Friday, April 20, 2012

Come back from where? How the 'Brave is/must be Pixar's comeback' meme plays into the horse-race mentality of pop-culture.

It's no secret that America loves a comeback narrative.  The only thing mass-media (and its audience) loves more than taking celebrities down a peg is watching them theoretically rise up from the ashes.  I'd argue that the media intentionally creates 'great falls' for allegedly important people purely for the purpose of trumpeting their would-be comeback.  We especially see this in the coverage of political elections where a non-stop horse-race mentality keeps candidates who have no plausible shot of victory making imaginary strides so that the inevitable front-runner can make a 'comeback' victory in this-or-that primary.  We see this in an entertainment journalism arena which declared Christina Aguilera's career in dire straights after a single month of crappy occurrences.  It wasn't just "she's having a bad month" but rather "she's hit rock bottom but she's going to have a grand comeback!" which tied into her joining NBC's The Voice.  Point being, a comeback, at least an artistic one, is predicated on a series of professional disappointments and/or a prolonged period of unwilling under-employment.  John Travolta's star-turn in Pulp Fiction and his several years of peak-stardom was a 'comeback'.  Senator Hillary Clinton winning the New Hampshire presidential primary in January 2008 after losing a single primary a week prior in Iowa was not a comeback.  As such, can we please stop referring to Brave as 'Pixar's comeback film' and/or implying that Pixar really needs to knock it out of the park with Brave lest their entire artistic reputation be undone?

Since 1995, Pixar has made twelve feature films, all of which were financial successes both domestically and overseas, to say nothing of home-video revenue and related merchandise sales.  Of those twelve films, ten of them are unarguably critical successes as well.  The two outliers are of course Cars and Cars 2.  The first Cars, despite a 74% score on Rotten Tomatoes, was considered the comparative weak link in the chain, somewhat hamstrung by its celebrity-vocal cast, its use of pop-culture humor, and its arbitrarily-created world where cars acted as both the transportation and the talking/feeling/thinking dominant species in an otherwise normal world.  But while Cars at least had a strong second act and a surprisingly powerful finale (with Lightning McQueen sacrificing victory to help a retiring racing legend finish his last race after a crippling accident), Cars 2 was indeed a pretty mediocre product.  It's basically a warmed-over remake of the underrated Richard Greico spoof If Looks Could Kill.  It's bright, colorful, and superbly animated, but it merits viewing only for the opening action sequence and a few brief skirmishes during the first 2/3 of the film (ironically, despite its G-rating, it's more violent and has a far-higher onscreen body count than The Incredibles).  So yes Cars 2 was a bad film.  It also was the second-lowest grossing Pixar film in US history ($191 million), although it's the sixth-biggest worldwide grosser in the studio's run ($559 million).  But it's just one film.

Pixar doesn't need a comeback film because it's still on the top of its respective field.  It made one disappointing film out of twelve, a batting average that every other studio would kill for. It's won Best Animated Feature Oscars for six out of the eleven years it has existed (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, RatatouilleWall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3).  Its closest competitor, Dreamworks, has won just twice, for Shrek and Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (although they arguably should have won in 2006 for Over the Hedge and last year for Kung Fu Panda 2 as well, natch).  Yes Dreamworks is nipping at its heals in terms of box office (Kung Fu Panda 2 and Puss In Boots made $650 million and $550 million worldwide respectively), but its Shark Tale/Monsters Vs. Aliens-reputation is still strong enough that I still have to defend their artistic achievements. In terms of American animation, Pixar is still the king of the hill.  It needs no defense and requires no 'comeback'.  Only in our hyper-sensationalized media culture would a modest whiff like Cars 2 be treated not just as a catastrophe but as such a disaster that Pixar's entire future was in immediate jeopardy.

They made one bad film... out of twelve thus far.  That's not a slump, merely a statistical probability.           Even if Brave isn't as (uber) good as Finding Nemo or The Incredibles, even if it's only as (awfully) good as Monsters Inc. or A Bug's Life, Pixar will be fine.  Even if Brave grosses closer to the $521 million of Wall-E than the $731 million of Up, Pixar will be fine.  They will be fine because audiences trust Pixar.  Audiences trust Pixar because they have built up an incredible artistic reputation.  They deserve our trust at this point.  And they (among others) deserve more than a hyperventilating mass-media that treats every strike-out like the loss of the whole game purely so they can play up the next home-run as a game-changer.     

Scott Mendelson

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