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The Magic of Pixar

How do Pixar continue to do it? Of the ten films they have produced so far, nearly all are considered animated classics (though I remain skeptical of A Bug’s Life). Somehow the company seems to have found a way to not only compress the whole spectrum of human emotion (though it has been suggested that they do better with loss and depression than triumph and love), and distill these precious elements into a technically marvelous computer-animated form. With Up seemingly continuing the trend, how can they continue to do it?

Carl knew it wouldn't all be plane sailing...

Carl knew it wouldn't all be plane sailing...

I remember when the notion of computer-generated performers scared the hell out Hollywood. There go all your actors, your stuntmen, your cameramen. I remember there being a huge furore about it. Personally, I never saw it happening (at least not in my own lifetime), and my views seem to have been borne out. CGI seems to have been confined to the animation ghetto, a trivial pursuit for children of all ages. Maybe that’s a good thing, given that the annual Pixar film is generally one of the highlights of the year.

It may come as quite a surprise to know that what would eventually become Pixar was formed as far back as 1979 as a special effects house. As the Graphics Group and part of Lucasfilm, the company did special effects work on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Sold to Steve Jobs in 1985, the company initially attempted to sell hardware. Unfortunately (or fortunately, in hindsight), the computer generated imagery they used to demonstrate the system (including the now-famous Pixar lamp) was to be far more popular. Eventually the company moved into producing CGI commercials. Things weren’t looking good for the company when they signed a $25m (pennies, even by the standards of the time) deal to make a film for Disney.

Everyone know most of the rest – or at least the names of the hits that followed. This is the bit in the “Behind The Magic” special where the music goes a bit heavier and the monologue gets a bit more ominous while making cryptic remarks that “All was not well in the Pixar stable”. Well, not really. Basically there was a bit of a fallout between Disney and Pixar about the terms of their agreement (was Toy Story 2 an “original” film? was the deal fair for the company with the highest per-film average in the industry?) . Disney decided to solve the problem by buying Pixar. Money solves everything.

I’ll be honest. I’m not too tech-savvy, nor am I interested in what makes the films go visually. They look amazing and that’s enough for me. It would removes some of the magic if I knew how they animated Finding Nemo or any of their classics. What astounds me is the capacity of the company to make movies that can somehow transcend genre or age. It doesn’t matter if the kid is four or fourty, Pixar have an astonishing capacity to reach them.

I know that the last conventionally-animated family film I truly loved was The Lion King. No Disney movie since has managed to reach me. I don’t buy the argument that this is because Disney is a soulless commercial entity – it always was. I do believe it is because the rules of the game in animating for families have slowly crept over the past few decades. There are now lists of things you can’t do (killing parents is a big non-no, as is moral ambiguity) and a strange pandering desire to universallity (it doesn’t matter that Mulan is a Chinese myth, strip out anything regional specific to make it viable to market globally).

By contrast Pixar seems to refuse to be budged. The movies don’t talk down to their audience, nor do they make things easy. The Incredibles features a marriage falling apart due to mistrust. Finding Nemo is about a father who lost everything in an afternoon, save a single egg. Up is a bout a man whose wife was taken by terminal illness. Sure, these aren’t pretty scenarios, they aren’t light and easy. But they are honest, and I think that honesty resonates. There are countless little cogs and wheels that turn in Pixar’s storytelling engine (all their movies are astonishingly well-crafted, witty, romantic and clever to boot), but I think that that emotional honesty is what draws us to it. But, hey, those are just my thoughts.

The future looks bright for this relatively young enterprise. There are murmurs of a live-action Pixar film in the works about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. I’m not too sold on their two computer-generated projects in the pipeline: a second sequel to Toy Story and a sequel to Cars. Still I tust them. No other movie company seems able to distill magic on to film in quite the same way.

2 Responses

  1. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who could care less for A Bugs Life. I think that the ending to Toy Story 3 was honestly awful, and a sign of things to come for Pixar. They haven’t struck gold anymore with their past few films being mediocre at best.

    • I liked the end to Toy Story 3. But it’s probably something that does foreshadow what is to come in a way. Perhaps that sentimentality worked because Pixar hadn’t yet committed to it wholeheartedly (much like doing sequels to Toy Story worked because they had yet to become a sequel factory).

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