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Posted at 10:00 AM ET, 07/ 9/2010

The problem with Pixar

By Paul Williams

"Toy Story 3": Haven't we seen this one before? (Pixar)

Posted by Paul Williams

Pixar stinks.

No, not the studio's movies. Judged individually, their animated tales are smart, funny, creative, well-paced and brilliantly animated.

In fact, the Pixar wizards are so good they've managed to obscure the fact they've been making the same movie over and over again for the last 15 years.

To reveal this secret, I have obtained a copy of the top-secret Pixar plot generator. Read over the description below and select one of the choices in each pair of parentheses to help the "Toy Story 3" creators craft their next masterpiece.

A sensitive, misunderstood young (poodle, airplane, No. 2 Pencil, Goldman Sachs exec) has just never felt like he fits in. He -- this is Pixar, so I assure you, the main character is a *he* -- is sure there must be more to life than (dog shows, dusting crops, doing homework, consolidating debt obligations). He goes through the motions, but looks up at the stars every night knowing there's got to be a better life for him out there.

One day, he learns about (a family that lost their dog, stunt-flying contest, the invention of the mechanical pencil, a rundown used bookstore) from a mysterious (stranger, billboard, substitute teacher, falafel vendor.)

Marshaling his resolve, despite the scorn and skepticism of his peers, our hero decides he's going to (find that dog, win the contest, outdo the robot pencil, buy the bookstore.) Together with his (unlikely, unwanted, beholden, beloved) companion – an oversized, lovable, possibly drunken (St. Bernard, pelican, glue bottle, pilot) – he sets out on a quest to accomplish his goal.

The companions bond over their shared love of (show tunes, baseball, mid-century modern furniture, really good Scotch.) But their road is fraught with challenges. A (tornado, forest fire, state standardized test, plate of bad oysters) derails the friends and leaves them bickering and divided.

Our hero is lost in the wilderness, alone and scared. Just when things look their bleakest, the music swells and the sidekick reappears at the last minute, reaches out his arm and saves our hero from (a bear, the repo man, being broken by a bully, moving back in with his parents.)

Having learned a lesson about the value of (friendship, individuality, empathy, a good credit score) our hero completes his mission and lives happily every after. The end.

The best books and movies aimed at children – “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Charlotte's Web” – might hit some of the same points, but they are much more subtle and less formulaic. Rather than working with an original script, I'd love to see Pixar adapt an existing story for once – imagine their take on a Roald Dahl book or “A Wrinkle in Time.” It makes me angry to think they could have done a version of “The Cat in the Hat” that parents and kids would be watching together for the next 50 years, thereby sparing us of the Mike Myers monstrosity.

Clearly Pixar doesn't need any advice – the formula works. “Toy Story 3” has made nearly $500 million dollars worldwide in less than a month. But I can't help but think how amazing it would be to see Pixar apply its talent to just telling the best story possible, without having to worry about teaching a lesson or making the audience cry.

Paul Williams is a producer for The Washington Post.

By Paul Williams  | July 9, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Movies, Pop Culture  
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I'm sorry. I don't see this at all. If anything Toy Story 3 "borrowed" its story from The Brave Little Toaster, a movie my then-3-year-old watched so many times I can still recite it.

What Paul Williams has created is the template for nearly every book or story ever told.

Of course, now I'm going to wait for the fabulous movie Pixar makes about a sensitive, misunderstood Number 2 Pencil. I smell a major hit there!

Posted by: -TBG- | July 9, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

yeah - this is more about formulaic hollywood than pixar... all i could think when i got to "the sidekick reappears at the last minute, reaches out his arm and saves our hero" was Han's deus ex machina 'You're all clear, kid, now let's blow this thing and go home!'

Innovative film doesnt sell... and hollywood is in the business of making money making films (well, until the whole cantor film futures exchange is properly exploited). Look at airbender's boxoffice... even universally reviled and terrible film can make tons of money when 'the people' vote with their wallets.

You guys really have to stop looking for film/tv to be a bastion of intelligent thought.. sure it can be, but the market forces in play suggest it wont - and the hollywood machine is not built around the idea of making good or interesting film. The best you can expect to get is pseudo-intellectual pablum like Lost - and you'll swear you're in heaven because it's such a leap from Adam Lambert and fan-fiction vampire novels.

Posted by: quintiliusvarus | July 9, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Didn't some Great Thinker once declare that there were only a certain number (maybe 7?) of basic plot lines?

Posted by: Nosy_Parker | July 9, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

This article seems like a desperate attempt to get page views by claiming something the author more than likely knows to be false. The model given here doesn't match up with any of the Pixar movies I can think of. Instead the author took plot points from various Pixar films (and any other number of films) and crammed them together. It's the kind of contrarian post (Pixar isn't good! Here's why!) you would find on some small entertainment blog desperate for hits.

Posted by: chibbs2000 | July 9, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

As we reported in our latest book, Innovate the Pixar Way, Pixar president Ed Catmull explains the "Pixar Way": "I used to say for years that story was the most important thing to us. Then I realized that all the other studios were saying the same thing. They say that and they go and produce crap. What you say doesn't mean a damn thing. It's what you do that matters." DO is the operative word here...they DO tell the best stories. At Pixar, Story is King! And, we believe Ed has fulfilled his dream..."I really want to make movies that touch people and make them better. Otherwise, what are we doing here?" AMEN! Thank you, Ed!

Lynn Jackson and Bill Capodagli

Posted by: dreamovations | July 10, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Nice try, but you've only uncovered the formula for about HALF of the Pixar movies: A Bug's Life, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up.

The rest of them have a different formula:
Our hero is a likeable guy whose life is going just great. He likes his life the way it is, with everything all neat and predictable.

Then one day, [someone new shows up / he loses something or someone / he gets lost], throwing the hero's world into chaos.

In the second act, the hero tries to restore the status quo by [getting rid of the new guy / finding and returning the lost person or thing / getting home]. But by the third act, our hero has learned a little bit more about life, and realizes that sometimes a little chaos can make you a better [person / toy / fish / car]. All of the good guys are safe, and the hero has embraced the new world that he lives in.

There. That covers Toy Stories 1, 2, and 3; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and Cars.

Of course, you could subdivide even these formulas even further until you recognize that they are actually distinct stories after all -- but that wouldn't be as inflammatory.

Posted by: wonkeythemonkey | July 12, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

-TBG- believe it or not, Pixar *did* create a movie about a sensitive pencil. Search on YouTube for "Pencil Test" and watch through the credits for a few familiar names.

Posted by: kennedye | July 13, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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