A Pixar Problem: Why Soul Worked and Onward Didn’t
The year 2020 AD saw the release of two films from what is currently the world’s most prestigious animation studio.
Now it’s true that Pixar has had its share of duds in recent years. There was a span when it seemed like it could do no wrong, producing such classics as Ratatouille, Up, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. But it should not come as a surprise that this streak came to an end. Delivering that level of quality consistently for years on end is a tightrope walk that requires you to both become extremely insular and resistant to mediocre influences while at the same time continually exploring fresh new avenues to add scope and sparkle to your ideas.
It’s practically impossible.
But, being Pixar, they managed to keep from succumbing to complete failure by holding on to the nucleus of what made them great. We still got some cash grab movies like the extended Cars and Planes universe. We got the incredibly trite Brave and cumbersome WALL-E. But we also got some above-average movies that came within a hair’s breadth of Pixar’s golden age, such as Coco and Finding Dory.
It’s more of a spectrum than a dichotomy, but the two Pixar films of 202o were still representative of this divide.
The earlier film, Onward, did not work. The latter film, Soul, did.
The Crux of the Problem
Soul succeeded for the same reason that Onward failed. The two movies are a perfect foil, and, as such, also the perfect object lesson for discussing the virtue that one had and the other lacked.
Some people would call this virtue harmony. Or synergy. Or cohesion. For the purposes of this lesson, they are the same.
A quartet of musicians cannot make beautiful music if they are all playing a different tune. Even if each player individually is a virtuoso, without the cohesive harmony that turns a melody into a symphony, all you have is noise.
And this was the problem with Onward. It was trying to be several movies at once.
It’s always the Writing
The reason that writing anything is difficult is because writing is a balancing act. What at first appears to be a single process is actually dozens of different processes, all of which have to fit together in the finished product like a three-dimensional puzzle.
What we think of as one piece of creating writing is made up of many pieces crafted together, including:
- Plot writing.
- Dialogue writing.
- Character development writing.
- Descriptive writing.
- Prose polishing.
- Cadence and tone writing.
- Atmosphere writing.
- Exposition writing.
- Callback and resonance writing.
A solid, finished piece of creative writing has all of these. However, when talking about cinema, I like to narrow this down to two threads, which I have found to dominate the art form.
- Scenario writing.
- Character writing.
If these two pieces perform well individually and resonate with each other, then you’ve made a good movie. Otherwise, you end up with a mess.
Onward is a Mess
In Pixar’s Onward, the scenario writing belongs to one movie, while the character writing belongs in a completely separate movie.
The scenario is a world where fantasy creatures (elves, fairies, mermaids) have come to depend on modern technology and no longer believe in magic or even remember it existed.
The characters are a pair of brothers who are trying to reunite with their father.
At a glance, you can tell that the scenario’s BIG PROBLEM (an amnesiac world that has forgotten its true nature) is not at all related to the characters’ BIG PROBLEM (two boys are missing the father they have never known). The only possible connection between the two is the fact that the boys require a magic spell to reunite with their dead father, and since magic is all but forgotten in the world, this becomes difficult for them to do.
Now, since you are a good writer, you immediately recognize the solution: have the boys’ quest to reanimate their father become the impetus for a worldwide renaissance of magic. Have the characters solve the world’s problem at the same time they solve their own.
But instead of that, the central storyline never explores the broader ramifications of the boys’ actions. A few side characters come to appreciate what they lost by becoming dependent on technology, but the wider world remains exactly the same at the end of the story. The scenario’s problem has not been fixed.
Ask yourself the following question: if Onward had been set in a human world, where two human boys discover their father was a human wizard, and then set off on a quest through the modern human landscape to reanimate him, how different would the movie’s plot have been?
Honestly not that much different, except that the overall story would have been less confusing, because the scenario problem and the character problem would have been the same thing.
Contrast That with Soul
In Pixar’s Soul, you still have characters and a scenario. And each of these has their own problem that needs resolving.
The scenario is a world where elevated spiritual beings have devise an almost-perfect system for guiding souls through pre-life, life, and death.
The characters are people whose personal goals are being obstructed by that system. Joe with the untimeliness of his death, and 22 with her fear of facing life.
At a glance, you can see how tightly these two problems are woven together. Solving one without the other is not an option. As such, any progress made in the character storyline also moves the scenario storyline forward, and vice versa.
The result is economic storytelling. The audience gets a lot of forward motion without becoming overwhelmed with too many plot points or hanging threads. Combine this with the fact that Soul is emotionally poignant, and you have a classic Pixar movie on the same level as Up or Ratatouille.
Others have said this first, but Soul is a return to form for Pixar. And none too soon.
There is a common sentiment, among movie criticism, that certain mediocre movies needed “just one more rewrite”. The idea being that if the script went through one or two additional drafts, all its problems would have been fixed.
In the case of Onward, I believe it could have used one less rewrite. My gut tells me that an earlier draft of the script probably had a satisfactory resolution to the scenario’s BIG PROBLEM, but that some of the late stage writers were only interested in the characters’ BIG PROBLEM. At such a late stage, it wouldn’t have been possible to change the scope of the film. Hence why we are first presented with an epic, worldwide problem that is never resolved.
Part of the discipline of writing is to learn when to stop revising.
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