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2001, directed by Pete Docter
When people get worked up about Pixar not being what it used to be, here’s what they mean. The premise of Monsters, Inc. could, in the wrong hands, be absolutely opaque. Some wonderful person has the clip on YouTube which, frankly, tells us just about everything we need to know about the story before we get into it.
That’s a seventeen second clip, of which a solid six seconds are devoted solely to the sound of a child screaming. The city of Monstropolis runs on scream power, Mr. Waternoose explains. Without the screams of children, there is no power. This is a razor-thin explanation of why perfectly nice guys like Sulley are terrifying children on a daily basis, and from this basic perspective the rest of the story fills itself in. It’s understood that children are poisonous, so the Scarers must be extremely careful while in the human world and move in and out rapidly. That this is a great way to ensure that no Scarer ever feels bad about scaring a child or goes so far as to befriend one seems to go entirely unquestioned in the monster world. It doesn’t take long to get these facts across, but they are so simple that a child would understand them as instinctively as they know that there is a monster in their room when the lights go out. This is the sort of world-building which is so difficult to fill out but which can still be explained in a sentence or two. The rules of Toy Story, The Incredibles, and WALL-E are just as beautifully simple as these, and like them, Monsters, Inc. grows more and more interesting the further we’re roped into this world.
Monsters, Inc. is a truly great workplace comedy, roughly (checks calculator) a gazillion times better than Office Space. At many workplaces, employers have included a competitive element in order to spur on productivity between the members of staff. Maybe it’s a contest to see who can sell the most product at a McDonald’s, or maybe it’s posting test scores on a teacher’s door, or maybe it’s the bonus that comes to the salesman who earns the most commission. Funnily enough, no one ever seems to realize that this is a practice which tends to create an “every man for himself” atmosphere rather than a workplace where teamwork is the goal. It is entirely possible that without that enormous leaderboard on the scare floor, Randall would never have gotten it into his head to beat Sulley by any means necessary, and thus a great deal of tsuris would have been avoided. Mike spends an awful lot of time dodging paperwork (badly), and he spends even more time getting chewed out for it by an belligerently monotone superior. More than anything, Monsters, Inc. understands how important work is to people in our society, where we spend more time at work than we do with our families and friends. Work is the place where Sulley and Mike squeeze in most of their interactions, their horseplay, their serious conversations. Mike is dating someone he’s met at work. And the work that Sulley and Mike do comes to define the two of them. Sulley, whose work requires face-to-fangs interaction with kids, does not take all that long to realize that Boo is a child and not, well, a monster. Mike, who derives more of his personal value from his job and his association with the scare record than his buddy, takes much longer to come around on Boo. We found out years later that Mike’s entire story is a little more nuanced than that, but for the purposes of this picture his conservatism is based mostly on his job performance. How frequently we allow our jobs to dictate our morality.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
1996, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
I don’t know that there’s another Disney or Pixar movie that has gotten such a positive popular critical revision as Hunchback. That’s not to say that the movie was reviewed poorly when it first arrived; Ebert, Siskel, and Corliss were positive about the movie, although consummate yes-man Peter Travers was surprisingly down on it. What people have always responded to, for good or ill, is the perceived “darkness” of the movie. I take some issue with this idea that Hunchback is uniquely dark—Disney’s previous movie revolved around a child watching his father fall to his death and then feeling responsible for it for the rest of his childhood—but certainly it picks up adult themes. Put down the houses which ignite immediately (did it rain unleaded in France?), the magistrate who coolly murders a woman and then says “My conscience is clear,” the yearly ritual which ends in a brutal public hazing. Hunchback finds adult themes in incorporating religion in serious ways. “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire” is a great sequence as well as a great song because it recognizes that these people believe in extremely literal afterlives. Frollo is frightened by his weakness in the face of Esmeralda’s beauty and, of course, the fact that he can’t have her. He’s also terrified that his soul is endangered by the screaming lust he’s harboring. “I want to have sex with this woman” is frequently a key component of Disney movies, but none of them make that thought what it is more often than not: it is a ruthless desire devoid of romance or consent. “Destroy Esmeralda!” he prays aloud, “And let her face the fires of Hell! Or else…let her be mine, and mine alone.” The issue of sanctuary is in part a religious one; as long as a person does not leave Notre Dame, s/he cannot be removed from it by the law. It’s a perspective enforced by the bishop as best he can, although Frollo, as many legalistic types do, decides that one must break the law to keep it. Sanctuary is also a racial issue, which the movie is not shy about discussing, although I think a quarter-century on it would probably have found a more thoughtful way to approach its Roma characters. There is only one remotely safe place for them in Paris, and that is the Court of Miracles, ultimately dug up by Frollo’s soldiers. They are a clear Other in this society, and because of it, people think as little of hunting them down as they do of enjoying their street performances.
