Monday, February 21, 2011

The Girl With The Pixar Formula

How would Pixar do it?

They would first grab your attention by introducing intriguing characters. You would know little of their background, yet the prospect of learning more would keep you glued to your seat. The characters would have to be unique – say a toy cowboy with links to a dated television show, or a flying spaceman who does not realize he is a toy.

They would place these characters in situations conducive to growth. You would not only learn about them as you followed their adventures, you would sympathize with their plight, fear for their safety and yearn for their happiness. The characters would become real to you, transcending their computer-animated origin. They would come to life on the screen.

And then, to keep things interesting, they would introduce variety. The characters would be placed in shifting situations, and their storylines would follow different genres of the film and literary industries.

That is the formula Pixar used to make Toy Story (with apologies to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) possibly the best big screen trilogy ever filmed.

The first film, Toy Story, belongs to the “Buddy” genre. Its focus on the developing relationship between Woody and Buzz Lightyear is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise and Martin Brest’s Midnight Run.

Toy Story 2 is a “Rescue” film in the style of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, only without the Germans. Its focus is on the efforts by Andy’s toys (Buzz, Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog, etc.) to retrieve the stolen Woody from the Toy Collector’s would-be museum of classic toys.

Toy Story 3 is an “Escape” film. From the moment Woody and company begin to hatch their plan to flee the Day Care Center From Hell, the film joins the likes of Franklin J. Schaffner’s Papillon and John Sturges’ The Great Escape as a classic of the genre.

The formula that makes Toy Story great is used by the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson to success with the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo literary trilogy. Larsson’s novels, while flawed, struck a chord with readers and made them an international sensation.

The first novel, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, introduces the two principal characters. Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist with the quasi-underground publication Millennium, is patterned after Larsson, himself a writer for an alternative magazine. However, it is the titular character, Lisbeth Salander, who elevates the series. She is a ninja in the body of a schoolgirl: small, brilliant, tattooed and pierced, with a tortured past that threatens her future. She is unique amongst literary heroines and is largely the reason for the series’ success.

Like Pixar, Larsson takes his principal characters through a wild, genre-bending ride, revealing something new about his protagonists with each book.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo begins as a classic locked-door mystery, Blomkvist and Salander joining forces to investigate the decades-old disappearance of a teen girl from a small village. As the novel (and the relationship between the protagonists) progresses, the story leaves the safety and predictability of the “Mystery” genre and enters the sphere of “Horror.” It is Agatha Christie meets Hannibal Lecter, with a climax that shocks and surprises.

Larsson’s follow-up, The Girl Who Played With Fire, belongs to the “Chase” genre, much like Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels. It is the best of the trilogy because of its focus on Salander’s intriguing character. She dominates every scene in which she appears and makes the reader long for her return when she is absent.

The last of the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, is essentially a “Spy” novel, filled with back-door high jinks and political intrigue. It is Larsson’s most ambitious work, with a large array of characters fighting with conviction for what they believe. Yet it is also the weakest of the three because, for most of the novel, Salander is relegated to the background.

Larsson died before his first novel was published, and never witnessed the success of his series. The writing he left behind evokes a cinematic quality that has been noticed by film makers both in his native Sweden and the United States. His novels became a Swedish film trilogy, with Noomi Rapace delivering amazing performances as Salander – performances that caught the attention of Hollywood, which is wooing her with “mainstream” roles. A Hollywood version of Larssen’s first novel is also being adapted for the big screen by The Social Network director David Fincher. The film is due to be released this year, with young actress Rooney Mara assuming the role of Salander.

It remains to be seen whether the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films ever approximate the success of the Toy Story trilogy. If they do, it will bear further proof that the Pixar formula works. Character and variety equal success – on both the screen and the printed page.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Neglected Holiday

There was a time when the day after Thanksgiving was a universal “working day” in the United States. After a Thursday filled with turkey, family gatherings, turkey, football and turkey, we all got up the next morning, feeling tired and bloated from the prior day’s events, and staggered into our workplaces, where we feigned productivity.

This has changed over the past two decades. Today, employers routinely close their offices on Thanksgiving Friday, providing employees the opportunity to recover from the prior day’s fowl activities. Black Friday has unofficially become a “holiday,” the near mid-point of a four-day weekend that marks the beginning of the December holiday season.

We call the day “Black Friday” because it is when the holiday shopping season gains momentum. Retailers, who routinely struggle during the first eleven months of the year, rely on December sales to turn their year around. “Black Friday” marks the beginning of a period of surging sales that will hopefully bring retailers “into the black,” thus justifying the moniker.

Still, if we put aside financial considerations, the day after Thanksgiving is principally a day of rest. Thanksgiving is a full-day event, with familial and clean-up activities often stretching late into the evening. Most of us need more than a few hours of sleep to recover, and not having to get up and drag ourselves into work the next day aids the recovery process.

I bring this up because last night, as the clock approached midnight and my wife and I completed the clean-up from our Super Bowl gathering, we both expressed regret that, in a few hours, we would be up and getting ready for work. This needs to change.

Super Bowl Sunday has, over the past several decades, become an unrecognized holiday, trailing only Thanksgiving and Christmas as a day of festivities. The day begins early, with ESPN’s Sportscenter leading things off at 9:00 A.M. Eastern – the first of the pre-pre-pre-pre-pre-game shows that will occupy our airwaves until the 6:30 P.M. kickoff. Most of the day is spent preparing for the Big Event, stealing glances at Terry Bradshaw and company while we cook and clean and make sure that everything is ready for the crowd that will begin gathering in front of our big-screen TV’s at about 5:00 P.M.

When the game begins, all extraneous activity ceases. We sit transfixed before our televisions, listening to the commentators and watching the action on the screen. It does not matter whether or not we follow the teams playing for the title (or whether we have watched even a single football game all season). Watching the Super Bowl has become part of an American tradition that rivals anything that occurs on “official” holidays. We root and we cheer, regardless of whether we know the reason why.

Having established this annual ritual, we need to recognize it for what it is: Super Bowl Sunday has become one of the most important “holidays” of the year, yet we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge it as such. The day after the Super Bowl should be a day of recovery, much the same as the day after Thanksgiving. After a day of gathering, munching and worshipping (football has surpassed baseball as our national past-time, and is often treated with the same deference we accord some of our deities), we need time to regroup and refocus our energies.

We should cease pretending that anything of value happens on Super Bowl Monday. The day is filled with water cooler conversations about the game, office employees dispersing only when the boss (himself tired from the prior day’s activities) is in view.

Let us end the charade. It is time to make Super Bowl Sunday an official holiday, part of the three-day weekend that officially kicks off our year.