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Is the secret to great animated films as simple as skipping the pop culture references?

Is the secret to great animated films as simple as skipping the pop culture references? (photo)

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While Pixar itself has yet to succumb to smugness, complacency and diminishing returns, their champions could learn something from the studio’s example. There’s a peculiar push-pull attached to the studio and how people evaluate it.

For example: every summer, before their newest movie comes out, box-office prognosticators predict imminent failure (people won’t want to watch a rat/mute robot/old man), then eat their words. This leads to resentment, as though Pixar’s financial success makes every other cynical hack who doesn’t make as much money look bad.

Ryan Gilbey in the Guardian quotes supervising animator Dylan Brown, three years ago, noticing that “every film has made a profit, and after a while some people seem to get angry about that. They seem annoyed, as if we had some secret formula for our films that we’re refusing to share with everyone.”

Well, Pixar’s champions know what that formula is, and they repeat it ad nauseam in every article about the studio.

07012010_aladdin.jpgTry googling pixar and “no pop culture references” and you’ll get back over six thousand results, all of which will inform you that Pixar aims for timelessness by avoiding the dated topical references its evil twin brother and main competitor DreamWorks loves.

“Pop culture references are easy,” “Ratatouille” director Brad Bird says. “But they don’t last. Take Disney’s 1992 version of ‘Aladdin,’ which I like — when that came out, and I saw the genie doing an impression of Arsenio Hall, I thought: ‘This is going to mean nothing in ten years’ time.'”

The trouble with most animation (or not — they’re the bane of most kiddie flicks) pop culture references is that they aim for the lowest of fruit: references to “Who Let The Dogs Out” and “Apocalypse Now,” the ubiquitously famous and the defiantly ephemeral fodder of future mocking VH1 programming.

On many TV shows, by contrast, obscurity of reference point is valued (as Noel Murray examined and unpacked a few months ago in a piece about the “Simpsons” episode “22 Short Films About Springfield”). At a certain point, digging up things only people with very specific ages and cultural backgrounds can remember becomes a personal enterprise.

07012010_monsters.jpgNot in mainstream animation though, which is where the Pixar thing gets tricky. Though the team isn’t entirely averse to the odd reference — most notably in “Monsters Inc.” — Pixar movies are generally “timeless” in the same way that, say, R.E.M.’s early-career insistence on avoiding big ’80s drums and keyboards was “timeless.” In both cases, we’re dealing with a creative unit that’s up to speed on using technology while simultaneously trying to hide anything that will instantly date the work.

Pixar didn’t win me over until recent years, with “Wall-E” and “Up.” (I’m sure you can hear John Lasseter’s loud sigh of relief right now). Which is why it’s annoying as an at-least-temporary convert to read repetitively fawning Pixar profiles that offer up nothing more than the usual talking points. Pixar succeeds because of “excellence” (nothing’s ever that simple), a lack of pop culture references (a negative virtue) and brand-name trustworthiness (which Adam Sandler also has). I’d love to see more critical thinking about their output — the lack does their films a disservice.

[Photos: “Luxo Jr.,” Disney, 1986; “Aladdin,” Disney, 1992; “Monsters, Inc.,” Disney, 2001]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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