World-Building and the Films of Pixar
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Pixar’s known for quality films — even a sub-par Pixar film is still better than most films.  I used to refer to this as the Flood Syndrome, in that while Flood is one of my least favorite They Might Be Giants albums (it doesn’t quite cohere for me and the drums are mixed way too loud) — it’s still a REALLY good record.  Pixar’s like that — even the weakest of the subset that is “Pixar” is still pretty high on the list of good films.  And when Pixar is on, they make things like Wall-E or Up, the latter of which has one of the best examples of visual storytelling in its first ten minutes.

John Lasseter, the head of Pixar (and now the entire Disney animation department), is friends with Hayao Miyazaki and that sensibility shows in the Pixar films.  Miyazaki’s films typically don’t have an EVIL antagonist.  In Princess Mononoke, the antagonists aren’t destroying the forest because they’re awful people — they’re perfectly good, decent human beings, whose aims (making money — not for greed but to survive) run counter to the heroine’s.  There’s no maliciousness really on either part — just a fundamental misunderstanding between the protagonist and the antagonist.  (Many of Miyazaki’s films don’t even have a clear antagonist; in Ponyo, I guess the antagonist would be Ponyo’s father, but, even then, he’s a good person who just wants the best for his daughter.  In a film like Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro, there isn’t an antagonist at all, and in Spirited Away, there are a few fake-out antagonists; folks that look like they’re going to be the villain of the film, but are actually pretty nice, like No-Face or even Yubaba.)

This is true with the best Pixar films — though, so far, they haven’t yet gone the full Miyazaki route and not had an antagonist at all yet.  While in Pixar worlds, the antagonist role is usually clearly defined (best I can think of where it isn’t is in Cars, where Chick is clearly an unlikable character, he doesn’t really act much on the story) — usually the antagonist is working not only in his own self-interest, but also for a greater good.  Al from Toy Story 2 is clearly unlikable; he steals Woody, and is obsessed with they money he’ll get for selling him… but he’s selling him (and Jessie, Bullseye and Stinky Pete) to a museum.  Museums are a definite good — at least for humans, anyway.

In fact, it’s the fact that Pixar is so good with doing compelling stories that I feel vaguely semi-autistic watching the film.  I keep thinking to myself when Al is on-screen “No, you asshole, stop!  Can’t you see that the toys want to stay together and be played with?!” even though, obviously, there’s no way for Al to know that — seeing as, like all the humans in the film, he doesn’t know the toys are sentient beings and that most of toy-culture is based on seeking the love of a child.  In fact; this is something else great with Pixar — they’re not afraid to shy away from emotions.  Toys often out-last their children and so there’s a sense of melancholy about the film as well.  Jessie was loved, but discarded — and Stinky Pete does raise a decent point; if they went to the museum, they’d be enjoyed by children forever, even if there’s no deep emotional connection like Jessie had with her child, Emily, or Woody and Buzz have with Andy.  Likewise in Finding Nemo; the dentist sees himself as a hero as he saved Nemo, with the small fin, that he “found struggling over by the reef” — he didn’t know about fish school and that Nemo’s loving dad was right there and all that; he acted as, actually, many animal lovers might, thinking we were doing the right thing by saving a weaker creature from (assumed) certain death.

In fact, the antagonist is probably a good chunk of why I didn’t care much for A Bug’s Life.  Hopper, the evil grasshopper, is a general villain.  He’s got no other good qualities.  The argument that he’s merely trying to provide food for his people is debunked later in the film, when it’s pointed out the grasshoppers have enough food, Hopper still insists on teaching the ants a lesson — perhaps to ensure future food reserves, but it seems more like it’s just because of power.  

That’s the difference between Hopper and Randall in the outstanding Monsters, Inc.  Randall’s clearly a villain — not only is he a jealous jerk, he wants to kidnap Boo and terrify her constantly for his own money and fame… but also to provide a constant source of power for a city in the midst of an energy crisis.  His cruelty is incredible — but it DOES have a benefit for the common good, even if that’s not Randall’s main motivation.  In fact, it’s that which makes it very important for Sully to have discovered the power of laughter instead of merely defeating Randall and Mr. Waternoose and saving Boo.  If that’d happened, Monstropolis would still be in trouble — and probably worse than before, considering that not only had not only cut off a constant (though incredibly unethical) stream of scream energy, they’d also dispatched the number two performing scarer.

