After the surprise success of The Emperor’s New Groove, Disney took a sharp turn towards science-fiction adventure with…mixed success. Meanwhile, Pixar really stepped into it’s own with ambitious and confident storytelling, pushing the limits of what CGI animation could do in every new film. This aesthetic is one they never really got away from, which is what makes them such an excellent animation studio; even if the story sags a bit, there’s at least one thing you’ve never seen before. Monsters Inc. really allowed them to show off how far they’ve come with fur texture; take a look at Sulley, then go back to screenshots of Scud the dog from the original Toy Story six years earlier. It’s astonishing to see the difference.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
This is the first of a pair of movies Disney produced that married classic adventure fiction with science-fiction touches to bring it into the 21st century, and it’s the inferior effort. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though — Disney brought out the big guns for Atlantis, introducing new and more complicated animation techniques to give the movie a sense of scale; bringing on big names for the main characters like Michael J. Fox, James Garner, Leonard Nimoy, Cree Summer, and Jim Varney in his final role; and drafting Marc Okrand (the father of the Klingon language) to develop the Atlantean language for the movie. What we get is a film whose aspirations are clear on the screen, but misses the basics of storytelling in its reach to be a launching pad for a franchise.
So Milo (Fox) is a cartographer for the Smithsonian who spends all of his professional capital researching the myth of Atlantis; when his bid to search for The Shepherd’s Journal, a book that is claimed to hold the secrets of the lost city, is rejected, he is approached by an eccentric millionaire who promises to fund his expedition. Surprise! The lost city is found. Double surprise! The captain of the ship carrying Milo to the city has ulterior motives, and what follows is a race to discover the secrets of Atlantis so they can either be protected or exploited.
The crew of the Ulysses is a disparate bunch of strong personalities, and while they’re amusing enough they don’t get nearly enough time to make an impression. Instead, the movie focuses on Milo’s journey of self-discovery and the culture of an ancient yet advanced civilization that never quite feels believable. Milo and Kida, the princess of Atlantis and standard love interest, are the least interesting characters in the movie. Of course, they take up the majority of the screen time, which leaves the more interesting and fun characters struggling to push through the cracks of the main plot.
Still, the sheer amount of effort put into the film is admirable. It cost $100 million to make, had 350 animators working on it during the peak of its production, and married 2D and 3D animation to an extent Disney had never attempted before. The writers and directors worked hard to build a lost civilization that was completely new, and it shows — I just wish the end result had been more impressive. The blandness of the main characters, the tepid plot and the breezy pacing made the entire movie feel too light to be the epic adventure they were aiming for. The villain Rourke, voiced by James Garner, and the rest of the Ulysses crew were wasted opportunities; they were unlike most Disney characters that had been devised up to that point and they would have made a fascinating ensemble. The studio really wanted the movie to launch a spin-off series called Team Atlantis, and it would have been awesome to watch these characters have their chance to shine given more time.
But alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Atlantis made only $84 million in North America and received tepid reviews from most critics. Ultimately, I think it’ll go down as a “noble failure”, a collection of interesting ideas that never really came together the way anyone had hoped it would.
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Four or five months after Atlantis disappointed at the box office, Pixar released its fourth animated film — its first not to be directed by Andrew Stanton, no less. Pete Docter (who also directed Up and Inside Out) is well known and rightly celebrated for infusing his stories with a strong emotional hook, and Monsters, Inc. is no exception. The relationship that develops between the film’s titular monster Sulley and the three-year-old child who sneaks into his world is the joyous backbone of the movie; Sulley’s relationship with his best friend Mike is changed by it, and the adjustment to that change provides at least as much conflict as the film’s antagonist does. It’s a beautiful story populated by real, relatable characters — which only makes the technical achievements stand out that much more.
In the world of monsters, energy is provided by the screams of human children but since that resource is finite and dwindling there’s a shortage. Sulley is the top scarer of one of Monstropolis’ premiere energy companies, but his fierce rivalry with Randall motivates him to do even better. After investigating a closet door left on the workroom floor, Sulley discovers a human child has entered their world — a catastrophe, to be sure, because everyone knows they’re toxic. In his attempts to get “Boo” back to her home, Sulley and Mike uncover Randall’s plot to extract all possible screams out of humans to solve the energy crisis. That would be fine except for the fact that the machine is severely traumatizing. Sulley, after caring for Boo, learns that humans aren’t toxic. They’re even pretty great to be around. However, protecting Boo means blowing up his entire life — how can he scare someone he has such great affection for? How can he allow this terrible device to become part of the system that keeps his society afloat?
The story hinges on Sulley doing the right thing even when it means throwing almost everything he believed for his entire life out of the door. That has drastic consequences — not just for himself, but for his best friend, his company, his entire social order. Even Mike doubts the wisdom of what he’s doing, so if he’s going to change his ways he’ll truly have to do it alone. Even for a monster, that’s intensely scary. The enormity of Sulley’s decisions through the course of the movie didn’t hit me the first time I watched it, but this time it reminded me of so many people who benefit from the status quo coming to a similar realization and standing on a similar precipice. Having to put aside a lifetime of unchecked assumptions is hard enough, but acting on it requires upending a lot of things that have become fundamentally tied into our social fabric. It will cause discomfort for friends, family and colleagues — and there’s no guarantee of reward or even recognition. Doing the right thing, especially when it goes against the direction one’s society is headed in, can be deeply frightening and intensely lonely.
