Pixar’s latest short (and accompaniment to The Good Dinosaur) is a divine masterpiece of animation.
Ever since the commercial cinematic debut in 1999 of Luxo Jr. – the spirited, ball bouncing lamp most will recognise as the star of Pixar’s iconic logo – the studio’s short films have been a revelation of thought provoking, pre-movie wonder (which, for some reason – likely time needed for those $ spinning advertisements and trailers – hasn’t caught on elsewhere within the movie theatre spectrum. I mean, how awesome would it be to see a relevant short film played before at least some, if not all films?). Having won three Academy Awards and been nominated for seven more over the past few decades, Pixar has trail blazed its way to a unique standing within the mini-movie world. Each original short that accompanies a new release is synonymous with expectations of superior quality animation, glorious silent comedy, and an epic range of emotional content that, despite the quick fire runtime, usually ends up running as high as it does during the main feature.
The latest short, Sanjay’s Super Team – currently playing in front of The Good Dinosaur, the film I set out to review – is so damn good, that upon exiting the cinema I felt it deserved to be the primary focus of this write up. The story of a young Indian boy caught between his beloved, Western-influenced fantasies and the traditional Hindu heritage of his father, SST is not only Pixar’s best effort since Day & Night, which premiered in 2010 alongside Toy Story 3, but arguably the finest short the team has ever created. Sanjay Patel, the film’s director, channels his experiences as an Indian-American growing up within a conflict of cultures to help shape the dramatically personal thematic and tonal structure of the piece. As a result, SST goes above and beyond mere expansion of a simple, fairly specific concept – to date a staple of Pixar’s highly successful short film formula – instead bringing us into a world that, in part, will be unfamiliar to many, yet at the same time overwhelmingly relatable in the sense that it takes the viewer back to an aspect of childhood that the vast majority have plenty of experience in.
From a technical standpoint, stunning is the simplest way to describe the picture. The flashing contrast of colour and scale compliments our trip from the metaphorical divide of Sanjay’s living room, to the action packed, temple-based throwdown going on inside his head. The twisting features of Sanjay’s shape shifting nemesis lends a limitless quality to the character from an animation point of view, while his divine chums (Hindu gods; Durga, Vishnu, and Hanuman) are brought to life in a visually faithful, yet super-infused interpretation of deep, powerfully striking animation. What really puts the shine on things is the sound. A consistently marvellous characteristic of Pixar’s best shorts is that dialogue is rarely used, almost never in fact (unless in song), leading to the welcome promotion of two crucial aspects within the animated world; silent interaction and sound design. Not a single word is spoken, yet the conveyance of each relevant action, motivation, and raw emotion remains effortlessly fluid throughout. The execution of sound during the gods’ battle with the shape shifter is a real gem, as the underlying theme of the bell (an upbeat cornerstone of holy Hindu rituals and worship, along with light – another key theme throughout) comes alive, smacking your eardrums in a manner that leaves you both awe-struck, and, ultimately, aesthetically satisfied.
The religious subject matter will also no doubt receive plenty of comment. My immediate two cents, as an atheist (and lapsed Catholic), is to label it a major positive, and the more I think about it, the more I stand by it. One of the reasons Pixar has always been so successful in connecting with both children and adults, is that its creators and directors are able to see and translate the world through a child’s eyes. Breaking down and combining human-based complexities such as culture and religion in such a fashion should not only be applauded, but hailed as a bit of a breakthrough in mainstream children’s cinema. Although almost all religions essentially have a history of seemingly pointless death and/or persecution associated with them, to a child there is none of that. A youngster’s reaction to religion, no matter their culture, usually ranges from boredom to fascination, and Patel intertwines and projects such feelings perfectly. Imagination is a formidable tool, carving a never ending story out of religion. How we react to it as part of our fantasy world, as well as its place in the real world are both as interesting and relevant as the story itself. If a different director from a different cultural background had based the film around Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism, Buddhism, or any other religion, then there’s no reason why it couldn’t have been just as effective, and intriguing, had it maintained the same level of quality as SST.
While it’ll likely end up on YouTube at some point, I urge you to go and see Sanjay’s Super Team on the big screen, along with The Big Dinosaur. The main feature is by no means Pixar’s strongest effort (an innocent, but standard coming of age story with little depth – think The Lion King meets Finding Nemo, but a long way behind either), and compared to the masterful Inside Out – released earlier this year – it’s more of a kiddy affair. Having said that, it still looks amazing of course, and has just about enough charm, emotion, and Pixar’s trademark canny comedy to make up for the overall lack of profundity. In fact, it could well have made a fantastic silent movie (which I’ll discuss in more detail on The Punch Up podcast this week). Combined with SST, however, it should be a worthwhile trip if you’ve got a spare few hours to wipe out.