Best of the Decade Derby: Quick notes on Pixar, Hollywood classicism and animation after watching The Incredibles
I watched The Incredibles for the first time a few days ago. Pixar sure has a way of spoiling one with its consistent ability to amaze (Cars being the one exception in my book). What I loved about The Incredibles was that in its attempt to lampoon Hollywood action blockbusters, it applies such knowingness and such attention to detail to the genre that it effectively surpasses its object. It had me all but convinced that if I have a Hollywood film in my top 10 for the decade, it ought to be a Pixar film.
The Incredibles has a story that is impeccably constructed and advances deftly from one movement to the next while developing a wonderful, amusing and fairly complex family dynamic among its main characters. The issue of social misfits possessing exceptional talent and the struggle to apply it to a less than receptive world is a mainstay for just about all of the features directed by Brad Bird: this, Ratatouille, and The Iron Giant (a pre-Pixar production). Here it gets into some messy territory by villainizing its one main character who isn’t born with exceptional gifts and has to work hard to compensate for his lack. I think Bird deals with the problems of supertalents more delightfully in Ratatouille, by just focusing on an underdog rodent trying to break into the restaurant business by working harmoniously with others. Even though The Incredibles is about people who save the world, the narrative conflicts deal more with the primacy of the nuclear family, while society is portrayed as a bunch of ungrateful sheep. On the whole, Ratatouille takes a more favorable view towards the world at large as it tries to assimilate its hero within it.
So I’ve basically talked The Incredibles out of consideration for Best of the Decade Derby, even as I’m bolstered to include a Pixar picture. The dilemma remains, which one? I’m between Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up. My main interest to favor Ratatouille is because the four-cylinder narrative efficiency on display in both of Bird’s Pixar movies are really Hollywood classicism at its best. What other Hollywood films from this decade could compare in terms of old-school excellence? Million Dollar Baby, Two Lovers… Strangely, the quintessential Hollywood craftsman Spielberg doesn’t really offer much in this way in the past decade, Catch Me if You Can excepted – A.I., Minority Report and Munich consciously subvert the idea of a neat three-act structure, falling in line with the philosophical underpinnings of each film.
WALL-E at first feels incredibly innovative with its long stretches without dialogue, but it’s really just classic silent filmmaking. I’m inclined to think that in terms of narrative rhythm and structure, Up is the most innovative thing Pixar has produced. It establishes its story in such an unexpected, beguiling way, first with the newsreel, then with that devastating montage (if you’ve seen it you know what I’m talking about – I tear up just thinking about it). What I love about Up is the ease with which it moves through its story; it really takes its time like few great Hollywood films I’ve seen, maybe with the exception of Judd Apatow.
And then there’s the troubling thought, that much about what’s great about Up is really indebted to Hayao Miyazaki. Not just that Miyazaki made two films about floating castles that resemble Up’s flying house, but also a sense of whimsicality, a penchant for the lyric image and wistful sentiment that drifts through life as a cloud. I need to see Howl’s Moving Castle again to see how this figures into all of this…*
* – For the record, I watched Spirited Away some time ago for the BoDD project and was amazed but not top 10 amazed. It’s a dreamy film for sure that blends classical structure with lyrical digression, and it’s simply ripe with invention. What I can’t quite figure out is why it doesn’t stay with me as much as I would expect it to for a film with such furtive creativity. The heroine gets returned to the real world, and she’s certainly more mature than when she started. And so…?