I don't often sit around thinking about the artistic and financial fate of major media conglomerates (no more than two, three times a day, anyhow), but between The Wild's release last Friday and last weekend's scathing TV Funhouse mockery of all things mouse on SNL, I've been thinking about Disney Animation, their merger with Pixar, and where they're going.
First off, I don't know if The Wild is the last film to come out of Disney Animation before Pixar takes over, but regardless, it's a great demonstration of why that deal seems so necessary. The Wild was, perhaps, the most tired animated film I've seen in a long time; boring, bland, re-hashed and recycled, with a tag-team script that had been bounced between writing pairs for so long that you could see the bruises. Wow, break-dancing lions! Ooh, inter-species romance! Carmen Miranda jokes that no one under the age of 60 is going to get! What's worse than the script is the look of the film -- clumsy, inelegant, bumbling; we're getting to the point where computer-animated films essentially look as cheaply-made and dull as cut-scenes from videogames, and not like works of art.
So, something had to happen to change Disney Animation-- I guess the question is if the Pixar deal is going to be enough to do it. I keep thinking of Hong Kong's transfer to China -- when a solid, inertia-bound object takes on a small, new motor, which gets affected more? Making a change at a movie studio normally is like trying to turn an aircraft carrier by dangling your hand in the water behind it as a rudder; I can't even imagine what it's like at Disney, where the normal long-term development pipeline of a studio is lengthened by the work required to craft animation … and stretched even longer by the years of tradition in the company's past.
And the Disney animation tradition is a curious thing -- strong as iron, ephemeral as mist. Or, put it this way: If I ask you to picture images of Mickey Mouse, it's easy. Your mind goes stretching back decades, through changes in animation styles and technical advances, through good ideas and bad marketing, from Steamboat Willie to Kingdom Hearts. But if I ask you to define Mickey Mouse's spirit -- what makes him tick as a fictional character -- that's a much harder question to answer, as he's become more of a marketing image over the years. Is he a comedic figure? An everyman? A rock of stability as Donald and Goofy flail about him? I could give you a pretty concise précis of what Bugs Bunny (fast-talking hustling), Kermit the Frog (good-hearted earnestness) and Charlie Brown (long-suffering optimism) all stand for; I couldn't do the same for Mickey Mouse. Will Pixar's team of creators -- John Lasseter, Brad Bird, et al -- be asked to take time away from their next projects to restore fading flagship concepts like Mickey, Donald and Pluto?
Or, worse, will the 7.4 billion purchase of Pixar by Disney just be a way of sending more money after bad? I'd give my left arm to see Brad Bird return to the world of The Incredibles -- or make another, new film; now, though, Bird's occupied tying to fix the long-in-development Ratatouille, which is about a rat living in the kitchen of a Paris chef. I've had the chance to meet Mr. Bird a few times, and while it wasn't for any great length of time, I'd have to say he's one of the most warm, open, smart cats I've ever met in show business. And I'd much rather have him working on a project of his own than batting clean-up on a long-in-development Disney Animation project that no one dares throw away.
And there's another reason to pause and contemplate the Disney/Pixar deal: It's all built around the assumption that the Pixar gang are geniuses with the Midas touch, which may not be the case. For some reason, I can't bring myself to care about Cars, even with the barrage of promotion and pump coming our way as its release date approaches. Part of it may be a simple matter of scale and design: Living in San Francisco, where finding a parking space can become a bloodsport, it's hard to find a car cute. The other part may be the simple fact that watching Pixar find shiny objects to humanize and give voices to -- toys, bugs, fish, automobiles -- is getting a little old.
And that's the third reason to contemplate the Pixar/Disney deal with a little sadness: It turns Pixar from an innovator in new stories into a servant to old ones -- long-in-development films that need saving, legacy characters in need of a facelift. I had a recurring fantasy that someone, anyone at Pixar would get up the gumption to take all the amazing technology and visual sense there and apply it to a film that wasn't necessarily destined for cereal-tie-ins and Happy Meal toys. You could throw a dart at my bookshelf and hit novels that would be completely undoable in live-action and/or could be rendered as something truly amazing in animation -- Geek Love, The Metamorphosis, Life of Pi, Watchmen, The Player of Games, The Tempest, The Fool on the Hill, Bullfinch's Mythology -- and yet aren't kid-friendly. (I would also have to ask you what the hell you were doing throwing darts at my bookshelf, but I digress.) Say what you will about Japanese animation's cliches and pitfalls -- the huge eyes, the tentacle-porn, the rambling storylines and the fountain-like geysers of arterial spray -- you can't deny that Japan's creators don't just throw their hands up and agree Yes, animation is just for kids as those in Hollywood seem to.
And maybe I'm wrong; maybe the Disney/Pixar deal will produce amazing work, after a rough transitional period where old projects either get salvaged, like Ratatouille, or ditched, like Gnomeo and Juliet. Maybe Pixar's storytelling resources will find new flower in Disney Animation and Imagineering, and not just be used to spruce up characters, stories and rides with forty, fifty, sixty years of dust on them. Maybe Pixar becoming part of Disney formally will inspire some new group of pixel-pushers and storytellers to shove the envelope against this new status quo, the way Pixar began as a quiet revolt against the powers-that-were in animation. Either way, and even with Cars on the horizon, I think it'll be a while before we see what, exactly, Disnar or Pixney or whatever we want to call it winds up being -- because even in the Magic Kingdom, corporate Hollywood mergers don't happen all at once when someone waves their wand and says 'bippity-boppity-boo."