The weekend’s release of Planes: Fire & Rescue reminded me of an important factoid: John Lasseter is a greedy capitalist pig who is destroying both Pixar and Disney through his fiendish desire to make as much money as possible. I only read a single review of this film in which I am wholly uninterested, but it brought to mind a couple of big problems I have with both contemporary film criticism and quasi-outsider perceptions of the Hollywood machine.
I don’t mean to slag on the fellow who reviewed this dumb movie. Although he’s not a critic I know by name, I’m sure I’ve read other reviews of his that had no impact on me. This one bothered me, not just for its needless political grandstanding but for the author’s apparent belief that his assertions are inarguably correct, and that such assertions have actual relevance on whether or not Planes: Fire & Rescue is a good movie. (I have a strong suspicion it’s not, so don’t prepare yourself for an argument that I resent a critic for disliking a movie I happen to like.)
A few choice quotes paint a stark yet frequently contradictory political picture:
The ill-conceived but astonishingly profitable tale of a world populated by sentient automobiles… was not only the first Pixar title exclusively targeted at kids, but also the first to explicitly reject anyone old enough to ask the most basic questions about sex, class, and the environment.
…the pet project of Pixar CCO John Lasseter…
…in a bid to keep churning out fresh merchandise without doing further damage to the integrity of his most beloved company, Lasseter launched a Cars spin-off franchise called Planes, developed under the aegis of DisneyToon Studios (for which he is also the CCO).
…has the distinct whiff of a quick cash-grab sequel even though it’s been in production for more than four years…
As the film begins, Dusty has effectively become the Lightning McQueen of the air-racing world, with a design, personality, and function now so transparently recycled from the absent Cars protagonist that he raises questions of reincarnation in a world where the basics of life and death remain inexplicable.
The author states the original Cars was “ill-conceived” as a fact, doing little to support the assertion. Suggesting that its “explicit rejection” of older audience members automatically translates as an “ill-conceived” film/franchise is logic I can’t really follow, even if I agreed with the idea that Cars rejects older audiences. I don’t, unless not being good qualifies as a rejection.
In a similar way to the MUCH better Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the deeper plot of Cars revolves around the impact interstate construction had on this country. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, it’s a low-grade riff on the famous General Motors Los Angeles streetcar scandal; Cars, on the other hand, mourns the slow, sad death of many small towns built around abandoned railroad lines, state, and U.S. highways, and the fact that “progress” has caused them to outlive their usefulness. Show of hands: how many kids today can personally relate to the idea of dying small towns and/or forgotten relics of the past (such as the Hudson Hornet), lost to decades of forward momentum?
I would offer, perhaps, that the author is massively overthinking Cars in an attempt to devalue it. “Devalue” is a funny word to use, since again, it’s not a good movie, so it holds little value to begin with… So maybe that’s why he would find himself focusing on the practicalities of a world in which sentient automobiles seem to have sex/reproduce, have some form of caste system based on the size/type of vehicle, and evidently exist in a world with a neverending supply of fossil fuels and no global warming concerns. If the Toy Story movies were a little worse, he might also spend the entire second and third movies wondering if and how Woody and Jessie might bang. However, the suggestion that the movie actually invites these questions—that it isn’t merely a bored critic focusing on the wrong things because the right things don’t hold his interest—and then fails to answer them is disingenuous at best.
My opinion, which he and anyone else is certainly free to disagree with, is that Cars is a decent kids’ movie that tries to have that usual Pixar adult appeal but falls flat. Kids love it; adults don’t. End of story. The fact that it and its sequel were both weak entries and “astonishingly profitable” does not automatically translate to either “ill-conceived” or a “quick cash-grab.” (That latter idea is even contradicted within the same sentence, when the author admits Planes: Fire & Rescue has been gestating for four years, the standard turnaround time for these movies.)
But the central problem, and the central argument, is the thesis that Planes: Fire & Rescue—like the first Planes and the two Cars movies before it—isn’t simply bad because it’s bad: it’s bad because John Lasseter is a greedy capitalist big, the sinister Chief Creative Officer of two huge divisions of one huge company, who has clearly lost his passion for anything besides making money for himself and his sinister shareholders, who funnel these ill-gotten profits from the jelly-smeared hands of children (CHILDREN, for God’s sake!) right into the hands of the Koch Brothers and the Bilderberg Group, who then funnel it into various GOP campaigns and the Illuminati’s Naked Pedophile Island. (Don’t let the name fool you—it’s the kidnapped third-world children who are naked, not the pedophiles.)
