Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up — had their moments, but some sort of blandness had crept into the Pixar formula. And with the exception of the great Toy Story 3, that blandness has remained — with Cars 2, with Brave, and now, with Monsters University.
Watching this last film, I wondered what the problem was. The characters, Mike and Sulley, were the same, but where the earlier film seemed miraculously organic, there’s a sense of thinking by committee here. A few nice moments. Some laughs. Nothing more. And that could be said of Arthur Christmas, Hotel Transylvania, the Kung Fu Panda movies as well. Even the legendary Pixar short that preceded Monsters University — something called The Blue Umbrella — seemed, well, manufactured, as if it tumbled off an assembly line.
Could the frequency of these films be the problem? Earlier, when we used to get one (or maybe two) animated features every year, it was something special. Now, with a dozen such films crowding the theatres, have our standards become higher? Now that we see them all the time, have we begun to demand more than just bright and shiny entertainment that kids are guaranteed to love, with the odd pop-culture joke to keep us from nodding off? It could also be that the genre, if you want to call it that, has become over-familiar. The wisecracking anthropomorphism. The heart-warming messages. The set pieces intended to set the pulse racing. Maybe these have become as codified as the must-haves in our hero-oriented masala movies, and unless someone comes up with something really clever, we sit through these films neither thoroughly entertained, nor thoroughly bored.
And it takes a movie like Turbo to show us what things should be like. This is very much a Pixar-mould story — a snail dreams of becoming a race car driver (in Monsters University, Mike and Sulley dream of making it to the scare team) — and this preposterous premise is brought off with a flourish. After a really long time, I found myself rooting for a character in an animated film, which is just another way of saying how invested I was in that final race between this snail and actual race cars.
And yet, if I were in the movie-recommending business, I wouldn’t know what I’d do with Turbo. It’s better than Monsters University, but is that really something to go by? The animated sequel that broke my heart this summer was Despicable Me 2. I loved the first film and it was sad to see something fresh become a formula. The yellow minions that were such a riot in the earlier film are now allowed to run amuck, and what was cute then becomes cloying here.
With the protagonist Gru, too, we no longer have the arc of a bad guy turning good. He’s now so neutered that he dresses up as a fairy princess, in blonde curls and a pink dress, for a kiddie birthday party. With live-action films, we know that sequels are just another way to make money, and we’ve gotten used to this fact. But when the same motive drives animated films — which somehow seem purer, more devoted to providing unadulterated joys to our inner children – it can seem quite... despicable.