Goodman and Steppenwolf, Or, Crowning a Theatrical King

Yesterday I posted a quote on my Tumblr discussing “What Would Be America’s National Theatre?” and then proceeded to say, “The Goodman Theatre is not better than Steppenwolf. Also, Chinglish was overrated.”

Then I got some positive remarks on Twitter and angry emails from various people. Mostly because I said Chinglish was overrated and referred to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as THE GREATEST PRODUCTION OF OUR TIME.

Here’s an elaboration to my post because that post was on Tumblr and I like to be concise there.

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The Films of Pixar: “Toy Story 3″ (2010)

For now, we are at the end of “The Films of Pixar” until I sit down and watch Cars 2 in November. (At least it will be better than Sucker Punch.) So how does Toy Story 3 hold up in the context of the Pixar filmography and in comparison to the other two films?

Toy Story 3 is the only film in the series that is not directed by John Lassetter and is instead directed by Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. While the first two films feel very much like fun family films, the third film meditates on the themes of loss, abandonment, attachment, betrayal, and love. While it doesn’t match the accomplishment of Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up, Toy Story 3 is still one of the best films Pixar has ever released.

When the film starts out, we see the toys in a typical western scenario that blends all of Andy’s toys together. This is the product of a child’s fertile imagination and, as it turns out, a memory of the old days. Time goes on and the owner of the toys grows up to the point that he’s ready to head off to college. In an early scene, Woody (Tom Hanks) assembles the toys together in a toybox for “Operation Playtime.” They take a home phone and dial the number for Andy’s cellphone, which causes him to open up the toy box and not just touch them, hold at least one, Rex (Wallace Shawn). After Andy (John Morris) leaves the room, the toys exit the box and we discover that their ranks have dwindled. The only toys left are the main characters, Buzz (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Rex, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Slinky (Blake Clark), and Bullseye. They are faced with the reality that Andy has grown up and doesn’t want to play with them anymore.

Andy’s mother (Laurie Metcalf) comes into the room and tells him to clean up his room, deciding what will be thrown out, what will go in the attic, and what will go to college. As Andy goes to clean his room, the mom tells Molly (Beatrice Miller) that her old toys could be donated to a day care called Sunnyside. Andy’s toys think this is a terrific idea, except for Woody, who insists that Andy still loves them. However, Andy places Woody in a box for college and the other toys in a bag destined for the attic. When Andy leaves the bag in the hall, his mother assumes it’s trash and takes it to the curb. While the other toys escape into a box headed for Sunnyside, Woody insists on telling them that they weren’t meant to be thrown out because Andy really loves them. (The toy that has the hardest time believing this is Jessie.)

When they arrive at Sunnyside, they’re greeted by a purple bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty) and a warm, colorful environment that guarantees they’ll be played with. Barbie (Jodi Benson) meets a Ken doll (Michael Keaton) and falls for him. Everyone thinks this is wonderful except for Woody, who is still determined to get home to Andy, however he is found by a girl named Bonnie (Emily Hahn), who takes him home and takes care of her other toys. Meanwhile, the rest of Andy’s toys find out that Sunnyside isn’t as wonderful as they expected and they try to fight the playtime hierarchy and Buzz being switched to Spanish mode.

