Friday, June 24, 2011

Did Pixar really make a bad movie?

I'll be honest. I was not looking forward to seeing "Cars II" as much as I had the last few Pixar movies. And it broke my heart.
As I grow into an increasingly cynical guy about to turn 40, Pixar was one of the few things that kept me believing. If you are cynical, or even struggling against it, like me, it's hard to like the movie business. There's Michael Bay, reboots, remakes, unoriginal ideas, Twilight movies, sequels and increasingly bad horror movies that believe buckets of blood can make up for a bag of twists.
But then there was Pixar, and in the summer, no less, when most of the sludge was served to us in a trough full of special effects and inane dialogue, we got brilliance. We got terrific storytelling, great characters and heartfelt, honest moments. I cried away my cynicism at the end of "Wall-E," "Up" and "Toy Story 3." In fact, I thought those three movies were some of the best movies I'd seen, and "Toy Story 3" was my favorite movie last year.
And what was even better was EVERYONE went to see them. Pixar is one of the few great success stories, a wonderful product that is actually endorsed by the public. That combination is rarer than you think. For every Adele, there's two Katy Perrys.
It got to the point where I believed Pixar was incapable of making a bad movie. It made me believe. Going to the new Pixar movie is a summer tradition, like running a 4th of July race. 
Alas. Brilliant white light eventually dims. Maybe that's the lesson of "Cars II."
I just got back from the theater, and I'm trying, really hard, not to bash the crap out of it. I mean, Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, who is not only my favorite movie writer but a guy I agree with more than anyone else, gave it three-and-a-half stars, and one thing I love about him is he always forms his own opinion, rather than jump on the back of other reviewers and reheat what everyone's saying. So he saw that same brilliance that we all saw in "Wall-E."
What Travers does is impressive because it's HARD not to let the buzz influence our opinions of something. Word of mouth is the most powerful advertising in the entertainment business. That's how movies like "Little Miss Sunshine" become smash hits. And I had not heard many good things about "Cars II."
I honestly wondered if reviewers were either falling for the new story, i.e. Pixar Made A Sucky Movie! or ready to knock Pixar off its perch. We love it when greatness falters because, well, it brings it back to our levels. When something is THAT great, all the time, well, you begin to wonder why YOU can't be great all the time, and let's face it, that's an uncomfortable feeling, and we Americans, more than anything else, like that comfortable feeling of feeling good about ourselves.
So I went in with an open mind. I'm still trying to keep it. I owe Pixar that much, at least.
(Actually, I have repaid Pixar for its greatness and inspiration in thousands spent on the company's annoying merchandise. It's inevitable when you have three small children and the characters are so very, cheek-pinching cute. Ironically, "Cars" was by far the most criminal at this. McQueen is printed on T-shirts, bedsheets, underwear, frosted cookies, a dumpyard of toys, swimsuits, floaties, kickboards, countless food items, watches, CDs, DVDs and I don't have all day to list the rest. And that's just in our house. I would not be stunned to find Cars on tampons).
So here's my quickie: The movie isn't really all that bad. It doesn't hold up to the past movies. It's probably the worst Pixar movie ever, save for "A Bugs Life," which I had wiped from my memory with one of them Total Recall machines. In fact it almost doesn't deserve to carry the label.
But it's not "Hop," not by a longshot. It's even better than some reasonably cute kids movies I've seen in the last six months, like "Rio" or "Megamind." Part of the problem of being Pixar is the movies are almost TOO good. People think "Led Zeppelin III" is a bad album for the same reason.
In fact, I walked out of the movie, and Jayden, my 6 year old son, was grinning ear to ear. Did you like it, we asked him, and he nodded.
OK then.
No, what worries me more is "Cars II" honestly seemed far more like a normal movie than I've ever seen from Pixar. In other words, it was a sequel, and it didn't seem all that imaginative or well-thought-out or even planned in any way. It seemed like a summer movie that featured friendly, well-known characters, lots of cool special effects (the movie does LOOK incredible), an easy, wild, plot and lots of explosions (!!!).
Sequels aren't always bad. Remember what I said about "Toy Story 3"? (And "Toy Story 2" was just as good). And neither are fun summer movies. Hey, I loved "Speed." I loved "The Dark Knight." I loved "Inception."
Instead, "Cars II" honestly was the kind of movie that made me so cynical about movies. And it didn't seem like a simple misstep. John Lasseter, the head of Pixar and one of my top three people I'd kill cute, fluffy bunnies to invite for dinner, co-directed it. Yikes. And what's even worse, before "Cars II," Pixar showed a "Toy Story" short. I love the shorts as much as the movies. They are when Pixar seems to stretch its considerable creative limits even further. They are imaginative and brilliant and everything the movie business is mostly not. But this movie was something Pixar can find in its office trashcans. I'd be surprised if it took more thought than a working lunch over Burger King.
The fact that Pixar made both scares me to death. I need magic in my life. I suppose I can't have it all the time. But I live in a world where it's drying up. If I can't count on Pixar once a year, well, maybe I'll just have to join the crowd who believes Katy Perry is actually good.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Like father, like son, like father