For that reason, Hunchback really needs some comic relief, and although I sort of like the gargoyles, they don’t really do it all that well. Most of what they work out is in parody, and it’s not the sort of parody that travels well on repeat viewings. Jason Alexander’s Hugo is the most hit-or-miss of the bunch; sometimes there’s just too much of him for comfort, but even now I’m pretty sure that “Pour the wine and cut the cheese” is the French pledge of allegiance. The movie also tries to pull Kevin Kline’s wry soldier, Phoebus, into the fray for laughs, and for my part I’ll laugh just about whenever he talks; the back end of his repartee with Esmeralda ends with him looking at her pet goat and making a crack about her having a kid. On the other hand, Phoebus rather less useful for that purpose when he’s the only person standing up against Frollo committing some atrocity, or when he’s doing the sort of beneficent rabble-rousing that only he, by benefit of his rank and handsomeness, can perform. The funniest lines of the movie are thus the ones which are most unexpected. They snuck “Damnation” into a kid’s movie by using it as the “D” in Quasimodo’s alphabet, and by the time you realize that’s happened he’s already saying “Eternal damnation!” with Fred Phelps’ glee at the phrase. There’s nothing wrong with trying to incorporate humor alongside the movie’s bleaker moments (insert patronizing comment about Shakespeare), but one wishes for humor that landed rather than glanced.
1977, directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, John Lounsberry, and Art Steven
When you lack something, you unfailingly see how others have it. A person with bad teeth sees everyone’s flawless smiles in commercials. A person who has just been dumped sees couples everywhere. Penny, an orphan, watches from the deck of this old riverboat as the light goes out around her. A doe and her fawn nibble at the grass. A bird returns to her chicks in the nest. She cries. A star shines on the water and makes it opalescent, which lightens her face a little—she’s seen such a star before—but when she returns to her sad little bedroom she cannot even pray a very personal prayer without being overtaken by her sadness. “And please,” she says, face nearly in her bedsheets, “let someone find my bottle. There’s a message in it, because running away isn’t working.” She doesn’t know that her rescuers are already on that same riverboat, although she is, not without reason, a little dubious of them. Talking mice they may be, but they are a little small. “Didn’t you bring someone big with you?” she asks. Not long afterward she is sure that with some faith, they will be able to break her out of her bayou prison. Penny is every little girl, beaming through her missing teeth when she’s happy, ruinously depressing when she’s sad, and off her rocker when she’s frightened. Though this is a movie about talking mice and their pilot albatross buddy and a mess of literal swamp creatures, it’s a kidnapped little girl who’s at the center of it, broad enough for her to be anyone’s little sister but still specific enough to be Penny, whose last moments of the movie are joyful and a little odd. After being adopted and being cheered by the other kids from the orphanage, she hijacks the broadcast long enough to send out greetings to Bernard and Bianca, clearly naming them as mice.
I feel like I talk about The Rescuers every time I talk about gorgeous animation, and maybe I could give it a break here, but when the movie wants to be pretty it becomes absolutely dreamy. I get sleepy just thinking about that autumn light that floats onto Penny’s window at the orphanage while she and Rufus talk about the special providence in the presence of a bluebird, how it rises past the ochre buildings and the denim blue laundry and into a bluer-still sky where a single star twinkles. Who knows what winding route Orville takes Bernard and Bianca on as “Tomorrow Is Another Day,” which is sung by someone I don’t recognize but who may as well be Judy Collins, plays in the background. The shots of cliffs above the water, a town that is lit by a rainbow by evening and the small comforting blip of electric lights by night, farmland, a lighthouse: it’s all lovely. It’s why this movie feels calm, even a little slow, despite the fact that it’s definitely not. The villain drives a weird boatcar thing which makes enormous clouds of smokes and eats birds. She screeches at her assistant while cuddling her grunting, organ-playing alligators. One of the most memorable characters in The Rescuers is named “Evinrude,” which is not a joke I think I would get today if if I hadn’t been told why it was funny in like, 1998; needless to say his name is fitting. But despite all the mayhem that actually does occur in this movie, it’s a picture defined by its quietest and most intimate moments.
The Little Mermaid
1989, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker
It’s a little sad to say goodbye to Ron Clements and John Musker, who are probably the premier Disney directors. Between them they’re responsible for seven Disney movies, one more than Wolfgang Reitherman. People like Hamilton Luske and Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson have their fingerprints on more movies, but few of them are of the same overall quality as the work of Clements and Musker. Their greatest accomplishment is their second movie, The Little Mermaid, which points the way for nearly fifteen years of American movie animation. Where Oliver & Company had always been a little grubby around the edges, scruffy in the same way that movies from the ’70s on had been scruffy, The Little Mermaid is clearly delineated and brightly colored; Ariel has none of the rough edges of Oliver, for example, and in their hands even a scene where the heroine surrenders her voice to a sea-witch can be lit up like the Vegas Strip. After seeming to forget that songs give the animators a little more room to express themselves, The Little Mermaid is the first Disney movie in two decades to flood the plot with musical numbers which are easily the best part of the movie. (Is this the best Disney soundtrack? That is another list, but even if you’re a believer in some other Disney Renaissance movie or one of the oldies, The Little Mermaid has to be given a lot of airtime in any such debate.) Nor is The Little Mermaid afraid of using computer animated sequences for effect (such as Giant Ursula’s rise from the deep) in the way that one of their later productions, Aladdin, would use it for the escape from the collapsing Cave of Wonders, or Beauty and the Beast would use it to create a gorgeous falling shot from a chandelier. The Little Mermaid isn’t up here because it’s influential, though that doesn’t hurt, and Clements and Musker deserve about as much credit as one is comfortable giving to the directors of an animated feature.
