Last year was the first year ever we got two new Pixar features to enjoy. After the barren wasteland that was 2014, we all needed it. Even better, both films were originals and they introduced us to new characters in new worlds. Agree or disagree, the consensus was that Pete Docter’s Inside Out was an instant classic while Peter Sohn’s The Good Dinosaur was merely good. So let’s dive in and talk about what made the first one so great, the second one just okay and what lies ahead for the beloved studio.
Looking at the 16 films Pixar has released so far, I’d say they’re at their imperious best when showing us hidden worlds and how they work. It’s the concept that started it all: “Come see what toys do when you’re not looking!” And some of the best things about Toy Story is how well thought out the world is. For example, it’s very obvious that if toys were alive they’d want to get played with and they’d be anxious before parties because what if they’re replaced? And yet before 1995 no one had fully explored those ideas.
Pixar loves to show us how these worlds work and how they affect their characters. And after showing us toys and bugs and monsters and fish and superheroes and rats with feelings, the obvious next step was giving us a story about the feelings of feelings themselves. Maybe that’s the reason Inside Out feels, at least to me, like the quintessential Pixar movie.
It’s a hidden world (the one inside our heads), it’s original and creative, the characters are iconic and it’s full of details about that reality that seem very obvious (literal train of thought!). This is the first time someone other than John Lasseter has made a third film for the studio and it shows: Pete Docter’s directing is confident and absolutely everything seems to just work. This is a movie about embracing sadness as a natural part of our lives that features a half elephant/half dolphin creature made out of cotton candy and I know people as young as 4 and as old as 60 who absolutely love it. Few movies can connect with such a wide spectrum of humans but the story of Joy, Sadness, Fury, Disgust and Fear just seemed to click with us all. For evidence, look at the results of the 2015 Rotoscoper Awards!
There’s a lot to love about this movie. The voice acting is pitch perfect, the music is fantastic, the story makes you laugh and cry, the world is fascinating to behold and I doubt many of you left the theater without discussing with your friends and family who were the leading emotions inside your head (Joy and Fear in my case, as diagnosed by my best friend. How about you?). Watching the movie felt exciting as every scene was a new lesson about the world and the many wonders it hid. And the themes of the movie hit home in spectacular fashion. Bing Bong’s sacrifice signified growing up and letting go of our childhoods and Joy letting Sadness fix everything at the end showed us feeling sad is just part of being human and it’s okay.
So Inside Out was a perfect Pixar movie. It was the result of hundreds and hundreds of really talented people working really hard together under the direction of a Pixar veteran to make a story that felt effortless and organic.
The Good Dinosaur
There’s a scene halfway through The Good Dinosaur where Arlo and Spot share their respective stories and connect because they’ve both lost loved ones. It was my favorite scene in the entire movie and it just reinforced my idea that Pixar is at their strongest when they rely on visual storytelling only (Up montage, Wall-E opening, incinerator scene). And although I quite enjoyed the whole movie, I feel the behind the scenes struggles were noticeable since the movie is a perfect example of a mixed bag: It had amazing stuff, it had good stuff and it had okay stuff.
Anything featuring Spot was golden and, my oh my, the animation was gorgeous. Basically a third of the movie consists of just the soundtrack and wondrous images of the realistic backgrounds they created and I can’t complain about that. However, I must say if I had to rank the Pixar movies, this would be much closer to Cars than to Toy Story 3. And just to clarify, I quite like the first Cars movie. It’s just nowhere near as great as the Pixar classics, in my opinion.
Before we go on, I’d like to address the difficulty of criticizing Pixar. I bet some people already jumped to the comments to chastise me for saying the movie is merely okay and that if it wasn’t a Pixar movie, I wouldn’t say that. Well, the fact is this IS a Pixar movie and we know with certainty they can do better. I would never say The Good Dinosaur is a bad film. But knowing the people behind it can produce something as fantastic, as truly superb as Ratatouille or Finding Nemo I can’t help but notice their latest effort wasn’t up to those lofty standards. And I think it’s okay to expect more from them. For example, I’m a big admirer of Christopher Nolan. I think he’s a great director. And so I expect every movie of his to be as good as The Dark Knight or The Prestige. And if he made something like Planes, I’d be disappointed. We should expect the extraordinary from such a talented group of filmmakers. And yes, I know Planes isn’t a Pixar movie.
