Friday, June 25, 2010

Not Far Enough? Ozu Vs. Pixar



I saw both a press screening of a new digital restoration of Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu's 1932 silent film I Was Born, But...—starting a two-week run at IFC Center today—and the latest Pixar production Toy Story 3 (2010) on the same day, last Friday, and I was startled to discover the extent to which seeing the earlier film influenced my less-than-completely-ecstatic response to recent one.

I was all set to post a lengthy comparative review today...but regarding Toy Story 3, it looks like my friend Ryan Kelly, he of the blog Medfly Quarantine, has me beat with this post, in which he voices criticisms that align fairly closely with my own. So I'll use it as a jumping-off point.

Don't get me wrong: I like Toy Story 3 a great deal, and there are a lot of points Kelly makes with which I part company. For instance, I didn't refresh my memory on the first two Toy Story films just before seeing the latest installment—my memory of Toy Story 2 (1999) is particularly fuzzy—so I can't say the "uninspired" references to the first two films he dislikes bothered me. I didn't find the film's ending to be quite as "embarrassingly saccharine" as Kelly does: It's sentimental, sure, but the sap is tempered by its touching visualization of Andy's burgeoning maturity—playing with his toys one last time while recognizing that he's taking one step toward adulthood by parting with them, precious Woody included. And in general, I'm not nearly as much of a Pixar skeptic as he is: Sure, not every film of theirs is a masterpiece, but the studio nevertheless produces mainstream animated pictures that often put live-action counterparts to shame in depth and ambition. Surely that's nothing to sneeze at. (Not for nothing that a Twitter acquaintance of mine tweeted re: Toy Story 3, "So is this the first movie for adults this summer?")

And yet, maybe for the first time in a Pixar film, Toy Story 3 made me understand what Kelly is talking about when he speaks of "compromise" being an unfortunate, if probably unavoidable, quality of Pixar films. As he sums up the issue:

All Pixar is wrought with compromise, and the latest installment in the Toy Story franchise is no different. What I find so frustrating about Pixar is that all their films contain hints of what they are capable of if they weren't forced to create art with hundreds of millions of people's expectations in mind, and if ever a film illustrated the folly of giving the people what they want (or what men in suits think they want), Toy Story 3 is it.

I don't agree with all of Kelly's examples of compromised vision in Toy Story 3 (hey, I laughed at the lowbrow humor and pop-culture in-jokes!)...but this one I agree with:

Never has the need for compromise in the work of Pixar been more evident than in the picture's climax, which has already become a famous sequence in its own right. The toys, through a convoluted series of misadventures (no, really) find themselves on a conveyor belt that leads to an incinerator, and this sequence is some of the most effective imagery Pixar has ever created; the flames are animated so vividly that you can almost feel the heat (and I saw it in 2D). This sequence culminates in the most fully realized individual moment in any Pixar film, as the toys fall in to the incinerator and interlock hands with one another, and Woody, always the hero thinking up clever ways of escape, realizes he is powerless and accepts his implicit fate. Only it's not implicit, as a literal Deus Ex Machina comes in to save the day, morphing the sequence from an examination of mortality and family into just another cheap thrill in literally the blink of an eye. Coming from someone who grew up with these films (I was 7 when the first came out), it's impossible to deny this sequence's effect, but it's devoid of any real consequence because it's not even a remote possibility that Pixar will kill the toys, even though that's probably the most fitting ending imaginable.

Honestly, I was thinking the exact same thing at that moment: That sense of death impending for our beloved characters is powerful, and if it had ended right there, it would have driven the point home boldly and beautifully. But that's negated by what I assume is an ingrained corporate-driven need to not rock the boat too much lest such a downbeat conclusion alienate their considerable fanbase. And while the film's actual ending works well enough in sending the audience out on a touching high note, I couldn't help but think, This film may end happily for the toys onscreen...but wait a minute: Won't they have to go through this kind of mortal anxiety in, say, 10-15 years? The fact that the film doesn't even seem to be aware of that bit of emotional complexity suggests, to me, that, for all the noise it makes about dealing with mature issues of mortality and end-of-life anxiety, the filmmakers—director Lee Unkrich, credited screenwriter Michael Arndt and co-screenwriters Unkrich, John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton—are ultimately more interested in comforting its audience rather than unsettling it.

