When I showed my list of 100 Favorite Movies to a friend of mine, he looked at one of the entries and noted with disappointment that there would be anime on the list. Hell yeah, there’s anime on the list, I thought. Animation has long been a love of mine. And even though most of the movies on this list are live-action, there are some animated features that capture a special kind of magic that moves me deeply. I can’t say that I am particularly enamored of animation over live-action films, or of anime over Western animation…to me, it’s all different ways to tell different kinds of stories. None of them are perfectly suited for all stories, and the ones that work really well do so for the same reason why any great story works really well – because of the unique chemistry between story, storyteller, medium and audience. At this point in my list, we have come to my first animated feature to make my 100 Favorite Movies. And it sure won’t be the last, either. But I think at this point, it’s important to spare a moment to talk about what it is about animation that I find so moving, what traditions of animation I have watched over the years, and why some schools of animation work for me while others just don’t.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, and it is no surprise that many of my most favorite movies are from that period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it first became feasible for you to own large libraries of movies that you could watch over and over again. I have tried to explain to my children that in my early childhood, when a movie hit the theatres…that was it. If you missed it in the theatres, you missed it, period. Oh, sure, you might catch a repeat screening of it on television (heavily edited for time and content…BARF) or you might get really lucky and score a private viewing somewhere from somebody with the projector equipment and who spring to rent a print of something good. (My local swimming pool had movies nights for just this purpose, and even though the movies were second rate, to see them outside of a theatre was a huge experience. When people talk about the magic of cinema, these are the kinds of things they are talking about.) Why do I mention this? Because for me, there was a Golden Age of Animation that were all of those Disney classics that all came and went before I ever got a chance to see them in the theatre. They were the movies that as a kid, i saw referenced at Disney World and on Wide World of Disney, but could never actually see. THey were all part of this gigantic mythos that I was supposed to understand as a kid as being the apex of modern mythmaking, and yet, they always felt like they were at arm’s length. I wanted to see them, but I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. (Incidentally, this is a big reason why I am not nearly as offended by movie piracy as I ought to be; much of it is simply users having the technology to get around producers’ ability to create artificial scarcity; Hollywood can surely find a business model that embraces piracy and makes it work to its own ends, but so far it has not proved to be clever enough. Ah, well. That is a topic for another discussion entirely.
Into this first camp of animation falls pretty much every one of Disney’s animated theatrical releases: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), The Three Caballeros (1944), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Jungle Book (1967), The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977).
For the most part, these were all movies that I knew about, but never really knew. That Disney has this annoying habit of making the movies commercially available for brief stretches of time only made it more difficulty to get my hands on copies, and most of these, I never really got to see until I was watching them with my young children. More on that later.
The next bloc of films were those Disney movies I could see in the theatre, but during that time when I needed my folks to bring me there. This is a touchy time in any kids’ movie-watching career, because not only are you constrained logistically from seeing movies, but the movies you want to see need your parents’ approval. And when your dad just didn’t give a fig about movies, as mine did, getting to see a flick was twice as hard. At the same time, Disney’s animation efforts hit a rough patch as the studio focused more on the kinds of live-action movies that I suppose were a lot cheaper to produce, but were fairly forgettable in the long run. Not surprisingly, the actual number of Disney animated movies that came out during this time were few and far between, but I ended up seeing every one. The Rescuers, I remember mostly for the gloomy atmosphere, and as one of the first movies I ever saw. The Fox and the Hound broke my goddamned heart, and was the first story I remember where there isn’t always a happy ending. (This was always a sticking point with my mom, who never liked the fact that in any Disney movie, there is never a whole family, and there is almost always the death of a parent involved.) I saw The Fox and the Hound around the same time I saw an animated feature on HBO called A Mouse and His Child, a weird, dark story about two wind-up toy mice trying to survive in a harsh world. There was a moment in that movie where the bad guy smashes our heroes to pieces with a rock, and I remember my brother and I bawling – I mean, just bawling – in horror over it. My mother openly wondered why the movie was rated G. All I can say is that the movie sure made an impression on me.
Anyway, this bloc of movies is rounded off by The Black Cauldon (1985; alright), The Great Mouse Detectives (1986; if you put a gun to my dog’s head and told me to recall the plot, I’d be out a dog) and Oliver & Company (1988; it had all the right pieces, but they never came together right). This was a depressing time to be a Disney fan. You definitely got the feeling of an empire on the wane; like the greatest animated movies that would ever be produced already had been produced, and yet were not for me to watch. No wonder I fell so head-over-heels in love with the anime on at the time, like Star Blazers, Voltron and Robotech. I had nowhere else to go, so Disney only had itself to blame.
