And here we are at the end of “Tyro’s”, Pixar: The Storytellers series. This week delves into the world of Cars and beyond! I would personally like to thank “Tyro” for taking the time to write the articles. A lot of effort went into these and the response seems to be good! So, thank you “Tyro”. I myself have enjoyed your articles, even If I didn’t agree with them. I would also like to put the message out again, if anyone has any Pixar related story, review, whatever, that they would like to share, please don’t hesitate to email me and we can discuss it further. So without further adieu, I present the 7th and final part to the Pixar: The Storytellers series.
I’m aware that many people love Cars, and indeed it did well at the US box office (though poorly in the international market), but in this article I’ll be outlining why, really, the story didn’t work as well as the others Pixar have told.
Firstly, lets look at the world of the story. Is it believable? John Lasseter said how people told him after a while they didn’t see cars anymore, just characters. That’s great, but my problem with Cars is wondering if they really researched and worked out how cars inhabiting a world could work. Would the buildings really be the same? I know it may seem like a pointless and childish question, but how do they get born, or created? Get old? Die? Romance? And one major question that I asked myself after Lightning had fixed the town – what do they do all day? They were just doing laps up and down the new road, or standing around. I’m aware this was the point of the film, and that’s precisely what Lightning needed to do himself, but for me I just couldn’t thoroughly believe in the world. The authenticity was lacking, questions still left in my head. And that’s a sign that the storytellers themselves hadn’t answered every question.
Out of this world comes the story’s premise. A hotshot race car gets stuck in sleepytown . . . and does what? Fix a road? What he really does is to learn the value of selflessness and friendship, but that’s an internal change. To focus the character’s central struggle on an internal level can be done, just watch Tender Mercies, Winter Light or Paris, Texas, but for a family film it’s an odd decision. All the Pixar characters have gone through some kind of emotional journey, but it’s always been done in the face of some overwhelming external conflict/antagonism. Woody had Buzz and the world outside of Andy’s room to contend with; Sulley had Boo, Randall and the factory; Marlin had the ocean; Bob had Syndrome. All of these plots had great momentum, pace and action. But we’re not given that in Cars. Instead, the pace is crawling, momentum is missing and action is simply lacking in real conflict. In short, our interest, curiosity and engagement with the story isn’t as intense as it could be.
(Consequently, I believe this to be one of the reasons why the humour is also lacking in Cars. The other reason is that it’s just not a very funny premise for a film. A petrified father having to cross the ocean, or a superhero struggling with a family, are funny ideas.)
The fault of the lacking conflict isn’t entirely down to the antagonism Lightning finds himself in, it’s also down to his emotional problem at the start. Recall a moment from my first article:
“recently two films have made the critical error of having a brief “I’m sad” moment for the character at the start of the film.”
Flushed Away was the first, Cars was the second. What effect does the moment of Lightning feeling lonely have? It drastically impairs the effect of his journey, because he’s not that attached to his current world, so wherever he goes won’t be the worst thing that could have happened to him, and the resulting arc simply doesn’t mean all that much.
In Cars, this has the effect of making Lightning a bit of a pushover. It just all comes to him a bit too easily, there’s not much of a battle for him. If he doesn’t start out with that much of an internal problem, then the antagonism doesn’t have to rise much in order to conquer it, thus the resulting story won’t be as engaging or powerful as it could be. These two factors, a weak emotional problem and weak physical antagonism are two big reasons for the resulting weak story.
Other than those two reasons, the premise and the world itself, another smaller problem for me were two particular moments of storytelling. First was when an irate Lightning kicks a can, that then leads him to discover Doc’s past; second he follows a tractor, that leads him to witness Doc’s race. For me, and this all stems from the premise and world Lightning is placed in, it’s weak because the scenes don’t originate through character, but through coincidence, or phoney plot devices. The writers needed a way for Lightning to find out these things, and they just couldn’t think of a better way to get him into the scenes.
The summation of these problems leads to the biggest overall problem for Cars: the obviousness factor. If you had to tell a friend what Cars was about, you’d probably say “about this car who gets stuck in a town, and learns the meaning of friendship” or some such. But then the resulting film leaves little to the imagination, or to be surprised about. It’s just laid out for us, and although in most films, if we sat down and thought about it, we’d know what was going to happen, with Cars I felt it was just too plain to see. And again, this stems from the premise, which really didn’t give the writers a lot of options.
The defence against such criticisms is that Pixar have got a particular way of telling a story (i.e. deep rooted emotional problem, fast paced external conflict, arcing experiences) pretty ironed out, and they wanted to try something new. But the principles of storytelling are there because they work, without them stories just don’t achieve their full artistic vision. They may have missed the mark with Cars, but their efforts and ambition to try something new must be applauded nonetheless.
As for exactly why the story had these problems is anyone’s guess. I’d say, though, that John Lasseter, who directed it, after passing on the electric car story they originally worked on, got too stuck with his “learning to take the slow road” sentiment. He overtly made the story about that theme, and once he set the story in the world of cars, just couldn’t let the story develop on its own. Consequently, when he got Lightning stuck in the sleepy town, he really struggled as to what could actually happen, all because he was too determined to tell that story. That’s just a guess, and the 12 writers that worked on the project may tell a different story of trying to solve one problem, but creating umpteen more and getting desperate to sort it all out.
Despite how much I love Pixar, I honestly had reservations about Cars ever since the first trailer. I stated to the doubters, though, “Well, this is Pixar, just wait and see…” It’s a shame the final film in this series is one of the weakest (I’d say the weakest), but hey, looking around at the animation market today, they don’t have much to worry about…
Looking to Pixar’s immediate future, and we have Ratatouille. I tell people who have no idea what it’s about (a rat who wants to be a chef) and they laugh straight away. And rightly so, it’s a brilliant premise, both original and simple. From the looks of the trailers, it seems like a thoroughly entertaining story. Then we have Wall-E, which is again original, yet simple.
