For more than fifteen years, Pixar has represented the gold standard in computer generated films. Since the studio’s early days of making groundbreaking short films to producing Oscar-winning feature-length movies, Pixar has become a brand associated with quality animation and adorable characters. There have been some bumps along the road, from a love-hate-owner relationship with Disney to some questionable sequels, but few studios can boast such a consistent level of quality and innovation. This week, Pixar will be releasing its 13th full-length feature, Brave, with an entire new cast of characters different from any other Pixar film. This gives us a chance to look into Pixar’s past and remember some of the favorite characters from their films.

Luxo Jr.
First appearance: Luxo Jr. (1986)

Not everyone has seen this loveable short film from the mid-80s. Along with The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. in 1984, Red’s Dream in 1987, and Tin Toy in 1988, Luxo Jr. was one of the earliest creations of the studio from the 1980s. This two-minute film shows a desk lamp and its awkwardly cute child playing ball. There’s no dialogue at all, and there’s no faces to show expression. Yet, the adorable little computer-generated lamp had enough personality to make its way to become part of the Pixar logo. Luxo Jr. was given a theatrical run ahead of Toy Story 2 in 1999, but Pixar fans had seen him for years at the head of every Pixar movie made before and since.

Buzz Lightyear
First appearance: Toy Story (1995)

So many of the most beloved characters in the Pixar universe come from its flagship film, Toy Story. Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Toy Story showed it was possible to not just make a full-length CGI animated film, but to also tell one of the most endearing stories ever. Representing the way science fiction characters overran traditional Western heroes of the past, Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen during his Home Improvement days) offered the perfect mix of arrogance, honor, and humanity. And he was just a toy, for crying out loud. A child’s play thing! Still, he was critical to the development of the plot in Toy Story 2 as well as his own 2D animated series. Plus, his catchphrase “To infinity and beyond!” has become part of our cultural lexicon.

Sheriff Woody
First appearance: Toy Story (1995)

What helped make Buzz Lightyear such a strong character was his foil, Sheriff Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) in all three Toy Story films. Woody represents the past while Buzz represents the future. However, even though these characters are often at odds throughout the entire series, they are also the best of friends. Originally, Woody was developed as more sarcastic and adult, but Pixar made the wise move to revamp the character to make him as much of a hero as he represents to his owner, Andy. There could be no heroic Buzz Lightyear without the stalwart support of Sheriff Woody. Toys may rise and fall, but some traditional favorites are here to stay. Woody is one of those favorites, as evidenced by the real-life popularity of this particular cowboy toy in a world where Western action figures have all but disappeared.

Anyone by John Ratzenberger
First appearance: Toy Story (1995)

Most of the Pixar films feature a rogues gallery of colorful characters – from the multiple toys in Toy Story to the circus insects in A Bug’s Life. As fun as these characters are, there is one voice actor who stands out. With the exception of the original Pixar brain trust – which includes John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter – few recognizable names have been along for the entire ride through the studio’s popularity. Actor John Ratzenberger is one of those few, having been featured in every single feature film to date (Hamm in the Toy Story films, P.T. Flea in A Bug’s Life, the Abominable Snowman in Monsters, Inc., the school of Moonfish in Finding Nemo, the Underminer in The Incredibles, Mack in the Cars films, Mustafa in Ratatouille, John in WALL-E, a construction worker in Up, and now Gordon the guard in Brave). Some of these characters are background players, while others are unforgettable. Fans of his parts in these films enjoyed a fun meta nod to his roles during the end credits in Cars, where his character of Mack watched himself in Cars versions of his other films.

Dory

First appearance: Finding Nemo (2003)
Ellen Degeneres has had her ups and downs in her career, on television, and as a political target. But for every movie like Mr. Wrong she made, she has a gem in her pocket. One of these gems was voicing the annoyingly optimistic fish Dory in the mega-hit Finding Nemo. Her warm and inviting voice helped charm audiences, and it was a perfect balance to Albert Brooks’ neurotic clown fish Marlin. There was a certain purity of Dory’s soul as she faced adversity in a world where she was clearly outwitted, and she prevailed by simply repeating, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”

Edna Mode

First appearance: The Incredibles (2004)
There’s a grand tradition in animations – and not just at Pixar – to have the director of other filmmakers voice secondary characters in the stories. The director of the non-Pixar Madagascar films provided the most memorable voice of the penguin leader, and Andrew Stanton laid down a scratch track for Crush the Turtle in Finding Nemo only to find he was the best person for the role. However, it was director Brad Bird’s ridiculous slave-driver voice in the studio that inspired the creation of Edna Mode for The Incredibles. Edna Mode is short in stature but big in spirit. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and she does so with poise and pride. A bizarre cartoon version of a maniacal fashion designer, Edna Mode is possibly the most unique character in The Incredibles, and that’s in a cast that included supervillain Syndrome and superhero Frozone.

Mater
First appearance: Cars (2006)

Okay, here’s where I’m likely to get punched. When it comes to Pixar movies, easily the least favorite among critics and Internet-savvy movie fans are the Cars films. However, the perfect casting of Larry the Cable Guy as a rust-red-neck tow truck is undeniable. Much of the ire that some feel for the Cars films, and in particular of its sequel, is a result of the dislike of Larry the Cable Guy. However, for the fans of the Cars films (and trust me, those fans are out there) simply adore him. He adds a spirit to these movies and is easily the most recognizable voice and character in them, even more than the star of the first film, Lightning McQueen. Often criticized for being nothing more than an excuse to sell toys, Cars is no different in that respect than the Toy Story movie. And if you don’t think Toy Story wasn’t made to sell toys with memorable characters and voices, you need to take a trip to Toys ‘R’ Us sometime.

Wall-E
First appearance: WALL-E (2008)

During a roundtable interview at Comic-Con in 2007, director Andrew Stanton was asked by a journalist how he was able to make a movie with a lead character who doesn’t talk. Stanton looked the journalist dead in the eye and said, “Oh, WALL-E talks. He talks all the time. We just don’t understand his words.” Like Luxo Jr., it was the spirit behind WALL-E that made him so loveable. And indeed, there isn’t a word of English spoken in the first half of that film, but with the masterful sound work of Ben Burtt, WALL-E became more human than any human character in the film. With his big, sorrowful eyes and optimistic spirit, this little junk-hauling robot carried the film.

Carl Fredricksen
First appearance: Up (2009)

By now, we’ve all seen that image being passed around Facebook, showing Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) and his young wife Ellie, declaring that Up created a better love story in eight minutes than Twilight did in four books. That love story wouldn’t have been so bittersweet if we didn’t see the geriatric version of Carl through much of the film. He represents the loss of innocence and the loss of youth, and his inspirational house represents attempts late in life to achieve lost goals and recapture the spirit of the past. Even though he was a cartoon, Carl was as real as any flesh-and-blood character. Who hasn’t had a grandfather or great uncle that Carl reminds them of? He is the focus of a story about redemption in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Dug
First appearance: Up (2009)

Along with Carl in Up, and in line with almost every other Pixar movie ever made, one of the most lovable and memorable characters is Dug the dog (voiced by the co-director Bob Peterson). Given the miraculous power of speech, he was that much closer to humanity, but he was still undeniably dog. Facebook and Twitter might be overrun with cute cat photos, but it is the ultimate friendliness of a dog like Dug that… SQUIRREL!!!

Who is your favorite Pixar character?


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