Earlier Friday at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival, before a screening of their new feature “Elemental,” Pixar unveiled an episode of “Win or Lose,” the first long-form streaming series from the legendary animation studio that’s set to debut on Disney+ this December. And the episode did much to ease fears that Pixar has somehow lost its touch; it is easily one of the most artful, exciting and emotionally incisive things the studio has done. And the wait for more episodes just became downright excruciating.
“Win or Lose,” originally announced during Disney’s investors’ day presentation in December 2020, hinges around an ingenious, incredibly identifiable concept – a middle school softball team is headed toward the championship and each 20-minute episode is told from the point of view of one of the players, their parents or the adults who play with them, like the umpire or coach (voiced by Will Forte). It’s less “Rashomon” and more like “Legends of the Dark Knight,” a beloved episode of “The New Batman Adventures,” where several encounters with Batman are told through shifting emotional perspectives and animation styles.
Creators Carrie Hobson and Michael Yates were inspired to make the show by their time on “Toy Story 4” and their different interpretations of meetings that they both shared.
Before the episode began, Hobson and Yates, appearing alongside producer David Lally, explained that this wouldn’t be the first episode – it would be somewhere in the middle. Instead of exploring one of the kids, it would be from the point-of-view of player Rochelle’s mom, Vanessa (voiced by Rosa Salazar of “Alita: Battle Angel” fame). Vanessa is dealing with a lot – she’s a single mom with a young baby and a stressful job. But she’s so proud of young Rochelle and the team (the Pickles).
Recently, under the creative stewardship of Pete Docter, Pixar movies have taken risks both in terms of their narrative (with many focusing on super personal, specific stories) and their aesthetic (the anime-influenced “Turning Red,” borrowing from stop-motion for “Luca” and the muscular ‘80s action movie hardware of “Lightyear”) and “Win or Lose” pushes beyond almost anything that we’ve ever seen from the studio. It’s beyond stylized, absorbing a number of different touchstones but ultimately synthesizing those influences in a way that feels singularly new and very refreshing.
Vanessa, for instance, is addicted to social media and her likes appear as squishy little hearts that pop up all around her, to prop her up or help her on the go. When she loses her job at a local grocery store and instead offers ride shares, she zips around town; when she’s upset she levitates, with lightning bolts coursing around her. And all of this is well and good and cool but the show also has an extremely sturdy emotional core, with an ending that is lump-in-your-throat moving (this is pretty special considering we hadn’t seen any of the other episodes and were only now meeting the characters).
The disappointing box office of “Lightyear” and the so-so tracking on “Elemental” have left some to question if Pixar’s restlessly creative spirit still inhabits the roomy halls of its Emeryville, Campus. And “Win or Lose” feels like a direct response to those doubting the studio’s commitment to creativity and experimentation. Not only is this just as good as anything else that Pixar has produced (and, remember, they brought us “WALL•E” and “Ratatouille”) but it’s also a bold step forward and is hopefully an indication of where things are headed for the company.
“Win or Lose” feels like a home run.