Thursday, December 03, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Andrew Stanton

Robert here, still going through the directors who shaped the past decade.  I admit I wondered if it was too much dedicate multiple spots on this list to the Pixar guys.  But more than any other films this decade, the Pixar ones managed to find the perfect combination of art and entertainment, of sincerity and profit.  Oh others have come close (The Lord of the Rings and some of the comic book films) but nothing like Pixar.  A big ago we discussed the intricacies of Brad Bird (Mr. Complexity).  Today we’ll talk about the other Pixar guy on my list, birthday boy Andrew Stanton

Number of Films: Two.
Modern Masterpieces: Two.  Yes both.
Total Disasters: Not possible
Better than you remember: If you think either of these could be better, you should probably just stop reading now..
Awards: Best Animated film Oscar for Finding Nemo and WALL-E.  As many Best Picture nominations as Brad Bird.
Box Office: Finding Nemo takes in over 330 mil, WALL-E gets over 220 mil.
Critical Consensus: Raved and raved.
Favorite Actor: Jon Ratzenberger as expected.

Let’s talk about:
Simplicity.  But please don’t take that to be a pejorative term.  Just as Bird’s films are essentially complex, Stanton’s films are the perfect possible versions of their simple selves.  Finding Nemo, his first film of the decade, I've always seen as something akin to The Bicycle Thief with fish.  Even if it's not an exact twin of the DeSica film in form, there's a lot in common in spirit.  Both films are simple quests and both explore the unbreakable father/son bond even as the son comes to learn that his father can't protect him in all situations (though in Finding Nemo the quest is for the son, not with the son).  Finding Nemo marks a small turning point for Pixar.  Before this the studio was responsible for the dependably good Toy Story films, the somewhat minor A Bugs Life and the high-concept but decidedly kiddy Monsters Inc.  Finding Nemo was really their first fully realized film.  I recall my film professor at the time touting it as the best film of the year and finding it strange that he'd give that distinction to an animated film (I hadn't seen it yet).  So there's no great complexity to Finding Nemo, but there is a severe emotional pull perhaps made more devastating thanks to the film's simplicity.  There is little question in any of these films of a happy ending, but Finding Nemo and WALL-E come closest to inflicting us (or at least this writer) with the anxiety felt by the characters that there may not be.

Stanton, happy and talented

Speaking of WALL-E, Stanton's second film of the decade is quite simply the best Pixar has offered.  WALL-E is a fantastic character and Stanton's ability to make him lovable while combating the restraints of his silence and his being a robot (robot = cold, shouldn't it?) is as good an argument for his ability to garner an emotional reaction through the strategic use of simplicity as any for his talent for the understated.  As the film moves from earth to space, the narrative gets more madcap.  But don't confuse this for complexity.  It's still a very simple quest film where characters don't need inner conflict or to question their motives.

Two other things that set Stanton apart from other Pixar directors.  He is most likely to infuse his films with direct cinematic references.  Yes I know the Pixar films are always cross-referencing each other and other films.  But Stanton's stand out, whether it's the "mine" seagulls designed as an homage to Aardman Studios, the name of Bruce the Shark, an homage to Monty Python, the HAL-infused villian of WALL-E or the Chaplin heavy mannerisms of the title robot in that same movie, there are direct, design-influenced references that signify Stanton as a student and lover of great cinema aesthetic.  Stanton's second unique quality is how he can manipulate his films' action to incorporate fantastic sequences that would otherwise be seen as distractions or diversions.  I'm thinking here of the space dancing in WALL-E or the sea turtle ride from Finding Nemo.  Sequences that could easily stall the plot and come across as unneccesary become essential and again exemplify Stanton's wonderful aesthetics

Andrew Stanton, Mr. Simplicity.  Second from Left.

There is another reason to highlight Bird and Stanton as great directors of this decade, particularly of animated film.  Both are branching out into the world of live-action, and may not return to animation for quite some time.  Stanton's next project is John Carter of Mars and (like Bird's) isn't slated for release for several years.   Pixar will undoubtedly prevail and Stanton and Bird's upcoming films should be on the radar of any serious film fan.  And, of course, the two men continue to have a home at Pixar and will most likely return.  Still they combined this decade to make an upstart, promising studio into the strongest force for consistent quality in moviedom today.


Carl Joseph Papa said...


MrJeffery said...

I liked Finding Nemo... the first half of Wall-E was brilliant... the rest, not as much.

Cristhian said...

Thank for comparing Finding Nemo with Bycicle Thieves and especially for so eloquently write about the complexity of Wall-E.

Tim said...

A friend and I had a lengthy, not terribly sober conversation about the key characteristics of each Pixar director shortly before Up came out. Similar to your comment that "can manipulate his films' action to incorporate fantastic sequences", one of the things we came up with was his ability to depict the interaction of characters with a specific environment in a manner that both described character and was also beautiful as abstract visual poetry.

AKA "the fish swimming are pretty" for the stoned, I guess. But I do think that the dancing scene in WALL-E is probably the most important one in the movie, not least because of how much it is about absolute movement.

(We'll have to agree to disagree on Finding Nemo being better than Monsters, Inc. though).

Danny King said...

Man, you're a sucker for animation. I liked Finding Nemo much better than WALL-E. Not sure if I'd consider either "masterpieces," but Finding Nemo comes closer.


I'm relatively cool on the merits of Finding Nemo which I found a bit rote / easy emotionally (though it's definitely nice to *look* at). Maybe it was the turtles? Veering too close to cheap direct correlation anthropomorphic stereotype for me? Maybe it was Shark Tale ... so hideously bad that it cast a pall on all fish- as -humans films.

But I love WALL-E 4evah

Jim T said...

For me Finding Nemo is one of the best films of the decade!

whitney said...

I thought the first half of Wall-E was so amazing. They put so much trust in their audience, which was, presumably, mostly children, and children loved it. So why couldn't they stay with that feel? Added the humans almost added a completely different film, one that looked and felt more like Dreamworks than Pixar.

Flosh said...

Wall-E has a beautiful first half, and, in its incorporation of live action, feels like an important transitional work for the studio (and Stanton in particular). But the second half is just generic kids adventure fluff, in the style of - but less accomplished at it than - the Toy Story movies and Monsters Inc. Also, it has always riled me that Stanton went out of his way to insist that the depiction of humans in the film was not intended in any way as satire. The love story is nice, but hardly groundbreaking. In short (ha), I guess I never really got the love for this movie. It's a good film, don't get me wrong. It's not that I dislike it. But among Pixar films, I would probably rank it toward the bottom.

kin said...

Does this means you won't do one for Pete Docter? I guess that makes sense.

As for Stanton, I may be one of the few that prefer Nemo considerably to Wall-E.

Robert said...

I think Pete Doctor is a great rising talent and I considered doing one for him, but there are only so many more weeks that I can do this series (and I'll already be going well past the new year) and there are a lot of great directors to feature, so I'm going to move beyond Pixar.

Janice said...

The part of Finding Nemo that always stood out for me was not the father/son bond but the growing bond between the father (forget his name, sorry) and Dory as voiced by Ellen Degeneris. That one speech "when I'm with you I'm home" makes me cry buckets every time, and it's amazing to me that an animated film can hit me so hard emotionally.