The End of Pixar’s Glory Days

From 1995 to 2010, Pixar was the undisputed champion of Western Animation. They were hailed as one of the most innovative and creative studios out there, winning Oscar after Oscar and making classic after classic. They arguably reached their zenith with Up and Toy Story 3, which both got nominations for Best PICTURE, and the latter becoming the highest grossing animated film at the time.

Then, in 2011 (just a year after Toy Story 3), their reign started to tumble with Cars 2, their first film to earn a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. They’ve been getting fewer Oscar nominations, critical reception has been mixed to negative, and audiences are generally not as hyped for Pixar as before (with the notable exceptions of Inside Out and maybe Finding Dory). But basically, the message is clear: Pixar has lost its magic touch.

Some people think that once Disney bought Pixar, they defanged the company to make it more marketable. Well, they are likely right about Disney’s acquisition of Pixar harming it…but probably not for the reasons they think.

John Lasseter, who was then the Executive Vice President of Pixar, became the Chief Executive Officer of both Pixar AND Walt Disney Animation Studios. Ed Catmull is president of both companies, and they both have to report to Bob Iger, but Lasseter is ultimately in charge of all the creative choices of the movies. He picks which movie pitches go into production, he is the driving force behind the creative process.

As soon as John Lasseter was put in charge of WDAS, the company, which was then in a serious rut, started to improve, and now they’re making critically acclaimed hits that have become beloved by audiences, without necessarily dumbing them down. Notice how some people are starting to say “Wow Disney finally learned how to make Pixar movies!”, and John Lasseter is precisely because of it.

Given all the projects John Lasseter has to work with, I think he’s is stretched thin between the two companies, and has been focusing more on WDAS than Pixar. Before Pixar was bought by Disney, John Lasseter was more directly involved in the filmmaking process, writing, directing, producing, and even animating their projects. Now all the films are being made by newcomers, some of whom don’t have the talent of the veterans (it’s no surprise that Inside Out, the movie to get the most praise, was directed by Pete Docter, who had been with the company since the very beginning). He’s definitely not as involved as he was before.

And honestly? Whether he wants to admit it or not, I think he’s moved on from Pixar.

I mean, he’s worked at Pixar for a long time, and now he’s in charge of Walt Disney Animation Studios, the company that he grew up with and made some of his all time favorite films. You’d probably be more enthusiastic to work there, too. Just look at the way he talks about the creative process of WDAS films. Just look at how PASSIONATE he is in the making of these films. And most of all, compare the quality of WDAS compared to Pixar as of late. It’s pretty clear that, even though he’s in charge of both companies, he’s showing a bit of a bias, whether he is aware of it or not.

I think at this point, John Lasseter should be left solely in charge of WDAS and get a veteran architect of Pixar to run it instead. That might be best for both companies.

Now, this is mostly speculation on my part, but because Pixar is becoming weaker while Disney Animation has been getting stronger than ever, I’m pretty sure it’s because of a CEO who is stretched thin and would rather commit to one studio than the corporate overlords thinking Pixar should be more marketable. Sure, Pixar is making more sequels, but they are still making movies that deal with complex themes, they just lack the edge they had before.

Let’s hope Pixar can get back on its feet soon. Apparently after Toy Story 4 there are no more plans for any sequels and prequels, which is good, and Coco does look promising. I just hope they’re able to retain their good image and not end up going from one of the most beloved companies to the most scorned.

Animation Companies and Identity

Ah, Illumination Entertainment. Well known for films such as Despicable Me, The Lorax, The Secret Life of Pets, The Minions and Sing.

What’s that? You don’t particularly care for any of those movies? You think they’re cheap knockoffs of DreamWorks style movies? Well Illumination doesn’t care because after only 7 films they have made a combined total of $1.9 BILLION. (x)

Holy crap! How did a low budget animation studio become a recognizable brand name in almost no time at all?

The biggest reason, of course, is marketing. Illumination makes sure their films are very well advertised (just look at the Minions marketing blitzkrieg). But the reason why their films have consistently remained successful is because they have a clear identity. They all have simple animation and character designs, they all have pop culture references, they all have their own brand of humor, and they’re all fun family films that don’t require a whole lot of thinking for. Basically, all Illumination films have a similar theme and tone.

