Last night, I watched an advance promotional trailer, announcing the release date for Toy Story 3. That, plus this weekend's release of UP, Pixar's tenth full length feature film, got me thinking about how Pixar is changing the face of disney filmmaking.
Disney has been criticized (often rightly) for its conservative animated films. Critics point to a kind of overall hegemonic or normative quality in the films: primarily white protagonists; reinforcement of the heteronormative love plot; nonfeminist heroines (if not outright antifeminist heroines); stereotypes of all kinds of people.
Pixar changes all of this, and it seems to me that they have been overlooked in critiques of Disney coming from the world of children's literature. I'm late coming to the film party - most of my knowledge of my field is with books. But there is a substantial body of work on Disney films that crops up in ChLA publications and conferences, and that is what I'm primarily thinking of here.
It occurred to me this morning that, of the nine Pixar films I've seen [going to see UP next weekend, in 3-D), only a few feature a romance plot at the center (or near the center) of the film's plot. A Bug's Life, Ratatouille, Cars, and Wall-E each have a love story as part of their plot - for WALL-E, the romance plot between wall-e and eve is absolutely central to the film. For the other three, however, the romance is a secondary feature. For Ratatouille, the romance doesn't even concern Remy, the rat protagonist. And in all four films, the romance plot hinges on a semi-hapless male seeking approval and affection from a powerful, sometimes scornful, female. The males, generally, change for the better in their quest for affection from their fair ladies, rather than the females changing or compromising in some way for the men.
The remaining Pixar films barely mention romantic love at all. Woody and Bo-Peep clearly have a relationship of some kind, but it's so bracketed as to be barely visible. The primary relationships in Toy Story are between Buzz and Woody, and Woody and his owner Andy, and with internal conflicts that have nothing to do with romance. Toy Story 2 sidelines romance even more; it isn't until the last few minutes of the film that Bo-Peep and Woody re-emerge as a couple, and Jessie, the cowgirl, dazzles Buzz with her derring-do.
Finding Nemo has virtually no romance at all, once Nemo's mom has died (which happens in the opening sequence). The Incredibles likewise opens with a chase scene-cum-wedding, but the plot turns on the family dynamic, not so much the traditional romance plot. Monsters Inc gives Mike Wazowski a girlfriend, but Celia is not a main character, and their relationship is not central.
Pixar has made vast amounts of money for Disney, and has achieved enormous critical success as well. The way Pixar is discussed now in the press is remarkably similar to the early days of Disney's studio, when Walt Disney was pathbreaking in animation and cinematic technology. The Disney studios are continuing to work on traditionally animated features, but Pixar has really assumed place of pride in the company's stable. This shift in importance and popularity signals a change in Disney and in the viewing public, and needs to be recognized as such. The "rights" of Pixar don't correct the wrongs of Disney's previous releases, but I do think that, as critics, we need to give credit where credit is due. When a studio gets it right, we need to be supporting that, if we're going to call, publicly in our work, for new kinds of stories and departures from the old romance plot.