The Rocchi Files: An Open Letter to Pixar …

by | May 29th, 2009 | 2:00PM | Filed under: Uncategorized

OpLettPix1Dear Pixar,

 Congratulations on your tenth film, Up; it's a heck of achievement for a movie studio that started as something George Lucas ran as a side project and Steve Jobs didn't quite know what to do with. Up's also your first 3D film, and the technical achievements in it are really amazing, too — the people look like people, the real animals look like real animals. And, most importantly, you've still got your amazing eye for a tale well-told; I joke that the secret to Pixar's films is that they're so well written you could tell them with sock puppets and still have the audience riveted. So, congratulations, and, at the same time, I'm sorry.

I say "I'm sorry" because, frankly, guys — and yeah, Pixar's pretty much all guys, which we'll talk about later — you're sort of in that U2-Joni Mitchell-Johnny Cash zone of creative ability now, the problematic one where you've done so much right for so long that it's starting to be a little obvious where your weaknesses are even in the light of your amazing abilities. And, unless you do something to break out of the box — which is a well-made box, but a box — you've crafted for yourselves, all of the promise and progress that you've shown so far is going to be slowly defeated, tiny cracks growing to shatter the whole foundation. I'm not even talking about your formula — the way so many of your films revolve around an outsider coming to a secret community of personalities, becoming one-half of an odd-couple duo and uniting their new friends against a common foe with a big, bustling action set-piece climax to close out the film.

OpLettPix2 That formulaic feel isn't great (and it's no coincidence that your two best films, The Incredibles and Up, are the two that avoid that formula, while your worst film, Cars, is the one that apes it most blatantly), but it's something you can break out of, if you try. I'm worried about two things that seem a lot more institutional, and a lot harder to shake. The first is, bluntly, why can't you guys seem to write strong female characters? With the notable exception of The Incredibles' Mrs. Incredible (who was voiced by Holly Hunter) and Violet (Sarah Vowell), your female characters are ether dead, irrelevant, under-written or absent. And all your directors are male, too. Both those things are going to change with your upcoming The Bear and the Bow — about a young woman in a fairy-tale take on Scotland, directed by Brenda Chapman — but you've got to do more than that – up the bench strength for women on both sides of the camera, with more opportunities for characters and more opportunities for female writers and directors.

OpLettPix3 The other problem, I have to be just as blunt about, and it's inspired by the Up press conference where I watched Up's director Pete Docter express faith in the limitless possibilities of animation: "Animation's a medium, not a genre." Well, that's a nice thing to say; it would be a more interesting thing for you to really follow up on. And right now, all you at Pixar seem to be doing is churning out PG- and G-rated family-friendly adventures over and over again. Which is great — there's a need for well-made children's entertainment — but I wonder if anyone at Pixar ever dreams of pitching people in charge an amazing computer-animated Western of mythic proportions or a stunning hard-knock science-fiction action film full of things you simply couldn't do in live action, or a horror film that involves the scarier version of the kinds of creatures your animators showed they could create with the cute, cuddly Monsters, Inc. I'd love to see those movies; I don't know if your owners at Disney would like you to make them. And that's a bit of a shame, because I'd like to see you guys at Pixar make history, not just money; make movies, not just an endless series of sequels and formula films. And don't get me wrong, I'm rooting for you, to be sure; you've had an amazing run. But part of me — and, maybe, a part of you — knows you could be doing even better.

Yours, James.

P.S. If you have to make sequels, please, get on making The Incredibles 2 before freaking Cars 2, okay? We all know which of those would be better, don't we? 


15 Responses to “The Rocchi Files: An Open Letter to Pixar …”

  1. The lyles
    Posted on May 29, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    I am dazed and confused about this blog. Why does pixar have to show strong willed women? I am a woman and I don’t have to see those on film to feel better about myself. And my child who is a boy so much out there in tv and toys is all girl power all for the ladies and beleive it or not it is hard to find books, programs and even movies that appeal to him as a child who is a boy not a girl…. hmhmm just a thought.

