Pass the Popcorn: Pixar as Art and Commerce

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

With Wall-E conquoring the movie universe today, how could we do anything else for this week’s Pass the Popcorn but a retrospective on Pixar?

Yet how much is there left to say, really? A retrospective of Pixar along the lines of the previous retrospectives I’ve done here would read like this: they made a really amazing movie, then they made another one, then they made another one . . .

I could tell you all about how great Toy Story and Finding Nemo are. But you already know. So I’ll skip the movie-by-movie retrospective and just look around for things to say about Pixar that everybody doesn’t already know.

“Hey, Marlin! Didja know Pixar made a whole bunch of really great movies?”

“Yes, Dory, I knew.”

“Oh. Okay, then. . . . Hey, Marlin! Didja know Pixar made a whole bunch of really great movies?”

If I shared the view that Pixar’s more recent offerings (Cars, Ratatouille) represent a step down from its earlier accomplishments, I might write my third consecutive retrospective of a great filmmaker who succeeds both artistically and commercially, then lets fame go to his head and produces substandard work. However, I don’t think Pixar’s quality has declined. Yes, Cars is not Toy Story. But you know what? A Bug’s Life ain’t Toy Story either. Between the two, I’m not sure which I’d take – they’re both quite good for what they are, definitely well above the average “family movie” (not that that’s saying much), but they’re not great filmmaking. Same goes for Monsters Inc.

Believe it or not, this was a Pixar movie. Remember?

And I don’t care what anybody else thinks, I think Ratatouille is a very impressive accomplishment. It not only has sharp dialogue (consider, for example, the duel of wits between Linguini and Anton Ego in the press conference scene) and great humor (in its context, the moment where Ego is transported back to childhood by his first bite of Remy’s ratatouille is every bit as funny as the “I am your father” line in Toy Story 2), but also philosophical depth (the whole movie is basically Plato’s Ion in cartoon form, with cooking as a proxy for art and creativity generally – as Ego’s climactic monologue makes clear).

“Not by craft does the poet sing, but by power divine.”

So Pixar movies have always ranged from good family movies (A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Cars) to exceptionally good family movies (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) to landmark artistic achievements (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo).

But other things about Pixar have changed over time. It’s hard to remember this now, but there was a time when the name “Pixar” primarily meant “digital animation.” Of course everyone acknowledged that Toy Story was also a great story, and would have been noteworthy even without the technological breakthrough. But it was the digital filmmaking technology everybody really noticed when Toy Story hit the theaters.

Once upon a time, this wasn’t the adventures of good old Woody and Buzz. It was a revolutionary breakthrough in digital filmmaking that was going to change the role of technology in movies – which happened to come in the form of a story about a bunch of toys.

Of course, today nobody cares about Pixar as a technological innovator – and that fact is as great a testament as anything to its accomplishments as a producer of art. “Pixar” now just means “great movies.”

Pixar as fine art (at MOMA; HT

And, technology aside, Pixar’s accomplishments are breathtaking not only as art but also as commerce – in fact, I think what’s really most noteworthy about Pixar is that it appears to have developed a working business model for consistently producing good-to-great movies.

The idea of a business model for producing good art will strike some as misguided or even offensive, but it is really nothing more than the reappearance of what was the normal mode of producing art in almost all times and places. All great art before the advent of Rousseau’s philosophy – from Aeschylus and Euripides to Dante and Hieronymus Bosch to Shakespeare and Rembrandt – was produced in the context of a economic system designed to systematize financial support for artists (in the form of community festivals, household patronage, guilds, etc.) who were in turn expected to produce good work in response to something approximating market demand. The supposed antinomy between art and commerce is a prejudice of our own time. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, before the Romantic movement with its idolization of the artist and the creative process, the idea that artists should not be expected to produce good work “to order” would have been considered as absurd as the idea of a captain who could only steer the ship when the fit took him. Socrates’ remarks to Ion notwithstanding, in addition to divine power there is indeed a “craft” to the production of good art, and the divine power responds to the craft as much as the craft responds to the divine power.

Their greatest challenge: Reconcile art and commerce!

By now everyone knows the formula: Pixar collects a small stable of very talented filmmakers and gives them a long production cycle (four to five years for each project) during which they work collaboratively, each member of the team contributing actively to the other members’ projects. Everyone draws on everyone else’s talent and ideas, and the long cycle ensures that nothing has to go out the door before it’s ready.

Presumably it’s the presence of so many great artists in such a collegial and collaborative atmosphere that explains the remarkable phenomenon of Pixar shorts – the company has taken a defunct genre, the animated short, and produced enough great work in it to support a separate release on its own DVD even though they’re all already out there as bonus features on the DVDs of Pixar movies (which everybody who bought the shorts DVD probably already owns). The short Knick Knack was by itself worth the price of admission to Finding Nemo. No doubt what we’re seeing is the ideas generated during artistic bull sessions at Pixar that couldn’t support a full-length movie, but were too good to throw away.

