Sunday, September 16, 2007

Brad Bird at the Sunday Times

Once you get past the brain-damaged title of this Sunday Times piece, you'll find some very perceptive things:

While Pixar uses pop-culture boffonery as the icing on the cake, for DreamWorks it is the cake..."Pop culture references are easy," sighs [Brad} Bird, "and they give the audience a cheap thrill. But they don't last. Take Disney's Aladdin, which I like -- when that came out, and I saw the genie doing an impression of [U.S. talk show host ] Arsenio Hall, I thought 'this is going to mean nothing in ten years time.' We try to avoid that. People who are familiar with the James Bond movies could feel their influence on The Incredibles, but hopefully you didn't have to be familiar with them to enjoy the film."

The plays of Shakespeare have topical references that have long since been lost to the mists of time. Today we don't know always know what the bard was talking about, exactly, but we still enjoy what the rest of what he had to say.

Years ago, I read a lot of Disney sweat box notes regarding Pinocchio. There was a discussion about whether to have J. Worthington Foulfellow make some topical references to Hollywood actors who were then in vogue. After going back and forth about it, Walt and co. decided to leave the references out.

Sixty-eight years later, it's probably a good thing that they did.

16 comments:

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I partially disagree. I agree that pop-culture references, if used at all, should be icing on the cake. I disagree that Aladdin thrived on popculture references. It was my favorite film when I was little, and I watched it all the time. I was 5 and lived in Belgium. Do you really think I knew any of the people portrayed? I knew the "governator", but that was it. I had no idea at all that they were constantly referencing pop culture until I watched it again about two years ago. The thing is, it was so well done that all the genie's antics were funny and exhilirating to watch because he changed in characters that were instantly recognizable as personalities, and both the drawing and writing, as well as the animation, were funny. I still love the film, and I probably still don't know half the people he transforms into. I showed it to my mom too, and I bet she didn't recognize anyone at all. She loved it. If the references were the essence of the jokes, as Bird seems to claim, the film would never have had the worldwide success it had, and wouldn't be considered as such a classic.

The problem with most pop culture references, is that they're just that: references. There are no jokes. Well, the references ARE the jokes. We're often supposed to think that simply referencing something we already know is funny.

Anonymous said...

As much as I'm not a Family Guy fan, I gotta say they do pop culture references right. They use references that have either stood the test of time or are easy to find the source for.

Anonymous said...

Re: Benjamin De Schrijver's post...

Truly, one of the most insightful opinions on the topic of "Pop culture references", I've ever read...thanks Benjamin! Cheers, D.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that Family Guy does "Pop culture references right." Most of the time, they simply recreate pop-culture events verbatim, with the dad character simply inserted to say or do something "unexpected" in the middle of it. Watch "Airplane" if you want to see how to spoof pop culture.

Anonymous said...

You missed the point completely, as so frequently happens around here...

pedro said...

No, Brad Bird is very smart to use pop culture references directly, I really LOVE his work, but I can’t ignore that many parts of “The Iron Giant” are VERY similar to “Terminator 2”...

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure someone who used Frank and Ollie the way he did in IG is in any position to chastise others for 'pop' references in other films. F&O only worked if you knew who they were and caused an otherwise excellent film to come to a screeching halt for his little inside joke.

Despite the already dated material in Aladdin it will easily survive as a Disney classic and despite the whining about Shrek the 'pop' references in that film are much more timeless because what it pokes fun of are mostly big and classic icons that will also be around for a long time - Disneyland? Matrix?

action007 said...

At least Aladdin had a story that will stand the test of time. Shrek, on the other hand, doesn't really have quite that luxury... guess we'll see in 68 years.

Anonymous said...

Apparently everyone who wants to be known for taste and brains hates, hates, HATES "Shrek".