By contrast, look at DreamWorks Animation (their current sibling company now that NBC Universal has bought them both). DWA’s profits have always flip-flopped, and by the time they were purchased by NBC they were in serious financial trouble, having to lay off hundreds of employees. Why? Because they’ve never been truly consistent. DreamWorks can range from beautiful works of art (How To Train Your Dragon) to generic kids stuff (Monsters vs. Aliens) to “WTF am I watching” (Bee Movie). When most people think of DWA they think of snarky, in-your-face movies with pop culture references, so when they’re faced with a How To Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda, it’s enough to cause whiplash. And while Illumination movies tend to be generic, they also tend to be cute, harmless, and safe. DreamWorks can just come across as bizarre. You can watch more on how DreamWorks has an identity problem HERE.

By contrast, Pixar has a clear identity of making high quality, heartwarming, clever and original content that has given them massive success. They do get some backlash for making more generic or lower-quality films (The Good Dinosaur is their lowest grossing effort) and for making too many sequels, but not too much to the point where they get into financial trouble.

Laika also has a clear identity: unconventional, artsy stop motion flicks. This has won them massive critical acclaim, but not a wide audience appeal. Warner Bros. Animation, which has always struggled to find its audience and rake in money at the box office (their only theatrical feature length original film to win any prestige is The Iron Giant), has mostly settled on making LEGO movies, which has proven to be a hit.

I think identity is also a huge indicator of how Disney has gone through peaks and valleys during its 90 year reign. At their core, they’re a company that retells classic stories for a modern audience, and when the audience would change with time, so would they. One of the reason the early 2000’s was a bad decade for Disney was because, in addition to being overshadowed by Pixar, their movies were all over the place. Different animation styles, tones, and themes, and weird premises. Now, the animation is cleaner, softer, and more detailed, their genres and premises are simpler, and they deal with themes that are relevant to today’s society, such as female empowerment, mental health concerns, and prejudice.

In today’s age, animation companies are brands, and the audience comes to expect something specific from them; if they don’t get what they asked for, they won’t support it. It sucks that animation companies aren’t allowed to explore and have a wider range like live action companies, but until animation gets more respect as a medium, that’s going to happen for awhile. Identity can make or break an animation studio, because you can end up as a reigning champ like Pixar, or wind up being bought out and STILL end up in trouble like DreamWorks.

Magic or Mental Illness? The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of my favourite films, and for good reason: it’s a dark, beautiful film on love, lust, heartbreak, justice and faith. But the use of Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends Victor, Hugo, and Laverne have drawn some criticisms for being contrived and out of place.

To an extent, I agree. There are a few instances where they just appear out of nowhere for no reason. When Esmeralda tells Quasimodo that he isn’t a monster we suddenly and jarringly cut the gargoyles trying to listen in on them and crack a joke. But while some of their comedic scenes don’t work, they do serve a purpose. They represent the happy family Quasimodo never had. While I’m sure the archdeacon helped take care of Quasimodo at times, Frollo raised him under his controlling thumb. Ultimately, Laverne would represent motherly affection, Victor would represent fatherly advice and morals, and Hugo would be the supportive big brother. And they do play an active role in the third act in motivating Quasimodo and helping him fight.

The question I have, though, is this: are they meant to be real, or just a figment of Quasimodo’s imagination?

Under the trivia section of Victor, Hugo, and Laverne’s page on the Disney Wiki, it says:

  • In the DVD audio commentary Kirk Wise, Gary Trousdale and Don Hahn suggest that it’s possible that the three gargoyles exist purely in Quasimodo’s mind and are in fact split off portions of his own personality created to deal with his loneliness. While this is only a possibility, it should be noted that the only other character in the first film to actually see a statue come to life is Frollo in the midst of his insanity. However, the true nature of these statues is open to interpretation, given Hugo’s endless flirtations with Djali. (X)

That brings up another point: Frollo seems to see things that aren’t there, either, at the end when he’s about to die (the aforementioned gargoyle coming to life) and during the “Hellfire” sequence.

Could Notre Dame be a living soul in this story? Or are Quasimodo and Frollo both suffering from mental illness?