This lack of a villain that’s just evil for evil’s sake is one crucial component in building a world that you can imagine continues on even after the movie ends.  After all, in real life, there are very few (if any) people who are just purely evil or bad — usually our own personal “bad guys” tend to be bad because of either a misunderstanding of each other’s goals, or a disagreement over the means to get those goals.  Terrorists don’t typically blow things up because they’re just evil types who love to cause chaos and kill people — they’re attempting to change something about the world.  A suicide bomber doesn’t see himself as evil, he sees himself as righteous and being a soldier for a good cause.  In an interview about his new film, Four LionsChris Morris points out that the video recorded by one of the 7/7 bombers, he tells his daughter he’d love to see her grow up, but he’s going to have to fight and die; as Morris says: “And you realise that he’s making a pretty soppy speech from a middle-of-the-road Hollywood movie. He’s the ‘good dad’. And in his head he is. And that doesn’t preclude him going out and doing something violent. You do bad things not because you think they’re bad, but because you think they’re good — unless you’re a nihilist.”

Evil antagonists and the lack thereof, of course, isn’t the only thing that’s part of world-building — the world has to be consistent and make sense.  In Toy Story, the toys are sentient, sure, but they’re subjected to the same type of rough play that happens in real life with real kids.  Likewise, due to that sheltered nature, there’re things they don’t quite understand about human culture, but there’s enough that makes sense to them that while they can usually piece most stuff together, there’re sometimes parts that don’t quite come together perfectly.  The Incredibles features a world where superheroes exist — but aren’t allowed to do superheroics due to the structural damage that can result to such things, and are forced into normal jobs.  It’s consistent and makes sense.

Likewise, Cars might not have a main villain, but the world doesn’t quite make sense.  It hinges a lot on what calls Fridge Logic; stuff that might not bother you when you’re watching the film, but afterwards you realize it doesn’t quite add up.  Cars is filled with this sort of thing — for example, how are the cars built?  Or born? Or formed?  Perhaps it’s like the scenario in this short film:

Perhaps Cars should be seen as a film from Mars based on Earthlings.  But even then, that doesn’t quite work — why would tractors be cows and combine harvesters be bulls?  That said, why would tractors and combine harvesters even exist in this world?  Cars — shown eating gas as they do in our world — wouldn’t need grain, nor, to extend the metaphor, the automotive equivalent of meat — even if the cars stripped the tractors for parts, they wouldn’t really fit.  To get kind of dark — even if it turns out the world of Cars lacks humans because humans started building sentient cars to be able to drive automatically and then they rose up, killing all the humans and animals to take over — why would either human or car build car-insects?  And why is Bessie, the paver, just a normal paver, rather than a sentient being too?

I mean, sure, OK — I know why those things happen — tractors exist so they can do a cow-tipping joke, insects exist for the visual pun and Bessie’s a normal paver so Lightning McQueen can tow the paver so he can learn humility.  But that isn’t a satisfying enough reason.  While anything that exists in a movie is so the plot can move along (Randall wants to kidnap Boo so Sully and Mike have something to do; Al wants to steal Woody so the other toys can go rescue him; Mei in Totoro goes to see her mother so Satsuki can enlist the Totoro to find her) — the gears shouldn’t be that visible.  In all those examples, there are story examples why these things happen — Randall wants to power Monstropolis, Al wants to sell Woody to a museum, Mei thinks she can cure her mother’s cancer with healthy food — but not in Cars.   Perhaps Bessie’s the car equivalent of a quadriplegic and can’t move on her own?  Perhaps instead of fossil fuel they use vegetable fuel, hence the grain?  But neither of these are addressed and it’s shown that these explanations don’t work (Bessie doesn’t talk or have expressions or even a face; the biggest company in Cars is DinoCo fuel).  It’s just a little frustrating.

That said, though, of course Cars is entertaining — and better than most of the films that Disney’s main animation department’s been producing for quite some time — but it’s why Cars is usually thought of as the weakest of the Pixar films — and A Bug’s Life right after it.  Though fine films, neither build a world that fully exists on its own.  Cars falls apart when analyzed, and A Bug’s Life, while much better at world-building, undermines itself with jokes and puns that rely on human culture to understand (like when Francis says “Shoo, fly”, after the nursery rhyme, which Francis probably wouldn’t know).  While the audience gets the jokes and may laugh, the characters wouldn’t.  The toys in Toy Story not only don’t make a lot of those kind of jokes, but when they do it makes sense — while not fully in human culture, they have enough portals to it to pick up a lot of stuff.  They’ve even got a TV of their own in Andy’s room they can watch when Andy’s away.  In Finding Nemo, Dory’s based on the old saw that fish have a 3-second memory (debunked on Mythbusters, but hey) — but still, it’s a character trait and she deals with it and is rather upset by it. When things are explained by the characters and their interactions, it helps the viewer slip into the world and forget they’re just watching a film.  They want to stay forever with Woody, Buzz, Dory, Nemo, Marlin, Sully, Mike, Boo, Mr. Incredible, Russell, Carl Fredrickson, Remy, Wall-E, Eve, and the rest.  Unfortunately, Flik and Lightning don’t foster that same feeling — though while we might not want to stay and think of Flik and Lightning as our new best friends, at least we enjoy watching a pretty good movie.

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