On Danny Boyle and “the Pixarification of Movies”: Part Two, by Kyle Kontour

[Ramaeker here: First off, a big welcome to my first Third Meaning guest blogger, Kyle Kontour. Dr. Kontour, ladies and gentlemen. Now then: over to him.]

There is an interesting constellation of meanings Boyle evokes in using the term “Pixarfication.”  He is not suggesting that Pixar films and their ilk are not good films—indeed, he indicates an appreciation for what he thinks they do well—but that such films are most certainly not “adult”.  But if the trend has been away from adult films and toward family friendly fare, then what has this meant for childrens’ films?  Before I delve into this issue, both “Pixarfication” and “adult” require some unpacking here.  Let’s tackle the latter first.

In my reading of Boyle’s comments, “adult” would indicate content that deals with things such as sex, war, ambiguity, complex emotional and psychological states, complicated musings on the state of society, and so on.  I think it also includes a more sophisticated cinematic aesthetic, as well:  films that are “grown up” in that they take some effort (and maybe time) for the audience to read, possibly even breaking with many of the standard formal conventions of the Hollywood film.  “Adult” is something embodied by films like Annie Hall (1977), as opposed to, say, A Bug’s Life (1998).

So what is “Pixarfication”?  I hope I do not take too many liberties with Boyle’s comments and implied sentiments, but I interpret this to be speaking mostly to the trend of a form of moviemaking that is aimed at the whole family, and which is deliberately produced and marketed to be a cash cow—expected to gross over $200 million at the domestic box office and providing essentially endless merchandising opportunities.  What Boyle is emphasizing, beyond the critique of the blockbuster political economy, is a kind of “flattening” of content:  that the only way to make that kind of money is to ensure that such films are bereft of “adult” content.  What Boyle seems to be implying, furthermore, is that we can essentially draw a straight line from Star Wars to Pixar in terms of the profitability and proliferation of kid-friendly, unsophisticated entertainment.  Also, most kids‘ films are unabashed cartoons (albeit now almost exclusively CGI), in which Pixar is merely the most prolific and famous of several studios (DreamWorks Animation Studios, Illumination Entertainment, et al) that make family friendly animated films, each of which we can now expect to be among the top twenty grossing films of any given year.  Whether Boyle intends to or not, he implies that “un-adult” means “kiddie fare,” and that such fare has taken over.  I think that framing things this way, however, is too dismissive of what I think is a far more impactful aspect of “Pixarfication”:  the extent to which kids’ movies have become more adult.

Where Paul has pointed out that the 1970s were not as artsy and daring as some nostalgiacs make them out to be, we must also look with fresh eyes at kids’ movies of 1970s and 1980s.  (I include here films from the 1980s not only because they pre-date Pixar, but also because of their contemporaneity to Star Wars.)  Put simply, films aimed squarely at children were often made cheaply and crudely (whether animated or live action), had very simplistic plots, and were unsophisticated in their depiction of morals, emotions, and the workings of society.

The Last Unicorn

The Last Unicorn

Examples include low-quality adaptations of fantasy novels (The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, The NeverEnding Story), hackneyed, fantastical romps (Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Herbie movies, etc.), saccharine toy line promotions (The Care Bears Movie, My Little Pony: The Movie), and Disney animated fare that remains infamous for its relatively poor quality (The Aristocats, The Rescuers, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron).  If the 1970s was the height of Hollywood adult cinema, then the ’70s and ’80s were almost certainly the nadir of kids’ films (brighter spots such as the Jim Henson films and E.T. The Extraterrestrial being the exceptions that prove the rule).

To be sure, today’s kids’ films can for the most part slot in easily with such movies in terms of broad themes and story structure, although we can also say with some degree of assurance that the overall quality of craft is greatly improved (starting in 1989 with the so-called “Disney Renaissance” in hand-drawn animation beginning with The Little Mermaid, and accelerated with the subsequent boom in CGI animation ushered in by Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995).  If such films are not as artistically sophisticated as what Boyle might consider an adult film, they are nonetheless a marked improvement when compared to earlier kids’ films, almost across the board:  cinematography, mise en scene, editing, camera movement, staging, etc. However, a number of so-called kids’ films are also remarkably more sophisticated than their forebears when it comes to what Boyle might well consider to be “adult” content.

