(Infinity and Beyond is a regular column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights WALL-E.)
How do you know for sure how much power someone has in Hollywood? For filmmakers, it can be as simple as seeing a studio greenlighting a pet project thanks to their success with big-budget blockbusters. For actors, it can be allowing them to pick and choose their preferred projects, no matter how it may look for their box-office prospects moving forward. Pixar Animation Studios is, and has always been, an entirely different beast. With the exception of Brad Bird, Pixar’s filmmakers aren’t often perceived as distinctive auteurs.
Yet as the studio’s films became consistently the highest-performing titles from the Walt Disney Company on a yearly basis, and even as they nearly moved beyond Disney entirely at the end of their initial contract, Pixar pushed the limits of how they could tell stories with computer animation. In 2008, they pushed their boundaries further than ever before or since, in telling a story about human avarice and greed, the death of Earth through pollution, and boiling it down to a love story between two robots who don’t speak English. Read More »
(Infinity and Beyond is a regular column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film.In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Ratatouille.)
Throughout their first decade of making feature films, Pixar Animation Studios had managed to find different ways to explore variations on a formula. “What if the human world, but with non-human characters?” That, boiled down, is the entire Pixar creative calculation from films such as Toy Story to Monsters, Inc. to Cars. There are other familiar storytelling elements which crop up as well, such as mismatched characters becoming best friends. But the consistency had paid off for Pixar through 2006. Pixar’s next three films, though, by intent or sheer coincidence, would become their most creatively bold and daring projects.
The first of them was perhaps most daring of all, because its premise was based on something inherently disgusting. What if a rat wanted to make your dinner?
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(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Cars.)
In the early days of 2006, the Walt Disney Company made a dramatic change whose impacts are still being felt today. Michael Eisner had once been the CEO of the Disney conglomerate, and while he’d grasped a modicum of the success that Pixar Animation Studios would bring, he’d always been standoffish to the idea of Pixar being fully brought into the fold. For many reasons, Eisner was pushed out of Disney in 2005, when Robert Iger became the new CEO. As Iger wrote in his recent memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime, one of his first acts of business was to do what Michael Eisner refused to do: make Pixar an official part of Disney.
So in January 2006, Disney confirmed a $7.4 billion deal to acquire Pixar Animation Studios. The deal was such, though, that it really felt like Disney was asking Pixar to join them, instead of throwing billions at them. John Lasseter was installed as a creative lead at Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering, too. That same year, Lasseter returned to the director’s chair, for a true passion project. It was technologically as bold and daring as anything else Pixar had done. The studio’s prior film, The Incredibles, had focused entirely on humans, for the first time. For Cars, though…well, Cars was another story.
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(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights The Incredibles.)
For nearly a decade, Pixar Animation Studios was an island among animation studios. It worked with the Walt Disney Company on having its films distributed and its characters and worlds turned into theme-park and merchandising fodder. But its films were very homegrown in every possible respect. It took until their fourth film, Monsters, Inc., for the studio to have a film not directed or co-directed by John Lasseter. But their first five were all made by people who’d worked at the studio since before the release of Toy Story.
Another common thread in those five films is that humans were part of the overall stories being told, but never the main attraction. And the last common thread was that Pixar’s films weren’t driven by a single author; even Lasseter had co-directors, and Toy Story, as excellent a film as it was, had a script credited to a handful of writers. That would all change with Pixar’s sixth feature. It was from the mind of someone who hadn’t started at Pixar, it was written and directed by the same person, and…oh, yes. The Incredibles was a film entirely about humans.
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(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Finding Nemo.)
Pixar Animation Studios had not stepped wrong with its first four feature films. Though they weren’t all perfect, the two Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc. had their fair share of fans, critical praise, and awards. What’s more, each of the films had been a big success at the worldwide box office, with Monsters, Inc. being the biggest hit of all. Remaking a sequel in nine months? Easy. Fending off claims of plagiarism? No sweat. Their films had even become so instantly famous that the Walt Disney Company was using them as the foundation for theme-park rides, merchandise, and even more. Hell, A Bug’s Life inspired a themed land in Disney’s California Adventure when it opened in February of 2001.
Yet below the surface, there was trouble brewing. As impressive as Pixar’s track record was so far, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner, was convinced that they were due for a reality check. That phrase isn’t just a whim of this writer — it’s a phrase he used in communicating with the Disney board of directors in advance of the studio’s fifth feature. He’d seen early cuts of the upcoming title, and was very unimpressed with the result. It was the story of a neurotic clownfish whose son goes missing in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. And Eisner was convinced the way audiences reacted to the film would remind Pixar who was really boss in their distribution deal.
