Thursday, March 11, 2010

Modern Maestros: Pete Docter

Robert here, continuing my series on important contemporary directors. Last year when this series had a different name, I featured Oscar winners Brad Bird (dubbed Mr. Complexity) and Andrew Stanton (dubbed Mr. Simplicity). Well in honor of his Oscar win this past week, we add director Pete Docter to the list. I give you: Mr. Madcap!

Maestro: Pete Docter
Known For: Zany, heartfelt, and high-concept Pixar films.
Influences: Bugs Bunny
Masterpieces: Up
Disasters: None
Better than you remember: Only two films, both as good as you remember.
Box Office: Up with 292 million.
Favorite Actor: You guessed it, John Ratzenberger.

Thanks to the past three films, Pixar is riding an unbelievable high.  With two of the three directors covered (and Oscared) we can turn our sights to Pete Docter and ask, not just what makes him a great director but what specifically makes him different from his peers Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton.  While Bird employs complex direction to explore complex relationships and Stanton tells simple stories about simple crises, Pete Docter embraces inventively high-concept stories culminating in big action/adventure sequences.  Take Monsters Inc. for example.  It's a fun, shiny picture that quickly snares you emotionally and submits its concept so clearly and plainly you don't realize just how intricate it is.  By the time the finale rolls around, featuring a warehouse of racing portal doors with heroes and villains (one of whom can turn invisible for that matter) jumping between them and through them, you've already been buying into the plot for almost ninety minutes.  It took me a few viewings to realize just how impossible it would be for a viewer (let alone a child) to wrap their mind around everything had it not been presented perfectly.  Equally impressive is how Up sells the viewer on things like flying houses, talking dogs, and a giant goofball bird.  Sure we could dismiss these as the fantastical elements of an animated world, but Up, more than any other Pixar film, is rooted in our reality.  In a way, it needs to be in order to emphasize the amazement of the adventure that follows.

Do the characters in Docter's films have complex Bird-type relationships or simple-Stanton type relationship?  I'm tempted to say both, neither, and it doesn't really matter.  Docter's films utilize characters who are classic comic foils, whether they're longtime friends or, let's say, somewhat less than friendly.  And while the development of their relationship can be a significant part of the film, it's not quite as significant as the revelations that lead the characters to that development.  More than any of this Pixar contemporaries, Pete Docter makes films about characters who live in a world that turns out to be very different than the one they see.  Unlike Brad Bird's Remy and family, or Mr. and Mrs. Incredible who have to accept each other, or Stanton's Marlin and Nemo and Eve and WALL-E who have to find each other, Docter's characters have to shift their paradigms (oh the paradigms!) regarding the reality they only think they inhabit.  Both Monsters Inc and Up have moments of profound revelation and subsequently lessons are learned; that laughter is greater than fear or that appreciating the present is better than living in the past.  Of course, the antagonists can never accept the reality and learn these lessons.

Not my paradigms!  Ahhhhhh!

This leads us to our inevitable finale.  Pete Docter enjoys big action set pieces.  The influence of films like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark combined with the frantic goofiness of Looney Tunes combine to make some of the most madcap climaxes found in the Pixar canon (though dissenters often cite these as among his flaws).  Up next for Docter?  Probably taking some time to enjoy his Oscar.  No word on whether he'll branch out into live action like the other Pixar directors, but word is he's working on the script to Monsters Inc. 2.  I woudn't be surprised if he remained in animation.  It's the perfect medium for the heartfelt yet zany films of Pete Docter, Mr. Madcap.


Anonymous said...

Monsters Inc is not as good as I remember, and Up is not a masterpiece.

Fernando Moss said...

I prefer Monster's Inc to Up... and I don't consider either a masterpiece... Pixar masterpieces in my opinion are Wall-E and The Incredibles, with Ratatouille almost reaching that level...

Glenn said...

