The Movie Watcher’s Guide to Pixar


What began as a mere piece of Lucasfilm’s Computer Section known as “the Graphics Group” was sold by George Lucas to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in the mid-80s so that he could pay for his divorce. The price-tag was $5 million. Shortly after the sale, Jobs’ new investment was used to make state-of-the-art computer hardware for government agencies and hospitals among others. One of their clients was Disney, who liked the company’s Image Computer. And when employee John Lasseter started to make commercials for the computer using the innovative technology, it quickly caught fire. So, what began as a neglected piece of the Lucasfilm realm became the gold-standard in computer animated entertainment: Pixar.

This weekend’s new Pixar release, Up, is its 10th feature-length film since inception. I now present you with a brief history of Pixar’s successes (and let’s be honest, it’s mostly all successes with very little failing).

Toy Story (1995)


Pixar’s first feature-length film and the first film in history to use only CGI to tell the story. Woody (Tom Hanks) gets jealous when tricked-out action figure Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) joins owner “Andy”‘s collection of toys. Lightyear seems to not believe that he’s a toy, a child’s play-thing. Woody, feeling as if he’s been ousted by the newcomer sets about a deceptive plot to regain his place as Andy’s most cherished toy.

What’s amazing about Toy Story is how much it holds up today. As the first film of its kind, you would expect it to be a guess-and-check type of success; it would’ve been given credit for its innovation but would’ve lacked in story. But, Toy Story overcame all expectations and destroyed them. Not only could Disney make a completely CGI-ed movie for less money than their 2-D animation counterparts (Toy Story cost $30 million while The Lion King came in at $45 million), but they could create their own unique personality as well.

A Bug’s Life (1998)


A clumsy ant, Flik (Dave Foley) accidentally destroys the food rations to be given to a mafia-like grasshopper named, well, Hopper (Kevin Spacey). He then recruits a merry band of insect circus rejects to fight off the bad guys. Notable among the circus insects is Slim, a stick-bug voiced by David Hyde Pierce and Francis, the lady-bug voiced by Denis Leary who has to continually remind people that he is a MALE lady-bug.

As much as this is an enjoyable movie, it seems like an outcast amongst the other films in the Pixar catalog. It’s not nearly as strong as Toy Story. It’s funny and engaging but seems to lack a lot of the heart that other Pixar films have in spades. In the end of the day, however, A Bug’s Life was still more successful than the year’s other insect-oriented CGI film, Antz.

Toy Story 2 (1999)


Woody, Buzz, and the gang are back for Pixar’s first and only (so far) sequel. When Woody accidentally falls into a box at a yard sale, collector Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight, Newman from “Seinfeld”) snatches him away to put him in with the other members of the “Woody’s Round-Up” gang, including Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer). Meanwhile, Buzz and the other toys are en route to save Woody.

Toy Story 2 is a great sequel. The animation is great, the new characters are charming and the action is surprisingly intense, showcasing an ability by Pixar to create vivid animated intensity. Toy Story 2 also lead to more difficulties and controversy with Disney, who had originally planned to release Toy Story 2 direct-to-video, but changed their tune after seeing how progress was coming along. Pixar felt that it should count as their third of five films contracted with Disney, but Disney disagreed. These negotiations would be a serious issue later on. Also, with the animators rushing to get the project completed, several suffered arm injuries similar to writer’s cramps – prompting the studio to take a longer hiatus between movies.

Monsters, Inc (2001)


The fourth film in Pixar’s collection saw two monsters, James “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), who accidentally let a young girl, known only as Boo, into Monstropolis. Meanwhile, the scare-inducing ways of villain Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi) seek to oust Mike and Sully and even go to ethically questionable lengths to power the city (because, you see, little kid’s screams give Monstropolis the energy they need to survive).

Pixar really broadened their horizons with Monsters, Inc. This was the first film where the animators were really able to stretch their wings. They reportedly created over a million distinct closet door designs for the film, and while that may seem like a small task, just think about that number for a second: one million closet doors, and most of them would never, ever be seen. This was also the first Pixar film to cost over $100 million to make.

Finding Nemo (2003)


A recently widowed clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) needs desperately to save his only son Nemo after he’s caught be a scuba diver. In his search for his son he meets Dory (Ellen Degeneres), a forgetful fish with good intentions and a clumsy nature. The duo encounter a trio of sharks, a group of turtles, and various other sea creatures while trying to find his son in Sydney, Australia.