  2. eliz.s.
    Posted on May 29, 2009 at 4:55 pm

    Speaking as a female adult fan of Pixar, I absolutely agree with this post. I’m glad you mention that upcoming film, because I was just about to give up hope for Pixar’s featuring any strong female characters, or rather any female main characters at all. It has annoyed me because otherwise, I love everything else about their movies (eh, except Cars was just likable).

  3. Kurt
    Posted on May 29, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Brad Bird’s 1906, baby! Yeah!
    And I disagree with “The Lyles”. I, personally, enjoy strong women characters (perhaps it’s because I watch so much “West Wing” and “Sports Night”, no?) and would love to see some more compelling ones (a la Elastigirl). And yes, I too would love to see an Incredibles 2. I was on the edge of my seat for that entire film.

  4. CJ Holden
    Posted on May 29, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    I would also like to add: Give professional voice actors a chance! For a studio that always talks about “quality first”, Pixar relies way too much on starpower. Don’t get me wrong, they seem to know what they are doing and Wall-E and Up aren’t really star vehicles, but am I the only one who thinks that it’s a shame that Owen Wilson, Billy Crystal or Ellen DeGeneres play big roles in these movies, but Frank Welker, John DiMaggio or Tara Strong don’t?

  5. Michael
    Posted on May 29, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    This is a ridiculous article. Everywhere you turn everybody has to complain about something. Why don’t you just enjoy the great movies they put out and stop trying to rain on everybody else’s parade. Who cares if there is a woman character in it or not, or a male character in it for that matter, it is a movie meant for entertainment. Your kids don’t care if the lead cartoon character is a male or a female, they just want to be entertained. And before I’m accused of being sexist, my favorite character in “Finding Nemo” was Ellen DeGeneres, she made that movie funny the way she portrayed Dory. I also like the fact that they are keeping their movies rated G – PG because they keep it where parents can enjoy it just as much as their kids. I still remember going to see “The Land Before Time” with my parents as a child. I am 27 now, and enjoy their movies for the simple fact that they are funny and entertaining. I don’t always want to see blood squirting out of a wound or profanities getting used every other scene. I hope Pixar continues using the formula that has made them as successful as they are now.

  6. JGM
    Posted on May 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Interesting stuff, I haven’t seen Up yet but felt much the same after seeing the over-praised Wall-E. I do bet you don’t have little kids, though, because when my kids were little we *depended* on Disney (in the Mermaid-through-Lion King era) and Pixar to put out quality stuff that we could take them to, buy for them, and feel good about. If they had taken a year off to make a PG-13 SF flick, I would have been quite disappointed.
    Um, one other little thing that convinces me you aren’t in touch with the kid-world: Lightning McQueen of “Cars” is pretty much the uber-totem for toddler boys nationwide, where “Incredibles” dealt with middle-age angst as much as anything. *I* know which sequel would do better.

  7. Nathaniel R
    Posted on May 31, 2009 at 11:41 am

    James, i love this article. It makes its points so well, while also giving credit where it’s due.
    ‘the animation is not a genre’ thing especially. If it’s not a genre try something else. It was disappointing that i learned that the sci-fi picture JOHN CARTER OF MARS (which would not be a children’s film, but sci-fi) was not going to be a Pixar film after all.
    Also: as someone who really loves films about women, i’d like to see more diversity. Plus… though Lyles is right that there are many entertainments for children that are “girl power” oriented, underneath the surface they’re not very empowering. The whole “princess” thing can’t be all that healthy (when it’s the only point of view). Pixar has greater emotional complexity so it’d be nice if they trained that on female characters, too.

  8. RichterScale
    Posted on May 31, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    PIXAR has amazing female characters. They’re not the main characters, but they are a crucial point to the story, and even though a lot of PIXAR movies are buddy comedies (amazing ones at that), they have some excellent female characters. How can you say they don’t write female characters strongly after watching “Finding Nemo” and seeing Dory, probably their most inspired character in any of their films (and despite her handicap, she’s a strong character and drives a lot of the story). Also, Wall-E does not exist without EVE, and EVE is amazing. She doesn’t talk, but she has quite a personality, and she’s dangerous. You also have to watch the scene in Ratatouille where Collette sticks the knives on Linguini’s sleeve to drive the point that there are not enough women in the cooking world. If that’s not strong, I don’t know what is (the woman drives a motorcycle and is a great source for conflict with the main relationship). The Incredibles has plenty of amazing female characters (not just Elastigirl and Violet, but Edna Modes and Mirage as well, and in Monsters Inc, the entire plot is set in motion by this little girl. PIXAR does write great female characters, but maybe they just don’t put them in the center, because they are more comfortable with male characters. If it makes for the kinds of films they make, that’s fine by me.

