Pixar’s return with this summer’s critical darling Inside Out marks the end of a hiatus of sorts for the studio. It has been two years since Pixar released Monsters University, the moderately well-received prequel to Monsters, Inc, and while the film had humour and charm in abundance, it did lack the creative magic that exemplifies the best of the studio’s work. Without question, Inside Out is the perfect way to initiate a new era for a studio whose last critical knockout was 2010’s Toy Story 3. Inside Out has a creative energy and warm nostalgia running through it that brings to mind the brilliance of the Toy Story films; even if it does not quite sit at the very top of Pixar’s considerable pile of outstanding features, it is without question among them.
Some 20 years ago – yes, 1995 is now 20 years ago! – Pixar found fame with the first part of their studio-defining Toy Story trilogy. The film was a colossal triumph that would come to signify an industry-wide shift towards 3D animated filmmaking. Pixar, however, were not originally in the business of making films at all. Instead, they formed in 1979, primarily producing hardware – most famously the Pixar Image Computer – as an independent company called The Graphics Group, then a branch of Lucasfilm. In 1986, aided in part by none other than Steve Jobs, the company went independent.
Pixar began to experiment with filmmaking over a decade before Woody, Buzz, and co’s first adventure came to fruition. Under their former name, Pixar produced The Adventures of André and Wally B. in 1984; the two minute short might seem dated now, but for its time it marked a major leap towards the 3D animation that would come to typify the studio and, later, the industry. Considerably more famous was Pixar’s first short under their new name. Luxo Jr. was released in 1986, a two minute short that is just as iconic as anything in the studio’s canon (Luxo Jr. features in some forms of the company’s logo). The story of the two anthropomorphised lamps came to represent the technological progress and playful creativity that would embody most of the studio’s output.
Luxo Jr. was followed by three more shorts before Toy Story’s release in 1995: Red’s Dream, Tin Toy, and Knick Knack. Tin Toy claimed Pixar’s first Oscar win for Best Animated Short in 1988 and the studio would go on to win two more Oscars in this category for Geri’s Game in 1997, and For The Birds in 2000. Pixar have continued to make use of the short film and release an accompanying short with each of their features; partly as a means of testing upcoming talent, the shorts remain a joyous supplement to their parent films while harking back to older forms of exhibition for animation.
Toy Story needs little or no introduction; not only did it usher in a new epoch for animation, it was a colossal hit both commercially and critically. Woody and Buzz’s adventure went on to spawn two sequels, creating arguably the most celebrated trilogy of the generation – yes, that includes you, Lord of the Rings. Pixar’s sophomore feature A Bug’s Life opened to a solid if slightly more muted reception in 1997. Two years later Pixar returned with Toy Story 2. The film was originally envisaged as a direct-to-video sequel but was reimagined as a theatrical release following a positive early response from Disney. Toy Story 2 was lauded upon release and is often in fact favoured over its predecessor; to call it The Godfather Part II of animated sequels would be a fine comparison if only that did not leave us without a point of parity for the threequel (for its intense fatalism, Toy Story 3 could be The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of animation threequels, perhaps?).
Pixar completed four more films prior to the official Disney buyout in May 2006; a deal that resurrected the then-dwindling parent company who have since applied the Pixar template to classical Disney traditions for such recent hits as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. First up of the pre-Disney films was Monsters, Inc., a riotous buddy comedy that employed John Goodman and Billy Crystal as the lovable central duo Sulley and Mike. Monsters, Inc. was the first Pixar film to be directed by someone other than the company’s now-CCO John Lasseter; Pete Docter would go on to enjoy more critical success for the studio with Up and, most recently, Inside Out. Monsters, Inc. was in fact a nominee for the first ever Best Animated Feature Oscar, but it lost that initial race to Dreamworks’ Shrek; the following year Hayao Miyazaki won with Spirited Away, and Pixar finally found the podium with 2003’s triumphant Finding Nemo.
Finding Nemo, directed by Andrew Stanton, is by all accounts a masterpiece that sits alongside the studio’s very best. The relatively simple story of a father searching the ocean for his son was composed of gorgeous animation, humour and darkness in all the right places, and plenty of heart; it went on to be the studio’s biggest commercial hit until Toy Story 3’s billion-busting antics in 2010. With The Incredibles the following year Pixar cemented themselves as the greatest American animation studio since Disney; The Incredibles managed to marry kitchen-sink dramedy to the superhero genre, proving that film did have an answer to Alan Moore’s Watchmen years before Zack Snyder’s questionable adaptation. By the decade’s end they would go on to prove that they could sit beside the likes of Disney and Studio Ghibli as one of the best animation studios of all time, period.
Cars, and especially its sequel, is often cited as one of the more prominent dents in the studio’s otherwise relatively impeccable armour. The films were the product of a passion project of John Lasseter’s and while they admittedly flit somewhere around mediocrity, especially in light of some of the studio’s greater successes, they proved to be a lucrative (ahem) vehicle for merchandise revenue, generating somewhere in the region of $10 billion since release. Suspect as they are, the two Cars films do, however, bookend what is arguably the studio’s greatest string of films since its creation. Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 are all worthy of the Pixar’s considerable reputation. While Up could be found guilty of failing to live up to its shattering opening ten minutes, the other three are bonafide 5-star films that sit among the greatest animated films of all time. At their best, Pixar’s pitch-perfect blend of humour and humanity are the two things that sustain them as masters of their art form; and at their best they can move even the most hardened adult to giddy, wide-eyed wonder.
Cars 2’s failure lies in the fact that it feels more like a product than a piece of actual cinema. Sure, you cannot ignore those mid-blowing merchandise figures, but there is no denying that it lacks the charm of Ratatouille, the poignance of the Toy Story films, or the magic of Wall-E. And while no one can truly fault either Brave or Monsters University for what they are, both feel somewhat safe from a studio that asked a generation of children to accept a curmudgeonly old man as the hero of Up, released just a few years previously.
If Inside Out does indeed signify the beginning of a new era for Pixar, it is one hell of a way to kick things off. It is arguably the most conceptually creative and emotionally resonant film of their illustrious canon, at once charming for children and genuinely affecting for adults – point to another family film that manages to throw in a post-structuralism joke that works for kids as well! And that is where Pixar separate themselves from the pack; their best films are not merely adult-friendly kids’ films, they are pure, great pieces of cinema that stand apart from such petty, patronising labels. Here’s hoping that this form can be maintained through The Good Dinosaur (out later this year), Finding Dory (out in 2016), and to infinity and, of course, beyond.
Top 5 Pixar Films:
Toy Story (1995) – The one that started it all. John Lasseter’s Toy Story is not only one of the most influential films of the 1990s, it is one of the best.
Finding Nemo (2003) – Andrew Stanton’s ocean odyssey is packed with adventure and darkness; it remains a classic entry in Pixar’s oeuvre.
Ratatouille (2007) – Often forgotten among the studio’s larger hits, Ratatouille is one of their best; a simple story of ambition against the odds that has heart and charm.
Wall-E (2008) – A true masterpiece. If you fail to agree that Wall-E and EVE’s dance across the vacuum is one of the most romantic sequences in film, you need to have your wires checked, you robot!
Inside Out (2015) – After a rocky couple of years, Pixar returns in force with a powerful and tender film boasting astounding emotional complexity. It is no overstatement to suggest that this film should be in next year’s Best Picture race; it really is one of the year’s best.