- Pixar and the Aesthetic Imagination by Eric Herhuth
by Eric Herhuth
University of California Press, 2017
256 pp.; paper, $29.95
Pixar and the aesthetic imagination, eric Herhuth’s first book, is not an easy read. This is not to say he does not write clearly (he does), but the ideas are challenging and the theorists are wide-ranging in this ambitious study. Unlike previous studies of Pixar, which tend to focus on technology or representation, Herhuth considers the potential in digital animation for better understanding the nature of aesthetic experience. In the process, he ably draws on animation theory and the philosophy of aesthetics to demonstrate how the latter may serve as a critical methodology in the theoretical study not only of animated film but of film more broadly. In so doing, Herhuth attempts to show how a focus on the concerns of aesthetics—concerns often haphazardly dismissed as trivial or impractical—emerges as increasingly relevant, even urgent, for scholars today.
Foundational to Herhuth’s book is his concept of “aesthetic storytelling,” a mode operating in animated films that allows us to interrogate the bases for judgment, knowledge, and evaluation in criticism. Animated film remains particularly well suited for this endeavor because it alternately depends on an “explicit artificiality” that demonstrates fantasy and plasticity and a “stylized realism” that is both familiar and grounded. The field of aesthetics shifts epistemological focus away from long-standing investments in reason toward feeling and sensation, Herhuth explains, destabilizing traditional boundaries between experience and existence—that is, how we make knowledge and how we live in the world. Animation obviously requires its artists to generate a filmic world from the ground up, both visually and sonically. Therefore, animated film can both recreate and reimagine the world, which influences how the characters see, understand, and act in it. Therefore, sensation is crucial for “worlding,” as well as for examining both animated worlds and animated films. For Herhuth, Pixar shows us both the [End Page 83] new world made possible by digital technologies and the possible ways to live in said world.
The remainder of Herhuth’s study is comprised of four chapters, each organized around a film and an aesthetic concept. In the first of these chapters, he examines Toy Story through the uncanny. By considering Pixar and its films as products of the creative class of California, Herhuth positions commodities as a way to think more deeply about human and nonhuman interactions. Though he argues that the film does not become a critique of capitalism, he does show how Toy Story’s understanding of branding is based in aesthetic principles. This discussion leads into an investigation of the sublime, which offers illumination and introspection unavailable in the uncanny, and of Monsters, Inc. in the next chapter. The monumental factory where the monsters work becomes an exemplar of the technological sublime, while the film itself oscillates between Kantian and postmodern conceptions of the sublime. Herhuth contends that the inherently exploitative relationship between monsters and children offers an opportunity to interrogate agency. Though the relationship is revised in the end, as the monsters delight the children to reap the abundant energy available in laughter compared to screams, the fundamental inequity between the two entities persists nevertheless. In turn, Herhuth views this tension as an inroad for understanding the sublime nature of digital systems, which can alternately mystify and inspire.
The question of social inequality resonates in the next chapter as well, where Herhuth uses The Incredibles as a case study for exploring the dialectic of the fantastic and the mundane. Here, he takes on the superhero genre through a consideration of the fundamental privilege that comes with such powers. Contrasting with notions of normalcy, the superheroes in The Incredibles allow Herhuth to examine individualism on a social level and the potential behind fantasy and digital animation in terms of both artistry and technology. Despite their alleged superiority, the superheroes only find true safety in their home, drawing into question conceptions of belonging and privilege that are simultaneously hard to achieve and onerous to maintain.
The final and perhaps strongest chapter takes up Ratatouille...