Pixar on growing up, and playing for the big Oscar

Posted by · 12:08 pm · February 10th, 2011

As Kris noted in our Oscar Guide for Best Animated Feature (and whatever the Annie Awards would have you believe), the category doesn’t promise much of a race this year — as has been the case for the last three years running, Pixar faces an obstacle-free path to the award, despite quality competition. And with two-thirds of your votes in our “should win” poll, most of you are okay with that.

But the thrill of winning the ghetto category year after year has to get old, and as their rather aggressive campaign for “Toy Story 3” has made clear, Pixar has designs on more substantial recognition. They certainly aren’t afraid to say so in this New York Times profile of the studio by Melana Ryzik:

The Pixar team would dearly love to win a best picture Oscar. “I would be overwhelmed with emotion, I think, that our peers recognized how we make our films, and that we use the same tools and that we take ourselves so seriously,” said Darla K. Anderson, a producer of “Toy Story 3” who has been with Pixar for 18 years. Their painstaking approach “has been with this ferocity of intensity,” she added, “to make a great movie, plain and simple — not a great animated film, but a great film.”

Of course, that goal doesn’t look terribly likely to be realized this year. Moreover, I would venture that as long as the separate Best Animated Feature category remains in existence, it’s not going to happen; too many voters deem that second-class award sufficient recognition for an animated contender. It would be interesting to see what would happen if the category was scrapped, but the 10-nominee Best Picture field remained, enabling further animated nominees — would fans of the films feel more compelled to give them their vote in the top race without the option of a consolation prize?

In the year of its 10th anniversary, the Best Animated Feature award is an increasingly problematic one. Its presentation is usually one of the ceremony’s duller spots: despite a high standard of nominees, only two of the nine winners since 2001 have been anything but a foregone conclusion. In a sense, the Best Picture nominations scored by “Up” and “Toy Story 3” seemed the bigger prize.

On the other hand, the category has given the Academy a chance to spotlight remarkable international works that wouldn’t have a prayer in other Oscar categories, such as “Spirited Away” and this year’s “The Illusionist.” As strong as the argument is for dropping the category, it’d be a shame to deny such films the exposure even a nomination brings.

For now, though, it’s Pixar’s show — and while some of us may be less than excited about a fourth consecutive win for the studio, and sixth overall, there’s no denying the magnitude of that feat, or the consistently high artistic standards that have made it possible. Indeed, their success in the last 15 years can surely take a large chunk of the credit for the critical and commercial credibility animation enjoys today. In a medium still misunderstood by many — as “Toy Story 3” director Lee Unkrich says in the NYT piece, “They think maybe we push a button on a computer, and a movie pops out” — that’s no negligible achievement.

[Image: Pixar]

→ 21 Comments Tags: , , | Filed in: Daily

21 responses so far

  • 1 2-10-2011 at 1:00 pm

    Loyal said...

    Maybe I’m being pessimistic but Toy Story 3 is probably Pixar’s only chance at BP for the foreseeable future. I don’t see the stars lining up again to present a critically acclaimed, 400m grossing Pixar film.

    If anything, the next three Pixar films appear to display the law of diminished returns which will certainly tarnish the “look at Pixar’s track record” narrative that they were using this year for any future campaigns.

  • 2 2-10-2011 at 1:00 pm

    Mr. F said...

    Since the best picture race has become so boring, I’m doing a crazy thing and sticking with Toy Story 3, my favorite of the nominees (and of the year, for that matter). Sure, I’m 99.9999% sure that I won’t win the Oscar pool, but whatever.

  • 3 2-10-2011 at 1:16 pm

    MJS said...

    I don’t see why the Best Animated feature category is so villified as the cause of Pixar’s BP failings. The category has only been around since 2001 and it’s not like animated movies were pulling in the Oscars before then.

  • 4 2-10-2011 at 1:19 pm

    Maxim said...

    As much as I respect people working in Pixar, find their sense of entitlement something of a turnoff.

  • 5 2-10-2011 at 1:31 pm

    Estefan said...

