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Pixar Isn’t as Great as It Used to Be — but It’s Still Pretty Great

Plus, some other random thoughts about ‘Incredibles 2’

Incredibles 2 is the 20th full-length movie Pixar has released since 1995. The reviews were pretty strong, but there was a familiar tenor to them. “Though it would be unrealistic to expect Incredibles 2 to have quite the genre-busting surprise of the original,” wrote the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan in his rave review, “it is as good as it can be without that shock of the new.” The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern was a little less wowed, noting that the sequel “doesn’t live up to the matchless original.” The consensus was that, as thrilling and gorgeous-looking as Incredibles 2 was, it couldn’t compare to 2004’s The Incredibles.

That reaction is natural for any sequel, which is often inferior to what came before, but Pixar as a brand has been facing this problem for years now. Whether it’s an original story (Coco, Inside Out) or a sequel/prequel (Monsters University, Cars 3), the animation company has been competing lately with its own incredible high standards. And more often than not, it hasn’t measured up. That’s to be expected — and I’d agree that latter-day Pixar isn’t nearly as amazing as early Pixar. But I also wonder if we’ve gotten spoiled. Maybe it’s time to readjust how we view Pixar’s golden age.

When Pixar made its feature debut with Toy Story, it was like nothing audiences had ever seen before. Not only was it a full-length computer-animated film, Toy Story introduced a completely new way of thinking about a kids’ movie. Instead of being cutesy and childish, talking down to its core demographic, the film had a grownup but wholesome approach, ingeniously imagining what goes on in the world of a boy’s toy box when he isn’t around. The budding competition between Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz (Tim Allen) wasn’t just a battle between cowboy and spaceman figures — it was an existential story about the fear of being replaced, of becoming irrelevant, of confronting one’s mortality.

These days, talking about what made Toy Story so special feels obvious — everyone knows what a great movie it is — but any such recap needs to emphasize that what became the Pixar Magic Formula™ was something that, before 1995, had never existed. Obviously, there were good animated movies before Toy Story, but it represented a radical reinvention of an entire industry. Pixar quickly established a winning commercial and critical track record, and soon, other companies were trying to follow suit. Movies as different as Shrek, Despicable Me and The Lego Movie were, in some way, building on the action-comedy-with-heart model that Toy Story and Pixar invented.

As a result, it’s understandable that people would romanticize Pixar’s greatness — a tendency the company has encouraged. Over the years, Pixar cultivated an aura of being deeply committed to the fundamentals of story, essentially suggesting that its filmmakers cared more about making a great, involving movie than its competitors. (In 2014, Pixar president Ed Catmull even published a motivational business book called Creativity, Inc. about the company’s creative culture and “an expression of the ideas that I believe make the best in us possible.”) In the early days, the Pixar brain trust — which included John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and others — had an almost cult-like obsession with not doing things “the Hollywood way.” As Stanton, who won Oscars for Finding Nemo and Wall-E, put it in 2008:

“We looked long and hard at why Toy Story worked so well. We realized that one of the biggest reasons was that we were not in L.A., and that just with our guts, we could trick ourselves into thinking these movies were for ourselves. We’re not trying to second-guess what the demographics are, or try to second-guess who our audience is. We’re just going to make a movie we want to see. We feel like we go to the movies enough that we know what we want: Movies made by a singular vision. Made by a filmmaker who knew what he wanted. That’s why I go to the movies — I go to see what those filmmakers want to make. I don’t go to see what a studio wants. And so we’ve applied that ever since.”

In a blockbuster culture driven by explosions and sequels, Pixar’s pious, self-congratulatory “We’re doin’ it for the art, man” attitude was refreshing. The fact that its movies were way more fun than anything Michael Bay could dream up only proved it could take risks, follow its hearts and score big hits all at the same time.

