Jun 11, 2009

Pix[ar] is [not just] for kids.



"If you want to make a movie for children then make a movie for children. The experience for a parent or guardian is that they are spending time with their children at their child's level. The movie is not meant to satisfy an adult in the audience. You do not have to consider adults when creating content or story lines for "childrens" movies. Far to often mature content is blended into scripts only to promote the feature as "something for all to see". The marketing of this movie was selfishly aimed at drawing young children to the theatre. You call it "PG" but then you market it for a younger audience. Creating many 6, 7, 8 ,9 and 10 yr old Birthday parties/gatherings when this content is way too deep for them to handle and or enjoy. Pixar...Step back and really think about what you product is saying and who will be watching and effected by it. Two thumbs down from Daughter and Dad."
— ke flannigan, boston

-from the New York Times readers' responses to Manohla Dargis' review of "Up"

I finally saw "Up" last weekend, and I mean to write some of my first impressions in a future post. I'd avoided most of the reviews, wanting to see the film with as little baggage as possible, so I had to go back to see what was said about it including its review in the New York Times. Ms. Dargis' take was mostly positive, I think-albeit with some slightly schizophrenic and vague caveats. Her piece seemed possibly edited down.

What really caught my eye was the "Reader's Review" that I quoted above--a comment posted underneath the online version of Ms. Dargis' review. I thought it would be a good springboard for writing a bit about "Up" in particular and all animated films more generally.

So about the comment of "ke": what he writes is simply wrong.

Now, I'm of the opinion that very few if any reactions to a film are ever wrong. How could they be? All artistic experiences are subjective; one person's honest impression is as valid as another's, really, as far as it goes.

Obviously there are plenty of riders on that subjectivity: one person simply might have what I'd call better taste (more subjectivity at work there): they might be more educated about films, more experienced in life, awake, more receptive, generally appreciative of art and/or craftsmanship in all its forms(this can lead to a negative as well as a positive reaction, by the way). Another might have life experiences that drastically affect his or her judgement of a film, whether it's "The Sorrow and the Pity" they're watching or "Duck Soup".

All this might seem obvious, but I've read reviews from professionals that I admire-Andrew Sarris, Pauline Kael, et al-where once in a while they seem-to me at least-to be oblivious to some pretty extreme personal biases. But the bottom line whether professional or paying audience member is that each is entitled to their own opinion--it's the nature of the art.

In the comment above "ke" is taking another tack entirely. He's dead certain that the filmmakers of "Up" have made a cardinal error by misunderstanding who their audience is--children. He's actually dead wrong. Because children as some separate group are not who the film was made for. Certainly it was hoped they'd be part of the audience. Absolutely the reactions of children mattered to the crew, whether they happen to be parents themselves or not.
But so do the reactions of the dads in the audience--and the moms, teenagers, older people, and any other permutation. All of them make up the imagined audience. Yet even then, without forgetting or dismissing them, they aren't who the films are made for, it's who they are shown to--hopefully with the result of entertainment.

I'm going out on a bit of a limb here because I don't work at Pixar, I haven't spoken to the people who worked on this about it, and to date I haven't read any interviews specifically about its production. But I'm still sure I'm right.

"Up" was made for the same people it was made by. That isn't accusing the artists of solipsism-the inability to look beyond one's nose. It's about telling a story with a with a personal meaning, a personal intent. When you start with that, you-and eventually your coworkers-are the litmus test for whether your idea communicates. You know what you want to do, and then you proceed to do your best--everyone pitching in--to accomplish it.

Contrary to some reports Pixar's method isn't really a special secret, magic trick or rocket science. It also isn't easy. I'm sure sometimes it doesn't turn out films exactly as originally imagined. But it stems from individual imaginations: someone with an idea they're totally committed to doing. Other artists are brought on immediately to work on it if it's a go; they too put their stamp, their spin, their characters and their ideas into the mix. The film story usually begins to change, veering one way, then the other. There are peaks and valleys aplenty in the long years of production. There always are. I haven't read of any animated feature production anywhere that was entirely smooth sailing in the story process (well, maybe "Gulliver's Travels" at Fleischer's in 1938-enough said). So with all that work involved over a period of years, there has to be, hopefully, someone at the helm who knows what they want and why it should be there. To say a film is aimed "at children' is too vague, broad and vast a goal. But to please the child, young adult and grownup that the director has inside him or her is not only doable, it's imperative. Certainly the head of a production seeks out other eyes and ears and opinions, but the buck has to to stop somewhere and someone needs to know what the point of it all is.

