Irrational demands for excellence

By Mic Wright on August 10th, 2012

There’s something that ties Apple and Pixar together beyond Steve Jobs, who founded and saved the former and super-charged the latter when George Lucas cut it loose. Their common curse is dealing with irrational demands of excellence from followers and fans. In the eyes of many, being great is just not enough.

Apple has repeatedly hit home runs since Jobs returned to the helm in 1997 to stem its losses and bring product development back to the fore. Pixar didn’t really hit any bumps in the road until Cars garnered some mild critical flak. The six-movie run from Toy Story to The Incredibles is one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of movie-making.

But the trouble with producing extraordinary products like the iPad or amazing films like The Incredibles is that they keep raising the bar. Any time either firm has a misstep or produces a product, commercial or film, hordes of amateur critics are waiting in the wings to foretell doom.

Cars – which incidentally made $461,983,149 at the box office – was treated by some film critics as a flop simply because they did not detect the sophistication they had come to expect from a Pixar production. While it’s true that the movie is more straightforward than the Toy Story trilogy, kids love it. Cars is a film for kids of all ages who love cars.

More importantly, Cars did not represent a shift in Pixar’s strategy. It was a more merchandising-orientated flick than some of the studio’s other creations, but it was followed by Ratatouille, a film about a rodent chef, Wall-E, which is virtually dialogue free for large parts of the movie, and UP, which opens with an extended montage including the deaths of a baby and a partner.

I started thinking about the expectations laid on the two companies in the wake of the whining from blogs after Apple’s Olympics ads and Peter Bradshaw’s laughable review of the latest Pixar film, Brave, in the Guardian.

In Apple’s case, we also had the recent ridiculous reporting around its third-quarter results. The company hit its own predictions but missed some analysts’ “finger in the wind” numbers. Are we all bracing ourselves for the inevitable claims that the iPhone 5 will be a hideous disappointment, regardless of what’s released? We should be.

Bradshaw’s review of Brave is a classic example of a critic applying irrational demands and expectations. He does not address what the film is, but instead what he expected it to be – and what he thinks it should be compared to the studio’s past output. It is the curmudgeonly grouching of a man who is professionally spoiled, and who refuses to judge products on their own terms. Witness:

“This animated family movie… gives us a worrying glimpse of the Disney/Pixar “ideas” rule gauge, whose needle is twitching further and further towards the “E”… it is eerily bland, with none of the zingingly funny lines and smart self-awareness we’ve come to expect from Pixar… it feels like a standard issue super-sophisticated Pixar movie with the super-sophistication removed.”

Notice how Bradshaw refers obliquely to some perfect Pixar past, as if the films produced by the studio have been uniformly brilliant rather than a selection of very different stories by different creative teams, with varying quality.

One of the great benefits of the cinema experience is atmosphere. Having seen Brave – it has been out in Ireland for two weeks – I can attest to the delight of the audience of children and adults. Sat in a screening room, critics often exist in a vacuum which their own egos rush to fill.

Gadget reviewers and tech journalists of all stripes have a similar problem. They are spoiled by access to piles of tech toys and often become obsessed with features and spec lists rather than how someone using a device every day might relate to it. I started working at Stuff shortly after the original iPhone was announced and many journalists at rival websites and magazines balked at the phone’s “lack of features”. As we now know, they totally missed the point.

Widespread swings at the wrong target happened last year around the launch of the iPhone 4S when scores of websites wrote posts on the “disappointment”, seemingly because the device was not called iPhone 5 as they had predicted. A prime example was a hand-wringing missive from the myopic mooks at Mashable, headlined “iPhone 5 A No-Show: Did Apple Fail To Manage Expectations?”. Here’s a choice quote:

“This isn’t the new, iconic, must-have device that a redesigned iPhone 5 would have been. Which also means that Apple just lot a lot of potential iPhone 4 upgraders. Why buy the upgrade if no one can tell the difference?”

That paragraph got me shaking my head so hard that I had to purchase a neck brace. As is so often the case with Mashable, the writer appears almost proud of their lack of business nous. The nature of phone contracts means there are two main cohorts of iPhone users – ones that began with a numbered release, and others that began with an “S” device.

Every time Apple releases a new device, one set of those users is more likely to upgrade than the other purely because of the point they have reached in their contract. Apple sold 4 million iPhone 4S units in the first three days after it launched. How’s that disappointment narrative working out for you, Mashable?

Apple’s Olympics ads – which featured a perky Genius helping gormless customers – have provoked similarly wrong-headed analysis from blogs and websites who know “Apple” in a headline means hits no matter what they say. The general tone was that Apple had made a dreadful mistake with the ads and, inevitably, that such a silly move would have never happened under Steve Jobs.

Hmm. Anyone remember the Apple Stereo?

While a lot of expensive – and no doubt artisanal – underwear has been in a twist over these ads, they weren’t meant for the kind of people who already have a MacBook Pro with Retina Display nestled in their satchel and an iPad under their arm.

Apple’s revenues and profits are huge, but that’s down to incredibly efficient supply chain management and nailing a method for maintaining big margins. Outside of the tablet market – a.k.a., the iPad market – Apple still doesn’t have major share. Mac sales are going up but Apple still needs to play to the mainstream.

When obsessives howl in pain at adverts they consider to be less than artful, they’re pretending the company’s commercials have always been classy. The 1984 ad is justifiably a classic, but Apple has tried many different approaches to advertising, and hammered so-so ideas like the dancing silhouettes and Mac vs PC – particularly the awful English incarnation featuring Mitchell and Webb – into the ground.

So it’s important to see Pixar and Apple not as perfect machines for making best-in-class products, but as a testament to the benefits of promoting a creative culture and expecting greatness. The second part is especially important. While Apple and Pixar can shoot for quality that outstrips their rivals, the huge tasks they undertake, by their very nature, are difficult. And even the greatest athletes don’t win every time.

Take a look at the newspapers today. Usain Bolt is on almost every cover, arms aloft in triumph. Like him, Pixar and Apple are big game players. When it comes to the crunch, they’ll keep delivering creations that stand high above their competitors. And they know, as bad rappers tediously repeat, haters gonna hate.

In movies and consumer technology, the audience and the environment around them is always shifting. It is the sign of a bad critic when those factors are absent from an analysis and, in their place, anecdotes disguised as data and spurious speculation wrestle for prominence.