05.26.09

The Company That Cracked Hollywood

With Up, Pixar continues to show why it’s the Disney of the 21st century. The Daily Beast’s Tom Shone reveals the secrets to their success and what Hollywood could learn from the maverick studio.

It’s official: With its latest animated film, Up, Pixar has continued the winning streak started back in 1995 with Toy Story, and now includes such insta-classics as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and WALL-E. You have to go back to Disney in the 1930s and ‘40s, when they lifted audiences out of the Great Depression with Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, and Dumbo, in quick succession, to get anything close. This is living history, right under our noses. Your grandkids will ask you about this. So what is Pixar doing right? And is there enough to go around? Filmmakers, please take note.

As Carl’s sidekick tells him, “It may sound boring but it’s the boring things I remember the most.” Michael Bay: Please stay behind after class to write that out 100 times.

Give audiences a lift. All Pixar movies could be called Up, of course—they provide the most reliable high in Hollywood, right now—but in the case of Up, the uplift is literal. The image of a man’s house hoisted into the sky with balloons came to director Pete Docter during the making of Monsters Inc. Doodling to soothe his frazzled nerves, he “drew this floating house, and it seemed very appealing and poetic and interesting. We started thinking, ‘Who's in this house? Where is he going and where is he coming from?'" For sheer lyricism, that single shot is hard to beat—a one-man answer to the home-foreclosures crisis. Who would have thought that a cartoon would offer such an object lesson in the classical virtues of the empty frame and elegant long shot? At a time when most movies feel like cartoons, Up looks more like a movie than most movies.

Leave your spandex at home. Traditionally, filmmakers use CGI to bend the laws of physics and make supermen of us all. The hero of Up, on the other hand, is Carl Frederickson, a get-off-my-lawn cuss with Spencer Tracy hair and the voice of Ed Asner, whose most death-defying stunt is the trip to the mailbox and back each morning. The film’s climactic fight is a delight—all cricked spines and slipped dentures—and a reminder of just how rooted in mundanity the Pixar boys are, how closely their creations follow the old Hitchcock formula: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Toy Story belonged to worn-out Woody not brand-new Buzz Lightyear. Monsters Inc. was about creatures who couldn’t rustle up a decent scream. Up, meanwhile, is an adventure movie for those who have long since left adventure slip from their grasp. As Carl’s sidekick tells him, “It may sound boring but it’s the boring things I remember the most.” Michael Bay: Please stay behind after class to write that out 100 times.

Keep it simple. But don’t be afraid of complexity—“simplexity” in Pixar-speak. One of deeper mysteries of their success is that a process so agonizing—five years to make a movie, as many as 40 separate revisions for each sequence—should result in films so sprightly: Up comes in at a trim 89 minutes. The first five in particular are a small masterpiece of compression: a quick montage of Carl’s life, showing his first meeting with his wife, Ellie, their courtship, marriage, a miscarriage, old age, and finally death, all set to the plaintive waltz of Michael Giacchino’s score. Grown men are reduced to whimpering wrecks within minutes. It is also entirely without dialogue, recalling the first 20 minutes of WALL-E, another silent poem to the lovelorn, and a welcome respite from the deafening fusillades of Terminator Salvation, Star Trek, and the sound of Tom Hanks reeling off plot exposition for two-and-a-half hours in Angels and Demon. Audiences are advised to follow Carl’s example and turn off their hearing aids. Filmmakers are advised to go brush up on their Chaplin.

Know your film history. It took the filmmakers several years to figure out where to send Carl and his balloons—don’t you just love that? Several years. It takes the writers of Bond and Bourne all of five minutes to jot down a wishlist of their latest destinations; the result are films that feel about as rooted as misplaced luggage. Up’s makers chose Angel Falls, in Venezuela, the location of Arthur Conan Doyle 's The Lost World, where we meet up with famous explorer Charles F. Muntz; he is first introduced via a mock '30s-style black-and-white Movietone newsreel and turns out to bear passing resemblance to Kirk Douglas on a diet of earth worms. Pixar films may face forward into the future— Up will also play in IMAX theaters in 3-D —but their roots run deep into Hollywood’s past. Whatever happened to movies set in Rio or Marrakesh or Casablanca? And how come it took an animated movie to satisfy the audience’s thirst for the dusty glamour of a good old-fashioned location? Directors, get out of the house more often! There’s a whole world out there!

Ignore your parents. Originally an independent company, Pixar is now owned by Disney, who is delighted to bill Up as “a Disney film.” Do not be fooled. Yes, Carl gets three sidekicks—a pesky Boy Scout, a big bird, and a talking dog—but the dog talks, not via the cutesy miracle of anthropomorphism, but via a mechanism on his collar which gives voice to his doggy thoughts: “ I am your friend, temporarily” and “ I was hiding under you porch because I love you.” There will be no merchandising spinoffs. Nor will there be a sequel—a courtesy extended every Pixar movie except Toy Story, thus lending each a gleam of singularity. Think of the studio as a breakaway banana republic within the larger Disney empire. Chairman John Lasseter appears to run it as if it were a branch of heaven on earth. After notes from executives nearly derailed Toy Story, he introduced a policy of “no mandatory notes” from executives; he also installed a pool, a football field, an in-house cinema, a sweets and cereal dispenser, even scooters for animators to whiz up and down the corridors, exchanging ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect and complete creative freedom.

Ah. I knew there had to be a snag. It’ll never catch on. Class dismissed.

Tom Shone was film critic of the London Sunday Times from 1994-1999. He is the author of two books, Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press) and In The Rooms (Hutchinson), his first novel, to be published on July 7th 2009. He lives in New York.