One one hand, the gargoyles being magical beings that only reveal themselves to Quasimodo seems the most likely. (It is a Disney film, after all). They are able to witness and react to things from a distance, always manage to show up wherever Quasimodo is, and are able to partake in the final battle. Perhaps they are the reason Quasimodo didn’t become as cruel as Frollo; they actually raised him with their love. But on the other hand, why only Quasimodo? Why not turn to life in front of Frollo and chase him out of the bell tower? Why not reveal themselves to Esmeralda, Quasimodo’s trusted friend?

And there’s also this crucial moment at the end of the “A Guy Like You” sequence. This is Quasimodo’s worldview right at the end of the song:

And this is what happens once he’s snapped back to reality:

So are the decorations also magical? Do the gargoyles have awesome powers (that they never seem to use outside this scene)? Or…was the whole scene in Quasimodo’s head? Does he, with his immense strength, carry the gargoyles around with him as his comfort objects? Is he actually doing all these things by himself but doesn’t realize it?

If the gargoyles are indeed all in Quasimodo’s head, it lends a very tragic, dark part of the story. Poor Quasimodo has been kept isolated for so long under the control of his domineering master, constantly reinforced with the message that he is hideous…and these gargoyles appear to tell him to follow his forbidden urges, that he will be loved.  Ultimately, this is how his mind would create a way to cope.

And then there’s Frollo, who also seems to have powerful visions. But he’s also a God-fearing man who spends at least twenty years thinking Romani people are evil, that he is righteous, that he has a ‘duty’, and his worldview is shattered when he becomes attracted to Esmeralda. It is common for people under strict Christian doctrine with mental health problems to suffer from blasphemous religious thoughts or inappropriate sexual thoughts, both of which Frollo have.

Let’s also remember that this movie is set in medieval times, rife with disease and danger and where many people suffered from ‘madness’, ‘insanity’, and ‘lunacy’. Without modern medicine, it is easy for these visions to go untreated and blame it on the work of the Devil.

Ultimately, both the ‘the gargoyles are real and Notre Dame is alive” and “the gargoyles are just very vivid figments of Quasimodo’s immersive imagination” both offer compelling cases. What do you think is the most likely?

I’m just glad that Quasimodo now has a proper support system in place and that his friends will slowly fill the gap left by his loneliness. You can read more about mental health in the middle ages HERE.

 

Did Tadashi Kill Himself?

Trigger warning: discussions of suicide

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For a lot of people, the saddest scene in Big Hero 6 is the death of Tadashi. After Callaghan sets the showcase building on fire to cover his tracks, Tadashi, with the knowledge that he’s still inside, goes to save him, saying “someone has to help”. Callaghan escapes with his life, but Tadashi does not, to the horror and dismay of Hiro.

The scene is undoubtedly sad and very well put together, but I have to admit, I’m bugged by the fact that Tadashi didn’t wait for the firefighters to arrive. Since Tadashi wasn’t a firefighter or a superhero with special powers or training, he should not have gone inside a burning building like that. Every time I watch this scene I go “you fool, you wait for the fire department to arrive!”

But lately I’ve been thinking: what if Tadashi had ulterior motives for going into that building? What if he was fully ready and prepared to die?

We all  know that Hiro and Callaghan are both going through grieving and depression, and what happens when you get help/let people in versus not getting help/using it as an excuse to hurt others. But what if Tadashi was also grieving and depressed?

Let’s take a look at Tadashi’s situation. He lost his parents at a young age, but unlike Hiro, who was only three, he would’ve been able to miss his parents. He would ultimately have to become both a brother AND a father to his little brother, who’s very smart but also very vulnerable. Imagine your own little brother constantly going out at night to partake in illegal activities with dangerous older men, and having to be there in time to save him (in the supplementary material it is confirmed it got so bad that Tadashi had to sew GPS tracking devices into Hiro’s clothes). That would absolutely take a toll on you. Knowing that you stressed out and disappointed your aunt and only caretaker doesn’t help at all. He is shown as being altruistic to a fault, and works so hard on Baymax (who he intends to help a lot of people, rather than help a lot of people on his own) that he neglects his own health.

Like, this is a lot of pressure and stress for a college student. He may appear happy through most of the movie, but it’s possible he was hiding a private pain. There are people with depression and other mental illnesses who sometimes hide it through helping others or making people laugh.

So now we get to the infamous scene.