    It is hard to deny that the strongest animated films of the past decade has come from Pixar.

    That said, next year will likely end their streak. Unless Cars 2 turns out to be a masterpiece, I don’t think it will win, allowing another animated film to take the prize. Winnie the Pooh or Rio or Arthur Christmas, perhaps?

  • 6 2-10-2011 at 2:03 pm

    Joe7827 said...

    Estefan: all Cars 2 has to do is include a hugely sappy ending in which the cars face their impending mortality as they break down and go into the shop, and Best Picture is theirs.

    Sorry, Toy Story 3 sniping will now stop. I liked the movie, anyway; and Cars 2 is almost certain to be better than Rango.

  • 7 2-10-2011 at 2:08 pm

    Graysmith said...

    There’s always going to be those who place animated films in a completely separate category from “real” films. That’s just how it is, and no amount of this underlying sour grapes tone of “why can’t we sit at the grown-ups table” is going to change that. They just need to accept that, move on and instead be pleasantly surprised if it ever happens.

    I dare say the only film that actually came close was The Beauty and the Beast, since it actually got in there the old-fashioned way and just with five slots. I think it’d still to this day would be the only animated Best Picture nominee if they hadn’t expanded to ten nominees, even if there’d never been separate category for animated films to dump them in. I think the ten films format affords people to be a bit more open with their choices, opening up to animation in a way they wouldn’t do with just five films. I can’t imagine Toy Story 3 being one of the five nominees if they’d kept the old format, even more so with Up last year.

  • 8 2-10-2011 at 2:14 pm

    The Dude said...

    If they’re able to pull it off, it could be that their upcoming movie “Brave” (which was previously titled “The Bear and the Bow,” a title I wish they stuck with) could be a serious contender. Since it’ll be Pixar’s first fairytale-themed movie, a home-run may motivate viewers to vote because they can a) award Pixar for its track record and b) award animation as a whole (which has long had its stories rooted in fairytales and mythology). But that’s jumping way ahead of the gun…for now, I think Pixar (and all animation, for that matter) should rejoice in what they’ve accomplished, because I think we’re in the middle of another animation renaissance.

  • 9 2-10-2011 at 2:50 pm

    Alex Schopp said...

    I’m not the biggest fan of animated pictures right off the bat (at least not compared to “real” movies). I won’t deny that. But I don’t think it fair to award studios the same credit for being able to produce every exact facial expression/emotion, setting, character build, etc. that you want. You can create the perfect actors in your perfect world to tell your story perfectly. I mean, Pixar obviously does it the best, and I give them great credit for that, but i don’t think it “fair” to say that a movie created like that can or should be a legitimate contender for Best Picture. I’m happy to have an animated film in the ’10’ (and Toy Story 3 really was very good), but I’m not sure they will ever deserve much more Best Picture credit than that. And I don’t think I’d be alone amongst other voters on the matter either. I’m sure that’s not what those guys (Pixar) want to admit to, but it’s probably the reality.

    Also, on a completely different note (but still on the subject), I think they need to face facts that when it comes down to it, every single one of these films are made for children. I know they have themes and morals that people of any age can relate to, but look at all of the other best picture winners (at least over the past 30 years or so). They’re usually dramas. With real issues. And with people in real situations and real problems – not cute kids or lovable toys, all that express their emotions through song and cute quips (disregard Chicago – though it still had a very rough theme to it). My point is. Animated movies are made for children that other people can also enjoy. Adacemy voters will probably never give a children’s animated movie top billing over something dramatically acted by acclaimed thespians.

    I don’t even think this should be much of a debate.

  • 10 2-10-2011 at 2:53 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Graysmith, while disappointment may not change things, it is worth asking the question with all the adulation even if the AMPAS is a tough crowd.

    And yeah, AMPAS is a very tough crowd for animated films. It’s interesting because people note the stellar box office of Toy Story 3 this year. “Snow White” was an amazing position in terms of inflation-adjusted box office. It is watched and respected much more today than the Oscar BP winner its year, and it could not get a Best Picture nod when there were 11 or 12 nominations. The fact that only “Beauty and the Beast” got a nod when there were 5, when Snow White met that fate says something not too positive about AMPAS.

