When Pixar Animation Studios unveiled its first feature film in 1995, it represented a rebellious pushback against a formula that some people might not have been conscious of until watching Toy Story. Only then were audiences reminded that not all mainstream animation needed to have Broadway-style songs, straightforward leading characters paired with talking-animal sidekicks, or the like. When The Little Mermaid was released in November of 1989, it felt like the culmination of what Disney animation and its rivals were trying to accomplish in reviving the form for a younger generation; movies like The Great Mouse Detective and An American Tail had paved the way, but didn’t approach the same qualitative cohesion as the story of Ariel and her dreams of being human. But within 6 years, its story structure, characterization, and aural composition were no longer even mildly groundbreaking. The same happened with Pixar and its films; even though Toy Story owes a great debt to the buddy comedies of the 1980s, its combination of unique visuals, childhood nostalgia, and action once felt fresh and new.
In the last couple weeks, Pixar Animation Studios has unveiled—or had Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger do so—a few hints as to the future of its continuing franchises. (This, of course, because even Pixar has proven unable, ever since Toy Story 2 opened in 1999, to end any of its stories definitively, from Toy Story to Finding Nemo and onward.) Earlier in the month, it was revealed that there would be a new short from the world of Cars featuring most of the original characters, including Lightning McQueen and Mater; last weekend, the newest Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, had a Monsters University short attached to its release; and the biggest news of all came last: sometime in the near future, there will be a third Cars film and a second Incredibles film.
“Gravity’s $ucce$$ will lead to a new round of 3D films NOT conceived for 3D…” These words, from Pixar stalwart Brad Bird via Twitter last fall, are unshakably true; if we have learned anything from Hollywood over the years, it’s that they will ride a passing fad into the ground, well past its expiration date. The industry’s leaders presume that if one unique aspect represented in one popular film works, that same aspect will work in every upcoming film. Though there are various add-ons Hollywood loves to graft upon its products, such as an IMAX presentation for something that wasn’t shot in the IMAX format, the most prevalent remains 3D. There are a handful of major films, from Gravity to Avatar to Hugo, that have been aided enormously by being presented in this immersive format; however, for each Gravity, there are 10 Need for Speeds right behind, films that were post-converted to the 3D format not because they require it, but because the studios want to make a quick buck.
Although the series lives on in shorter form, the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3 is something of an emotional trip through the wringer (that is, if the film works as intended to the audience). Much in the same way that the opening sequence of Up is called out as an example of Pixar working at its tear-jerking peak, almost nullifying the impact of the rest of the film, Toy Story 3 has a lengthy climax culminating in a curtain call, all of which is meant as a massive payoff to a 15-year trilogy, a firm period on a franchise that could easily be extended on the silver screen for years to come. (Rumors will, of course, abound about a potential fourth Toy Story film; let’s only hope that this never comes to fruition.)
As expected, 2014 has been fairly quiet so far for Pixar Animation Studios fans. Seeing as both Monsters University and The Blue Umbrella didn’t receive any Oscar nominations, there’s no studio-specific rooting interest in the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony. The next Toy Story TV special won’t be on ABC until, presumably, this December. And, as we all know, there’s still nearly a year and a half until Pixar’s next new feature film, Inside Out. In the meantime, thus, this column could either choose to focus on a recent bit of fan art gone wrong, or accentuate the positive and discuss the ways in which Pixar has embraced the quirks and stylistic flourishes of live-action filmmaking over the years. The latter option is far more palatable and less likely to induce a massive headache on this writer’s part, quite frankly. (Quickly, regarding the former option: inserting Pixar characters into live-action movie posters is a fine idea. Inserting Frozone into the 12 Years a Slave poster, in place of Chiwetel Ejiofor, is at best wildly misguided, and at worst something far more despicable.)
Note: This column will discuss some third-act plot twists and general spoilers for The LEGO Movie. If you haven’t seen the film yet, consider yourself warned. (And also, see The LEGO Movie.)
In the nearly 20 years since Toy Story opened and kickstarted a revolutionary new period in mainstream feature animation, most of Pixar Animation Studio’s competition–even at the Walt Disney Company–has taken away the wrong lesson from that 1995 film’s success. A solid majority, though not all, of the computer-animated films that would follow in the 2000s and beyond focus on a few elements present in Pixar’s early work: famous actors, stylized and cutting-edge animation, adult-centric pop-culture references, and fast pacing. By themselves, and together, these elements shouldn’t instantly inspire dread. (Arguably, Toy Story 2 has all of these elements, and is one of Pixar’s early highlights.) However, a great deal of films from DreamWorks Animation, Blue Sky Studios, and other rivals lean so heavily on the aforementioned aspects that they leave out what matters most, and what’s present in almost every Pixar film: a lively, all-around spirit. A few non-Pixar animated films have felt like more than just a handful of elements concocted by a group of soulless executives–How to Train Your Dragon, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and the recent Frozen come to mind. These films all feel as if they were made by people who took the right lessons from Pixar’s early success; now, we can add a new entry to this too-small pile: The LEGO Movie.
The moment when Pixar caused a cultural shift in mainstream animated cinema wasn’t, as you would expect, with the release of their first film, Toy Story. That film inspired a shift in the animation industry, but the way in which general audiences’ response to animated films changed occurs roughly halfway through Toy Story 2. This film and Monsters, Inc. both represent the old and new in Pixar, a slight blend of honest and often-unexpected emotion along with clever and witty gags aimed at the pop-culture-literate members of the audience. Both, like A Bug’s Life, featured outtakes during the credits, a commentary on the prevalence of painfully similar blooper reels in live-action films; and both have a powerful moment that inspires the adults in the audience to tear up and reach for a tissue.