We can begin with Pixar, which has produced many films over the years that I would argue contain adult elements.  [SPOILERS, HO!]  In Toy Story 2, we bear witness to “Jessie’s Song”, a montage which depicts the process of growing out of childhood, from the point of view of a discarded toy (which children may be able to understand, but with which only adults can empathize).  Finding Nemo opens with the violent death of a parent/spouse, its plot is motivated by what is essentially a kidnapping, and in the process both father and son must overcome their own fears and limitations (both physical and psychological) in order to be reunited.  The Incredibles deals with how to work through marital ennui, while including a scene in which the superhero mother tells her children, “Remember the bad guys on the shows you used to watch on Saturday mornings? Well, these guys aren’t like those guys. They won’t exercise restraint because you are children. They will kill you if they get the chance.”  Toy Story 3 is arguably one of the most “adult” films ever to receive a G rating:  it includes depictions of torture, living under dictatorship, moving on from the loss of loved ones, and an incredibly moving scene in which the main characters, when faced with what appears to be inevitable doom (being burned alive in a trash incinerator), quietly hold hands and await their fate together.  The film is entirely centered around the loss of childhood:  Andy (the toys’ owner) grows up and moves on (but retains his sentimental attachment to his toys), Andy’s mother is visibly shaken by her son’s vacant room as he leaves for college, the film’s villain, Lotso, is twisted in anguish and rage over childhood abandonment, and so on.

Toy Story 3: Woody, Buzz and friends resign themselves to a fiery end.

Toy Story 3: Woody, Buzz and friends resign themselves to a fiery end.

Such sophistication is arguably best rendered by Pixar, but can be found in other such films: DreamWorks Animation Studio’s Antz neatly satirizes social class; Walt Disney Animation Studio’s Wreck-It-Ralph is a poignant treatment of heroism and self-sacrifice; Illumination Studio’s The Lorax, based on the Dr. Seuss book, fills out its run time by adding some clever satire of consumer culture and a critique of disaster capitalism, and so on.  I think it is also worth noting that even the most crowd-pleasing and least complicated films tend on the whole to at least be more comedically sophisticated (compare the Emperor’s New Groove, for example, to the slapstick in Aristocats).  Perhaps the best example of all is Pixar’s Up, which spends the first ten minutes of the film establishing the relationship between the protagonist, Carl, and his wife Ellie—a series of scenes (capped with a four and a half minute montage that spans several decades) which follows them from the day they meet as children, to their wedding, through such trials as financial difficulties and their inability to have children, and culminating in Carl somberly walking back into his house from Ellie’s funeral (if there is any doubt as to the deftness and poignancy with which this is depicted and the emotional impact it leaves, read through the comments anywhere on Youtube that this clip is posted).  The film’s plot is motivated by Carl’s desire to make good on his promise to his dead wife to get to Paradise Falls (we must assume it is initially his intent to die there or die trying), but ultimately turns on Carl striking up a paternal relationship with a neglected boy scout—it is a film that tackles the meaning of life and death with the sort of maturity and subtlety that would have been totally inconceivable in a so-called kids’ film prior to Pixar.

Up: Carl and Ellie share a quiet moment in their early married life.

Up: Carl and Ellie share a quiet moment in their early married life.

To be sure, this is not to say that such movies are anywhere near as “adult” as Dog Day Afternoon or Chinatown or The French Connection.  My point is that overall they are considerably more sophisticated, in terms of both filmmaking craft as well as themes and issues, than kids’ films in years past.  What Pixar has ushered in is not merely the family friendly blockbuster.  “Pixarfication” is the bar being set so much higher for family entertainment.  While I sympathize with Boyle’s lament about an era in which truly adult films are no longer important to Hollywood, he should celebrate the fact that the Pixar generation of children has been immersed in films of considerably greater cinematic quality than would have been the case of children growing up in the 1970s and ’80s—and that the adults who go to the movies with them are seeing films that are not, in fact, utterly bereft of adult content.  Where adults may have had to suffer through kids’ films in the past, these films are now ones that adults look forward to seeing and that the whole family can enjoy (and discuss) together.  Pixarfication presents a world of joy, verve, and color about which we may very well by cynical; but it also depicts a world that is complicated, filled with genuine and relatable dangers and sorrows, and in which fortitude and resolve (and not deus ex machina such as enchanted suits of armor) are what you must have to get out of a difficult situation.

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