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Is Pixar getting it wrong?

This week, Disney/PIXAR released images of ‘Brave,’ Pixar’s 13th animated film. Much has been made about the 4 images, and the fact that this is Pixar’s first ‘fairy tale’ story, first with a female heroine and first to be co-directed by a woman. And these are all very important aspects to Pixar’s evolution as a creative company. My question is, what’s it missing?

Those of you who know me, know I’m a Pixar fan. Their films contain more love, heart, character and story than virtually any other modern movie, be it live-action or animated. Plus, my love of animation is well-known. I grew up on Disney, Hannah-Barbera, Warner Bros. and whatever my mom could check out of the local library for me to watch on a FILM PROJECTOR! That’s correct, there was a time when you could check out actual films from a library, including ‘The Point,’ ‘Wizards,’ the first version of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ and so on. You’ve seen these, right? If not, go to Netflix and get ‘em. Have a look at ‘The Last Unicorn’ too.

This was released some time ago when the project was still called 'The Bear and the Bow'

So, with that said, what does this have to do with a film that’s not even finished yet? I have to confess: I’m getting weary of CGI. There I said it. I’ve spent years critiquing the use of CGI and who does it better. Blue Sky Studios (‘Ice Age’) has always had the best water and flame effects; Dreamworks (Shrek), the best props and backgrounds and Pixar for everything else, but are we pushing the computer as far as we can as artists? It takes immense computing power to render an object as life-like; even longer to simulate fabric and hair. There are so many CGI family films that look amazing: ‘Horton Hears a Who,’ ‘Rango,’ ‘Kung Fu Panda,’ ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,’ ‘How to Train your Dragon’ and so on. But there’s so much more filmmakers could do with all that power.

See what I mean? All gorgous. And all made virtually.

When I see designs, sketches and storyboards for an upcoming CGI movie, I often think, ‘Wow, a movie that looks like that would be awesome.’ Then the movie comes out and it’s all 3-D-y and shiny with an enormous amount of attention to details such as whether or not the light reflects off of a steak properly (for clarification, watch the extras from ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs’); but it looks nothing like the sketches. So, when I saw the new ‘Brave’ pics, I thought the same thing, and quickly came to the conclusion that while this film may be absolutely wonderful, I bet it looks more like ‘Tangled’ than ‘Lilo and Stitch.’ ‘Brave’ will be co-directed by Brenda Chapman (The first American woman to direct an animated film: ‘The Prince of Egypt’) and Mark Andrews (Pixar’s ‘One Man Band’), so quality story-telling is not in doubt as far as I’m concerned.

 

Prince of Egypt's parting the Red Sea scene. Outstanding if you haven't seen it.

'One Man Band' was shown in front of 'Cars' in 2005

And I know ‘Lilo and Stitch’ was hand-drawn, not CGI. But those watercolor backgrounds were outstanding. Under Chris Sanders’s direction, the animators went to great lengths to use watercolor to capture the real Hawaii. Were you turned off that the trees didn’t sway in the wind just so, with dozens of individual leaves computer animated for your pleasure? Sanders directed ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ and worked on both ‘Mulan’ and “Hercules’ for Disney. He worked on other films as well, but these two along with his modern films show a highly stylized form of story telling. Look at the clouds and smoke in ‘Mulan’ and the hair in ‘Hercules.’ It’s not life-like, but it tells the story.

Have you seen ‘The Secret of the Kells?’ How about ‘Lemony Snicket?’ Or those new ‘Fruity Pebbles’ commercials with claymation Fred and Barney? Computers rendered these. Artists used the computer to simulate clay and models and ancient Irish tapestry design, with beautiful results. So how fantastic would it be to have a movie animated to look like pastels, colored pencils, watercolor or even tiles?  Or even a movie that looks like the end credits of ‘Lemony Snicket’? Last year, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One’ used striking animation involving shadow puppets to tell the story of the Three Brothers. I want an entire movie that looks like that!!! As much as I love ‘Monsters, Inc’ I always wanted to see it in the style of the original story boards, sort of a mid-century children’s book style.

'The Littlest Elf' part of the prologue in 'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.' Stop-motion animation done via computer.

From the 'Harry Potter' animation sequence.

The end credits from 'Lemony Snickett'

For more great film title sequences, go to the Art of the Title. WARNING: Some images shown are NSFW and may offend some.

‘The Secret of the Kells’ works so well, I amazed more studios don’t pay attention. The story is told through animation that mimics Renaissance tapestries and monk-produced books. Everything is flat and the film goes so far as to frame a lot of scenes in what would have been considered decoration at the time. I felt it worked perfectly.

'The Secret of the Kells'

There was a time when animators took huge risks. Ever seen ‘Yellow Submarine?’ Can you imagine selling that story in that style now? No, you can’t. Robert Zemeckis tried to, pitching it using that same bizzaro-world MoCap animation that he seems so fond of, and Disney would have done it too if not for that meddling ‘Mars Needs Moms.’ It’s one of the few things for which we can be thankful, from what’s turned into quite the debacle for the Mouse. Ralph Bashki took great big, giant chances in his films, intercutting and superimposing live action footage on top of animation for dramatic effect. Seeing a real Fred Willard in ‘Wall*E’ shocked a lot of die-hard Pixar fans, are we really that far removed from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’

The Balrog scene from Bashki's version of the 'The Lord of the Rings'

And all this leads me to my point. With the sheer amount of artistry in the modern animated film business, the time seems ripe for a movie lauded not for its amazing life-like skin tones, but its remarkable use of using Matisse-style cutouts to tell the story of a little girl’s love for her favorite pet and their journey of discovery after surviving a catastrophe. Or something like that. You get the point. Look at the photos from ‘Brave.’ All that rich, textured, vibrant pastel color. I’d rather see Princess Merida’s hair look like that than wonder how many processing hours it took to render every individual strand of hair. Yes, it’s pretty to look at, but is it pushing the story forward? Would ‘Tangled’ have been any worse if her hair hadn’t looked real?  Filmmakers tend to forget that if the story is good enough, people will accept almost anything. (‘Um, we want to make a movie about talking toys that get lost. And we’ll do it on a computer…’; see what I mean?) Walt Disney valued true craftsmanship in his animators and encouraged taking chances. There are any number of animated films from other countries that are pushing boundaries in form and aesthetic. I wonder if one of the big three U.S. animation studios will ever take the leap? Will I have to produce my own?

Early 'Monsters, Inc.' concept art

Many, many thanks to my dear friend Fay ‘The Fotini’ Salvaras for her help with proofing and editing this.

Images are owned by their respective studios.

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