2015: the first year with two Pixar releases, significant especially when you consider their yearlong absence following 2013’s Monsters University. But the two feature length films – Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur – represent a lot on their own besides Pixar’s return to the silver screen.
Pixar’s short films this year were significant too. “Lava”, a tribute to the Hawaiian islands and music from director James Ford Murphy, premiered with Inside Out this summer. Though seven minutes long, it’s Pixar’s first full fledged musical. Pixar’s anthropomorphic characters have long been personified since Luxo, but no Pixar character, human or otherwise, has ever sang before! It’s almost unavoidable to compare this short to “The Blue Umbrella”, which also concerns two living objects finding love, but the love story in “Lava” is on a grander scale. The short’s subject matter is somewhat divisive, but it does provide breathtaking visuals. Can we expect more Pixar musicals? Seems likely!
“Sanjay’s Super Team” however, is unlike anything Pixar has yet produced. In the visual department, it’s a sumptuous blending of 2D and 3D with eye watering colors and excellent character designs. Still images prove to be as dazzling as the film in motion.
It’s not only the gorgeous art style that makes this short film so phenomenal. This is the first time a Pixar film has featured a person of color. If “Lava” could signal more musicals, “Sanjay’s Super Team” could do the same for more diverse characters and perspectives in Pixar films. John Lasseter has said as much about broadening the studio’s canon. Most notably, director Sanjay Patel, joining Peter Sohn as the first nonwhite directors to helm Pixar features, drew on his childhood experiences to tell this story.
This is a deeply personal, heartfelt story about little Sanjay’s struggles to distance himself from his father’s customs. It also mirrors the struggles of adult Sanjay, who was initially reluctant to show something so personal, but who was convinced in the end by his father and Lasseter. The short’s seven minute run-time produces an expertly crafted narrative with glimpses of the Hindu faith. The audience may be strangers to Hinduism, but we can understand Sanjay eventual appreciation of his father’s inner world and how both father and son bond at the short’s conclusion. And for us first generation American kids, the short film is especially meaningful. “Sanjay’s Super Team” is truly a bold step in the right direction.
2015 also marks 20 years of Toy Story, the first full length Pixar creation as well as the first computer animated film. We recently asked our readers to share their memories of the film; an exercise in nostalgia. But nostalgia aside, Toy Story brims with a timeless appeal. A revolutionary success in 1995, expanding the boundaries of animation and technology, it’s as beloved today as it was twenty years ago.
Earlier this month, Toy Story at 20: To Infinity and Beyond aired on ABC. Strikingly, none of the Pixarians expected the movie to ever become as big as it did. There were constant roadblocks to success and they had to take untested leaps of faith in order to create the movie they believed in. Toy Story and Pixar are world renowned today. That both came to be because of naive risk-takers is inexpressibly inspiring.
The third installment also celebrated five years back in June. Toy Story 3 was the impeccable finale to a trilogy about a motley band of toys and the boy who loved them. Us 90s kids, particularly the ones looking ahead to college, could see ourselves in Andy. Woody, Buzz, Slinky, Rex, Hamm, Potato Head, Jessie…those were our toys. The third film was a bittersweet goodbye to childhood, but not to Woody and the gang.
June 18th was Toy Story 3‘s fifth year anniversary date. Inside Out was released in theaters the following day.
The film is really framed as a struggle for parents. Joy, exuberant and star shaped, dominates Riley’s Headquarters. Her number one priority is to keep Riley happy at all times, which ultimately unravels in the wake of chaos from major life transitions. Joy’s attempts to push Sadness away not only speak to parents wishing to shield their children from pain and Sadness, but to everyone who does the same.
This is perhaps the first film, animated or otherwise, that places less importance on attaining happiness, and more on learning to embrace Sadness. It’s such a simple idea; it’s OK and even necessary to be sad. But too often we struggle in vain to never feel sad at all times.
Inside Out could prove to be as revolutionary as Toy Story, if not more so. This is a remarkably inventive concept; one that further proves animated films can indeed have depth and still be entertaining. And just like the 1995 film, neither Pete Docter nor anyone else expected it to resonate as it has. Could they have known that those struggling with mental illness would be able to use the film to explain the conflicting array of their own emotions? Or that it could be used to help children identify their emotions and learn that the negative ones are beneficial too?
Imagine if your emotions cared about you. (Oh Anger, you do care!) Imagine that your emotions are these distinct personalities made up of glowing particles that help you navigate the world. Imagine you have Personality Islands that power you up, explain your passions and longings. Imagine all the bright, clever silliness of an elaborate Pixar world juxtaposed against a somber coming-of-age tale.
Growing up is often devastating. The equilibrium of Riley’s mind gradually collapses – she loses Joy, interests, and friends. Her islands of personality literally crumble and fall away, disappearing forever into the yawning abyss of the memory dump. Suddenly Riley isn’t the same little girl anymore. What a bleak vision of adolescence. But though the process of growing up is painful, messy, and requisitely sad, the rewards are abundant. Riley’s mind does repair itself after all. Through adversity, her inner life is strengthened.
Inside Out is important for its focus on a young girl. Riley isn’t ever boxed into any wrongheaded notions of femininity or lack thereof. She’s just allowed to be a person who’s also a girl. There were skeptics when the film’s premise was announced, those who believed that a film focusing on a girl’s feelings would reinforce cliché stereotypes. But the film proved those skeptics wrong. The mundane realties of a preteen girl on the brink of leaving childhood are given weighty consideration. Mindy Kaling, providing vocal work for the fabulous Disgust, put it best: after reading the script, she tearfully told Docter and producer Jonas Rivera that making a film that says it’s OK for girls to be sad about growing up is profound.
