I’ve set myself the challenge to write a critically-minded review of something I would normally find difficult to fault. In this case I want to look at the films of Pixar. It’d be incredibly simple to criticise the studio for making unrealistic, unbelievable narratives; monsters don’t exist and there is no secret life of toys, bugs and fishes. Instead, the main focus of this review is going to be on the technicalities of the Pixar diegesis.
In 1983, a young John Lasseter began working for a graphics group at Lucasfilm, creating debuts at SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques). Apple Inc co-founder, Steve Jobs, bought out the computer division and the independent company was born. By 1987, the new found team created the PIXAR image computer and from there grew the Pixar we know today. Disney agreed to a Pixar film in 1991, and by 1995 Toy Story hit the big screens. Since then we’ve seen twelve more Pixar films, including two Toy Story sequels. We can ignore the immediate criticism of toys coming to life, and question the idea that nobody has yet seen the toys moving around of their own accord. The Pixar-aware readers among you will have noticed there was an exception in the first Toy Story: Sid, the menacing next-door neighbour, is scared away by the toys. The movie ends with the idea that nobody will believe his attack from his toys, and therefore the toy-world is kept secret. Yet, if we take a look at Toy Story 3, there is plenty of space for a realisation to happen. Sunnyside Day-care is a nursery that is used as a vital setting for the majority of the movie. On the surface, it’s heaven for toys – endless playtime, never being abandoned – yet as we find out, it isn’t as perfect as it first seems. Run by Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, Sunnyside proves to be more of a prison than a playground, even with a working CCTV system. This is where the details begin to unravel the world of Toy Story. The first criticism is obvious when you take a step away from the narrative – Why does a day-care centre need a security system? The response could be for security, such as if money was held on site or perhaps the centre is actually in a criminally active neighbourhood. Even if these observations were true, the additional problem is still present – why is nobody checking the video footage? If the workers were to use the security system as intended, surely they would see through the framework of the Toy Story secret.
After Disney’s acquisition of the animation studio, Pixar released their last independent movie, Cars. Since its distribution, Cars has been made into a large franchise with an espionage-fuelled sequel and a number of animated shorts. Against my own opinion, the feature films have been reviewed by critics as being ‘half-an-hour too long’ and devoid of any Pixar originality. The technicality that I am about to explore appears in both films, yet is more of a discussion than a problem. Full of anthropomorphic cars, the 2006 and 2011 movies focus around Lightening McQueen, Tow Mater and the other vehicular residents of Radiator Springs. The plotlines take the audience across borders; even internationally in the newest film. Unsurprisingly, travel is an essential part of narratives that explore a protagonist’s journey. Through the films, vehicle-carrying characters are introduced, such as planes, lorries and boats. For an older and more reflective audience, the use of such characters for their original functions could potentially be seen as questionable. A car riding inside another vehicle would seem peculiar when both represent their own characters. Without the audience suspending their disbelief, these scenes would not be very politically correct if performed by human characters. Yet, if that was done, the rating wouldn’t be PG and there really wouldn’t be much of a plotline.
The third film of this essay’s focus is the 2009 production, Up. The narrative focuses around the adventures of Carl Fredrickson, an elderly widower, and a young Wilderness Explorer, Russell. Together they travel to South America in the 78-year-old’s house, suspended in the air by thousands of balloons. Without ignoring the obvious, most critics have questioned the plausibility of a balloon-lifted house. From a bit of complicated mathematics and the weight to balloon ratio, (1 gram per litre), it can be proposed that one amusement park helium balloon can hold 14 grams. Furthering the calculations, a 9.5 stone human, like me, would need 4285 balloons just to get off of the floor. To be extremely cynical would be to focus only on this technicality, but it would be far too easy to criticise the film just for its plausibility of the balloon lifting. It would be better, in my opinion, to accept this and look at the more obscure aspects of this narrative detail. It is interesting to question how Carl Fredrickson, at 78-years-old, can blow up these balloons and tie them down. There is a hidden part of this story, a segment that doesn’t show Carl struggling to tie down the balloons under a sheet. When that many balloons can lift up a two storey house, to the extent of ripping it from the ground, the upward force of the helium would be horribly impossible to tie down under a single piece of tarpaulin.
With this brief discussion, you can see how Pixar has some issues with and beyond their narrative, even when the implausibilities are accepted. On the other hand, I am sure the same could be said for a large number of other books and films. As a final and rather inconclusive analysis, it can be asked whether these hidden technicalities are left in for a specific purpose. I will finish with a proposal of an idea – can we say that there is a pattern developing through literature in which the gaps in detail create its own secondary narrative which opens up the filmic experience to criticism, analysis and additional enjoyment?