Eventually, though, everybody gets corrupted — youthful inventiveness gives way to commercial considerations, sequels, misfires and familiarity. There’s no shame in that. But Pixar fans — who, at least at this point, are way more tolerable than the toxic nerds ruining Star Wars and other franchises — tend to be misty-eyed about their beloved animated films. We still go to Pixar movies, but with the knowledge (conscious or not) that the spark has faded. Last year, The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr traced Pixar’s fall to the company’s 2006 acquisition by Disney, the behemoth entertainment conglomerate that emphasized the importance of profits and marketable intellectual property. Whether you want to blame Disney or the inevitable decline that happens with every successful operation, it seemed apparent to most observers that what was once blazingly original about Pixar has now become somewhat formulaic and unmistakably corporate.

I’m certainly not immune to these feelings. Looking back at my reviews of the recent original Pixar films Coco and Inside Out, I notice a faint whiff of disappointment, an assumption that new Pixar films can’t possibly be as good as old Pixar films. And while it’s fair to say that the first 15 years of Pixar’s run are generally stronger than what’s come since, I don’t think we do enough to acknowledge that Pixar is still far superior to everything else in the mainstream animation field. Sure, Incredibles 2 is a little wobblier than The Incredibles. And yes, The Good Dinosaur was weak by the company’s standards. But, dear god, have you watched The Secret Life of Pets? Have you endured The Emoji Movie? Are any of your brain cells left after Minions?

How can any of us pretend that even Pixar’s least-good films aren’t operating on a visual and emotional level that’s far above your average Ice Age sequel?

So when you go to Incredibles 2, adjust your expectations accordingly — and while you’re at it, do the same for Pixar. For a good long while, the company was guided by an inspired, passionate group of storytellers. But neither they nor their creative culture was ever infallible. Lasseter, the man perhaps most associated with Pixar’s golden age, will be leaving Disney at the end of 2018 after years of inappropriate workplace behavior. Actress and writer Rashida Jones, along with her writing partner Will McCormack, walked away from scripting the upcoming Toy Story 4 for, as they put it, “creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences. There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films. However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

The “however” is important. Let’s not forget that we’re incredibly lucky to have Pixar doing its thing as well as it has after 23 years. However, let’s also remember that it’s had its stumbles. The company’s golden age is over, but its relative excellence continues. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Here are a few other takeaways from Incredibles 2. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Is Mr. Incredible a bad dad?

Last week, my colleague John McDermott wrote about Incredibles 2’s premise, which concerns Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) having to put aside his tights to be the stay-at-home dad while his wife, Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), fights crime. The gender-role switch is one of the film’s core comedic conceits, as Mr. Incredible discovers how hard it is to raise kids. Each of his three children — Violet, Dash and Jack-Jack — is going through unique growing pains, and he’s constantly flustered and overwhelmed: Isn’t this someone else’s job?

You can argue whether or not this is a regressive idea for a comedy — happy 35th anniversary, Mr. Mom — but it sidesteps the question of whether the man commonly known as Bob Parr is, in fact, a terrible father.

It seems pretty clear that Bob is certainly an absent dad. Although the Incredibles films never say exactly when they take place, it’s probable that it’s the 1950s or 1960s, a time when fathers were traditionally the breadwinners who left all the parenting to their wives. As super as he is as Mr. Incredible, Bob is basically powerless around the house — the Incredibles films can be seen as a mocking commentary on how alpha males lose their sense of purpose when they’re stripped of their identity as the larger-than-life patriarch — and in Incredibles 2, he completely implodes, battling a sense of worthlessness when his wife starts getting all the media attention.

What’s ironic is that while Incredibles 2, which opened on Father’s Day weekend, skewers this old-fashioned sense of fatherhood, writer-director Brad Bird doesn’t exactly suggest that Bob has learned a lasting lesson. The movie ends with the Incredible clan being allowed to use their superpowers again — “supers” are no longer outlawed — so Bob doesn’t really have to acclimate to this power shift in his family. Presumably, Mr. Incredible will once again be out there defeating bad guys. Does that mean Elastigirl has to go back in the kitchen? Will they reach a new understanding about the importance of shared parental duties?

Tune in to Incredibles 3, I guess.

#2. Yes, the film might trigger your epilepsy.