Love Monster's Inc, lukewarm on Up. One of the big differences for me is that Monster's Inc leaves its big emotional payoff until the end, where it is perfectly times to wring as much emotion out of the audience as possible, whereas Up seems to have a big ego and throws its emotional climax at the very start.

I know many say they love that opening passage, but I continue to be suspicious. Yes, losing a child is sad and, oh i dunno, so is not being able to fulfill your lifelong dream, but why are people crying at these animated characters that they don't even know! One scene of them as kids does not a character make.

I'd like to know: If you cried during the opening of Up do you also cry every night when you watch the news?

I dunno... it just irks me that somehow that this movie is getting all that praise for throwing a scene filled with all this sad stuff at the very start and nobody seems to be questioning why it's so sad. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there in the real world who have lost children who you wouldn't cry for at the drop of a hat.


Robert said...

@Glenn - I did cry at the opening passage of Up. I would disagree that we don't know these characters. I think in the opening scenes with them as children we get to understand why they come to love each other.

Then in the following montage we get a snapshot of their lives, hopes, dreams, disappointments, etc. (Not to mention people can relate to the concept of life getting in the way of ambitions and the desire to share that life with someone). So by the time the sadness comes, we're well prepped.

I think if we knew all that about the people on the evening news, we'd cry just as much.

James T said...

Great piece, unworthy (for me) subject.

I liked Monsters Inc but UP, not so much.


Thank you so much for giving such thought and detail to the auteurial stamp of three different animation directors.

I just got home from "Waking Sleeping Beauty" so i'm totally thinking about how complex and misunderstood animated films are.

the weird thing is that everyone loves them but they still dont' get that much respect beyond "I LOVE THIS" and the money.

and hundreds of millions is fine for most people i'm sure.

My big problem with both Monsters Inc and UP is the action finale. In both films I think it's completely wasted because the drama is in the character stuff not in the "adventure" stuff.

whereas something like WALL*E or THE INCREDIBLES. I really don't get the bitching because the genres and the settings and the plots sort of demand action sequences. (ratatouille less so)

Jen said...

Huge fan of Pixar films (with the except of Cars). One of my fave presents from xmas was Pixarpedia, a beautiful book featuring all Pixar films and shorts - highly recommended for Pixar fans.

Have enjoyed your look at Stanton, Bird and Docter and their differences.

Devin D said...

Completely unrelated, but - if I remember correctly - you too, Nathaniel, are a Barry Pepper fan, yes?

I just got that much more excited about True Grit.

Neel Mehta said...

People are entitled to like/love Up because they remember the first 10 minutes and conveniently forget the next 90, but they don't make very good critics. Count me in as one of those who don't consider Up a masterpiece.

Monsters Inc., on the other hand, is the best Pixar offering not involving Brad Bird. I think it works on an action level and a sentimentality level. It is a product of that animated era -- celebrity voices and wacky hijinks, before Pixar got all serious -- but it's also the best product of that era.

I can accept Pete Docter winning his first Oscar on a belated basis.


Devin D ... yes, i really like Barry Pepper (or the few things i've seen him in that is)

Stephen said...

I'm new to this blog, but I really enjoyed this examination of these Pixar films. (I've written about Pixar some on my blog, but on a much different angle.)

I'm a fan of most Pixar films (I'm the exception: I like Cars but am not so crazy about Ratatouille), and am pretty fixated on how solid their scripts are. Nathaniel, you said, "My big problem with both Monsters Inc and UP is the action finale," but I felt the action at the end of Up, while not its strongest element, was justified since Carl's spent his whole life missing out on adventure. It struck me as logical that the only way to resolve the plot--and the character's arc--would be through some of the derring do that he fantasized about as a kid.

As for Monsters, Inc, well, I think Pixar weren't ready to craft a full-length animated film that does NOT have an action-based climax (they still believe in going out with a bang, generally speaking, Ratatouille aside). Also, with a villain like Randall, the only satisfactory conclusion would be something visceral.

And now I'm off to check out some of your older posts!