The Little Mermaid is best when it’s simplest, and it’s rarely simpler than when it relies on that plaintive “Part of Your World” melody. The first time Ariel sings it, she’s with Flounder (and, unexpectedly, Sebastian) in her shipwreck memorabilia closet. It’s blue there, rippled occasionally with little ribs of sunlight that have pushed their way down. But for the most part it’s just blue, changing the way we see the color of Ariel’s hair and skin and Flounder’s funny little yellow body. Simple motions are the most memorable of that sequence. Ariel pushes herself into a corkscrew as she looks up at that hint of sun. Framed by the circle atop her cavern, with little anemones and coral hanging about, she reaches an arm languidly toward the surface. It’s much the same way once she’s rescued Eric and brought him ashore; Ashman’s words, typically wry or clever, are surprisingly muted.
What would I give to live where you are?
What would I pay to stay here beside you?
What would I do to see you smiling at me?
By the time she’s pulled herself onto a rock and promised from a distance that “Someday I’ll be part of your world,” with the waves crashing behind her and the score roaring in our ears as well, it’s all surprisingly powerful. The destruction of her collection (and doubtless of some museum’s future exhibit) is sad, but this points to the yearning she feels to live a different sort of life in a different sort of world. I’ve never really questioned why it’s so easy for her to take an enormous risk for an unsure payoff when she trades for humanity—part of it is “teenagers are dumb”—but the reasons why she makes her decision are all there in a song and its reprise, hiding in the tranquility of the twilight zone and the furor of the coast.
Toy Story 2
1999, directed by John Lasseter
Toy Story 2 has this weird problem, and maybe it’s not a problem but it’s also not not a problem. It’s much more interesting conceptually than it is in practice, and in these rankings I have split the difference a little more to honor the concept. When you’re actually watching the movie, you have to deal with a lot of Al of Al’s Toy Barn, who is not exactly enthralling movie material. There’s the funky homage to Empire Strikes Back, another great sequel that an alarming number of people think is better than the original, in which the Buzz straight out of the box discovers that the previously unseen Emperor Zurg is, yes, his father. There is the plight that Buzz faces when his friends confuse him for said Buzz straight out of the box; it’s funny, but the idea is fatigued like a pitcher on short rest and, like that pitcher, can only go a few innings before you want him out of there. There’s the part of the movie where Woody and Jessie get off a plane as it’s taking off, and it’s somehow less exciting than it sounds. Toy Story 2 has a number of really great scenes without Woody addressing his mid-life crisis, to be sure. The part where Buzz masterminds a plan for the rescue mission to cross a busy street by wearing traffic cones. In the words of Danny O’Shea, Buzz and company “run around causing destruction,” and it’s hilarious the whole way through to the part where they actually get across the street…despite the fact that Woody was always on the side of the street they’d come from. It’s not even the best part of the movie that takes place on that road. There’s an alternate universe where I died laughing when Hamm looked in the owner’s manual of the Pizza Planet truck and solemnly declares, “Oh, I seriously doubt he is getting this kind of mileage.”
All the same there are definitely parts of this movie that are a slog.
But what remains is exceptional. In Toy Story, Woody tries to beat Buzz into the paradigm that he’s comfortable with, and when Buzz refuses to change, Woody loses his cool. In Toy Story 2, Woody is exposed to a paradigm shift all about himself, and he is all too willing to lean into the new old him. That scene where Woody discovers that he’s not just some one-off cowboy doll but a star, a bona fide celebrity who was the star of a television program, who was on lunchboxes and yo-yos, is stunning. At first he is not a little horrified by the attentions of these manic toys who know his name and swing him around willy-nilly. But then Bullseye raises the lights on an entire wall of stuff that bears his face, and it changes Woody. The light shines on his little plastic face, and his eyes open wide. “That’s me,” he murmurs. Horns play. The camera moves as Woody’s eyes must be moving, across the face of a mountain of antique toys branded with Woody’s face. When he looks up at the giant cutout of himself and then down at his face on the covers of Life and Time, it moves him. He is part of a history, one that Stinky Pete tutors him on, and it makes him all the more willing to recede from the possibility of a real life in search of embracing that history fully. Watching him struggle with that choice over the rest of the film, as he at first rejects the possibility of being sold to a toy museum in Japan, comes to welcome immortality, and then rejects it in favor of a little more life to be lived, is remarkable. It’s worth wading through the extraneous stuff to watch a real existential crisis settle in on this person who is thrilled by the possibility of defining himself on different terms. For his entire existence, as far as we know, he has valued himself as Andy valued him. When Andy seems not to value him so much anymore, he latches onto someone who would value him far more. It’s entirely relatable. What’s surprising is that Woody has it in him to do what a lot of us are, reasonably enough, scared to do: he opens himself up to hurt.
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