This is an old post from July. Let’s pretend it’s still July 2016:
I saw The Secret Life of Pets a couple weeks ago, and as the film hurtled towards it’s big action climax, the details felt more and more familiar. Where had I seen this before? The animals are trapped in a van. They need to get out. The only option is to commandeer the vehicle. This involves lots of wayward driving – if I can accept a talking animal than I guess I should accept a driving animal, too – and leads to the van going off a major bridge and nearly plunging into the water. I say nearly because of course the van has to be suspended in its fall for just enough time before it plunges into the deeper, darker waters of New York City below. Spoiler alert: the animals make it out alive despite not having the opposable thumbs necessary to unlock things.
Another spoiler alert: this is almost the exact same ending as Finding Dory.
In Finding Dory, our lovable protagonists are also stuck in a van. They’re going the wrong way – away from their new home – and need to self-correct, so they commandeer the vehicle. Dogs driving a van is not that that far a bridge to cross (almost literally) – so obviously an octopus driving a van is just as believable. Again, there is wayward driving that sends plenty of cars flying in the wrong direction (they could softly crash-land the van from 30 feet up on the pile of insurance money that needed to be paid out for those numerous accidents) and eventually leads to the van flying back into the ocean. All the characters, despite not having opposable thumbs, hands, or even paws, make it out alive.
So my question is this: how is it possible for two major animation releases from two different studios – released less than a month apart – to have almost the exact same climax? It’s oddly specific. One happens in New York City and the other in Monterey, CA. One van falls of the bridge while the other flies off the highway before hitting the ocean. Those are about the only two differences. Additionally, everyone knows that these animated movies take a long time to make. Even if Illumination Entertainment has found a way to make their movies in a more abbreviated, cost-effective manner, you’re still looking at a 3 to 4 year project.
Illumination’s headquarters are in Santa Monica, California. Pixar’s are in Emeryville, California. That’s a separation of approximately 372 miles and at least 6-7 hours of intermittently angry driving in traffic.
A similar thing happened not long ago when Despicable Me 2 came out in July 2013 and The Penguins of Madagascar a year and a half later in November 2014. With Despicable Me 2, a key plot point involved the Minions being transformed into these purple, totally-not-cuddly rage monsters. The success of the mission depended on not only avoiding these purple nasties, but in transforming them back to their yellow, pleasantly banana-crazy selves. Not quite a year and a half later, Penguins of Madagascar had a key plot point about the cute penguins becoming hilariously ugly, somewhat violent penguins and needing to be transformed back. How did two major releases have such similar ending plots? Again, the mechanics of a slow-paced animation process make it unlikely the latter tried to copy a former’s major plot point, but is 15 months possibly juuust enough time to do so?
But this Dory and Pets situation? Freaky. I can only imagine that at some point both Pixar and Illumination found themselves stuck and unsure of just how to get their characters from one point to another in a relatively quick manner. Especially since, you know, they didn’t have the necessary opposable thumbs to pull off some badass stuff. I especially believe Pixar found themselves incredibly stuck because the amount of rampage the van causes on the highway is so mind-boggling as to not only be un-Pixar-like but to completely take me out of the film. I had no room to cry about Dory’s happy ending when my brain was crammed with hundreds of hypothetical insurance bills (and possible if not definite injuries or deaths to innocent bystanders. Can you tell I cared a lot about the insurance money? I must be a grownup now).
So what if a key story person from Pixar, frustrated and unable to poop out a great connecting plot point, took a drive to Yosemite National Park to free the mind? And what if another key story person, from Illumination, took the same trip? What if they ran into each other on the same boulder as they tried to take the best sun-soaked photo to post to their various social media apps? Seems crazy, right?
What if there is an absolutely breathtaking bar halfway between the two cities? Where people can get away and drink themselves into realizing the meaning of life?
A solid halfway point just off of I-5 is Kettleman City, CA. The best place there – according to my own rash, highly uninformed Google search – is Bravo Farms, which not only offers great beer, but ice cream. There is also farm life around which is perfect because, really, how often do Pixar and Illumination not have animals in their movies? Maybe seeing some odd interaction between the animals will lead to a kernel of inspiration that leads to a delicious bite of storytelling popcorn. And then you can grab a solid, delicious ice cream to reward yourself for pooping out that great, much-needed story point.
I don’t know. It’s not clear how it happened. Even weirder – at least to me – is how at some point in Secret Life of Pets two dogs have a literal sausage party of a dream, and there is an entire animated Sausage Party movie that came out just yesterday. Of course, the context of their sausage party (dogs love sausages, as the movies teach us, and they can’t stop thinking about them) is entirely, irrevocably different from the context of Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill’s Sausage Party.
But what if. What if an animator/story person from Pixar, an animator/story person from Illumination, and an animator/story person from Sausage Party‘s Nitrogen Studios (headquartered in Vancouver, B.C., Canada) went to the same animation program? They’re old classmates and they all chat over Skype whenever they’re stuck. Pixar and Illumination tend to do all the talking, stressing over the key story points without being too specific, talking about the pressures of holding up entire studios because live-action blockbusters are just so much more miss than hit these days. All of this is happening while Nitrogen, in his smug, Gilfoyle-like way sits and listens with his arms-crossed, proud of the fact that he doesn’t have the same problems they do. Nitrogen knows his shit. He knows what he’s doing. His movie is solid and subversive. It will make everyone see food in truly new and disgusting ways. And because Nitrogen tends to sit there and listen, barely getting in a word or even an idea, Illumination will wake up one morning with vague thoughts of a sausage party, laugh to himself for thinking how subversive it is to have cute dogs dream of actual sausage parties, and the rest will be history.
My point is this: animation is literally a limitless field. It can do and be anything. But it is still at its heart a tool for a great story. How these intricate moviemaking machines can have thousands of individual machinations a day and still come up with something eerily similar is not only odd, but a bit disheartening. At least they, with their ever-evolving animation, make it look good.