With hindsight, we can say that Finding Nemo did indeed serve as a reminder of who was boss between Pixar and Disney. It just wasn’t the answer Michael Eisner expected or wanted.
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(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Monsters, Inc.)
Thursday, November 1, 2001 ought to have been a very exciting day for Pete Docter. The stalwart Pixar animator, writer, and director was just hours away from a true milestone: the first feature film bearing his name as director was going to be released in theaters nationwide. It would be the fourth feature film from Pixar Animation Studios, and a milestone for the Emeryville, California studio: this was going to be their first film not directed by John Lasseter. It was going to be another wholly original story with an incredibly high-concept hook, big-name stars, and solid interest from audiences.
The day should have been exciting. But Pete Docter was nowhere near Hollywood, or even Emeryville, that day. He was stuck in a courthouse in Wyoming, where lawyers representing Pixar would have to convince a judge to allow Monsters, Inc. to be released at all.
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(Infinity and Beyond is a regular bi-weekly column documenting the 25-year filmography of Pixar Animation Studios, film by film. In today’s column, writer Josh Spiegel highlights Toy Story 2.)
The 1990s were a decade of change for the Walt Disney Company. Executive shakeups, outside acquisitions, and more made the company much more massive by the close of the 1990s than they were at the start. In 1990, Pixar Animation Studios was able to see its computer technology on display for a brief minute or two in the hand-drawn animated film The Rescuers Down Under. By 1999, Pixar had proven that it just might be the powerful new kid in town in the animation industry.
And it was all thanks to a sequel that nearly got trapped on the small screen.
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(Infinity and Beyond is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of every feature in Pixar’s filmography. In today’s column, he takes a look at the 1998 film A Bug’s Life.)
As the story goes, documented in the David Price book The Pixar Touch (and mentioned in an early teaser for the 2008 sci-fi film WALL-E), a year or so before the release of Toy Story, there was a lunch. A number of the creatives involved in the making of the first fully computer-animated feature — John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Joe Ranft, and Andrew Stanton, among others — got together to figure out what they would do if the best-case scenario occurred. What if Toy Story became a hit? What would they do next?
A number of important ideas — including that of WALL-E, but we have a long way to go before we get to that story — were pitched during that lunch. One that held a certain appeal was a story all about a colony of ants. The lead would be a nerdy type whose unorthodox manner put him at odds with the rest of his colony, even though he would manage to woo and romance the ant princess and eventually live happily ever after. The idea got the green-light and Pixar proceeded as planned.
But the studio, when they released A Bug’s Life in November of 1998, would seem as if they were a month late with this concept. Because to the untrained eye, it sure looked like another computer-animated film, and another animation studio, beat them to the punch.
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(Infinity and Beyond is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of every feature film in Pixar’s filmography. In today’s inaugural edition, he kicks off the column with the movie that started it all: 1995’s Toy Story.)
There are only a handful of films released in the first century of cinema that can be categorized as truly influential to more than just a few young would-be filmmakers and/or critics. Films such as Birth of a Nation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Citizen Kane are valuable cinematic items not because of their quality (though the latter two are quite incredible), but because they paved a path for the future of their respective mediums. The films we love now literally could not exist without these titles paving the path for the future.
One film that can be safely deemed influential for representing a sea change in the art of animation and the craft of cinema is the 1995 adventure comedy Toy Story. And Pixar Animation Studios, the group that produced and animated the film in the San Francisco area, is now one of the most powerful and dominant forces in all of Hollywood. For a lengthy time, its creative leader wasn’t just overseeing Pixar, but also Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering. Though John Lasseter departed the company in acrimony in 2018, Pixar’s overall legacy is unblemished.
2020 marks the 25th anniversary of Toy Story, and thus the quarter-century anniversary of computer animation being seen as a viable, and now essentially required, way to make animated features for the whole family. Just as I explored the films of the Disney Renaissance at /Film in 2019, I’m fortunate enough to be doing the same for the entire filmography of Pixar Animation Studios this year with Infinity and Beyond, culminating with discussions of the company’s one-two punch in 2020 of Onward and Soul. For now, though, let’s start with the humble beginnings of a studio that fought to prove the value of computer animation before becoming its standard bearer. Read More »