Toy Story 3 has one of the more complicated plots in the film and unlike it’s predecessor in the series, it doesn’t work very well without having seen the first two films. If this film is a person’s first introduction to the series, the loss of Andy as their owner and the other toys aren’t as affecting and Jessie being incredibly upset over being thrown out isn’t as understandable. The film’s structure still resembles the second film on some levels. Toys are taken to leave the house early in the film and at one point there’s a rescue mission and later a climactic battle scene. But this film handles these scenes better because of the stakes being higher for the characters. In Toy Story 2, the stakes are relatively low for them. In storytelling, raising stakes for characters can do wonders because it gives them more of a motivation for their actions and consequences for their decisions and what happens. In Toy Story 2, Andy is still young and even if Woody or Wheezy is gone, they’re still together and Andy will be there for them. It could be argued that there are higher stakes for Woody, but lower stakes for the rest of the toys. In this film, that environment isn’t there. They’re desperate for affection and attention and completely aware their days are numbered. Almost all of them come close to being thrown out at one point and end up in the destination later in the film, the equivalent of death for a toy. Oddly enough, the fact that the toys seem to have nothing left to lose is what makes their situation harder for them because—except for Jessie and Bullseye—this is the first time they have an owner that isn’t Andy and won’t give them the same treatment. This is the first Toy Story film where a happy ending doesn’t seem guaranteed and the question of what would be a happy ending is left out there. Clearly, returning to Andy isn’t an option and the environment of Sunnyside is the equivalent of a prison where the new toys are put in the worst place possible to test their endurance. Paradise is a journey for the toys and difficult to find because even when it starts off the place they know as home isn’t for them any more.

The most striking thing about this film is what has been done with the antagonist. In the first two Toy Story films, we are told that the antagonists are just that way and have always been. Sid is evil, Al is greedy, Stinky Pete is bitter, and Zurg was born programmed that way. Lotso has an exterior of being a sweet, cuddly bear, but is an authoritarian leader of the daycare. But unlike the other antagonists, he wasn’t always that way, and there is a reason for the change. In a flashback, we find out that Lotso was left behind by his owner with two other toys. After travelling back to the house, he sees that he was replaced after assumed as being lost. He takes this to mean they were replaced and their owner never loved them. For Lotso, toys are abandoned because their owners fall out of love with them, maybe meaning they never loved them.

For him, this matter is black and white because if someone loved them, they would never grow up, mature, and stop loving them. Woody sees that Andy loves them and always loves them, even though he has stopped playing with them. Meanwhile, there’s Jessie who has been abandoned by one owner and acknowledged that at one time Emily loved her. Her initial reaction is what is mistaken as Andy throwing them out is just a repeat of Emily dumping her on the side of the road. For Jessie, the matter is that an owner can love a toy at one point stop loving them, which is still painful. Not only is Lotso a complex villain, he’s also a third perspective in the drama of what happens when toys are left behind or donated.

Finally, the advancements in Pixar’s animation are evident in this film. All of the humans look realistic and we see the individual strands of their hair move as they walk or bounce along. There’s more detail and dramatic lighting in this film, particularly in the climactic scene that takes place in a landfill at night. The lighting also affects the atmosphere of the environments. At night, Bonnie’s house still seems bright and inviting while Sunnyside looks more menacing and has a prison-like feel.

What makes Toy Story 3 work so well is how it deals with the characters and grows them. It doesn’t send them off on a crazy adventure, but instead puts them in a different world with a different reality to face. Toy Story 3 isn’t as mature or beautiful as Ratatouille, WALL-E, or Up, but it still examines complex ideas through a toy’s viewpoint. Pixar managed to make a fantastic film that would sell millions of dollars in merchandise, but they gave it a heart and told a well thought-out story. After all, Pixar is known for telling stories with terrific characters, lots of emotion, and fantastic animation and that is what will keep them around for several years.

The Films of Pixar: “Up” (2009)

In 2009, Pixar did something remarkable and released a film that would have almost no merchandising and licensing potential, but would cause numerous adults throughout the country to bawl during the first ten minutes of their tenth feature film, Up.

Up is Pixar’s masterpiece, providing a touching, thrilling and moving story and one of the most heartbreaking sequences ever seen in an animated film. In addition, the film was the first Pixar movie to be released in 3D and since I saw it in theaters for a 3D showing, I can say that they managed to use what all too often seems like a fad and turn it into a way to deepen the images of the film, such as the house floating through the clouds.

