Like many others, I was blown away the first time I watched Paperman, the short film from Disney that accompanies the theatrical screenings of Wreck-It Ralph. The studio blended 3D animation and traditional animation in a way that was brand new, innovative, and looked absolutely stunning. The story itself wasn’t anything to write at home about (a very simple and conventional “boy meets girl” love story), but it sure was pretty to look at. I watched Paperman several more times and to my surprise, the “wow” factor of the film’s aesthetic wore off with repeated views. The only other thing the short offered was a story that was so by-the-numbers and derivative that, to be frank, it not only bored me, it annoyed me. I thought it was a shame to see such ambitious aesthetic choices and the immense talent that made it a reality wasted on a storytelling equivalent of a Hallmark card. If I never watch Paperman again, it will be too soon.
The next short I saw was Pixar’s The Blue Umbrella, which accompanied Monsters University. Much was made about The Blue Umbrella’s high-level of lighting, shading, texturing, and compositing, which mirrored photo-realism. And indeed when I watched it, it in fact took me a while to realize everything I was seeing on-screen was modeled and animated. That might have impressed me if not for the fact that the actual story was a 100% rehash of Paperman’s story. And unlike Paperman, I never liked The Blue Umbrella. The aesthetic, although very well done, engaged me less than Paperman, the breathy female vocalist used for the film’s score was saccharine and obnoxious, and once again I sat in the theater pondering all of the talented crew members behind this production being used to tell a story that’s actually interesting.
Unfortunately, the generic heteronormative “boy meets girl” love story has been a story angle Disney and Pixar have settled on since Paperman. I have hated every single Disney and Pixar short film ever since with the exception of Get a Horse!. The Blue Umbrella? It’s just Paperman with some phoney-baloney Zooey Deschanel wannabe doing the score. Feast? Paperman with a dog. Lava? The unholy audience-insulting consummation of Paperman and Don Bluth’s A Troll in Central Park. Disney at least shows some ambition in the way they have pushed their aesthetics, but I’m particularly disappointed in how little Pixar seems to be trying. That’s quite astonishing considering that this is the same studio that once upon a time brought us this:
It’s even more astonishing that a short as banal as Lava would accompany Pixar’s most ambitious film in the last several years (which I admit, didn’t resonate much with me emotionally, but I more than respect it on an intellectual level). With all of these other shorts, you could say that the story took a backseat to Disney and Pixar pushing the envelope aesthetically (which I don’t think is a good excuse for its shortcomings), but I don’t know how Lava was supposed to be pushing the envelope. It just came off insultingly lazy the whole way around. Maybe Pixar was intentionally going for the preschool demographic with that one?
I’m just sick of it all. I’m sick of by-the-numbers heteronormative love stories. I’m sick of saccharine cutesy-ness. I’m sick of female characters that only exist for male characters to fall in love with. I’m sick of Disney, Pixar, and other studios reinforcing that same erroneous and toxic idea that someone will automatically know that they are in love and meant to be with someone for the rest of their life upon laying eyes on them for the first time. That’s been done since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We can’t change things up after almost eighty years?! And please spare me the talk that those type of love stories are Disney’s, etc.’s tradition.
I get that sometimes a film’s visual aesthetic can be enough to, for lack of a better word, excuse a story’s shortcomings. I admit that the art direction of The Book of Life was beautiful enough to keep me entertained despite all of its issues story-wise. Heck, I didn’t even mind James Cameron’s Avatar both times I watched it despite it being a billion-dollar FernGully. With that said, I don’t think it’s a good idea for a film to aspire for mind-blowing aesthetics at the expense of story. Repeated viewings of The Book of Life is bound to bring diminished returns and I don’t need to watch Avatar more than twice. After a while, that beauty tend to wear off (especially these days as aesthetic beauty is defined by 3D modeling, which doesn’t lend itself to timelessness) and when it does, all that’s left is a mediocre-at-best story. If anything, I would rather have the converse; an incredible story that doesn’t have mind-blowing aesthetics.
Like all of Don Hertzfeldt’s films, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is crudely designed and animated with stick figures. Submitting a portfolio with drawings like this to Disney or Pixar would immediately get you laughed out of their respective offices. Nonetheless, It’s Such a Beautiful Day is a captivating film that moved me emotionally and challenged me intellectually. Don Hertzfeldt released this film the same year that Paperman came out and it easily blows it out of the water. Being pretty to look at doesn’t mean anything when you’ve got no more depth than a little girl’s plastic teacup. I’m much more forgiving towards “ugly” aesthetics if a film can stimulate me on an emotional and intellectual level. The last two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion have always been controversial among fans, in part because Gainax’s funds were running short and they were forced to make those episodes making heavy use of still frames, stock footage, and very limited animation. I love those last two episodes because they had an extremely ambitious concept that they visually conveyed beautifully with their limitations. I wouldn’t want to watch those episodes any other way.
I don’t expect Disney or Pixar to turn around and take an approach like Don Hertzfeldt does. Both studios were founded on pushing the envelope visually in animation and they have conditioned their audiences to expect nothing less than top-of-the-line from them. But I don’t think pushing the envelope visually has to be mutually exclusive with ambitious storytelling. Disney and especially Pixar have demonstrated the ability to do both in the past.