I’m lucky that I don’t have epilepsy, but whenever there are strobe effects in movies or at concerts, I always feel panicked for anybody in the audience who might have that condition. Normally, there’s some sort of warning before a performance, though — which is why I was surprised when I went to an Incredibles 2 press screening and there was no prior notice about the strobe-effect brainwashing technique that the movie’s villain Screenslaver utilizes.

It’s a cool effect in the film, but I didn’t think much about it afterward. However, photosensitive audiences definitely noticed.

College student Veronica Lewis identifies herself as “[having] four eyes, also known as low vision, as well as Chiari Malformation.” She went to see Incredibles 2, unprepared for the film’s strobe effects. Lewis took to Twitter to offer an advisory thread for others like herself.

Lewis’ message had an immediate impact: By Saturday afternoon, The Hollywood Reporter noted that “movie theaters will be warning ticket holders about lighting effects that might impact those who are photosensitive.” Frankly, I’m shocked Disney didn’t anticipate this: Imagine if, god forbid, a photosensitive audience member had had a violent reaction during the movie. That’s the sort of bad press a major blockbuster doesn’t want to face on its opening weekend.

#3. Blockbusters have lots of weird corporate partners.

Because blockbusters are so expensive, studios find lots of creative ways to monetize them. One popular avenue is through corporate partners, who essentially pay the studio a lot of cash to associate their product with a major film. (That’s why you saw Nissan ads connected to Solo.) Incredibles 2 has a ton of these corporate partners. In fact, the film’s official website proudly lists them all…

What a sad, weird combination of companies. Frigo Cheese Heads was a new one to me — maybe because I don’t have kids? — but the rest run the expected gamut of family eateries (McDonald’s), cars (Chrysler) and airlines (Alaska Airlines). But it’s fascinating to see which corporations see Incredibles 2 as representing their core demographic.

This brings me to Zillow. What about Incredibles 2 appeals to them?

It’s funny how much Zillow has gone all-in on its Pixar promotion: The company has even posted a listing for the Incredible family’s house. Clearly, companies see a huge value in aligning themselves with movies they know audiences want to see. But I’d love to know how many people decided to give Zillow a try just because of the Incredibles 2 connection.

And were they eating Frigo Cheese Heads at the same time?

#4. My favorite Brad Bird movies are not the ‘Incredibles’ films.

With Incredibles 2, Brad Bird has now directed six features. He’s probably best known for his Pixar films, including Ratatouille, but I think I’m in the minority for not thinking they’re his best movies.

Gun to my head, I’d probably pick Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the 2011 installment that re-launched the franchise and featured arguably the greatest stunt sequence of this century — that insane Tom Cruise walk outside of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper. This was Bird’s first live-action film, but it had the same electric inventiveness as his animated movies.

But Bird is most famous for his animated work — he was an executive consultant for years on The Simpsons — and so it’s only proper to remind people of his 1999 feature debut, The Iron Giant. Famously bombing at the box office that summer, the movie was a boy-and-his-dog story about a precocious nine-year-old named Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) who befriends a powerful robot (Vin Diesel) that’s being hunted down by the U.S. government.

In subsequent years, The Iron Giant has become a cult favorite, enjoying a long afterlife as audiences have belatedly discovered the film. (Bird’s growing stature thanks to his later Pixar work certainly helped.) The Iron Giant’s themes have already been deftly explored by my smart colleagues — check out Sam Adams’ Slate piece exploring the film’s wrestling with sin, and Adam Nayman’s Ringer essay on the film’s origins as a Ted Hughes novel — so I’ll simply add that it’s fascinating to see Bird’s retro-stylish approach already fully on display here, long before The Incredibles.

Set in 1957, The Iron Giant feels lovingly handmade — it’s not remotely as slick and exhilarating as Bird’s later work — and it’s also far more emphatically emotional. I won’t spoil The Iron Giant’s big, cathartic scene if you haven’t seen it, but I will say that I know grown men who get a little misty-eyed repeating the robot’s memorable line. Nothing Bird has done since has mustered the same wallop.

So if you only know The Iron Giant from its surprise cameo in Ready Player One, now’s the time to check it out.