And it passes the Bechdel Test by placing Joy and Sadness at the center; two female characters fighting to protect a young girl. Two female characters who are both flawed, yet earnest and nurturing. The film also offers a quiet, yet resounding affirmation that girls, and everyone, but girls especially, can feel a multitude of ways. And to think this came from Pixar, the boys studio.
Inside Out is arguably Pixar’s most ambitious project since 2009’s Up, which was also directed by Pete Docter. Like Up and Docter’s other film Monsters, Inc., it achieves a seamless balance between absurdity and heartbreak. It’s really nothing short of astonishing. The technical aspects are a marvel, it being the most vast, complicated set that’s yet existed in a Pixar film. That’s to say nothing of the actual story which accomplishes a major feat. It shows us something we all know but have never seen, and it’s a fun, exciting, emotional journey.
On opening day, AMC Theaters screened a brief video in which Docter thanked audiences for watching the movie. It was such a humble, surprising gesture. The video isn’t available to watch online unfortunately, but here’s what Docter had to say:
“Movies, like the ones we make at Pixar, are made by people. And the reason we make them is to talk to folks, to share something about our own experiences of life and to pass that feeling onto others. But that doesn’t happen unless there’s someone out there to listen. I feel so lucky to make movies, and on behalf of everyone at Pixar and Disney, we want to thank you for coming to watch our work. Movies have the ability to take you to different worlds, make you laugh or cry, and remind you you’re alive. None of this would happen without you. Thank you for coming, and we hope you enjoy the film.”
This is the first time a Pixar director has done something like this, and it made Inside Out screenings all the better. Thankfully it wasn’t the last time, as Pete Sohn also introduced The Good Dinosaur to audiences when that film premiered in November.
Sohn described growing up as a child of Korean immigrants and how that helped to inform Arlo’s story. His mother’s English was limited. When he went to the movies as a child with his mother, Sohn often had to whisper translations of what was happening onscreen to her. But this wasn’t the case with most animated movies. In movies like Dumbo, neither words nor translations were needed. Animation is a universal language that everyone can understand. Sohn wanted to recreate that kind of wordless beauty for this film. He wanted to show how two characters could communicate without speaking the same language and how poignant that communication could be. And in The Good Dinosaur, Spot’s inability to speak only lends more authenticity to the primal bond – and love – that he shares with Arlo.
It’s definitely not an exaggeration to say that people were expecting The Good Dinosaur to fail. Its troubled production history worried a lot of people, particularly because veteran Pixar filmmaker Bob Peterson was unceremoniously removed from the director’s chair. While fans were concerned and saddened, they were confident that a good movie could still emerge. Others were far more cynical, certain that moving the film from its original May 2014 release date to November 2015 spelled disaster. The first year without a Pixar movie? Here Pixar was failing in a very public way, and some people felt it was justified comeuppance.
The Good Dinosaur isn’t the first Pixar movie to be scrapped halfway through production and to switch directors. It’s been done twice before with stellar results (Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille). Even Brave and Cars 2 were worthy if flawed efforts. But there are those who think the film did fail, especially since its story was so simplistic, threadbare even, compared to Inside Out’s voluminous narrative.
But here’s something people don’t seem to realize: Pixar shouldn’t be expected to reinvent storytelling with every single film. Leave the ambitious flair to Inside Out; the second Pixar feature of 2015 does something quite different, even if it isn’t groundbreaking. (And in less noticeable ways, it actually is).
The Good Dinosaur’s premise is original. Dinosaurs never went extinct. And that’s not all. The herbivores evolved into farmers while the carnivores like T-Rex are now ranchers. The movie even turns into a western halfway through! In this delightfully bizarre setting, an uncomplicated story begins to evolve. Given the movie’s prehistoric timeline, the straightforward storytelling makes sense. The Good Dinosaur eschews glossy modern appeal to tap into something so much more earthy and primitive.
The movie isn’t primitive simply because dinosaurs still roam the earth. It’s that barrier between languages that makes it so. It isn’t wordy, which is so refreshing. Arlo and Spot start off as enemies. Pixar films are usually about the unexpected friendship between two characters and it’s a trope they pull off extremely well, because the results are different every time. But the stakes are higher in this film because of that language barrier and the harsh world that Arlo and Spot inhabit. They depend on each other for survival, but it grows into something more. Understanding begins to blossom between them in ordinary and profound ways. They become each other’s surrogate family although the world would discourage it. Even if the time and the story are unsophisticated, there are still some potent, timeless takeaways to be had.
This film is a study in brilliant contrasts; cartoony dinosaurs juxtaposed against hyper real, painterly animation; unvarnished story juxtaposed against magnificent artwork; a huge, frightening world that is tranquil and still. There are quiet moments within even as the danger threatens our timid dinosaur hero and his ferociously endearing human boy (two characters who are brilliant, surprising contrasts as well).
And yet, for all its oddity, The Good Dinosaur is grounded in realism and emotional clarity. Nature is pristine and gorgeous, but also a formidable foe that must be reckoned with. Arlo and Spot bond over their loss of family without ever needing words.
Here’s a movie with talking dinosaurs and a wild boy that doesn’t resort to scatological humor in order to hold the attention of the youngest audience members. Here’s a movie with talking dinosaurs that’s possibly the most sensitive, tender story Pixar has told since their first film twenty years ago.
To borrow from Poppa, sometimes you gotta get through your expectations to see the beauty on the other side.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our coverage of Pixar’s awesome year. Check back here for what’s ahead as we leave 2015!