Pixar seem to be in a bit of a lull at the moment. Whichever way you look at it, Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University represent a dip compared to the run that gave us films like Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, Wall-E and Ratatouille.
With more sequels on the way (Finding Dory, continued rumours of more Toy Stories) the creativity and peerless story-telling that were Pixar’s stock in trade seem to have (at least moderately) forsaken them and although many an animation studio would give their right arm to have been responsible for such accomplished films as Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University it is neither unfair nor unreasonable to judge Pixar by its own, almost uniquely high standards.
With Monsters University now on our screens (and a very fine film it is too), this is as good a time as any to revisit some of Pixar’s greatest creations – those characters that feel like flesh and blood despite being 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive – from supporting characters to leading men and women, Pixar have given us some of the most iconic characters in film and here is a celebration of ten of their best. In no particular order…….
10. Randall Boggs
Monsters University has undoubtedly helped push Randall up the list of Pixar’s most memorable characters. An excellent antagonist to Mike and Sulley in Monsters Inc, Randall benefits as much as any character in Monstropolis from having more of his back story shaded in, as we see in MU how he went from being a kind, slightly nerdy, desperate to be in with the cool guys, scarer, to the arch-nemesis of Sulley that we see in Monsters Inc.
Too often, villains can be painted in stark, simplistic colours. They are bad because they just are. Baddies are bad. It is especially tempting to swerve towards the simple when it comes to animation, but Pixar have mercifully eschewed such tendencies. Lotso from TS3, Otto in Wall-E, Sid in TS1, Al in TS2, Bruce in Nemo – they all get the much needed shades of grey treatment and the films are all the stronger for it.
It is one of the chief pleasures of Monsters University (and one reason to not dismiss it as a cash-in prequel) to see how Randall went bad. It is an intelligently written, convincingly delivered arc and although it is a bit of a cheat that Pixar gave themselves two films to set that arc out, nonetheless Randall deserves to be here. Desperate to break the all-time scare record, constantly looking to get one up on Mike and Sulley, sneaky and manipulative and ultimately prepared to risk contamination in order to harvest screams more efficiently, Randall gets his comeuppance at the hands of a redneck trailer and a shovel, but he provides great laughs on the way through, as well as a genuine threat to our protagonists and one of the most consistently inventive chase sequences in recent memory.
Steve Buscemi gives good voice, but Pixar created Randall Boggs.
It might feel like I am being deliberately obtuse in working around Woody, but the truth is that as good a character as he is, he remains less interesting than many in the Toy Story universe. Of all of the members of the Round-Up gang, he and Bullseye are probably the least compelling and Jessie beats Stinky Pete into second place mostly on the basis of her song midway through TS2, which brings tears to the hardest of cynics with unfailing reliability.
Superficially more of a “yee-haw, rootin’ tootin'” cowboy(girl) than Woody, Jessie has a wonderfully rich backstory of being beloved but forsaken as her owner moved away from childhood toys. We don’t know quite how long she has been in storage, but her trauma at the prospect of going back in there when Woody looks to escape back to Andy is palpable and coupled with her abandonment issues makes for a surprisingly and refreshingly heady mix of neuroses for a predominantly child-oriented animated film.
It is a story-telling axiom that Pixar have long observed – don’t patronise the children in your audience, don’t treat them as if they cannot handle or understand weightier themes and make sure that more grown up audiences have something to connect with too. Bright primary colours and fart jokes are all well and good for toddlers, but Pixar remain committed to connecting across every demographic and arguably no-one does it better.
8. Edna Mode
Pixar excel at supporting characters. Bruce in Nemo, Dug in Up, Randall Boggs in Monsters Inc, Lotso in Toy Story 3. And Edna Mode from The Incredibles. Voiced by director Brad Bird, she is an extraordinarily talented costume designer and in the space of two scenes almost steals the whole film. Her explanation of why she will not include capes in her costumes is a masterpiece of montage story-telling, her demonstration to Helen of the new costumes for her and the kids is hilarious, (“machine washable darling”) and her first words to Bob (“you’ve gotten fat”) tell you everything you need to know about her.
Utterly self-assured, thoroughly presumptuous, hilariously dismissive and delightfully diminutive, she dominates the scenes she appears in and the film really would not be the same without her. If The Incredibles were live action, she would have been a shoo-in for best supporting actress.