The next bloc, things improved radically. First, there was the Great Disney Revival that began with The Little Mermaid (1989) when Disney finally returns to form with a classic children’s tale set to some of the most awesome music to hit a movie in quite a long time. Disney knew it had a hit-making machine on its hands and in short order the same team turned out a few more modern classics – Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) – before losing the beat. Later movies such as Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) all tried to mine that same vein that made The Little Mermaid and its ilk such great movies, but they all failed for one reason or another. That the musical team that wrote the earlier films was no longer together surely played a large part, and as if to compensate for the missing music, these later movies tried to double down on animation wizardry, big action set pieces, and spectacle. The end result was that the movies all just felt like they were trying too hard. And they were. It was dispiriting to see. The movies weren’t terrible, but they weren’t great, either.
But this was also the era when Pixar debuted. And for as much as it hurt to see Disney lose its way yet again, it didn’t matter because you knew that you were witnessing the birth of a new canon of animation that would be referenced years and years into the future. It began with Toy Story (1995; a movie that has a soft spot in my heart because it is the movie that my wife and I went to see together on our first date), A Bug’s Life (1998), and Toy Story 2 (1999). These three movies were just magic. They were wickedly clever in ways that no Disney movie ever were or ever could be. They looked incredible, using cutting-edge computer animation that boggled the mind. They were smart, using a kind of disciplined writing that respected the audience’s intelligence and never once pulled punches or punched down. The writing in the average Pixar movie stands head and shoulders over pretty much every other family animation film ever made.
My wife and I had our daughter in 2000, and our son in 2003, so for the next four years, the movies I saw were with an eye toward what I might want to show my kids soon. Again, Disney produced more misses than hits during this time, and of Fantasia (2000), The Tigger Movie (2000), Dinosaur (2000), The Emperior’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Return to Never Land (2002), Lilo & Stitch (2002), Treasure Planet (2002), The Jungle Book 2 (2003), Piglet’s Big Movie (2003), Brother Bear (2003) and Teacher’s Pet), the only ones I really enjoyed were Dinosaur and Lilo & Stitch. Meanwhile, Pixar kept killing it with Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003), making a greater collective splash with just those two films than the rest of Disney’s output combined. Home on the Range (2004) was the first Disney flick we took our kids to see in the theatre, and we were sufficiently underwhelmed to reserve our theatre goings for PIxar films, and introducing our kids to the Disney back catalog on disc at home. There were plenty of movies to sustain even the most voracious young viewer, and while a procession of forgettable animation efforts came and went from Disney, I was having the time of my life, seeing movies like Snow White, Dumbo, The Aristocats and Robin Hood for the first time alongside my little ones. That was the kind of movie-watching experience you only get once. I consider myself fortunate that I got to have it. Not everybody does.
During this time, we saw the Pixar movie hit its peak, with The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008) and Toy Story 3 (2010). I have to take it on faith that Toy Story 3 was as good as everybody tells me. I still have not summoned the courage to see it. I love the Toy Story movies so much, and after the absolute kick in the gonads that was the first several minutes of Up, I had no appetite to have Pixar’s storytellers remove my heart right in front of me and break it into pieces. I just couldn’t. And Mom, if you’re reading this blog, you know how I always used to give you grief for not reading the last Hercule Poirot novel because you knew Poirot dies at the end? I take it all back, and I apologize.
Right around this time, I guess Disney figured its only hope was to buy Pixar outright, and that brings us to the current era, which starts with Tangled (2010), where Disney was openly aping Pixar. The completely unnecessary Cars 2 (2011) showed that somebody at Disney was pulling Pixar’s strings, which bode ill. Then came Brave (2012) the first truly collaborative effort from a Disney that owned Pixar outright. You could see the difference. Brave isn’t a bad movie. It’s a terrific movie. But that spark that made Pixar movies uniquely Pixar was gone. This was Disney doing a Pixar movie, or Pixar doing a Disney movie, I couldn’t quite tell. Wreck-It Ralph (2012) was a big improvement, and a loving paean to old skool video games and their players (folks my age). Monsters University (2013) looked like a hollow exercise, so I skipped it as well as Planes (2013). Frozen (2013) was way more popular among my kids than it was me, and while the movie has much to commend it (including an outstanding updating of the “damsel-in-distress”/”true love saves the day storyline”), it never hit me right in the heart the way that first barrage of Pixar movies did. At long last, I feel like I can look back at Pixar Phase One and say with some finality that they are a bunch of movies that stand apart in history, never again to be repeated.
What makes these Pixar movies so incredible is how they are written, and sometime in 2012, when I guess it was clear to everybody at Pixar that the Disney buyout was going to change things, a Pixar storyboard artist named Emma Coats published on Twitter some of the guiding principles that she had picked up from working at PIxar over the years. These have been compiled and republished on any number of sites, such as here, here and here.
A lot of this is really just elementary story writing. But In an age when everybody can self-publish, it’s easy for folks to convince themselves so utterly that they are the Next Big Thing, and basic stuff like this somehow comes across like long-buried secrets of writing wisdom. Don’t get me wrong – I love these points. I refer back to them. But they are also what you get when you work hard among a lot of extremely talented people who are not going to blow smoke about how good you are. PIxar set its own stakes impossibly high and then reached them again and again. It’s like the same mania that drove Steve Jobs to create the hardware that he created also rubbed off when he founded Pixar, except in the craft of telling stories rather than in the craft of making computers. I dunno…maybe it’s not so crazy. Jobs was all about a next-level user experience, and narratively, these early Pixar films really delivered that.