My only concern with Pixar’s future comes down to this question: how many things can you say? It’s a given that Pixar’s stories are going to have a character either going through the Education Plot, or some form of it, or the Maturation Plot. It’s just a natural story type for a family film. And given this is Pixar, and these are family films, most of these films look to involve families, friends, or both. But just how many times can you say, effectively, ‘we ultimately gain when we learn the value of friendship’, before it gets repetitive? Did anyone find Cars a little too similar to Toy Story in rhetoric? Also, just how many films can they make totally different from the next? It’ll be interesting to see they’re next few projects after Toy Story 3.
One thing is clear. The slew of CG animation films peaked in 2006, but the trend is likely to continue for a few more years until, as Brad Bird predicts, one of them bombs and all the producers run screaming. But even if that doesn’t happen, and the other studios continue running poor stories through the computer as if that’ll make them good, Pixar will still stand tall. I like to look at the animation sector as a cross-section of Hollywood as a whole. And every time a new type of spectacle comes along we’re flooded by films that mistake that spectacle as a way to tell stories alone. But of course that is never the case, the principles of storytelling don’t change with sound, colour, or CG. And, as we all know, Pixar’s paragon of story first, last, and always, has made them the studio they are today. CG fad or not, Pixar have staying power because they can tell wonderful stories.
And if you’re in need of a dedication to the power of story, just follow the path of Pixar. A computer company, that got into computer animation, that then decided story was paramount, that then came under contract by the legendary Walt Disney company, that were then bought by that company, that then helped that troubled company rediscover its roots and regenerate itself. It’s extraordinary. Sure, even with their help, Meet The Robinsons had its problems, but it’s a sign things are going to get better. Who knows, maybe the other studios will take note someday.
And yet, that is a valid point. If story is so important, then why don’t the studios, or the film world as a whole, regard writers and the storytelling process with any great value? That’s a debate outside the scope of this conclusion, but it can summed up by something my friend said to me not so long ago. He was disillusioned with film, for in its century of existence, where were the great writers, the people who would be remembered in centuries to come, like Shakespeare, Austen, Proust, Homer – why don’t we have world famous screenwriters? Firstly, we do have some. Secondly, the joke of “no one remembers the screenwriter” could actually be extended to the director and definitely the producer. Ask a layman to name you ten film directors. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese . . . what about producers?
The fact is, filmmaking is just an incredibly collaborative medium. It takes hundreds upon hundreds of people to realise a screenplay, to get a story onto the screen. So, as Pixar told us all those years ago, if we do want to be reunited with that world of critical and timeless fame, we may just have to find a friend or two…
A brief note on what spurred me on to write these analyses. Obviously, a love for Pixar. Crucially though, it was a love for stories . . . good stories. And sure, that’s subjective, but when I first ‘found’ screenwriting, as it were, one book just keyed into me, tapped into this wonder, this sense of awe, that was lying dormant within. It inspired me, guided me, and made me saw film, and stories, in a whole new light. Say what you will, and there have indeed been many things said against him, but Robert McKee is one of the few people I have read, at this moment in time, that grounds you by looking deep into the heart of storytelling, into values, the fundamental tenets, and how they give rise to stories as a whole. In his term, storytelling from the inside out. Sure, I’ve read a lot since McKee, and been taught a lot more other than him, but if it were not for him, I wouldn’t be as compelled as I am today to travel along the path I’m currently taking, and I certainly wouldn’t have had these views to share, whether you agreed with me or not.
If you didn’t agree with my points, or particularly care for what I said, or if you despise McKee, or only know of his “Adaptation” character, then fair enough. I’ve come to realise we all need different ways of being opened up, as it were. But I didn’t harass Thomas to put these articles online, I was responding to a request by him for readers to share their views. This has been my view, and rather than insulting me, why not share your thoughts. I wanted to do these to simply offer a particular insight into storytelling for the Pixar fan. I didn’t expect everyone to lap up what I said, I’m not that arrogant yet, but I hope that some of you have found what I said interesting. And if you did, don’t just take my word for it. Engage with the material, really think about it yourself. Most importantly, read. Here’s a selection that will hopefully inspire you as they did me.
Story, Robert McKee
A lot of what I’ve said has almost come directly from his work, I’ve used some of his terms, I appear to have taken on board his style of writing – I’m simply a believer of what he says. So, at the risk of being sued, I’m forever grateful to him, and urge you to read his material.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell
Don’t take the “Hero’s Journey” path too literally – the guiding figure of the old wise man, as it were, needn’t be an actual old wise man (otherwise you fall into the trap of “Eragon”). Instead, think about how the elements Campbell raises have been changed and altered – yet the principles remain.
The Act Of Creation, Arthur Koestler
Simply brilliant. I had trouble getting hold of a copy, hopefully it’s easier for you.
Engage with him! Don’t lap it up, taking it in an on-the-nose fashion. And try to stay away from Michael Tierno’s “Poetics for Screenwriters”, it’s a bastardised version that looks at story from the outside in. Go to the source, and go beyond “Poetics” – “Rhetoric”, “Ethics”, “Politics” and “Metaphysics” are all of value.
The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettleheim
I found the opening chapters of more value than the specific story analysis, but read it all anyway.
This is where I started, the list will grow in the coming years, but I think these books are great starting points. Thanks to all of these authors, and a big thanks to you for reading.