Worse, one can tell the film is heading in darker directions many times, but each time it pulls back from the precipice with a convenient detail or a reassuring shift in tone. So of course Woody's faithfulness to Andy, questioned so vehemently by the other toys, is validated in the end (Andy really was going to put his toys in the attic, after all), while Lotso Huggin Bear—the kind of villain that is multifaceted enough to spout a lot of undeniable harsh truth—ends up committing one last mustache-twirling villainous act and then gets his comeuppance, as Hollywood villains predictably must.

That sense of compromise has never really bothered me this much before in a Pixar film, mostly, I guess, because there were compensations to override my misgivings. For instance: I didn't like what Pete Docter & Bob Peterson did with Carl Fredericksen's explorer idol Charles Muntz in Up (2009)—turning him into a one-dimensional stock villain, trashing his understandable ambitions and and treating his eventual demise as mere action-flick just desserts—but the film spoke to me so deeply in matters of life and living that that failing didn't spoil the whole for me. And yes, I do find the second half of WALL-E (2008) more pandering and less eloquent than its first half, but its first half is still such an astoundingly lyrical achievement that again, I can accept the whole, flaws and all.

So why was I so bothered by the compromises in Toy Story 3? The only explanation I can offer is that I had just seen Ozu's I Was Born, But... for the first time earlier in the day.

Granted, one film features human beings, while the other features anthropomorphic toys as major characters. And mortality isn't a major theme in I Was Born, But...; unlike Unkrich & co. in Toy Story 3, Ozu doesn't have life and death on his mind. Broadly speaking, however...well, you could say both are "children's films" in a sense: Ozu subtitles his film "a picture book for grown-ups," while Unkrich's film is about children's toys. And both films focus on the ways characters handle the usual disappointments in life: the shattering of childish illusions in Ozu's film, the inevitable destruction of one's purpose in life in Unkrich's.

Ozu, with his familiar warmth and humor, allows what plays like a charming, lighthearted comedy about children's natural intransigence in its first two acts to darken considerably in its third act into something approaching high emotional drama, as the two boys (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) react harshly to the discovery their beloved father (Tatsuo Sato) is not the "great man" they have imagined him to be. The disappointment they feel, and express quite harshly, is comparable in gut-wrenching impact to the toys' near-death experience in Toy Story 3; in both cases, one senses the end of an innocence toward the way the grown-up world actually works.

But while the filmmakers of Toy Story 3 turns away from the disturbing implications of its most powerful image—with the toys holding hands with each other in momentary acceptance of a terrible fate that surely every toy faces in the end—and finishes with a sentimentally nostalgic coda that, for all its pathos, felt to this viewer like a bit of a cop-out, Ozu is intelligent and humane enough to, if not end on a totally downbeat note, at least give enough screen time and emotional weight to the moment of the two boys' shattering of illusions to complicate its seemingly upbeat "life-goes-on" conclusion. That moment of reckoning in Toy Story 3, by contrast, isn't given nearly the same kind of weight to make its implications linger beyond that one supercharged moment; it is, in Ryan Kelly's words, "just another cheap thrill."

I know, I know: I'm committing a cardinal film-critic rule of judging a film based on what it's not rather than what it is. Let me say again: Toy Story 3 is a very good film, heartfelt, funny and thrilling in all the usual Pixar ways. I would not think of discouraging anyone from seeing it; at the very least, it will entertain you in the kind of clean, honest ways that have seemed in short supply so far this summer at mainstream multiplexes. But given the choice between a film like I Was Born, But... that looks sympathetically yet unflinchingly at childhood idealism and adult compromise, and a film like Toy Story 3 that gestures toward that kind of complexity but ends up mostly celebrating childhood idealism, I can't help but naturally gravitate towards the former. In this case, Ozu can extend your knowledge and understanding of the human experience in ways that Pixar can only dream of doing.

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