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Pixar animation is old-fashioned at heart

The films of Pixar are radical in their advanced animation techniques and digital rendering. The studio has topped even itself in the shadowy Paris quays, the bright, bustling kitchens and the humanistic expressions of its furry star in its new “Ratatouille.”
/ Source: The Associated Press

The films of Pixar are radical in their advanced animation techniques and digital rendering. The studio has topped even itself in the shadowy Paris quays, the bright, bustling kitchens and the humanistic expressions of its furry star in its new “Ratatouille.”

Yet the visual splendor of Pixar (owned by the Walt Disney Co.) again has obscured its most essential characteristic: old-fashionedness.

Beneath the eye-catching CGI sheen of Pixar’s dazzle lies a nostalgia and style indebted to classic filmmaking.

“People in Hollywood, the press always fixates on technology because it’s easier to quantify,” Brad Bird, director of “Ratatouille” and 2004’s “The Incredibles,” recently told The Associated Press. “The truth of the matter is the technology has never been the answer. The same answers to making a good movie are the answers that were around 80 years ago.”

The short films that precede Pixar features, for example, offer sound effects and music, but little dialogue. Instead, shorts such as “One Man Band” (where two street musicians duel for a child’s coin) and “Knick Knack” (in which a snowman tries to escape his snow globe) rely on clever storytelling, timing and perspective — what Buster Keaton might make if he were alive today and handed the reins of a giant animation company.

The short playing before “Ratatouille” — “Lifted” — centers on why a sleeping farmer is hovering over his bed: an alien spaceship driving lesson is to blame.

“Those short films get at the notion of telling a story without words, which is what silent film was about in the first place,” says Steven Higgins, curator of film and media at the Museum of Modern Art, where he last year curated an exhibit on Pixar.

The studio showed its reverence for Japanese filmmaking legend Akira Kurosawa in “A Bug’s Life” (1998). Like the Western remake “The Magnificent Seven,” the plot of “A Bug’s Life” was based on Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai.”

Though Pixar head and co-founder John Lasseter directed “A Bug’s Life,” Bird perhaps best summarized their backward-looking perspective in a piece he wrote for Animation World Magazine in 1998 about drawing for “The Simpsons.”

“I started pushing the storyboard artists, many of whom had trained on Saturday morning animation, to think of each episode as a movie, and to look toward Hitchcock, Welles, Kubrick and Scorsese for inspiration rather than other animation,” wrote Bird.

But Pixar’s reverence for the past goes deeper than homage to classic filmmakers. (Spoiler alert: skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how “Ratatouille” ends.)

“Ratatouille,” which has earned more than $109.5 million at the box office in its first 10 days in theaters, concludes with Remy the rat and his human friends losing their bloated, commercial restaurant, Gusteau’s — but then happily starting a cozy mom-and-pop bistro.

A love for nostaligiaThis is a typically nostalgic ending for Pixar, which regularly finishes a film with some reconciliation to The New.

In “Toy Story” (1995), cowboy Woody’s status as a boy’s favorite toy is threatened by the arrival of spaceman Buzz Lightyear. In the end, they become pals; the past learns to live with the future.

“Cars” (2006) centers on the town Radiator Springs, which is nearly knocked off the map after a superhighway replaces Route 66. After being waylaid there, the young, flashy race car Lightning McQueen is converted to the small town’s old-time ways. He gets outfitted with white wall tires and makes Radiator Springs his new home.

Likewise, in 2001’s “Monsters Inc.” the drama begins with the company of monsters that makes energy from the screams of children in decline because of a scream shortage. Kids are becoming increasingly callous and apathetic, and that’s bad business for monsters.

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A TV commercial in Monster World announces: “The window of innocence is shrinking. Human kids are harder to scare.” Eventually, a new system is created when laughter is found to be better fuel than screams.

In “The Incredibles,” superheros give up their death-defying duties because of excessive litigation. Mr. Incredible saves a train, but is nevertheless sued by its passengers. Pixar, it turns out, is pro tort reform.

Mr. Incredible and wife Elastigirl teach their children to hide their special powers — a dig at modern parents run amok. Elastigirl tells her son: “Everyone’s special, Dash,” to which Dash replies: “Which is another way of saying nobody is.”

MoMA’s Higgins wonders if Lasseter and Bird are beginning to show an authorial stamp to their work like Scorsese or Hitchcock.

“What they’re really trying to get at in Pixar films is: technology is simply the tool,” Higgins says. “What they’re really all about is classic storytelling.”

When the superhero family of “The Incredibles” finally embraces its powers and triumphs in a battle against the robot Omnidroid, an elderly bystander gawks with delight.

“That’s the way to do it,” he says. “That’s old-school.”