A main focus of the film is adventure and how that changes as our life goes on. When the film starts, Carl Fredricksen (Jeremy Leary as the young Carl, Edward Asner as Carl for the rest of the film) is a wide-eyed boy who admires the explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who recently accused of fabricating the skeleton of a bird the explorer found in the far away South American locale of Paradise Falls. While out playing, Carl meets Ellie (Elie Docter), an energetic tomboy who also admires Muntz. The two become friends, then marry and we see their lives play out with all things that must happen in live as they try to someday go to Paradise Falls before we find out why Carl is alone. (I won’t spoil what happens because that is part of the reason as to why the first ten minutes is heartbreaking to watch.)

Now Carl lives in the house he met Ellie in, which they both fixed up and painted. Surrounding him is construction and developments of modern businesses, encroaching on his house where he lives quietly, never seeming to leave the property. The developer is willing to buy the property from Carl, but he insists that the house can be torn down only after his death. Meanwhile, an eager Wilderness Scout named Russel (Jordan Nagai) shows up at Carl’s door, wanting to help him in order to earn his Assisting the Elderly merit badge. Carl sends the boy to go find a creature under the house. Shortly afterwards, the mailbox outside of the house is damaged and in a fury over the damaged mailbox and the construction worker’s carelessness, Carl injures the man. After this outburst, he is evicted from the home and told to live in a retirement home. While packing he discovers Ellie’s “Adventure Book” and comes up with a plan to get the house to Paradise Falls as well as keep him out of a dreaded retirement community. He inflates thousands of brightly colored helium balloons and tethers them to the house, causing the house to lift up off the ground and sail through the sky. While floating, Carl hears a knock and finds that Russel is a stowaway who is allowed to join him on the trip. After a tumultuous trip where the house travels through lighting, the find Paradise Falls, as well as talking dogs—mainly Dug (Bob Peterson, the films co-writer)—exotic birds (Pete Doctor, the film’s director and other co-writer), and Muntz himself.

It would be hard to argue that Up isn’t at least one of the greatest films Pixar has ever made. With the small characters, they all have many sides to themselves. When we first see Carl after the short, emotionally devastating prologue, he has become hardened and bitter by the absence of Ellie, a personification of the grumpy old man. But in the first twenty-five minutes of the film, there’s plenty the audience sees of Carl to see that he isn’t just an acerbic elderly individual. Once there was a spirit of adventure that thrived in the his soul, causing him to one day finally buy tickets to South America for him and Ellie, and that thirst for adventure is what causes him to use the balloons to fly. Russel, although a hyper individual, is persistent, brave and loyal to the point that he is willing to go find the animals the two meet in Paradise Falls without Carl’s aid. Similarly, the same could be said about Muntz, who seems admirable, but is ultimately a very dark character in the film. None of the main characters are one-dimensional and Dug does not come across as an annoying sidekick that would entice children to see a movie where the protagonist is a cantankerous old man.

But there is more to this film that makes it wonderful than just the characters. There is of course the magnificent animation that transports us to exotic South America, and the array of vivid colors that are reflected on the walls of a girl’s bedroom as the house floats by after take off. The animation is something that by 2009 everyone had come to expect of Pixar, although it is still worth recognizing. What really makes Up soar—no pun intended—is Michael Giacchino’s score for this film that has a recurring waltz motif that is first heard during the prologue. For the four minute montage showing Carl and Ellie’s life together, his score is the essentially the only sound heard during the sequence, but provides more emotion than any dialogue possibly could. The more remarkable aspect about the score is how the theme comes up in many different forms and never feels over used because of the orchestrations finding the right balance of instruments so in some more moving sequences a piano is all that is used, while a fuller orchestra is used in others. And with a film that the image primarily associated with it is of a structure flying through the air, the light score works perfectly for the film.