Lasseter, what a son of a bitch! Sure, he can say he’s always loved cars, and he can provide documentation that he enthusiastically shepherded version of what evolved into Cars beginning in 1998, but when it comes down to it, he ditched all the really good ideas for movies about anthropomorphic cars because they just didn’t have enough merchandising opportunities. This is self-evident, because he’s a wealthy, high-powered business executive, and why would any wealthy business executive have any interest in making a good product when he could put exactly the same amount of time, money, and energy into making something terrible? That’s just common sense.
Bad movies happen, even when they start with good intentions. It’s very rare for Pixar, but I’ll jump in with my minority opinion that Brad Bird’s Pixar films (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) are both on par with Cars in terms of quality and adult appeal. I know this is a very unpopular opinion, but I’m also not running around saying the movies only got made to sell rat plush toys and Incredibles action figures.
Here’s an actual fact: Pixar has merchandised the shit out of every single one of its movies. There’s nothing inherently evil about this, which leads to the contradiction in the review’s political agenda: it’s evil to merchandise movies that are bad, but hey, bring on more Woody and Buzz Lightyear dolls! Those movies rule, Cars and Planes drool! The author tries to square the contradiction with the argument that there is no other reason for Cars or Planes to exist than toys. I can understand why this argument would be made—for instance, my nephews are in love with their Lightning McQueen toys despite never having seen the movies that spawned them—but I still go back to the belief that Cars actually tries very hard to be about something. It’s not good, but it’s also not crass or cynical in a G.I. Joe sort of way, overstuffing the screen with different toy possibilities at the expense of character, story, and theme.
How is it possible that these movies are simultaneously Lasseter’s “pet project” and his “bid to keep churning out fresh merchandise,” the greedy bastard? Isn’t it possible that Lasseter is merely doing what many filmmakers dream of doing? He’s able to take that “pet project” and make it happen. Yet sometimes, a filmmaker’s pet project is simply not a good idea. Barry Levinson’s Toys, for instance, is downright inexplicable—but because he was merely a writer/director taking a gamble on a bad idea (as a reward for his past successes), it’s often characterized as a noble failure. Is the creative failure of Cars any less noble because it has nevertheless been “astonishingly profitable,” or because its champion and filmmaker holds multiple titles involving the word “chief”?
Would Toys have been seen in the same light if it had made tons of money in addition to being astonishingly bad? Would Andrew Stanton, even, be seen as something other than a noble artist failed by a corporate labyrinth if John Carter had made money instead of flopping big-time? That John Carter is better than Cars is debatable (they’re both pretty flawed, but at least one has Lynn Collins in fairly compelling clothing), but perhaps Stanton would always be seen as something more of a bold, visionary director—regardless of quality or profitability—simply by virtue of the fact that he’s not a high-ranking sellout shilling for The Man. You know, the same Man whose distribution channels played a big part in Pixar’s early success.
Much like the original reviewer, I’m making a lot of assumptions here about Lasseter’s intentions with Cars and its related work. I’m also making a fair amount of assumptions about different ways people might perceive these same situations under slightly different circumstances. Because these are all assumptions, and who the hell knows or cares if I’m right or wrong, let’s flip the script (cue mind-blowing dub-step drop) and ask: what if this reviewer is totally right? What if Lasseter is a cynical shell of a man with no other interest than lining shareholders’ pockets, groveling to his Board of Directors, and using the power and influence he wields to transform garbage into gold for their benefit?
To that assumption, I ask the larger question: Who cares? If this is the case, he’s doing his job, which is not an evil job. Lasseter may be an evil person (doubtful), or he may end up doing the job in an evil way for any number of reasons… But working to ensure a subsidiary like Pixar can continue to take big-budget risks—some of which, down the road, may flop as hard as John Carter—by pumping out films of dubious quality and great merchandising potential isn’t evil on the face of it.
At the absolute worst, Lasseter is covering the spread, in a responsible way extraordinarily atypical of Hollywood (and suggestive of the greedy capitalist pig’s shrewd business acumen): if you produce a $300 million that needs to earn $750 million to be profitable, but it earns a “mere” $650 million, a film like Planes—produced at a relatively cheap $50 million serves as mortar to pave over that “loss.” Long-term, this may not serve Lasseter well; one problem with public companies is that their boards sometimes find themselves populated with people who don’t take the long view of anything. I’ve long theorized that, when it comes to the Hollywood machine, this is the reason so many companies put all their eggs into one extremely fragile basket. The top investors want a massive hit quickly, to cash in and then cash out, so they follow a dull formula for success that is increasingly failing them. ‘Cause of piracy, you know.
