Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Look at All the Pretty Pictures

Over the holidays I acquired my first Blu-ray player, a gift from my younger brother who I suspect purchased it on the black market. Regardless of its possibly nefarious origin, I was absolutely giddy with delight. He asked if I wanted to borrow any of his Blu-rays to christen the box with and my mind immediately leapt to Pixar. My very first drooling moment on the way to a complete high-definition conversion was in a Fred Meyer a couple years back when I happened to pass through the electronics section and a flat screen TV showcasing WALL*E caught my eye. My girlfriend had to literally drag me away.

So when it came time to experience the digital sensation in the comforts and cozy confines of my abode, a Pixar film was to me the only option. But which one? Obviously Ratatouille was in contention, being my unabashed favorite of the ten features the studio has so far released. My brother kindly pressed the disk into my hands. After a moment of thought I also asked if he'd loan me his brand new copy of Cars as well. Cars is far from my favorite film the studio has produced (on the other hand it's also not my relative least) but its merits are many. Most of them falling under the visual column.

In fact, Cars my be the most consistently gorgeous film in the studio's canon. Every Pixar movie has what I like to call "the money shot", that perfect visual composition that unhinges the jaw and absolutely boggles the mind. Ratatouille has the ridiculously romantic rooftop Paris reveal, WALL*E has his brush with the star field, Up quietly places Ellie in her favorite chair as the afternoon sunlight filters in, and Marlin and Dory traverse a deadly world of poisonous pinks in the jellyfish sequence of Finding Nemo, but none of these shots serve the story as well as the neon lights buzzing to life and reflecting off the pristine bodies of the anthropomorphized automobiles of Radiator Springs. Unlike these other money shots, this moment in Cars occurs at the culmination of the film, deepening the emotional resonance of the story in a way that words never could.

Speaking of Cars, I recently watched the severely underrated Disney feature The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad which among other things further solidified my passion for Disneyland's greatest ride. (Quick aside: one day Walt was dining in Disneyland and a waitress addressed him as Mr. Disney. He looked up and said, "Call me Walt. There's only one Mister in Disneyland and that's Mr. Toad.") One of the bonus features on the disk was a Disney short subject from 1952 called Susie the Little Blue Coupe. The design of the vehicles in this short are an acknowledged influence on the visual world of Cars. The wise decision to place the eyes in the windshield instead of where the headlights would be is one of the most obvious examples. But what struck me more as an influence on Pixar was the care and investment its creators took with the story. In the course of eight minutes, the audience falls head-over-heels for this charming little vehicle and we become completely wrecked when she falls apart as the years wear on. The attachment the animators are able to wring out of this simple story are akin to the emotional core of Up or Finding Nemo. I had seen the short many times as a kid when the Disney Channel used to be a wonderful outpost in the wilds of the cable jungle but I had not seen it in twenty years. Watching the film now I was surprised by how much of the story I had retained. I attribute this to that care with which the studio spent on the story.

Another Disney short I stumbled upon recently that bears more than a passing relation to Pixar is the studio's first animated two-reeler, the fanciful Ben and Me, released a year after Susie in 1953. The short echoes the basic outline of Ratatouille as it follows a precocious rodent, this time a mouse named Amos, who befriends founding father Benjamin Franklin and helps him accomplish some of his most vaunted achievements. In fact, Amos like Remy, does most of the work; be it heading out into the streets to compile fodder for Franklin's newspaper or accidentally inventing the bifocal. The short does not delve any deeper, there are for instance no thoughtful treatises on art and criticism, but it is an enjoyable work nonetheless. Watching Amos travel through colonial America atop Franklin's head is to see the predecessors to Remy and Linguini. Coincidentally both shorts are narrated by Sterling Holloway, the famous voice of Winnie the Pooh.

A lot of people rag on Disney and throw their unequivocal support behind the far funnier Warner Bros shorts being produced at the time. It's like the eternal Chaplin/Keaton debate. Both studios were working in the same medium but from different perspectives and to different ends. Warner Bros shorts were blasts of anarchy, intelligence and gut-busting hilarity. Disney on the other hand were working tirelessly to refine their storytelling abilities and draftsmanship, laying the groundwork for future generations.

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