Up might be one of Pixar’s most Fantasy-like films because of the premise involving a man who ties balloons to his house and causes the structure to fly him to South America. That does not matter with the beauty and emotion presented in the film. In fact, Carl tying balloons to his house is what can help fuel dreams of adventures just like Muntz did for the young Carl and Ellie. What Up shows us is even when we’re alone and want to stay that way, there is adventure out there and we are never too old for it.

The Films of Pixar: “WALL-E” (2008)

What if our waste and perpetual need of material goods caused us to leave earth because of how uninhabitable it had become? How would we clean up Earth? Who would be left behind to inhabit our planet? How long would it be before we could return?

This is the world presented to us in Pixar’s masterful ninth film, WALL-E. While a previous film, Cars presented us a world lacking humans and not explaining to us why they aren’t here, we are told clearly why humans don’t live on Earth in 2805. A little less than 100 years from now, megacorporation Buy-n-Large has decided to move humans away from Earth in spaceships while Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth class robots, or WALL-E’s, are left on earth to clean up. But 700 years later, there’s only one robot left on earth, a WALL-E unit (Ben Burtt) who has developed a personality as well as a love for the film version of Hello, Dolly!. One day, a large technologically advanced spaceship lands on Earth and an Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator robot, or EVE (Elissa Knight), emerges with a directive to see if there’s any sustainable life on Earth. WALL-E instantly falls in love with her, even though she fires a plasma gun at him. When EVE discovers a plant WALL-E has put in an old boot, she closes up, seemingly lifeless. WALL-E cares for her until her ship comes, which he latches onto, following her up into space where we see that earth now is surrounded by stationary satellite pollution. EVE’s ship is docked on the ship Axiom, where robots do most of the work while humans, who are now morbidly obese and have suffered bone loss, lay back on their motorized chaise lounges, where they use screens to video chat with people right next to them. While on the ship, EVE has to get the plant to the captain (Jeff Garlin), who does almost nothing, which will allow for the passengers to return to Earth thanks to proof that the planet is inhabitable once again. However, the ship’s autopilot, Auto (MacInTalk), has a HAL-like personality that derails the plans.

WALL-E was Andrew Stanton’s second film for Pixar, after Finding Nemo and once again a level of beauty is brought to the animation as we see the decay of Earth as a result of its transformation into a massive landfill where WALL-E goes around compressing the trash while collecting various odd items. There’s also the sleek, perfect design of EVE, a contrast to the boxy, grimy appearance of WALL-E, although EVE’s sterile appearance is no doubt the result of having originated on the Axiom, while WALL-E has been on Earth for about 700 years. The interior of the ship manages to both look like a futuristic city, similar to Tokyo, while resembling the interior and exterior of cruise ships, at least based on my experience on a cruise ship. But the most magnificent scenes are those that take place outside of the ship, in space. Here, we see WALL-E touching the ring of Saturn, or him and EVE dancing outside of the ship in a beautiful dance that manages to both seem choreographed and spontaneous.

The astounding aspect of this film is that it relies more on how characters look, their body movements and physical actions, as well as the environments around them. A good third of the film features very little dialogue between WALL-E and EVE, although their dialogue isn’t that lengthy. Most of the dialogue comes in when the two robots arrive at the ship because of the presence of humans. But meanwhile, the robots are incredibly expressive and show a wide range of emotions. Solely from what they do, some people might think, “I hope I have a relationship as wonderful as WALL-E and EVE have.”

From the moment this film begins, with what is my favorite opening for a Pixar film that doesn’t result in me sobbing—in this film, a camera flies around space before entering earth where we see WALL-E at work as “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” plays—to the end, we’re given a very original, thoroughly beautiful, moving film that manages to simultaneously give us a glimpse of our potential future as well as show us how beautiful the connections made by two beings can be. We see this both through WALL-E and EVE, as well as John (John Ratzenberger) and Mary (Kathy Najimy), two humans on the Axiom who meet each other face-to-face after encounters with WALL-E and discover the joys of splashing in the ship’s pool, which they didn’t know of. Even with the grim future presented as a result of mass consumption and waste, any potential message that could be gathered from this film doesn’t feel didactic. It seems secondary to the story and mostly an explanation as to why WALL-E is the last robot left on earth and humans have left.