So after a nearly 3,000-word preamble, let’s get to the movie that holds my vaunted spot on my 100 Favorite Movie. Because for as much as I love Pixar movies, what makes them all so great is also what makes them more or less the same. Individual Pixar movies stand apart as exemplars of a particular kind of story – Toy Story is a great story about growing up, Finding Nemo is a great story about being lost and far from home, The Incredibles is a great story about what it means to live up to your potential, Up is a great story about ME CRYING BY DAMNED EYES OUT THERE I GO AGAIN DAMMIT
But those wonderful story-writing principles I linked to above? They also render a weird kind of homogeneity to those early Pixar movies. They all tell wonderful stories. But in a way that i can’t quite put my finger on, they all kind of tell them in the same way. You know how all Spielberg movies kind of feel the same, kind of….Spielbergy? Same thing. The Pixar feel that is part of these movies’ excellence also holds them back from any one of them standing out as a truly legendary piece of cinema. At least…to me. As much as I love these things, after a while I got the feeling that they were all riffing off of a template, and that took some of the shine off of them. And that is why I have collected them into a single entry on my list rather than gave all of them separate consideration. On their own, Toy Story, The Incredibles and WALL-E would all have gotten their own entries, but what would have gotten each of them was essentially the same thing, and when it comes to how these writers all affect me as a writer, that is where their individual merits start to break down.
That said, these are freaking amazing movies, and I love them all because in many ways, PIxar movies are the kind of animation movies I have been waiting for all my life. They touch upon the timeless themes that make the earliest Disney classics so immortal. They employ a modern sense of storytelling and humor that speaks to me natively. And they are a visual splendor that really celebrates what makes animation so special in the first place – the medium has unlimited range of imagination, but it requires an insane amount of work to get there. The very act of creating any kind of animation is a true labor of love, moreso, I speculate, than traditional film making (which is a Herculean task in its own right.)
If I had to list just one Pixar movie, then it would be Toy Story, the one that got the ball rolling, and the one that still stands apart from its peers as a movie of special significance. The one that built the template that PIxar returned to so successfully time and again. This movie utterly nailed that fear any kid has that their toys might really have feelings. Sometimes, this turns into a creepy feeling, but more commonly, it’s a fear that they might be lonely or sad when left behind, that they might feel pain when they are mistreated, and that when you outgrow them, they might still have love in their heart for you. Through these themes, Toy Story touches upon a lot of central Disney themes, such as the pain of growing up, the challenge of a broken fellowship, and the reality that sometimes our family is not entirely comprised of those to whom we are related. The relationship between Woody and Buzz is pitch-perfect as that the classic rivalry-turned-friendship. The plight of the other toys raises some very real stakes for the story, and never has a simple house moving have we cared so much that everything ends up in its proper place at the end of the day.
The movie’s treatment of Sid, the local psychopath who destroys his toys strikes a deep moral tone, for who among us hasn’t done to their toys (perhaps less maniacally) what Sid did to his? The only difference is that deep down, we can still see those toys as a Woody or Buzz that just wanted us to be happy, and we betrayed that. We are all both Andy and Sid, and as we grow up, and begin to gain the kind of power that lets us affect the lives of others, can determine for ourselves how we will use it. Will be include and nurture, as Andy’s mom does? Or will we casually destroy as Sid does? When we have our failings, as Woody and Buzz both did with their jealously and arrogance, will we do what needs to be done to make amends? Or will we tell ourselves that what is done is done, and not undertake that quiet heroism of seeking to repair the damage we leave in our wake?
There is a lot of heady stuff in Toy Story, and that doesn’t even get into the grand unification theories that tie it together with all other Pixar movies, an exercise I have never really gotten into myself, but which I commend. Any time a family of movies so captivates its audience that those same viewers are desperate to see if there is something more to these stories they have already taken in a dozen times…well, then you know you’ve done something right.
When I write stories, I don’t necessarily want to write Pixar stories. These tales have a certain outlook and approach and tone that is unto themselves, and something I would much rather see than practice. Besides, I couldn’t do it with any authenticity anyway, and while imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also the sincerest way to bugger your own craft.
But what I do strive for is that effect those early Pixar movies had over me, of instilling a sense of wonder about the setting, of admiration for the cleverness of it all, and of the sense that throughout it all, love wins. Because if PIxar was crystal clear about one thing it was that: love wins. Love always wins. You see it in every Pixar movie worthy of the name, in different ways, shapes and forms. But you especially see it in Toy Story, more than all others. And considering how much love is in the average Pixar movie, that is no small thing, indeed.
And that, my friends, is why Toy Story is one of my favorite movies.