Look how distressed he is. In the fire is his beloved teacher, Callaghan, who was probably the closest thing he had to a father in such a long time. And now he’s in danger. Losing him would’ve been too much to bear. Tadashi takes a minute, looking to the building and back, before ultimately deciding to go in. He knew what he was doing. He was fully aware that he was going to die. But at that moment, he didn’t care. To him, Callaghan’s life mattered more than his own life, not thinking of leaving behind Hiro and Cass. If he would die if it meant Callaghan could live, so be it.

This may make Tadashi seem less sympathetic, but if you’re depressed, you don’t make rational decisions. If you see the opportunity to die, you’re probably going to take it without realizing it or against your better judgement. I think for Tadashi, after everything he’s been through, after losing his parents and constantly living in fear over losing Hiro and Cass, the fact that Callaghan was going to die in a fire pushed him over the edge.

I think it’s also important to remember Baymax’s role. Considering how committed he was to building that robot, it’s possible he may have (consciously or not) built him to be his ‘back up’. Like he thought, “If I die, Baymax can take care of Hiro and Cass and fulfill our intended purposes”. And ultimately, he would have been correct.

I think if Tadashi was depressed, he would have presented another side of mental illness: the hidden one. The one that is repressed and kept secret until it boils over to the surface and results in the worst outcome. That would add a very tragic, dark layer to the story, but it would make Hiro’s journey and recovery all that more poignant.

This is all just my theory/interpretation, so if this idea seriously upsets you, please do not take it to heart. And if you ever feel like you’re worthless or you’re better off dead/it wouldn’t matter if you died, please seek help. There’s always someone out there who cares and will help you.

How Age and Gender Determine Disney Franchises

After my latest trip to the Disney Store, I wondered aloud why you could find Big Hero 6 merchandise at Hot Topic, but not there. It seemed odd, since BH6 is getting a TV series and every fan of the movie I’ve met wants a sequel.

I talked about it with my Mom, and she suggested that might be because Big Hero 6 is geared more for older kids and teenagers. And you know what, I think she’s right, and it extends to a lot of other non-Princess animated Disney films.

Films like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia all handle complex themes. Wreck-It Ralph is how labels don’t define you, Big Hero 6 is about grieving, and Zootopia is about prejudice. While Zootopia’s handling on its topic has been debated, they’re all generally great at handling more mature topics and having layered stories. And notice how the protagonists of these movies tend to be older (WIR is about a thirty year old man, BH6 features college students as main characters, and all the characters in Zootopia are adults) as well. I think while they’re initially marketed to children and can be seen and enjoyed by people of all ages, older people will be able to really appreciate them. I probably would’ve liked Wreck-It Ralph if it came out when I was a little girl because of Vanellope, but I realize that the reason why Big Hero 6 is my fave movie is because it came out precisely when I needed it: when I was a depressed university dropout.

Consequently, a lot of the new Disney Princess movies (yes that includes Frozen and Moana) are for little girls, with simpler stories and an emphasis on Girl Power TM. I wouldn’t mind so much except that these movies kind of dumb down their stories and characters (there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, such as when Moana sings about how much she loves her people without actually showing her feel real compassion and care for them) and have a lot of themes that would’ve been handled better in a non-Princess movie are kind of glossed over. Your grandmother dies without warning? You’ve been abandoned as a baby and it scarred you for life? You’ve spent years in isolation being led to believe that you’re dangerous? Eh, a couple songs and you’re all good!

But you can see why there’s so much merch for movies like Frozen, Moana, and other Disney Princess films and hardly any for films like BH6 and WIR (except at Hot Topic): the former is much more easy to market to children, with a specific demographic that will eat that princess shit up. Not every older fan will want to buy dolls and action figures for their fave non princess movie. (Though if I could get a collectible doll or figure of my fave movies that aren’t Funko Pops, I would be very happy.)

All this also explains why Disney purchased Marvel and Lucasfilm. Disney has had great success with their animated properties, but with very few exceptions, their live action films have not. Even today, Disney’s original live action films struggle to make a profit. With Marvel and Star Wars, they are now able to make movies that people will definitely watch and have another huge demographic: little boys AND older fans that are easier to market to. Similarly, they can market their live action remakes of animated classics to kids and adults with nostalgia.

As you can tell, this is a very brilliant merchandising plan, albeit one that isn’t entirely fair to successful non-tentpole movies that have their following. Will this last forever or hold up? We’ll have to see, though I am a little concerned for Star Wars (as summarized by another person HERE). But the best I can do is support the movies I love the best way I can to show that it IS easy to market films that aren’t Princesses, Star Wars, or Marvel.