It's long been a monkey on the backs of both animation lovers and professionals that "cartoons" have been so firmly fixed in many people's minds as primarily directed at children--often, small children. With every non-kid animation watershed in our generation--Roger Rabbit, Ren & Stimpy, The Simpsons, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, anything produced by Tim Burton, anything written and directed by Brad Bird--it's been hoped that the old cliches about "animation is really the domain of wee ones" would finally be busted wide open--or at least dropped by the critics who really should know better by now.

But weirdly, with all those successes and very un-totlike films' releases--even with a studio or two whose entire output is well-known and successful for more adult oriented comedies--it still hasn't happened, and each time a film is released there are always too many writers who scratch their heads about why on earth something not specifically focused on preschoolers found its way into an animated film.

They forgot, if they ever knew, that even the very first, most famous commercial animated feature had adult thrills, action, and moments of beauty that were aimed at everyone: the grand premiere of "Snow White" had virtually no children present at all (exceptions being perhaps Shirley Temple, or Wallace Beery or Eddie Cantor taking a daughter). No, the stamping, shrieking, laughing and applauding audience was made up of all of the adult producers, directors and actors of Hollywood--everyone from Zanuck to Dietrich. A film made by adults, for adults-and for everyone else who could enjoy it, whatever their age. Why has this been so completely forgotten? Why is it a forgetting that recurs over and over again?

The agenda or template "ke" thinks Pixar should be following is a harrowing one. I've read enough to know that not everyone in animation fandom is pleased with "Up", but I can't believe that anyone, no matter what their take, would believe the answer is Pixar gearing their features for small children.

Why is this father so annoyed that the filmmakers of "Up"--a fable about an elderly man at the end of his life that includes a little boy but has much more, plainly, to do with the elderly man--didn't aim it at a "child's level" in any case? Which world does his daughter live in? Does it have old people and adults in it? Has his little girl ever felt sorry for someone(or herself), or had any sort of loss--even if it was only, say, a balloon she let go of? Does she like to play pretend? Does she like animals and stories?

If the answer to any of those questions is "yes" than she's got a lot in common with the filmmakers, and she's just as much a part of the potential audience as "ke".

Or "jl" for that matter.

21 comments:

Dan said...

Cripes Jenny! You hit the nail on the head with this one. It certainly is frustrating. That and seeing Animation listed as a genre everywhere I look.

I was going to do a similar post, but I couldn't quite get it all out right. Like you have. If only I could wordsmith like you. :P

Jeremy said...

I agree that ke didn't communicate his specific issues with the film well enough. If he had said that the storm sequences terrified his daughter and made her cry, I'd understand. This sequence scared a few children in theatre I watched Up' in as well. If he said that he didn't want to answer the questions about death that 'Up' could potentially surface, I can sympathize with his situation. However the way he phrased his issues is somewhat derogatory for anyone who doesn't believe animation is a genre. Fortunately for us I think ke is in the minority and most people want a good story that is true to the characters. The opening montage is everything I love about animation and it's a real credit to the board artists and animators who brought out the entertainment and warmth in the characters. Congratulations to folks at Pixar for sticking to their guns even if they might loose a few people along the way. I agree, the end result was worth it!

Michael Sporn said...

Of course, I'd have to agree with everything you've written. I don't think it's truly possible to be able to decide you're going to do a film for children (except for a few obvious choices). An artist can only make art for her(him)self.
Harold Prince articulated this well in a documentary currently running on Ovation. He said that he has to make the best show he can without worry about who his audience will be, and this route - trying only to make the best show -has brought him success.

Jordan said...

I think Jeremy makes a good point that "ke" is probably not really focusing on what actually bothered him about he movie. But "ke" also shows just the sort of pre-conceived notion that he knows what this particular form of art "should be." If Pixar followed his advice it would be doomed to start creating the same sort of poorly received films that Disney itself is guilty of making frequently.

Anonymous said...

