Sunday, June 17, 2012

Brave, Pixar, and a Wider Lens

Not to brag, but I seem to have a talent for predicting how well a movie is going to go over. Don't ask me how. I knew WALL-E was going to be the most amazing thing I've ever seen, even going as far as to buy memorabilia before I stepped foot in the theater. I knew Cars 2 was going to be 'completely ridiculous... but it looks really fun,' and maybe part of the reason I enjoyed the film so much is I didn't have to deal with the shell shock many others got about it not being... Pixar-ish enough. With this strange ability, I've managed to never regret seeing a film in theaters.

No, really. Not to brag. Not. To. Brag. Because not every feeling I have is positive. Sometimes, I look at a film I really want to like and something just doesn't connect. Something feels off, but I don't want to be right. If you follow my Tumblr, you saw me struggle with this a few days ago:

*deep breath*  
 I have a bad feeling about Brave.  
 I feel it’s been overhyped and it looks like its trying too hard to be feminist. The main character - while unique for Disney/Pixar in ways - feels like so many anti-girly-princess characters that people would be calling Sues if they showed up in fanfics.  
 That said, this is all the feeling I get from trailers, and I REALLY hope I’m wrong, because I love Pixar and want another of their annual fantastic films.

I think I was expecting to be proven wrong more than I realized, because when Brave hit 64% on Rotten Tomatoes today, it was a harsh blow. I don't put all my faith in critics; I consider them a variety of people just like any others with a spectrum of opinions. I learned my lesson about over idealizing them as otherwise last year. But all the same, critics give us a general idea of what the general consensus of a movie might be, and watching Brave's rating spiral feels like watching Pixar in trouble, and it's no secret how much I adore Pixar.

But - let's assume Brave turns out to not just be misunderstood, but it really isn't very good. Let's assume I turn out right and we don't leave with the sense of wonder we look forward to every year as we exit the theaters. - how much trouble is Pixar really in if they have two critically bombed films in a row? The truth is, our fangirl/fanboy heartstrings are going to take a much bigger punch than they probably will in Emeryville, and here's why:

1. Not everybody who goes to see Pixar films is a devoted Pixar geek.

We are the animation enthusiasts; a large enough segment of the population to warrant the printing of gorgeous art of books and the broadcast a few documentaries, but not nearly as influential as we'd like to be. When the Oscars come around and we're stuck seeing films that are just as good as any stuck only in the Best Animated Feature category simply because famous actors don't make on-screen appearances, this is frustrating. When we see animation automatically equated to children by the average person, this is frustrating. When critics say an animated film isn't very mature and even when we're not crazy about it... we need the average adult with little understanding of animation and kids who will enjoy the film either way, in part because kids just love cartoons and in part because they aren't as focussed on who made the film as we are. Studio bias is rampant - the better you do the higher the bar is raised - and Children who just know a cartoon is a cartoon may be the most fair critics of animation, in a sense.

2. Worse tragedies have taken place than two mediocre films. 

And I say two with a disgruntled sigh as I side-eye my beloved collection of Cars 2 die casts. I just said that we tend to overestimate Pixar... but we also greatly underestimate them if we think two regular films (yes, regular. Not horrible. Just, regular. About the quality other studios make all the time and few panic over) are going to sink the animation behemoth. Pixar was the first studio to make a fully computer animation motion picture. The majority of their protagonists are icons, referenced constantly in unrelated media. Merchandise for Pixar films takes up about half the toy section at my local Target. We've become so used to big business ruining art that we've forgotten Pixar is big business, and it knows how to take care of itself.

This is a rough patch for Pixar. They have gone through their original set of ideas from the famous lunch. They have been attempting to start producing two films a year since the start of the decade. They are working on more sequels. It is a lot of changes. Could it mean their film quality is a bit less than we're used to? Possibly. But successful animation companies have been through much, much worse and managed to pull through. If you have never heard of the Disney Renaissance, now might be a good time to study one of the fundamentals of recent animation history.

3. Money, dear boy. 

Linked to both of the above, Pixar is a business.

I repeat for a third time: Pixar is a business, and film buffs need to stop take the desire to make money and the desire to make art and making a sliding scale chart out of them, because that's just not how it works.

"Art drives technology, technology inspires art."

If you're a big Pixar fan, you may have heard this before. John Lasseter said it, and its a fan favorite saying. What many people seem to forget is that technology is expensive. How much did the machine you are reading this on cost you? Probably not enough to render frames of high quality animation without frying something. You may imagine working at Pixar for peanuts, driven by nothing by love and creative enthusiasm, but neither of those will fill your stomach or put a roof over your head.

Yes, Cars 2 was made in part for the money. No, that does not make it any less creative. If you didn't like Cars 2, cool. It's not everybody's cup of tea, as the critics have clearly shown. But to the people claiming Pixar didn't put effort into the film because they wanted to make money with it... I honestly don't understand how you could be so blind to all the amazing artwork, set design, vocal performances, and general effort that went into the film whether you enjoyed it or not.

All that money you scoffed at Pixar raking in with a film you felt wasn't artistic enough? If Brave bombs, it will cover it and then some. Pixar's cash cow franchises not only handle basic needs like technology and staff, but they allow Pixar to make mistakes. Eventually, Pixar may make a film that bombs both with critics and with customers (or the critics will love it and the customers will tilt their heads), but they learn from it.

Pixar being a successful business means they have the means to take more risks than ever before. This will lead to mistakes, but it will also lead to even more innovative, interesting films. Could you imagine Pixar proposing the human mind film they're currently working on when they were starting out broke? I can't.

So, once again, calm down Pixar fandom. Back up a little and see Pixar with the wider lens it has earned for all its hard work an innovation. Look at the real world, the future, and all the potential Pixar has as its mixes things up. And no matter how you feel when you walk out of Brave, know its not the end of the world, or even the end of Luxo Jr.