Pixar at MoMA

The immediate critical reaction to Pixar: 20 Years of Animation at the Museum of Modern Art has ranged from haughty to dismissive. Lance Esplund in The New York Sun complained that Pixar didn’t deserve a MoMA show–an honor previously reserved for vampire movies, slutty Italian film posters, and endless permutations of neo-realist coming-of-age sagas from eastern European film schools. Roberta Smith in The New York Times criticizes the show for “a certain deadness,” and says that its biggest disappointment is “the lack of a serious catalogue,” presumably one filled with the likes of her writing. (One hopes her fantasy catalogue wouldn’t include such mistakes as misidentifying Edna in The Incredibles; she was voiced by Brad Bird, not “Linda Hunt.” [Ms. Smith has subsequently corrected her mistake.])

The real problem critics have with Pixar is the enormous success of its films, at the box office and with DVD sales. For better or worse, Pixar has completely reshaped the animation industry. It has brought Disney to its knees, contributed to the forced sale of DreamWorks, and paradoxically brought new attention to the likes of Hayao Miyazaki. Their films, including Toy Story 1 and 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, will be shown in new 35mm archival prints during the course of the exhibition. The museum remains one of the best places in the world to view them.

True, the show does fill galleries on four floors with hundreds of sketches, storyboards, color samples, and sculptures that will fetch ridiculous sums when they are auctioned off twenty years from now. But the same was true for the various Disney and Warner Brothers animation shows the museum has hosted. There’s no question that there is a dead feel to a lot of this art, which after all is meant to be moving.

But in the Yohsio and Akio Morita Media Gallery on the second floor, Pixar has installed two new pieces–Toy Story Zoetrope and Artscape–that show the past and future of animation in terms so clear, so technologically advanced, that they make all the models and drawings superfluous.

Like it or not, Artscape, directed by Andrew Jimenez and designed in part by Alex Stahl, is the future of cinema: a fifty-foot wide TV screen with 6.1 Dolby surround stereo and four projectors throwing the highest resolution images ever attempted. Like the original Cinerama, Artscape is an immersive experience that extends beyond the normal range of vision to envelop the viewer. In an eleven-minute piece, animators pick and choose among various frame sizes and drawing techniques to provide a tour through the studio’s seven feature films, including Cars, the latest. It’s a chance for artists to stretch out and explore the settings and backgrounds to stories, and, by citing everyone from Chuck Jones to Joan Mitchell, another bid for the merit of the Pixar school.

Is it “cloying,” as Roberta Smith thinks? Or a vision of a near-future in which consumers will pick and choose among feeds, channels, angles, versions, zooming in and out of whatever interests them, one step closer to participating in the creative process, one step further removed from the communal experience of film?

The zoetrope directly opposite Artscape is really the highpoint of the show. Like a Penn & Teller gag, or some self-reflexive McSweeney piece, it deconstructs animation to its most basic elements–eighteen frames of art per second. (Yes, sound film is twenty-four frames, but as animator Warren Trezevant said, the explanation is both too technical and simple to bother with; besides, many silent films were shot at 18 fps.)

In this case, the art is models of characters from the two Toy Story movies, arrayed in circles on a large platter centered within a box with plexiglass windows. When the platter spins, the models blur into lines of pure color. Then a strobe light kicks in, and suddenly the models are moving with the dreamlike precision of a cartoon. Buzz Lightyear balances atop a spinning rubber ball, Woody rides his bucking Bullseye, and Wheezy the Penguin hops onto a see-saw, propelling the creepy, three-eyed arcade alien into a somersault, after which he is swallowed up by a hole in the ground. In the center, wave after wave of toy soldiers flow out of their container, parachute into the air, and disappear before your very eyes.

The zoetrope periodically slows down and speeds up again, revealing just how simple it is to animate something, and how complexly, rigorously, and obsessively the piece has been constructed. It is the most compelling piece of kinetic art in the city.

When pushed, Pixar co-founder John Lasseter makes all the right noises about his studio’s work. “Our goal is first to entertain, to tell stories that will keep you on the edge of your seat, to make you fall in love with the characters. But we also want to make it beautiful because, why not? Why not make it as beautiful as we can?” Lasseter advises aspiring animators to take basic art courses and study the grammar of film. “Technology changes. We can’t tell what will become obsolete. But the basics will always be important.”

But the Pixar formula is much more interesting than an attention to detail and a knowledge of history. Pixar’s films are ostensibly aimed towards children, and they do function that way, with stories, characters, and gags that involve youngsters and immature adults. But they are set in an idealized past that coincides with the time their parents were young. The kids love the pratfalls, while the adults are appreciating the perfectly realized clothes, cars, appliances, songs, even color schemes.

It’s a lesson lost on Disney and DreamWorks, who keep trying to capture adult viewers by satirizing contemporary culture, or by constructing mini-Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. As a co-producer, Disney almost pulled the plug on the original Toy Story, after offering script notes that turned an early version of the film into a stale parody filled with snide characters. With their seamless, retro style and modestly family-affirming stories, Pixar films have opened up a new world of animation.


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