Perhaps Pixar entered a golden age during the period where Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 were released. All four of those films have strong stories and images, focusing on our condition and conflicts. While one of those films was very easy to merchandise, all of them come across as having been made to tell a story. Particularly with WALL-E and Up, those films succeed at doing so.

The Films of Pixar: “Cars” (2006)

John Lasseter’s film Cars is a love letter to the automobile, Route 66, and auto racing, primarily NASCAR racing. However, Cars is not that beautiful of a love letter. Between the dragged out plot, the inclusion of Mader the Tow Truck and details that sometimes become repetitive, Cars is like a love letter that includes the wrong metaphors and similes, causing an unintended response of annoyance.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot race car that has managed to make a three-way tie between “The King” (appropriately Richard Petty) and Chick (Michael Keaton) for the Piston Cup. In order to determine who is the winner, the three cars must travel to Los Angeles to compete for the cup. On the way there, Lightning falls out of Mack (John Ratzenberger), his car carrier, and ends up traveling down a dusty desert road before attempting to make it back to the interstate. He ends up in the tiny town called Radiator Springs, where he tears up the road. The sheriff (Michael Wallis) arrests him and the morning after his accident, Doc (Paul Newman) orders Lightning to repave the roads. As he struggles through this task, he meets Mader the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the town lawyer; Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Ramone (Cheech Marin), and Flo (Jenifer Lewis), denizens of the town that grows on Lightning as racing fans panic over his location.

One of the biggest problems with Cars is that it’s set in a world where humans do not exist and presumably a world where there is unbearable pollution since Cars apparently took over the world at some point in time. In all of Pixar’s other films, the characters have to live with humans—although this isn’t as major in A Bug’s Life, but the existence of trash in the big city Flik visits and the sombrero the Grasshoppers party under tells us that humans do inhabit this world. Here, cars control the machines that pave the roads, they make the laws, they create the towns, they run the towns and apparently build every structure. But yet Route 66 still exists, the cozy and familiar architecture of Los Angeles—well, cozy and familiar to me—is still there. Perhaps this is a parallel world, or an alternate history of the country. The lack of humans in Cars leads to there being almost no dramatic tension. In all but one of the Pixar films I’ve written about so far, humans do provide the tension by their deeds. Here, the tension is mostly Lightning saying, “I’m leaving this town!” and Doc saying, “No, you still need to fix the roads.”

But there’s an even bigger problem with this film and that is the existence of Mader. In previous Pixar films, celebrities inhabit the roles they voice to the point that you don’t see it as Tim Allen as Buzz, but just Buzz Lightyear. Here, we are presented with the tow truck version of Larry the Cable Guy, easily the most annoying sidekick ever created in an animated film. He’s dim, he tries to hard to make a joke, he is crude with jokes that will only be caught if you’re an adult and pay attention to the film. For example, there’s this part of the dialogue.

Lightning: He has three Piston Cups!
Mader: He did what in his cup?

Although that is a little more clever than the crude jokes present in the CGI films of Dreamworks, it still feels out of place in a Pixar film. Meanwhile, Larry the Cable Guy feels like he was added in here to attract a new demographic. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason for his character to exist than that.

But there’s still lovely animation and a wide array of cars on display in this film. That doesn’t mean that it’s worth a viewing. At a few minutes short of being two hours long, the film is desperately in need of a trimming, which would probably make it more interesting. Or maybe it needed some deeper character interaction than Lightning falling for Sally or discovering Doc’s secret.

Cars is an incredibly flawed film where it’s hard to figure out what the problem was. It’s clear that there were good intentions with this film, but good intentions does not mean that a product is ever good. At the very least, the film made a lot of money for Disney with merchandising and licensing.