I just hate this debate/argument. Jenny has eloquently stated what seems obvious to so many. I understand this push and pull between what's in the film and the actual marketing of a film. But like anything else in the big bad world out there, parent's have to be vigilant. Stop trying to make the world adjust to your children. Adjust your children to the world. There is junk food out there and always will be. Don't try to take down the junk food industry. Teach your kids to eat properly and make good decisions. Go see the movie first before showing your kids if your so concerned that this type of film will scar them for life. But don't scold Pixar for how they make films. If a parent truly thinks changing how Pixar tells a story will make the world a better place for his/her child then they have a lot of other problems, more pressing problems to deal with. Plus, just about every Disney Pixar film deals with some sort of trauma. Just because they find this particular trauma disturbing doesn't constitute a lecture on responsible film making. Simba lying down next to his dead father is quite a disturbing image. And yet that went by without a controversy or a call for change in the "animated film world". Parent's parent. Pixar makes films. That's it.

James Hull said...

Just to go against the grain here -

I agree wholeheartedly with ke's point that the film was falsely advertised. Sure, it was rated 'PG' but nowhere, not in any trailer or any review, was it noted that this film is overly violent COMPARED to all the other films Pixar has made - even The Incredibles. Not even my friends who work there told me about it.

I went in thinking I was gonna watch some old guy fly in a house with balloons.

I have no problem exposing my kids to violence (especially when they piss me off LOL) but I would have liked some indication of what was to come. Instead, I felt sandbagged by another's need for artistic expression.

The argument that I should have reviewed the film first is hard to swallow when you look at the reputation Pixar has built up over the past 15 years. Namely, that their films are great entertainment for ALL children, regardless of each child's individual predilection towards violent material.

David Nethery said...

Well said. Those who have ears to hear ...

I hope this article gets copied, pasted , and forwarded far and wide.

Jenny Lerew said...

I'm surprised that you felt that way, Jim.

As far as the advertising goes, I agree--I think there is a case to be made re: Disney's advertising being possibly less-than-revealing of the overall tone of the film--it's arguable. If "ke" had taken issue only with what he felt was a bait-and-switch of sorts with the advertising, I wouldn't have felt it warranted the post I wrote. But he went much further, and took "Pixar" to task for daring to NOT make a film specifically for small children. This just got my goat, because it's not only untrue, it's in my opinion incredibly presumptous. The only "trust" as I see it, that Pixar has with its audience is to deliver top-notch filmmaking. "Up" was an original concept of Pete Docter's, for heaven's sake--not Pete doing some "dark" take on Santa Claus or Pooh.

Moreover, I'm at a loss to see "Up" as more violent in any way than "Incredibles", with its death, imminent threats of death (of kids!) and actual physical torture and sadism aplenty. All pretty damned tough--and all totally appropriate for the film.
"Rat" had a very creepy scene where Pops rat makes it crystal clear to Remy that humans use vicious-looking traps to kill rats; based on a real shop, it looked for all the world like the Tussaud chamber of horrors. It's a sequence I know frightened the kids in the audience I saw it with--and I wouldn't have changed a thing about it.

"Nemo" opened with an entire adorable clown fish family, including the mother, wiped out, killed and eaten. It continued with wrenching scenes of the daddy fish freaking out and grieving, and later a small boy-fish is torn away from his father by ominous humans with nets, looking like goggled monsters. Fun for the toddlers for sure.

These examples are just off the top of my head, but I can't see what in "Up" exceeds the implied violence and naked fear shown in those other films at all.

To be fair, it's possble to see how Pixar got to this point of Designated Guardian of Childhood; they started out with such soft fare in their charming shorts--Tin Toy, Luxo, Red's Dream--and then the first feature was "Toy Story".
But I really don't think that the aim was to provide children's entertainment so much as it was "let's make this work-hard objects are what we can do best at this point with the software; what's a great story to tell with 'objects'?; toys are full of fun and personality; we can create a believable CG world using this platform-let's do a story about toys-everyone can relate to that, especially us."

And JL is a famously fun loving, grownup-kid sort of guy. So are most of the men at Pixar(I woudn't put Ed in with that group but every classroom needs a Mr. Catmull in their mix). But Pete and Brad...Andrew Stanton...Brenda: I cannot imagine expecting anything from that group other than that it'll be worked on hard and well and be delivered up with style and sincerity and entertainment. Do you really think that wasn't the case here?

I'm shocked frankly that your kids weren't disturbed by any of the other films' intense moments, yet "Up" did the trick. I just didn't get that from it, and while I'm not 6 I'm pretty sensitive about those things. I guess the ultimate point is: every kid is SO different. Did your kids perhaps react less negatively to the earlier films' rough stuff because they saw them on television, in their living room?