Jayden picked at his oatmeal early Saturday morning as usual, looking at food as he usually does, as a pain in the ass that kept him from Nick Jr. or the computer or, in this case, his first triathlon.
"I don't want this. I'm full," Jayden said.
This is the game we play every day. None of our kids want to eat. So we're used to it. We try different weapons against it all the time, and none of them work very well. We try time outs, threats (NO Nick Jr. until you eat) and the "just a couple more bites" plea. We've even used the starving kids in Africa line. Or maybe it's China, which, if Jayden knew what the economy was like over there, he'd also know I was full of crap.
But he's still 5, so sometimes he buys it, and usually, he doesn't. We usually sigh and save the food for later, knowing there will probably never be another later.
But Saturday, I tried a different tactic.
"You know, Jayden," I said. "Whenever I have a big race, I have to eat a good breakfast. I need my strength. I need the energy. I need to be strong. You'll need to be strong too."
He looked at me. He considered what I said. And then he ate the rest in big, heaping gulps.
• • •
I stared out into the open water a couple weeks ago just a couple hours after one of the fastest 10Ks of my life. I felt good about my Boulder/Bolder PR, really good, actually, considering how the marathon had sapped my speed for a month. But this was no time for pats on the back. Three of my friends were in the water, waiting for me.
"Come on, dear, you've got to get in," Sarah said. "Get your ass in here."
The water was cold. I knew it was cold. My running partner jumped in the lake and gasped involuntarily.
I am not a swimmer. I am a floater. But for the second year in a row, I would be entering the Greeley Triathlon, and part of the deal is, of course, a swim. And this swim's in open water, meaning you don't get the luxury of touching the bottom, let alone a friendly pool. It can be scary for anyone who isn't used to it.
I was not used to it.
My wetsuit - actually, a borrowed suit - was on tight. My cap was ready. I just needed to find the courage.
• • •
Jayden had a confession as we rode to the Greeley Kids Triathlon Saturday, the day before my own Greeley Triathlon (rated R, for adults only, for strong language).
"Daddy," he said. "I'm scared."
"It's OK to be scared," I said. "I was scared a couple weeks ago when I swam in the lake."
Jayden considered what I said. Then he strapped his goggles over his head and waited for his turn in the pool.
• • •
I jumped in the water, and the cold gut-punched me, numbing my toes and making me sputter. But I'll be honest, lest you think I'm being overdramatic. It felt good after a bit. After that last, miserable mile of the Bolder/Boulder, when the sun came out and hot air swirled around my cheeks and sweat ran into my eyes, a cold bath was exactly what I needed.
It always gets better, I said to myself, as Brenda stayed me to give me a few pointers and, uh, make sure I didn't drown.
I'm not a natural athlete. Yeah, I know, I do all this stuff, so shut up. But really I'm not. I may have more endurance and energy than most people, and I may even have some kind of VO2 advantage. But the skill sports flummox me. I can't really play football. I can't even dribble a basketball and run down a court. And swimming is a skill sport if I've ever seen one.
My left arm flopped around like Nemo's special fin. When I turned my head to breathe, I usually swallowed more water than air. And I'd start swimming by plopping my head in the water and kicking first, as if I was starting up a rusty fishing boat.
My goal was to make it to an island and back. That was maybe 300-400 yards.
I was out of breath after the first 25.
• • •
Jayden had to hurry to the start and jump in just after the race started. That was my fault. He can't stand still for more than a minute (show me a 5-year-old who can, in his defense), and so he was playing in a park 100 yards away when I noticed the tots were gathering for the mini-triathlon.
He jumped in the water, swam halfway and looked at me. I shouted at him to go, and he grinned and turned on his motor.
Jayden's already a pretty good swimmer. I think he has his mother's genes. He loves the water. And something surprised me about him. He climbed out of the pool and ran to the transition area.
He knew he was in a race.
In fact, he began yelling at me almost right away to dry him off and get his shoes on.
• • •
Today, Sunday if you're reading this at work, I lined up with 100 other guys, many who looked at home in their wetsuits. I fidgeted in my seal's skin, scratching at the zipper and trying to breathe through the tight fit. I joked about how much I sucked to hide my nerves and lower my expectations of the race. It's what I do.
One other thing I do, and this one is more serious, is I remind myself to race myself. That's the only way I survived going to all those track sessions at first with people who could place in their age groups at will in every race. I tried to PR every race and didn't worry about the applause showering over them when their race times were announced before we killed ourselves at intervals.
When I crossed the line faster than I had before, inside, I heard cheering.
So when I looked around, I saw most of those guys had obviously swam, possibly for years, and so of course they were better than me. I'd have to make it up on the run if I could. That, at least, thanks to a lot of hard work, I can do pretty well.
• • •
Jayden hopped on his bike and burned down the course, passing any kid he could, which, thanks to my terrible transition skills, wasn't very many (hell, I was yelling at myself at the end). Then he hopped off and sprinted the quarter-mile run. I ran with him and told him to chase down the kid in front of him. His face turned red, then purple, but he ran harder.
He finished, breathing hard, crispy air, and looked at me with a question in his eyes: Why did I just do that?
Then they draped a medal around his neck.
He wore the medal the rest of the day and showed it to his babysitter as soon as he ran out of our mini-van that night. He kept showing it to me, too.
I told him I was proud.
• • •
I remember my father taking me on hikes and getting me up my first few peaks. It was something we did together. Despite an background that favored music and band over athletics (something I'm still proud of, by the way), I eventually became only one of less than 2,000 people to climb all the 14ers. The mountaineering eventually led to the running because, hey, I could climb, couldn't I? And the running led to the triathlon and the swimming because, hey, I could run, couldn't I?
Dad opened the door by me watching him and wanting to do what he did.
I sputtered and panicked a couple times and thrashed around, but I eventually did get through the swim. My bike was pretty mediocre, which was better than my swim, and the 5K went well. But I knew it would. I finished in the middle of the pack, maybe even a little lower. I did not finish last in my age group, like I did last year. I knocked six minutes off last year's time.
Mostly, I did it.
I didn't wear my medal all day. But I really wanted to.