I used to bluster all the time about how it makes more financial sense to produce ten films for $20 million than one film for $200 million… Because if nine out of ten will be profitable, and two out of ten will be massively profitable, and one out of ten will flop hard… What if you’re putting all your money into the flop instead of the hit? This risk is why big tentpole movies tend to be so bland: they hew close to the movies that are easy to market, which tend to be simplistic and dull, and if there’s anything interesting or special about them, they file down the edges to ensure it will appeal to the broadest possible audience.
If Lasseter’s doing anything crass and cynical, I would offer he’s taking the opposite approach: he’s watering down the lower budget fare to maximize profits of cheap, forgettable trash, in order to funnel all that cash into big, potentially risky projects like an Up or a WALL-E or even a long-forgotten Edgar Rice Burroughs series based on the true Martian adventures of Noah Wyle’s ER character. That’s the least evil thing I’ve heard any big-shot Hollywood executive ever do. If Lasseter’s playing the game, he’s playing it extremely smart. Why insult him about it if it means another Up?
Despite all of this, I do happen to think Lasseter is not quite as cynical or as shrewd as the villain some critics want him to be. He’s maybe a little of both, but I tend to think that he just really likes cars… And he always seems to have appreciated tapping into that part of the kid imagination that can look at a thing and make it into a living creature. That was the entire foundation of Toy Story, and whether or not it fits with film critics’ environmental politics or philosophical questions about a cartoon world, Cars fits that mold. Anthropomorphizing cars is old news, from My Mother, the Car to Christine to Transformers. When I was in second grade, I wrote and illustrated one of the greatest stories ever written, about a bunch of toy cars that come to life and go on adventures around the world. The Cars and Planes movies may not be good, but they tap into the same thing that has interested the Pixar founders from the beginning: a kid looking at a toy, a bug, a car (Hot Wheels or otherwise), even contemplating the monster in the closet and asking, “What if it was really alive?”
Many film critics—too many—choose to characterize The Man as dumb and/or evil and/or greedy and/or impediments to the nobility of pure, money-losing artistic pursuit. It’s an easy, tried-and-true story: the great artist finally triumphs over the obstacles laid down by an interfering studio, or the great artist is stymied by those obstacles (and that’s the only reason for their latest artistic failure), or the great artist sells out and tries to tear down what he once made great, or anything else involving a great artist either overcoming adversity or falling from grace.
I’m not saying, necessarily, that the story should be reframed as the great tycoon browbeating a middling artist into achieving greatness. What I’m saying is that a story shouldn’t be told at all. John Lasseter’s machinations have nothing to do with whether or not Planes: Fire & Rescue is a good movie. Whether or not it should have been made is a moot point; the film exists. Behind-the-scenes stories often end up peppering reviews, making suggestions (both implicit and explicit) that the story of the making of the film holds equal weight to the story of the film itself. The fact that Passion Play was a decades-old labor of love by the pathologically misguided writer/director Mitch Glazer is irrelevant to the film’s quality. Whether he spent twenty minutes or twenty years working on it, it’s a shitty movie. Noting how much time he spent working on it is a cheap punchline, not criticism.
Bringing up John Lasseter at all in a review of Planes: Fire & Rescue, particularly for the person of impugning him based on assumptions of his personal motives for pushing this movie into production, is completely irrelevant—almost as irrelevant as criticizing a kids’ movie based on the claim that it “raises questions of reincarnation” when the reality is that the film is doing no such thing—it’s just a critic asking questions to find flaws that aren’t there. It’s all just cheapening and already cheap affair… Why not criticize a film based on its merits (or lack thereof), rather than poking holes in things that have no bearing on the film? This isn’t The Lovely fucking Bones—why do these knuckleheads writing Planes: Fire & Rescue need to think through the mechanics of life, death, the afterlife, and reincarnation to please a snooty hipster instead of the five-year-olds clamoring for this piece of shit?
I’m going to close this much-longer-winded-than-even-I-thought-myself-capable gripe with a quotation from the late, great Roger Ebert. It’s the meanest and most unnecessary thing I’ve ever read in a movie review, so it stuck with me. Regardless of how bad the film (2003’s Levity, quite a bad film indeed) is, it’s a really fucking low blow: “When this film premiered to thunderous silence at Sundance 2003, [writer/director Ed] Solomon said he had been working on the screenplay for 20 years. Not long enough.” What a dick. RIP.