So, back to The Good Dinosaur. That scene with Arlo and Spot ripped my heart apart. Curiously enough, I was sadder when Spot knocked down those sticks that represented his family that when Arlo’s actual father passed away. That moment simply didn’t work for me. All the T-Rex stuff is fantastic and thematically relevant so not only is it entertaining, but we see Arlo is learning and growing because of it.
And that was my main issue with the film. I saw a lot of similarities between this movie and Finding Nemo. Both movies deal with someone who is afraid of everything having to battle nature to be back together with the people they love. But while Nemo is still arguably the best Pixar script from a thematic point of view, I found this movie to be lacking in that respect. Let me elaborate: Every single thing that happens to Marlin and Dory is teaching him to let go of his fears. If you remember the very last thing that happens is Marlin hugging Nemo until the latter says “Dad, you can let go now”. That’s the movie summed up right there.
I felt The Good Dinosaur wasn’t as neatly done. Whereas Marlin is hanging on from the whale’s tongue and Dory constantly says “Let go, let go!” (theme), Arlo fights a band of crazy pterodactyls twice. The second time is fine, as Arlo uses all that he has learned to defeat them and save Spot but the first time feels weird. A lot of scenes, actually, felt like more like vignettes showing us the world rather than plot points indispensable to Arlo’s development. The bird collecting triceratops sure looked cool but Arlo didn’t learn anything from him. Even the bank of fish in Nemo is teaching Marlin to relax and let go.
But enough with the negatives! The positive outweighs it by far. Arlo and Spot are worthy companions of all the other Pixar buddy pairings, the T-Rexes are amazing, everything that has to do with fireflies is beautiful and both the scene I’ve already mentioned and the moment our two friends go their separate ways are heart breaking in a way only Pixar movies can be.
I wrote about both films in the same article for a reason: I think they perfectly encapsulate Pixar right now. One movie was great and the other was okay. That defines pretty much every one of their movies. Luckily for us, the great outnumber the okay and there’s only one or two that could be considered bad. But there’s something that worries me. Almost every single Great Pixar Movie has been directed by a group of 4 people: John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird.
Those four have directed Toy Story, a bug’s life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Cars 2 & Inside Out. That’s 12 of Pixar’s 16 movies and out of them, only the Cars movies are not universally beloved. The remaining 4 films have all been helmed by people promoted from within. Lee Unkrich knocked it out of the park with Toy Story 3. Brenda Chapman’s struggles with both the story and the Brain Trust were well documented and her replacement, Mark Andrews, took the film home in a way most people consider more “okay” than “Great”. Peter Sohn replaced Bob Peterson in Good Dinosaur with similar results. And Dan Scalon was one of the few first time directors outside of the Big 4 that didn’t get replaced, delivering a fine movie in Monsters University.
So I can’t help but wonder if Pixar should worry about the next generation. Their first four directors all delivered home runs in their first try and equally impressive movies in their second go. Pete Docter gave us Inside Out in his third. But every other director, save Unkrich, has either been replaced (add Jan Pinkava to the list, as he was replaced by Brad Bird in Ratatouille) or has delivered a good movie that still couldn’t match the heights of the others.
Am I being too negative? Do you think Pixar should hire outside directors? It worked out well with Bird so why not give it another try? All of the upcoming Pixar films are helmed by people who already have a masterpiece under their belts (except Cars 3, whose director hasn’t been announced yet). Two of them (Stanton and Bird) are returning to the worlds they first created. So for a while now, we’ll only be seeing what the Pros can do. I wonder if we should worry the next generation won’t be able to live up to the founding geniuses of Pixar.
What did you think of ‘Inside Out’? What about ‘The Good Dinosaur’? Did you feel sad when Arlo’s dad died? What do you think of the new batch of Pixar directors? What Emotion usually drives you?
Pablo Ruiz is a Colombian filmmaker. Movies like Toy Story, The Lion King and Aladdin made him fall in love with the art form and now he hopes to dedicate his life to telling stories, hopefully for Pixar (if they go back to doing original films).
Some of his ambitions are making a movie as emotionally impacting as Toy Story 3, meeting JK Rowling, and petting a million dogs. Follow him on Twitter (@PabloRV7).