If you look at him and say, “Hey, that’s the guy who cleaned and fixed Woody in Toy Story 2!” you’re missing some of Pixar’s best work.

The Pixar formula looks very much like art-colony stuff, which is not what people expect from an intersection of art and commerce. But my point is that the Pixar formula is a formula – Pixar didn’t happen by accident, and it didn’t happen without investors who evaluated the business plan and judged (correctly, as it turns out) that the Pixar formula would produce reliable returns in the form of consistently good movies. In other words, while all the non-commercialized, anti-commercial art colonies seem to have stopped producing art worth seeing, in this case commerce produced an art colony that works. And it’s not fundamentally all that different from the household patronage system of Renaissance Italy, with Steve Jobs standing in for Lorenzo de’ Medici; capitalism just allows the patrons to draw resources from a broader base.

There’s no reason the Pixar model couldn’t be reproduced by other movie companies, by TV production houses, by music labels, etc. Even “high” art, for which there is a much more limited audience, could be produced this way. You would just have to finance it through contributions from, and sales to, the wealthy (and, presumably, through government subsidies) rather than by selling stock – which is pretty much how high art is financed now.

Of course, it takes a certain kind of person to create and sustain a collegial atmosphere among a bunch of top-flight artists – a class of personality not known for playing well with others. This is John Lasseter’s most important accomplishment, and recognizing the value of what Lasseter was doing is Steve Jobs’s most important accomplishment (at Pixar, anyway). For this, Lasseter can be forgiven even the egomaniacal introductory sgements he plastered onto the American DVD releases of the works of Hayao Miyazaki – but that’s a rant I’d better stop before it starts.

There are other Steve Jobses out there in the entertainment industry. There’s no reason they can’t find other John Lasseters and hire them to create new Pixars.

Pixar has a “formula” on the creative side as well as on the institutional side. Around the time of Toy Story 2 or so, I remember Jay remarking that Pixar movies succeed because all of them are about something, and specifically they’re about something that kids understand and adults still care about. In the early movies this was always pretty clear – Toy Story is about the anxiety of being replaced (Buzz is to Woody as a newborn baby is to the older sibling), A Bug’s Life is about standing up to bullies, Toy Story 2 is about death. In some of the later movies the subject isn’t as clear – you can make out a case that Monsters Inc. is about fear of the unknown, but you have to stretch a lot further. Nonetheless, the formula is still there for the most part, and it’s still pretty clear in most of the movies.

How will Wall-E fit in? The director (Andrew Stanton, he of Finding Nemo) has confirmed what seemed likely from the previews – namely that the movie has an environmental theme. That would of course be a disaster, since the last thing Pixar needs is to start making preachy movies. But Stanton swears the movie isn’t preachy. And I’ve long since given up judging Pixar movies by the previews, which always seem to promise disappointment, and thankfully have always proven wrong. The previews for Finding Nemo struck me as awful.

So I guess I’ll see you all at the theater tonight, and we’ll all find out together.

4 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: Pixar as Art and Commerce

  1. Brian Kisida says:

    I do hope we can look forwrard to Greg providing an insightful review of Wall-E when time permits.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    Insightful? You be the judge.

    It’s basically two movies: a fantastic story about a lonely robot who discovers that he needs, and then discovers, companionship; and a somewhat preachy treatise on how greedy corporations are taking over the world and destroying the planet. I’d give the first movie an A+ and the second movie a C. The second movie does have redeeming qualities; there’s a strong element of Tocqueville and Aldous Huxley, to the effect that when people live for nothing but pleasure, they will be fit for nothing but slavery. If they’d focused on that rather than on the environmental stuff, they could have had a movie that would have been a breakthrough even by Pixar’s lofty standards. As it is, it’s a good movie and I’m sure I’ll buy it when it comes out. I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up a little at the finale, during which the A+ movie about companionship was ascendent. But it’s not what it could have been.

  3. Brian Kisida says:

    I pretty much agree. I would add that the score was particularly effective, as it needed to be with a movie that had such little dialogue. I disagree ever so slightly about your thoughts on the preachy aspects of the movie. To me the problem wasn’t the environmental slant; that can be made into a worthy message. The problem was that the corporations were held responsible for the mess and the people were not. Had the movie placed more balanced blame on the part of the people who had allowed/caused their society to decline I would have been content. They should have watched the South Park episode that took on Wal-Mart. That episode had a very good treatment of the “we have met the enemy and he is us” concept.

    That aside, I really enjoyed the movie and will surely own it as well.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    That dovetails to some extent with my take; you say you’d rather see the people blamed instead of “corporations,” and I say I’d rather see the emphasis on the fact that when people choose to live for nothing but pleasure, they will be fit for nothing but slavery.

    And (spoiler alert) I will make this one concession to the green-green-lima-bean crowd: When the captain says to the little plant, “You just needed someone to take care of you,” and then turns around and sees the picture of the globe, that was a good moment. It gave expression to the best of the many impulses (not all of them good) that lie behind environmentalism.

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