Pixar Animation Studios has held an unprecedented reign over the animated film industry over the last 25 years.
Up until recently (owing to the fatal Cars 2 flop and lack of fanfare over Brave), Pixar has been known as the potentate of Hollywood. Toy Story 3 is the highest grossing animated movie of all time and the aforementioned as well as Up being two of the only three to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With this feat, it was on track to be a regular at the Oscars and within a decade it seemed that it would’ve taken home the top prize. But the studio came crashing down with the dreaded Cars sequel, and now with Brave, apparently, not being enough to save it from such fate.
As much as I’d like to spend this article bashing John Lassetter, this is a piece where we’d like to examine what made the original Pixar films so popular in the first place. Sure, they’ve got the characters, the world-building, the superb animation and smart scripting — but what’s the element that makes the stories so special? I’d say that the one consistent plot device used in Pixar movies is irony. It’s the irony that makes the stories so original and funny, sometimes accounting for 90% of the humor used in the films. Some examples below:
Irony is most prominent in Pixar’s fourth feature film, Monster’s Inc., as most of the jokes deviate from direct reference to the premise. Monster’s Inc. is a corporation run by monsters, the local trade being the scaring of children (“We scare because we care!”), their emotions a source of fuel. Of course, there’s obvious irony in the fact that monsters are scared of children in the story (used heavily throughout). Also, the fact that the business is run by monsters, considered reckless, violent creatures of the imagination, and actually being organized enough to have created a civilized system and government is irony in its own right.
Finding Nemo executes its irony in its characterization. There’s the unfunny clownfish, the carnivorous shark support group, and to some extent, the pelican being friends with the fish.
A BUG’S LIFE
The male ladybug. Enough said.
The irony in the Brad Bird directed Ratatouille is evident. Rats, considered the vilest and most disgusting of all animals, in a kitchen, where they are the most despised and unwelcome. Make that restaurant one in Paris, the food capital of the world, and well…that’s a bit self-explanatory. The message of this film is, “Anyone can cook,” which, underlying, is: “Anyone can be a great artist.” That artist is found in the rat, the thing you’d least expect to become a chef. Therein, Pixar executes its message through irony, combining story tact and profundity all at once.
At the beginning of the movie, Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person attempting suicide. He later goes through a mid-life crisis, when superheroes are often considered ageless. Also, superheroes are done in by their iconic capes (and after Edna’s escapade in cape-related deaths, Syndrome is killed after his cape is caught in an airplane turbine).
An excerpt from the Cars screenplay:
I mean if you want to stay at the dirty impound.
That’s- that’s fine.
You know, I understand you criminal types.
No, no, no, no. That’s OK. Yeah, The Cozy Cone.
It’s newly refurbished.
Ha-ha. Yeah, it’s like a clever little twist.
The motel’s made out of caution cones, when of course,
cars usually try to avoid, now we’re gonna stay in them.
Ha-ha. That’s funny.
I wouldn’t be so bold as to credit Pixar’s success entirely to one measly plot device — there’s superb writing, creativity, characters, and heart at the center of each movie. I just thought it was interesting to examine something Pixar’s been using for so long that we’ve attributed it to their genius, when in fact it’s a simple ploy — it’s not all that hard to come up with a story and think of its opposite.
Like all studios, Pixar has revealed its signature — what patterns have you noticed in the films of other iconic studios?