Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Pixar Paradox

How do they do it? How do they maintain such a level of consistency while others flip and flop around between commercial hits/misses and critical dismissal? For many in the animation field, Pixar's unrealistic winning streak - 10 films, 10 classics or near classics (including the recently released gem, Up) - makes for a lot of scratched studio heads. While Shreks and Shark Tales come and go, racking up dollars but little masterpiece buzz, the minted kings of the bitmap own a winning streak that even parent company the House of Mouse can't compete with. In fact, in the history of any artform - the novel, television, music, the movies, etc. - only The Beatles can claim such reliability, and even they strayed from the perfectionist path every once in a while.

So, again, how do they do it? Can Pixar claim something that others - mainly Fox and Dreamworks - can't seem to find with infinitely more backing? The answers would seem obvious at first, but in looking at the situation more closely, Pixar may actually be in possession of something the rest of Hollywood can't locate with a litany of bean counters and a cadre of MBAs. If movies are indeed magic, then the San Francisco based production company contains nothing but wizards. That's right, Pixar probably maintains its amazing rate of success through means both pragmatic and paranormal. Anyone can fuse imagination to story and character and come up with something saleable. It takes a true conjurer to move all those elements into the realm of the flawless - and yet they manage to do so time and time again.

Granted, there is some technology involved. What many audiences don't understand is that, at least initially, Pixar's feature films were a means of capitalizing on the progress being made by the company's technicians. From the lush vistas of A Bug's Life to the fuzzball fur components of Monster's Inc. , the animators and their computer programming counterparts constantly pushed the envelope of the developing format, adding and tweaking until they got the level of depth and/or realism they were looking for. By latter efforts such as The Incredibles and Wall-E, an entire paintbox of possibilities lay before the Pixar crew. Of course, even the greatest scientific leaps must be controlled by someone with creative vision. How this company manages to corner the market on such Merlins is mindboggling.

As stated before, narrative and personality are also part of the picture, and no one micromanages either better than Pixar. While that may sound like an insult, let's look at the statement more closely. A film like Ratatouille doesn't just settle on a simple premise (rat wants to be a chef) to amuse. It fuses that foundation with several sweet subplots, a couple of old school subtexts, and enough twists and turns to expand and exercise the ideas within. By then end, not only are we rooting for our little pest protagonist, but we've seen the growth of the Gusteau's staff, the downfall of the arrogant Skinner, and the opening of food critic Anton Ego's narrow, critical mind. Even without the ample comedy and action slapstick, the movie easily manufactures its world and then puts us right into the center of it.

Maybe that's the key, a mandate that science fiction writers and other creatures of imaginative literature more or less live by. The easiest way to lose a reader - or in this case, a viewer - is to create a universe where the rules are cloudy and unclear (or worse, where the characters within ignore and flaunt them).

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