The Pixar Letdown: The Importance of Dangerous Storytelling

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why Cars 2 has flopped. I haven’t seen the movie, mostly because of the logistical constraints brought on by two toddlers. But I still hope to sneak out one of these days and find a couple hours to digest it, mostly because – as much as I admire the sentiments of the critics who are pronouncing it uninspired – I still can’t bring myself to believe they’re right, that Pixar has actually neglected quality, original story and brought forth a noisy mess. That has always been Dreamworks’ department, right?

Of course the obvious culprit is that the people behind the story were different than in years’ past. There’s no Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, or Brad Bird working on the story. And that makes a huge difference. These guys put together a string of masterpieces unmatched by a movie studio in quite some time. But, that shouldn’t matter that much. Story is in Pixar’s DNA. It’s why they’ve been so successful.It’s why they hire the people they do, and obviously why John Lasseter is being called the new Walt Disney.

So, the conclusions I’ve drawn from the Cars Debacle of 2011 have to do with the difficulty of creating innovative, emotionally satisfying stories. We begin with a character, toss them into a situation, and try to find a way to draw out the truth of life by moving them through these situations. It’s hard. And the scariest part of all is you’re working without a net. If the story cuts corners, takes the easy, illogical way out, people know. (Not the people who will shell out money to see Transformers in 3D, mind you, but the other folks. The ones who count.) That’s why it’s terrifying to be the one under pressure, tasked with whipping up a story that will be truthful, inspiring, and innovatively plotted and paced.I can’t imagine having to do it while knowing there are millions of advertising dollars riding on my creative decisions. It’s hard enough sitting in my writing room every day banging the keys on my laptop like a monkey and trying to be coherent.

But the one thing I’ve come to realize is that in top-notch storytelling, there are no shortcuts. It’s take the hard road or don’t tell the story at all. The reader – or viewer – deserves more. I belong to that vanishing breed of people who believe that a story has the power to change my life, and so when I sit down with a book, or in a comfortable cinema seat, I’m putting my life into the hands of the storytellers. I’m saying to them, “Go ahead, blow my mind. Make me think about something I’ve never thought about before. Make me feel something. Broaden my horizons.” And if they don’t, I feel let down, especially if it’s someone who I know is capable of so much more.

I think that’s the source of the passionate outpouring of frustration directed at Emeryville these past few weeks. We know they can do better. We hope they can do better. Because we need stories like we need oxygen. Go a few days without them and your grip on reality starts to become fuzzy. There’s work to be done, by the geniuses at Pixar, and by those of us in much less prestigious digs.

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