The Problem with Pixar

This is admittedly a bit of a departure from my usual UX- and design-related topics for this blog, but bear with me. There is a creative relevance at the bottom of this, especially in terms of creative concepting and the need for emotional resonance. It touches on a broader issue that I feel is not uncommon in the creative world: the need to kill your darlings, or at least work through your conceptual issues so that your ideas connect with people on a more general human level.

I will be using the recent Pixar movie ”Soul” as my benchmark. While this post is a indeed a review of that specific movie, the conceptual and executional problems in ”Soul” are not uncommon, and broader analogs can be found in almost any creative endeavor.

I watched the movie ”Soul” last night. Not my favorite Pixar outing to be honest. I wanted to love it, I really did, and it is quite spectacular looking, but it just didn’t do it for me. Didn’t quite connect the dots. Got a bit too cutesy and indulgent with the concept, didn’t quite bring it home and land it.

The script feels somewhat unfinished, a little bit like a draft. The concept is great, heart’s in the right place, but tackling something as heady as the Meaning of Life needs more than good intentions. Sorry. I’m filing this in the same folder as ”Inside Out” and ”Coco”, two other Pixar movies which I thought had similar issues.

I think Pixar have gotten a bit sloppy with their scriptwriting, and they’re being too cutesy and abstract with their concepts. It seems form has overtaken function, or maybe they’ve just gotten too comfortable with their metaphors. It’s not uncommon in creative concepting and execution.

The thing is, Pixar used to be very good at boiling a story down to its essentials. Connecting the dots between the abstract, conceptual aspects – depicting the inner workings of a psyche (in ”Inside Out”), or creating a convincing scenery for the afterlife (in ”Soul”) – and the emotional aspects of real life, so that they’re not just vague fictional constructs, staged for mere entertainment purposes.

Lately, however, they’ve failed to connect those dots fully – they leave a lot unresolved and sketched in, and it affects the emotional resonance of the story. What was Joe Gardner’s true purpose in ”Soul”, if not music? Aren’t we supposed to care about that? They made a Big Deal of that in the premise of the movie, then left it hanging.

CONCEPT <——————–Soul is here——————————-Wall-E is here—-> RESONANCE

In very concrete terms, I thought ”Wall-E” was much more successful in capturing the nature of loneliness, and the desperate hope of seeking companionship, than ”Soul” was in outlining someone’s search for a purpose in life, or than ”Inside Out” was in exploring the emotional facets of one’s core identity.

To be fair, I enjoyed both ”Inside Out” and ”Soul”, but they didn’t really affect me the way a truly tight, well-constructed story with credible people and outcomes will do. What’s at stake in ”Soul” is merely pencilled in and hypothetical, not heartfelt. The goal of the main character is simply to get on stage and let his musical inspiration flow, and though this is indeed a critical limitation of that persona – that he has not given more thought to his life’s goal – it also becomes a limitation for the story. I cared a lot more about Woody or Flik or Wall-E or Sully & Mike or Remy or the old man in ”Up” than I do about any of these more recent characters. Cared a lot more about the Incredibles even – who are caricatures and superheroes – than I cared about Joe Gardner, who is a regular guy with a rather common dream.

I found most of the afterlife scenes in ”Soul” bewildering and aimless – kooky for the sake of being kooky, not to create an emotional connection. It’s like a concept artist playing around in their own dollhouse. Why should I care? Same situation with the boy in Coco: his life and what was important to him got lost in the conceptual trappings and stylistic flourishes of the Day of the Dead. Pixar is presenting me with an imaginative and really ”out there” concept that doesn’t help me connect with the character or the theme – in fact, it actually obstructs that connection, and the heavy use of metaphor doesn’t help. They need to transcend that obstacle but seem uninterested in or uncapable of doing so.

The chase to get to the jazz club, which was stalled by a series of mechanical plot twists with no relation to the story (getting the haircut, fixing the suit), was just a tedious distraction. Served no real purpose. And that is beside the fact that what they were trying to accomplish was to connect with a zany hippie who somehow would be able to switch them back into their own bodies – a corny Deus Ex Machina solution that really detracts from my sympathy for the character. His travails are not relatable, and the solution does not apply to my life even in the most abstract of ways.

The whole body switching gimmick, in fact, is just a stale old scriptwriter construct with no relevance to the theme of the movie. Feels a bit like copy-and-paste. Again, the relevance of the story suffers.

They need to tighten this shit up.

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