  9. Jason
    Posted on June 1, 2009 at 1:02 am

    I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that Pixar is still flexing it’s muscles trying to find out what it is capable of. But not in an exploratory way. It seems to me that they are honing. A skill just as important, if not more so, as exploration. They seem to be sticking to the same formula because they can’t just remake the same film over and over again until it reaches perfection. So they are doing the next best thing: remaking the same kind of film over and over until they have reached perfection. I would argue that they exploration is happening, though. The exploration is occurring in their “shorts.” I think that after Up, we will start to see more exploration pretty quickly, if they can subvert their owners’ money-making principle of “stick with what works.”

  10. Chris
    Posted on June 1, 2009 at 7:26 am

    I understand why some people have concerns regarding female characters.
    There’s been an increasing feeling over the years that 98% of the blockbusters/great films (which UP is both) coming out don’t have women as THE primary characters as was the case once upon a time. It’s not an issue with Pixar I feel as an overall issue with the movie industry today.

  11. JGM
    Posted on June 1, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    I will belatedly add that Pixar may be understandably wary of stretching in the directions you suggest: *every* attempt at moving animation in more “adult” directions, from “Heavy Metal” to Bakshi’s LOTR to “The Black Cauldron” as well as more recent and milder attempts like “Titan AE” and “Treasure Planet” has failed commercially and (mostly) artistically.
    Also note that blue-screen films like “300″ and the Star Wars prequels essentially *are* CG animation with human actors pasted on top.
    When you can do that why bother going to the trouble of trying to model and render “realistic” humans? (This is also why Pixar, despite their technical prowess, keeps their humans so “cartoony” looking).

  12. Tony
    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 8:58 am

    Well, I absolutely agree about wanting to see an Incredibles 2 project. Also, it would be nice to have some strong female leads but you did forget Princess Atta and Collette. While neither are main characters they aren’t pushovers either. It would be nice to have a main female protagonist sometime soon though.

  13. Jason
    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 9:53 am

    JGM – I have to respectfully disagree. There is a market for adult animation. One only needs to look at Family Guy, the Simpsons, SouthPark or really anything on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. That’s without even mentioning the Anime market, which, though it’s smallish in the U.S. is HUGE overseas. Take for example, Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away. Two Hugely successful films both financially and especially artistically. TV has figured it out, but film just hasn’t yet. Although, I would argue that Pixar is the closest. In my opinion, Wall-E was speaking mostly to adults.

  14. Jason
    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Also, I think that the market will explode with animation in the next 20 years. A large portion of the current generation is growing up with anime. It’s just a matter of time before they get behind the wheel and become the execs that drive the production in Hollywood.

  15. Jason
    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 4:56 pm

    Chris – You said that “There’s been an increasing feeling over the years that 98% of the blockbusters/great films (which UP is both) coming out don’t have women as THE primary characters as was the case once upon a time.”
    I think the reason for this is that Hollywood has tried to become too politically correct. In the past, yes there were more women as leads in film, but if most of those movies came out today, people would say that the women aren’t real enough or just feminine stereotypes. Before the 60′s women were still treated unfairly and as (at least on some level) a minority. And when I say minority, I mean in the persecuted sense. So could it be, that out of fear of bad press stirred up by feminist groups, Hollywood has been less daring to cast women in lead roles? Now, in our society and culture, it is easy for anyone to publicize their thoughts, opinions and feelings. So this makes it especially hard to please everyone. Since Hollywood tends to be conservative in it’s trends (i.e. “stick with what works”) they are in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation.
    Though, I’m not excusing them, of course. The situation they are in is of their making. I’m just saying that there are more factors to consider to understand their point of view. It’s not that they’re bad people, they just haven’t made the best decisions. But then, that’s my philosophy– every villian is the hero of their own story. Most people think (or try to think) they are doing the right thing or making the wise decision.