    All I can say is that I hope the folks at Pixar who “dream bigger” have one thing: patience. Someday their work may attain the “classic” status that some of AMPAS’ beloved socially relevant dramas won’t. Michael Arndt mentioned he’d love to see Pixar get recognition in cinematography and editing. The crafts branches don’t always give them their dues, either. Maybe the peer recognition will be in their ideas and influence in the years to come.

    That said, critics’ awards could be friendlier: WALL-E won LAFCA and tied at BFSC. Waltz with Bashir won National Society of Film Critics.

    As far as peer recognition goes, AMPAS means a lot obviously, but perhaps PGA would be willing to do that. I believe they nominated Shrek and The Incredibles. That could them peer recognition. Plus, PGA might be more receptive to their amazing box office performance. The near-zero Oscar chance might impact them, but maybe they could be swept away.

    In the mean time–there will be lots of moviegoers and critics eager to see their movies and they can continue to entertain and impart wonderful insights.

  • 11 2-10-2011 at 3:00 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    You can create the perfect actors in your perfect world to tell your story perfectly.

    Hardly. Perfection in storytelling is a tall order in any medium. Animators are as artistically fallible as actors, after all.

  • 12 2-10-2011 at 3:33 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Alex, “Waltz with Bashir” is definitely not for kids. Also, “Graveyard of the Fireflies” is not as much of a “child’s game.” Grief, consumerism, and the joy of creation are things that adults deal with. I think if you were to talk to any parent whose child is leaving for college or going into adulthood, I don’t think they would discount the insight that part of love is letting go.

    I think Pixar’s treatment of its themes is superior to several AMPAS winners and nominees: “Crash” and “The Reader” don’t deal with their adult themes with that much intellectual satisfaction, and some would say some of the ideas in the King’s Speech aren’t all that meaningful. And the treatment of mental illness in “A Beautiful Mind” does not stand out as a very thoughtful take on mental illness. Forrest Gump? Now, one can dismiss stinkers as abherrations, but I think a certain treatment of themes actually gets AMPAS members, and you see it fairly often in their nominees. This sort of treatment seems to be antithetical to some artistic ideals.

  • 13 2-10-2011 at 5:17 pm

    SJG said...

    I hate the “children’s movies don’t really count as serious movies so they shouldn’t win Best Picture” argument. It is about the dumbest thing you can say.

    Going off of movies that were nominated for BP, vs. movies that have actually won, am I supposed to believe that “Ordinary People” has had a more important role in the history of film than “The Wizard of Oz” because it’s more ‘adult’? Or that “Marty” is more significant than “E.T.”? Do you think there are more young filmmakers who cite “Gigi” as a bigger influence on them than “Beauty and the Beast”? Do you think more people fell in love with film because of “Driving Miss Daisy” than because of “Mary Poppins”?

    There have been all sorts of very capable and deserving Best Picture nominees (and even some winners) that have been “just” children’s movies, and I can’t stand people who act like adult movies are somehow inherently more meaningful than their counterparts for young people.

    Children are human beings, too, and every adult was once a child, so children’s movies by definition deal with issues that are relatable, serious, intelligent, etc., because everyone who makes and watches them can relate to them because they used to be young, and they understand the seriousness in whimsy because they once took it seriously themselves, and they can take in the intelligence of it because they remember how uninhibited and freethinking the mind of a child is.

    It’s the worst kind of bigotry to assume that what is accessible to children must be less valuable than what’s accessible to adults, because discriminating against children is discriminating against everyone in the entire human race at the earliest stages of their lives.

  • 14 2-10-2011 at 5:18 pm

    SJG said...

    And I say all of that as someone who doesn’t even think TS3 deserves to win the animated category.

  • 15 2-10-2011 at 5:20 pm

    Estefan said...

    Bravo, SJG! Bravo!