Little Things I Appreciate About Big Hero 6

This week on Tumblr was Big Hero 6 Appreciation Week. Every day, fans of the movie would make a post (gifs, fan art, videos, analysis, etc.) describing their favorite character, location/set piece, song/score, quote, parallel, and scene, along with a free day to post whatever they want at the end. I wanted to participate but…that didn’t happen. (I think I may have executive function problems, but I can’t be too sure.) But that doesn’t mean I can’t talk about it here!

Fave Character

Well I love everybody, but my absolute fave is definitely Hiro. I loved him since the first teaser (where we see Hiro trying and failing to put armour on Baymax). My very first thought was “Oh my god he is beyond adorable”. My love for him only grew since the movie came out. Not only is he absolutely precious, he’s also a complex, layered character. He’s highly intelligent and skilled, relates better to older people and robots (something I can relate to), mentally ill and is totally ready and able to kill a man but is brought back from the brink through the power of love and friendship. He is also a total dork who loves gummy bears. Overall I just find him a really interesting, relatable, sweet, and adorable character that must be protected at all costs.

Fave Location

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The aerial view of city of San Fransokyo, especially when seen at the beginning and during the first flight scene. It’s a beautiful city, incorporating advanced (and eco friendly) technology and Japanese culture to create a truly unique environment. You can tell it’s a great city to live in, and that there’s plenty of opportunities. It looks so vivid and almost REAL and ALIVE. I wanna go there!

Fave Song/Score

The movie has a great soundtrack, it’s hard to pick an absolute fave. One score I definitely like is “I am Satisfied with my care”. The music goes with each moment–from the triumphant ones to the tragic ones–perfectly. It definitely makes the scene where Hiro and Baymax have to say goodbye even more heartfelt.

Fave Quote

“Hiro. I will ALWAYS be with you.”

This is a great quote because Baymax means this both figuratively and literally. Figuratively because, no matter what happens, Baymax (and Tadashi) will remain in Hiro’s heart and memories and will guide him in life. Literally because it shows just how much Baymax loves Hiro and will do anything for him. He has become devoted to him and will go to any length necessary to protect the boy and be there for him. The fact that a robot has become capable of love is so…*sobs*

Fave Parallel

I think any part where Hiro references or quotes Tadashi (such as sighing “Unbelievable” or telling his teams to use those big brains of theirs) is feels worthy. Of course the scenes where Hiro sees himself reflected in the mirror along with his brother/robot companion is a subtle, emotional moment, but the parallel that is perhaps most chilling is when Hiro and Tadashi both sense that someone is in danger and their first instinct is “Someone has to help”. It just goes to show how willing both these brothers are to put their lives on the line to help those in need, and how much of an influence Tadashi really is. I’m just glad Hiro got out of it okay!

Fave Scene

Hiro and Baymax hug

Easy pick here: the hug between Hiro and Baymax at the end. I just wish it went on much longer.

Be sure to check out all the amazing works of art made this week HERE and HERE and the blog bh6daily.tumblr.com for more! What are your fave things about this movie?

“Happily Ever After” is True Disney Magic

This month, a new show, “Happily Ever After”, premiered at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, Florida, replacing the previous show “Wishes”. And I got to say, it perfectly encapsulates everything that we love about Disney. Watch it for yourself:

It has everything: fireworks, awesome music, gorgeous animation (with some brand new hand drawn animation!), heartfelt moments, heroic moments, funny moments, dashing heroes, beautiful princesses, dastardly villains, you name it! It’s a masterful medley of Disney music and characters. We got a nice wide range of Disney characters included, too. Frozen didn’t take up too much of the show, though I think Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia should’ve been in the show longer (though there was a very audible loud cheer when Hiro and Baymax showed up; take note, Disney!).

But what really made my heart soar was that The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules played significant parts. These are two movies that don’t get a lot of attention or recognition nowadays, but here, they move the show along. The song Out There had a standout moment (with new animation and a new rendition of the song), and the song Go The Distance served as the climax of the performance, including all the Disney heroes. This gives me some hope that these two and movies like them will grow in stature and get the proper recognition they deserve.

Overall, a fantastic show, I enjoyed every minute of it. I hope one day I can see it live!