Sunday, May 19, 2013

Better Know A Studio Part II: Pixar

My ongoing series about animation studios continues with Disney's new right hand man in feature films, Pixar.

Pixar's first film was Toy Story in 1995, but the company's history reaches back much farther.  Founded in 1979 by Ed Catmull, Alvy Ray Smith, and Steve Jobs, The Graphics Group, as it was originally known, was part of Lucasfilm and developed rendering software and special effects along with Industrial Light & Magic.  In 1983, Jobs bought the company outright from George Lucas who was starting to lose steam after Return of the Jedi.  The name Pixar derives from the Pixar Image Computer that the company produced and sold to high-end clients, including Walt Disney Studios which was at the time experimenting with computer animation to replace the traditional ink-and-paint system.  John Lasseter, a Pixar employee, had been creating short animated segments to show off the computers capabilities.  The first of these, Luxo Jr., features the hopping desk lamp that has since become the company's mascot. This is a much better mascot than the hideous baby that starred in Tin Toy.

Oh, God!  It has come to take our cute children!

After a few years of struggling to stay afloat, Pixar finally struck a deal with Disney to produce three computer-animated films.  The success of Toy Story started to build faith in the company, but the relationship between Pixar and Disney was often contentious until the former was purchased in full in 2006.

Pixar is the current critical darling of the animation scene.  Over the last ten years, they have produced some of the most acclaimed animated films ever and are always the horse to watch when award season rolls around.  This is partly due to the company's emphasis on nurturing creativity and story.  Employees are encouraged to work on their own projects using company resources when available, and the results are breath-taking.  My personal favorite is Enrico Casarosa'a La Luna.  The short is like a children's book come to life and fills me with a sense of wonder that only animation can achieve.

Story is king at Pixar.  Rather than cram in pop culture references and memorable one-liners, Pixar strives to create strong, believable narratives with rich characters that connect with audiences.  Several of them feel like folktales in the way they portray simple messages like love, family, and loneliness and touch something basic in the spirit of the audience.  If you have never felt a swell of emotion watching at least one Pixar movie, you have no soul.

After 25 years of success though, Pixar is starting to wander over a few speed bumps. For one, even though early on the studio had an unofficial policy about not cranking out loads of sequels, that's pretty much what we're getting now.  We've already had three Toy Story movies (with a rumored fourth) and Cars 2, plus a Monsters Inc. prequel later this year and a sequel to Finding Nemo called Finding Dory in the works.  I'm not saying all of these are bad; I'm excited for Monsters University and Toy Story 3 made me cry like Santa Claus just killed my dog in front of me.  Pixar just needs to make sure that they don't just become a franchise factory.

There have also been some issues about the studio being a boy's club.  This isn't unique to Pixar, but the controversy surrounding Brave, its hero Merida, and Brenda Chapman being fired as director all cast a bit of doubt over the studio's ability to embrace a female point-of-view.  Also, with John Lasseter now serving as the chief creative officer of both Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, the lines between the two companies have started to blur slightly.  Compare Brave, from Pixar, and Disney's Wreck-It Ralph.  The two have a slight feel of switched-at-birth syndrome.  I'm even concerned that Disney is placing all of its animation stock in Pixar so that it doesn't have to worry about making animated movies anymore.

The story of Pixar, much like a fairy tale, is the story of a young beautiful princess who goes to live with the successful prince.  The marriage is happy, but after a while, the politics of ruling start to change the way the princess looks at the world.  She's still beautiful, but she has to decide whether she wants to rule with grace or with power. Hopefully, Pixar will make the right choice.

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