  • 16 2-10-2011 at 5:39 pm

    DarkLayers said...

    Way to go, SJG. It’s also worth noting that given that kids are an important part of our future, we should want them to get great works of art.

  • 17 2-10-2011 at 6:10 pm

    Alex said...

    DarkLayers, I wasn’t saying that no animated movies are “serious”. The ones you listed definitely are. I’d agree that they do a great job of tackling a serious medium through animation while not giving-in to the younger demographic. What i was trying to say though is that PIXAR’s films are all children’s films. Pixar specifically will probably never stray from that formula. I thought that’s who we were talking about? Yes my comment can relate to other companies, but everything i said was specifically aimed at Pixar.

    And SJG, first of all, who ever brought up the subject that children’s movies aren’t important or memorable? I’m not saying they aren’t, i was purely playing the ‘from the academy’s point-of-view’ card (or, what i’d assume it’d be). If you want to talk films that “will have a more important role in history” or that are “more significant”, we can go back and forth for hours talking about Oscar snubs and movies that didn’t hit exactly right when they came out only to have a stronger following later on. That could go on forever. That was never the issue. I agree that the Academy isn’t perfect – if anything, the politics of it all really upset me. I’m solely stating what i feel the direction/vibe would be towards these movies and why i think it would be that. No one is saying that children’s movies don’t matter (if that’s what you got from my argument then you misunderstood me), but children don’t vote for the academy awards. Adults do – and specifically older people that aren’t going to change their ways now.

    I loved animated movies when i was a child. They’re some of the most important movies in the development of a person’s life i think. They teach us great values in an entertaining way. I wouldn’t want any of that to ever stop. But does that change my opinions on whether or not i think these movies will ever win a best picture? Absolutely not.

  • 18 2-10-2011 at 6:57 pm

    Speaking English said...

    Actually, I would argue that PIXAR doesn’t make children’s movies at all.

  • 19 2-10-2011 at 7:24 pm

    SJG said...

    Well if I misinterpreted you Alex, then I am sorry, but certainly the gist of what I took out of your argument has been stated by others, and it’s pretty clear that that’s a lot of the Academy’s underlying bias towards filmmaking for children’s movies generally.

    So the main theme of my post still applies, even if it doesn’t apply to your attitude specifically.

  • 20 2-10-2011 at 7:37 pm

    red_wine said...

    Adult movies vs children’s movies is such an entitled argument. I could argue that innumerable R rated films like American Pie and Hangover are more juvenile that any of the Pixar films.

    Even movies like Slumdog with their primitive ideas of what love is pale in comparison with the deeply entrenched ideas of love and loyalty that Toy Story 3 explores. Throw in a murder in a movie and its adult!

    I think I would brand a movie as adult or “grown-up” (just hate this term) by its sophistication and refinement to appeal to the humanity in all of us. And by that definition Pixar films would trump most live-action movies out there. Refinement is the most adult of qualities and a million movies with murder and rape and “adult” content might not possess it.

    For all the so called ease to make animated films, they take more than double the time a live-action film takes and constant fussing over to get desired results. It is cheaper and more feasible to take 100 takes in a live action film to get the expression right than it is to re-animate a single scene in animated film.

    I do think it would be a very big deal for an animated film to win Best Picture. It would be a triumph not just for Toy Story 3 but also for How To Train Your Dragon and Beauty and The Beast and Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.

    Its a tragedy that this artistic technique has long gone unrewarded for the big prize (along with non-fiction film-making and my biggest peeve – a foreign language film).

    A Best Picture win might finally be able to remove the stigma from this category and even give it more credibility in the eyes of the public. Even out of the 400 million dollars worth of people who went to saw it again and again, many would say “Cute Movie” but few would consider it great cinema.

  • 21 2-11-2011 at 12:04 pm

    Maxim said...

    Does anyone have the paradoxical feeling that in their desire to make their work be seen as films, Pixar has come off as remarkably dismissive to their own medium of animation? It’s almost as if they are ashamed of it or something, and ultimately, I think it works against their cause.