You know I respect your opinions, JIm, and I hope I don't sound like a crank. But honestly--to be "sandbagged by another's need for artistic expression" IS exactly what I want in a film. It's why I'm there. Not to be pandered to. I want what the filmmakers want to show, as purely as is possible(and we all know how hard that is in our business). I may love it, hate it or be indifferent to it, but I don't want anything about it to be self-censored, let the chips fall where they may.

James Hull said...

I wouldn't want them to self-censor either. I look forward to every Pixar film. Just be truthful in how you advertise it.

With Incredibles I knew there would be intense action sequences, but the violence is more "cartoony" because it is a superhero film. There is a difference between that genre and the genre I was sold with the commercials for "Up." I knew that going in so I didn't feel lied to.

For all I knew, "Up" was going to be another Thomas the Tank Engine series from the advertisement. I saw happy balloons and a cranky old man spitting his tongue out.

Nemo is nothing as far as violence goes (that film is perfect). The same thing with Rat. Rat traps are nothing compared to the violence aimed towards children in "Up."

I've read tons of accounts online of parents with kids under 5 who felt the same way. They are resolutely attacked because you really aren't allowed to say anything bad about Pixar. Either it's "your kids are too sensitive", "grow up", "we're raising a nation of sissies", or "the film was PG, you should have known!" It's always an attack on the parenting skills of the commenter, not an acknowledgment of the concerns raised.

But there is a reason why there are reviews popping up like the one you cited above. Parents are going in expecting one thing and receiving something quite different. Now I know differently, I'll have to see every Pixar film first - wait! No I won't because my kids will be older when the next one comes out - nevermind!

No big deal. My kids will be fine. Whatever. I'm happy that Pixar is branching out artistically. It just would have been nice if the people in charge of selling it did a more truthful job in selling it.

Robert said...

I'm a bit doubtful of the whole notion of taking a five-year-old to a feature. They don't have the attention span for it, unless it really is genuine visual wallpaper for children.

I think part of James Hull's surprise revolves around the god-awful convention of promoting "family films" with trailers that give away every plot point and all the best jokes. Parents have come to expect that what's in the trailer is all there is and the other 85 minutes will be snooze.

But can you imagine making a trailer that incorporates every possible child-upsetting image? Children vary so widely in what is "upsetting".

I'm also trying to imagine a trailer that literally warns that "UP" is "overly violent compared to other PIXAR movies" and then that action turns out to be two old guys swinging away at each other on a zeppelin.


I can imagine *some* child being upset at "UP" but certainly "Incredibles" and "Bambi" and most of the Disney output of the 90's had similar violent scenes ( geez, a guy got hung by the neck and killed in "Tarzan"). I'm not saying that previous violence excuses all future violence but I'm surprised that there is such gob-smacked surprise at this.

I think worried parents would do well to check one of the sites that catalogs EVERY possible objection to a film; for example www.kids-in-mind.com has an EXTENSIVE list of items like:

-Planes flown by dogs fire weapons at a boy dangling from a floating house (he is not struck).

-A dog is tackled by a large bird and it hisses at it.

-A dog snarls at another dog and we see its teeth.

-One dog is particularly aggressive looking with angular features and a deep voice.

They really do pick the film clean. I think that review would be fair warning to any parent who does the due diligence of finding out what the PG rating is for.

Personally I was upset that the villain looked like Kirk Douglas. That was disorienting for me.

Anonymous said...

The Queen in Snow White was so jealous of her stepdaughter she wanted a huntsman to bring the princess into the forest, kill her, and bring her heart back in a box.

And it was rated "G?"

Didn't see THAT in the advertisements.

GO JENNY!

Randeep Katari said...

An excellently stated article Jenny. Great, great points. I agree wholeheartedly. Forwarding on!

R.

Elliot Cowan said...

Jim - I can respect that fact that you didn't think this was an appropriate film for your kids, but I think you're off the mark too suggest you weren't aware of the kind of stuff you'd be seeing before you went in.
Here is a brief list of some of the images that were in the trailer that played on television every 6 or 7 minutes leading up to the release and post release of the film.

Storm with thunder, lightening and peril.

Giant bird being potentially dangerous.

Old man says "Get them!"

Scary pack of dogs.

Kid screams "They're coming!"

Birds menaces man.

Pack of dogs attack.

