To restart the randomised series of posts (follow the link if you need a catch-up or want to read the earlier attempts at this), I thought it might be fun to try out some Pixar films, beginning, with no logic or reason whatsoever, with Monsters, Inc. from 2001. The way it works is this: using a magic bit of random number selection, three frames are generated from anywhere in the film, and provide the basis for a discussion of the film from unexpected angles, or at least angles that are not pre-selected to flatter my own interests. It’s usually fun, and the film needs little introduction, so let’s dive straight in. The randomiser has selected frames from the 5th, 66th, and 86th minutes from Monsters, Inc., which means we begin with…
[See also Toy Story 3D]
I hope that the makers of both Shrek Forever After and Toy Story 3 will keep good on their implicit promise that these are the concluding chapters of their respective franchises, but for very different reasons. While the Shreks have become increasingly tired, desperate, repetitive and, by becoming what they used to mock, cynical, the Toy Story team have miraculously kept things fresh, developing their ideas rather than chasing their own tail for one last elusive chew of the same old piece of meat. Shrek Forever After moves quickly enough that you might not notice how heavily it is wheezing, hoping to squeeze a bit more milk out of the CGI teat before you get too bored. Toy Story 3, on the other hand, makes a virtue out of the story’s frailty: as a trilogy, Pixar’s three films have grown into an achingly beautiful introduction of themes of mortality, obsolescence, the passing of time and making the best of what you have before it’s gone. It’s about death, ageing and decay. You know, for kids? Instead of fabricating some tosh about wishing on a star, your dreams will come blah and your prince will meh, Toy Story reminds that you’re going to die – don’t waste the time you have in denial. Embrace the ephemerality of life – it’s what makes it delicious and thrilling. As this film heads towards its end it becomes clear that the toys are heading for retirement, and the suspense becomes about how they’d like to go out – fighting, passive, dignified, accepting?
Hopefully, kids won’t come away with a feeling that they’re hurtling towards the grave, though. Beyond that wish, I won’t try and second guess what an 8-year-old will find loveable about this film. I’ll just speak for myself. And I’m determined to keep this short and pithy, not least because you’re going to die, and you’ll be wanting to make the most of the time you have left.
For this week’s pictures, you’re going to need to click on the images below, or download them to look at them in detail. They’re too wide to fit comfortably on this page, so you can either click to enlarge, or visit Juan Pablo Bravo’s Flickr page to marvel at his handiwork. He’s painstakingly composited dozens of Disney characters, Pixar characters and movie cars into a series of infographics for the benefit of nerds who like to see images placed next to each either in a long scroll so you can compare their relative sizes, shapes and chronologies. So, click on the fine strips below and enjoy:
Pixar’s Toy Story, and all its sequels? Delightful, right? Witty, fast-moving, emotionally resonant when they need to be, poignant and clever. The characters will endure for their sharp dialogue and strong personalities, even when that CGI has dated and looks to us like Tron looks to young, misguided yoofs nowadays. But watching Jiří Barta‘s In the Attic – Who Has a Birthday Today?, I’m reminded (even though I’m biased on this issue) of how stop-motion retains its affective power even when popular rhetoric might dictate that it has only an occasional retro appeal for enthusiasts and aficionados.
How to Train Your Dragon is made marvelous by that rarest of creatures – a nuanced and relatable CGI animal. Part dragon, part puppy, Toothless can convey a range of emotions with a curled lip or a twitch of the eyes, resorting only occasionally to the safety net of anthropomorphism. It’s the corniest of stories – a wimpy kid shows that brains trump brawn, and that gruff warrior types do not hold a monopoly on courage and persistence. The strongest message is that enemies are not always what they seem, and might be prey to the same fears and pressures as you are. It’s exactly what you want your kids to believe, but not necessarily what you want to see cynically mobilised to flog a Happy Meal. Dragon also benefits from the most effective use to date of 3D technology. Foreground and background are really unhooked from one another, dragons seem suspended in the air before you, and the Viking village depicted becomes a bustling perspectival pile-up of objects, high cliffs and big faces. I was also reminded of the close friendship between 3D movies and flying sequences. A film about dragons, and learning how to ride them, naturally lends itself to scenes of hurtling through the sky at breakneck speed, a white-knuckled passenger on a flight of vertiginy. See, for example, how Robert Zemeckis souped-up Dickens’s A Christmas Carol by having Jim Carrey’s Scrooge thrown through the air at regular intervals:
[See also Toy Story 3: All Things Must Pass]
The most startling thing about the new 3D version of Toy Story is that it seems perfectly designed for the format. Objects poke out at the camera and there are point-of-view shots: check out the scene where Woody and Buzz are carried into Sid’s house, peering out through a gap in zip of the bag they’re trapped in. The teeth of the zip frame a deep view into the house, while Sid’s dog Scud snarls and jumps at the camera. The tension between foreground and deep space seems to have been designed for 3D, as does the thrilling climactic chase, but no shots have been changed for the re-release. And because Pixar didn’t go for any gimmicky in-your-face 3D tactics in the first place, the story is still allowed to breathe without the distractions of peekaboo spectacle. Some of Randy Newman’s songs (“Strange Things” and “I Will go Sailing No More”) are still distractingly literal in describing (or dictating?) the onscreen montages (though all will be forgiven by the time he gets round to the emotional whallop of “When She Loved Me” in Toy Story 2 – I’m welling up just thinking about it…), and the Svankmajer-for-kids grotesqueries of Sid’s room are still an imaginative highpoint even for Pixar. The animation, groundbreaking though it was fifteen years ago, has dated slightly, particularly in the animation of human figures, and most tellingly in the character of Scud: they simply didn’t have procedural modelling programs in place to generate realistic fur, so poor Scud looks a little plastic. (Take a look at this feature about Pixar’s RenderMan system for a glimpse of how much the company innovated in the development of animation.)
Some things haven’t changed at all, though, and Toy Story still impresses by the sheer elegance of its plot: every scene blends imperceptibly into the next step in its development without revealing the mechanics of how it will manouevre all of its characters along the formulaic steps of its life-lesson journeys. The film flies by not just thanks to its breezy, witty script (and peerless voice cast), but because there’s not a moment of slack or digression from its simple tale succinctly told.
So, what’s with the 3D and how on Earth did they do it? You can hear director John Lasseter talking about it here, and read more about the conversion to 3D at the New York Times. Of course, its not an automatic process, even when dealing with digital elements (which are surely easier to convert than live action footage); a second camera has to be placed in the virtual space of the film to create the illusion of depth, and a team of “stereographers” had to select which parts of the frame to pull out and which to push back, and how far to push or pull them (by varying the distance between the two “cameras”. Often, that must be a fairly logical choice, bringing foreground elements out and pushing the backgrounds into the distance, but it’s interesting to hear how lead stereographer Bob Whitehill made some of those choices:
When I would look at the films as a whole, I would search for story reasons to use 3-D in different ways. In Toy Story, for instance, when the toys were alone in their world, I wanted it to feel consistent to a safer world. And when they went out to the human world, that’s when I really blew out the 3-D to make it feel dangerous and deep and overwhelming.
Thankfully, the effect is not distracting, and never used to excess: Pixar have not cheapened their work with a gimmicky makeover, and judging by hushed Saturday matinee crowd with whom I watched it, Toy Story still has the ability to enthrall. Being armed with the foreknowledge that its sequel will be even better doesn’t hurt, either…