But many little kids saw it who don't know from "pop culture references" and they liked it. Why? For the same reason it was a smash hit with adults and teenagers-the story, which is about a misathrope in a "fairy tale" world he hates who's forced to team up with other people and do something outside his own personal exile.
That's the story. Not each individual gag.
One of the biggest laughs and favorite audience characters in Shrek 2 was Puss in Boots--where was his "pop culture reference"? What product placement gags did he do? None that I recall. Yes, there are background anachronistic gags in Shrek but they're throwaways, ultimately unimportant icing, not cake. The film isn't built on them, though that's become what everyone always repeats. If it were, there wouldn't have been a hit Shrek 3. 1 would have feded away after almost 10 years, 2 might have been made, but biombed, and 3 wouldn't have done well at all. You can't fool all of the people all of the time.

Pixar's films do have references to popular culture--NOT necessarily a bad thing, if the film overall is enjoyable-which is what everyone is striving for. And it's reflective of the world we live in. That's a far cry from dating an entire movie maing it unwatchable years later(although it's inarguable that putting Arsenio in "Aladdin" wasn't a great idea longterm-but the film works well anyway to say the least and the genie's impersonations aren't necessary to get the story).

What was the "drop & cover" thing in Iron Giant if not a postmodern hipster pop culture reference? That was hilarious to people who remember those films(which have been examined and parodied before, since the 1970s). I'd bet that to EU audiences it wasn't a big knowing laugh, except for being amusingly silly-which is the same plane that a lot of the gags in Shrek work also for people. NO filmmakers are entirely immune from that stuff, because we reflect our world. And different kinds of movies aim for different sorts of comedy styles. I'd hope there can be more than one kind of animated comedy, just as there can be more than one style or genre of animated film. They needn't be measured against each other, but rather against themselves, whate they're supposed to achieve: are they entertaining, or not?

Anonymous said...

To reiterate what the last poster said---Shrek 1 IS classic storytelling to the nth degree - much more so than Aladdin ever was. Despite the biased hatred action007 might harbor towards DW and all its creations.
Shrek, whether any of you like it or not, is the classic story of a character that thinks he knows what he wants, but what he really needs is something else entirley.

Anonymous said...

Here's a fun test: remove all of the pop-culture references from Shrek as well as all of the humor that relies solely on irony (i.e. Snow White being a badass or whatever) and you're left with a 4 minute story. Maybe it's not a horrible story, but the story is mired in SO MUCH self-aware garbage it makes it impossible for me to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

Wow...it seems pointless to argue with such an uneducated biased opinion as that.

Anonymous said...

Yeah... I need an education on how to enjoy really obvious, lame, predictable humor.

Anonymous said...

What you need is to educate yourself as to why your tastes differ so much from the public's...you know the people we make entertainment for.

Anonymous said...

Just because someone dislikes something everyone else likes doesn't make them elitist nor does it invalidate their opinions. I'm as much a pop-culture junkie as anyone else. I just find Shrek lacking.
Would you prefer it if I just hated Shrek blindly and didn't have actual reasons behind my opinion?
That would be almost as stupid as saying something is good just because it's popular.

John Musker said...

Brad, a friend of mine whose work I admire greatly, eschews topical references, but not inside jokes and homages. Our thinking on Aladdin was a bit like Benjamin describes( and I'm glad to hear he enjoyed the film without getting the references.) I saw Warner Bros. cartoons as a kid that I thought were funny even though I didn't know the actors being parodied. I thought the woman with the droopy eyes, the big feet, and the accent was funny even though I had never heard of Greta Garbo. We likewise thought there should be humor and entertainment in the scenes in Aladdin even if you didn't get the specific reference( a position encouraged , rightly I think, by Eric Goldberg). It is funny that Brad singled out Arsenio ( whom I heard the other night filing in for a local DJ!) When Ron Clements went to Japan to promote the film, the"Arsenio" scene got a particularly big laugh from the normally reserved audience. Ron wondered where all the Arsenio devotees came from. People came up afterwards and said how much they loved that "Pretty Woman" joke. If you recall in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts does an"Arsenio" as she whoops and spins her fist. Pretty Woman was a huge hit in Japan. Don't think Arsenio ever got there. So Brad still wouldn't approve, but comedy's a funny thing, ya know?

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