That’s what makes Sulley such a great hero. His ultimate conflict isn’t external — though Randall certainly holds the line for the status quo. He has to put away his misconceptions, as deep as they are, and be the one person (monster) who stands up to challenge the deeply-held misconceptions of others before they lead to the ruin of a vulnerable other. The ending, which ultimately proves Sulley right and solves the city’s energy crisis, allows Sulley to reap the karmic benefits of making the right choice — but in real life, things don’t work so immediately or cleanly. Still, the look on his face at the very end of the movie is simply beautiful, a perfect way to close out the film.
The animation is leaps and bounds over Pixar’s previous films, of course; Monstropolis is populated with a crazy assortment of monsters, and Sulley himself is an eight-foot-tall, fur-bearing hulk that forced the studio to sink or swim with fur texture. But each monster in the film represents a unique challenge — Mike is a short, one-eyed ball that has to emote relatably even though he looks so alien; his girlfriend, Celia Mae, is a gorgon-y monster whose snakes have to be animated separately; Randall is a chameleon-like monster that can walk on just about any surface and can change his scales to blend in with the environment. Each monster moves in a distinct way, and their design informs their personality quite well.
It’s hard to believe that Monsters, Inc. is rarely mentioned in a conversation with Pixar’s best; it would be one of the crowning jewels of any other animation studio. It’s a testament to the longevity and consistent excellence of the brand that this generally falls around the middle of the pack, but don’t let that ranking fool you: Monsters, Inc. is a thoroughly great movie, and it holds up extremely well in the Pixar canon.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
After a string of four big-budget movies that hadn’t done nearly as well as Disney had hoped, the studio decided to try a film with a more modest budget. Veteran animator Chris Sanders was asked to pitch an idea, and he gave them a character he had made fifteen years earlier in a failed bid for a children’s book. Originally set in Kansas, the setting of his story moved to Hawaii — which had never been the subject of an animated feature before. Throw in an also-new set of indigenous sisters as main characters, and you get Lilo & Stitch, a wonderful movie that’s fun, touching, and quietly revolutionary.
Lilo is a young native Hawaiian girl struggling with the recent death of her parents and chafing under the overwhelmed stewardship of her older sister Nani. When an illegal genetic experiment crash-lands on the island after escaping from an intergalactic prison, Lilo adopts him and names him Stitch. Hot on Stitch’s tail is the scientist who created him, Dr. Jumba, and Agent Pleakley, the “Earth expert” for the Galactic Federation. Eventually, fed up with their inability to capture the experiment, the Galactic Federation sends the giant alien Captain Gantu to collect him.
Meanwhile, Stitch upends Lilo’s life as she tries to incorporate him into their broken home. Neither of them realizes that Nani is fighting to retain custody of Lilo after several disastrous visits from their social worker, Cobra Bubbles (voiced with delightful stoicism by Ving Rhames). With so many forces on the island trying to tear them apart, and with Stitch’s “programming” giving him an imperative to destroy whatever is around him, things look bleak for all three of them.
The bad-guy-makes-good story has been told quite a number of times, but the new elements and the confident, emotional storytelling makes Lilo & Stitch wonderfully unique. Besides being the first animated film set in Hawaii, Lilo & Stitch centers on the relationship between two sisters — something that you still don’t see very often in film, animated or live-action. The fact that they’re indigenous Hawaiians, struggling to make ends meet by taking odd jobs to facilitate the island’s tourist culture, is at once a foundational element of the story and in the background. It’s an excellent example of telling stories featuring non-white protagonists; the reality of their lives is never ignored or downplayed, but it’s not exploited to be a Message Movie or poverty tourism. I can’t think of another Disney film that quite deals with the aftermath of losing one’s parents in such a grounded way.
Lilo is a little kid who is undoubtedly messed up by the turns her life have taken, but she’s intellectually and emotionally intelligent enough to recognize the suffering her sister is going through and how much Stitch just needs someone to care for him. She makes a lot of mistakes, doesn’t control her impulses well, and has an incredibly weird sense of humor. But she tries so hard to make her life work, and it’s that effort that forms the backbone of the movie. It’s her sheer force of will that turns Stitch around and keeps her small family together. She’s a freaking hero.
The story deals with the intense, aching loneliness of knowing how different you are and how difficult it makes your life. It also explores how transformative it can be to reach out for connection anyway, especially when it’s difficult. The mantra that no one gets left behind is repeated often, but it’s not an empty slogan; Lilo, Nani and Stitch fight like hell to make sure none of them is alone, and Nani’s friend David is a shining example of how to handle being friend-zoned with grace and compassion.
The watercolored backgrounds pop beautifully, taking advantage of the island setting to the fullest, while the designs of Chris Sanders are endearingly soft, rounded, and just the right amount of off-kilter. Even the science fiction elements fit right in, with spaceships and laser blasters and even aliens that look like they come from an advanced oceanic civilization instead of the far reaches of space.
Lilo & Stitch was Disney’s least-expensive movie since Fantasia 2000, but its biggest domestic and critical success since Tarzan. It just goes to show how you don’t need a whole heap of special effects to tell a story that resonates, and that you can do it with a cast of non-white characters to boot. Even in the post-Renaissance era, Disney could make some stone-cold classics.