Kid being dragged along and over a cliff.

All things that suggest tense action moments which are at the very least as exciting or less so than any other Pixar film.
A major sub plot of Toy Story involved the dismemberment of characters.
Woody had a hole burned into his forehead.
In a Bug's Life the hero tricked the villian into being DEVOURED by a bird.
As already noted, in Ratatouille you are treated to a scene of rat corpses in traps.

Fact is, I didn't like Up much and I mention this because I do not feel compelled to defend it as a great film.
I do feel compelled to point our that if you didn't see what you expected to then it's mostly your fault.
The trailers are available to download.
Someone already pointed out other parent related resources for you to examine.
And lastly - no matter how much free reign the film makers at Pixar get to expand their creative expression, it's still a commercial venture run by folks who know how to make a buck or two.
There must be thousands of people who see the film before it's released and I'm reasonably sure that if enough folks thought it was "too much" it will have been modified.
Or perhaps I just have a different basis for comparison.

Worth Dayley said...

My goodness, if I go to a movie with my kid and the movie scares them, I'm not going to get angry that the advertising lied to me! ALL advertising lies to me. I'm going to talk to my kid about what made them scared, or buy them an ice cream, or let them sleep in my bed or anything else. I'm going to DEAL with it, but to cry and complain that X scene or X dialog wasn't in the advertising? Really?

Obviously, no "good" parent is going to take their kids to see Terminator or even the newer Harry Potters, but the violence in Up? Not seeing the issue here.

Jenny Lerew said...

Once again I want to stress that a big part of the basis for my love of film and film discussion/criticism is how individual the experience is. It makes it a horse race and it makes it fun and interesting.
Jim: I don't think people arguing your take is coming from a knee jerk response to criticizing Pixar-that would be another discussion altogether.

Worth, et al: I'm not a parent, but I have taken smalll kids to the movies and I can imagine how I'd be feeling if I felt sandbagged and that I'd exposed my kids to something I hadn't bargained for at all.
I didn't have those ultralite impressions of the "Up" marketing, but Jim plainly did, and that's his honest reaction. Nothing gets under parents' skin more than a worry that has to do with their children. Am I wrong? I doubt it.

What I am surprised at (and disagree with heartily) is any thinking that insists that Pixar has some sort of sacred trust--at least, an explicitly stated one other than making what they hope are great films. It's simply unrealistic and unfair to put that onto any film company. It put a lot of shackles on Disney for years that made navigating filmmaking much more tricky than it needed to be--and I'm talking about a couple of generations ago, when Walt as alive and directly afterwards. Now, plainly, Pixar is being placed by critics into that position, which is really just a byproduct of films that their crews fashioned for themselves.

Floyd Norman said...

I had the pleasure of telling Walt and the old guys at Disney that they scared the living hell out of me when I was a kid.

John S. said...

When did every one become such namby pamby sissies?
There is nothing in Up that would have scared a kid back when I was a child.
Violent? Really? Scary?
Please.
I weep for our future.

Emily said...

It is hard to generalize how children will react to a film because all children are different, and have varying interests. When I saw Nightmare Before Christmas (around 7-years-old), I cried straight through the opening "Halloween Town" sequence. However, I loved it after that sequence finished, went for multiple viewings, and proceeded to take along my Jack Skellington bendy figure with me everywhere I went. Ever heard of Grimm's Fairytales? Those tales used to be considered helpful for a child's development.

By the way, I don't think Up falls into the scary category much at all. Try Coraline?

David B. Levy said...

Are the folks at Pixar fashioning films for themselves? I would agree with Jenny that they are. But, and this is a big BUT... are they also choosing to stay with subjects that would most appeal to general audiences with children as their base? That's a yes, also. Kudos to them for helping to expand what themes a mainstream family film can tackle.. but, lets not kid ourselves that this means Pixar is making work like No Country For Old Men. Pixar has the power and the means to try that, and maybe one day they will release films for OTHER audiences the way that Touchstone Pictures did for Disney. But, until that day happens, there will continue to be the notion that Pixar is making children's films.

Kt Shy said...

Beautifully analyzed, thanks Jenny! :)

Anonymous said...

It's amazing how adults perceive what children will or will not understand in a movie as well as the amount of "violence" in animated films.

You can't protect kids forever, at least through movies like this they'd be able to dicuss with parents what and why characters did certain things.

Wanna bet that the two thumbs down is just from him?