Finding Nemo is considered by some as Pixar’s best film. Degeneres carries a lot of the comic workload, while Brooks’ Marlin is one of the more sympathetic characters. Showing a character’s horrifying event to trigger the action as well as having him be an overprotective father and deeply complex character was another step forward for Pixar in the drama department. Finding Nemo is also the in the Top 10 of best-selling DVDs of all-time with over 40 million units sold. In addition, you can find a stage musical based on the film featuring songs such as “Just Keep Swimming” and “Fish are Friends, not Food.” Finding Nemo is also notable as the only kid’s movie to give me serious heeby-jeebies (the scene where they keep swimming deeper and it gets darker really freaks me out).

The Incredibles (2004)


Bob Parr is a large man working at an insurance agency. He’s also a “Super” known as Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson). But since super heroes were outlawed, he and his wife Helen, aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) live their lives without much adventure. Then Syndrome (Jason Lee) finds a way to con Mr. Incredible into coming to his secure island headquarters where he gets held captive. Once he disappears it’s up to Helen, their son Dash and daughter Violet (author and comedian Sarah Vowell) to save them. Samuel L. Jackson also adds some layer of awesomeness to the proceedings co-starring as Frozone.

This was Brad Bird’s first film with Pixar and it was also the longest film Pixar had attempted to make. It was also the first time that the cast of characters were all human, so Pixar had to step up the animation and make believable humans. This made Disney almost pull the plug on the entire film and to wrestle with the idea of doing it live-action. Luckily, John Lasseter backed Bird’s vision and Pixar’s arguably most enjoyable film was a success.

Cars (2006)


Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a stud rookie who is racing against notable runner up Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton) and long-time veteran Strip Weathers (Paul Newman). Through a mishap on the road overnight, Lightning ends up in Radiator Springs where he is ordered by the town sheriff to repave the town road after he tears it up. Bonnie Hunt and Larry the Cable Guy also co-star as inhabitants of Radiator Springs.

Cars was originally scheduled to be the film to follow A Bug’s Life, but was put aside in lieu of Toy Story 2. It may have been best for Pixar since A Bug’s Life and Cars are their two least favored films (and by least favored, I mean only 3 of 4 critics loved it) and putting them back-to-back could’ve been a setback for Pixar. The soundtrack also features a pretty rousing remake of “Life is a Highway” performed by the Rascal Flatts. I suppose that’s notable.

Ratatouille (2007)


Bird’s second film with Pixar followed a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who has a special soft spot for cooking. When he gets separated from his family he ends up at legendary chef Auguste Gusteau’s restaurant in Paris. He then uses human Alfredo Linguini as a puppet to do his culinary bidding. But when sous chef Skinner (Ian Holm) begins to suspect that there’s something tricky going on with Linguini, he investigates. There’s also food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole) to contend with.

What’s notable about Ratatouille is its simplicity. Aside from Remy most of the main characters are human and there’s actually very little action in the film. It’s more like a rags-to-riches comedy starring a rat. Fun story: Pixar tried to market a wine connecting with the release of Ratatouille, but the California Wine Institute banned the wine for fear that marketing with cartoon characters may attract underage kids to drink it. Valid.

Wall-E (2008)


In 2105, humans have made such a mess of Earth that they need to leave it in order for machines to clean it. Wall-E has survived 700 years by taking parts left behind by drained units and using them to replace his own creaky parts. Wall-E has also developed a personality and range of emotion over that time period. When Eve, a robot probe sent to find a source of life on Earth find Wall-E’s singular plant he ends up following her into outer space where he finds humans that are obese and lazy, who have forgotten what it’s like to do any sort of work.

This was a first for Pixar, having a main character who couldn’t talk. It actually worked to Pixar’s favor as most people who saw Wall-E’s expressive nature actually projected a personality on to the robot. The animators watched Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films everyday to try and create a character that would excel on a silent platform. The film also hammered home messages like “keep the planet clean” and “don’t get complacent and lazy despite technology” without getting overly preachy. It’s also, strangely, the only Pixar film to be labeled as “science fiction.”

Up (2009)


Pixar’s 10th film so far. Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is an old curmudgeon and when threat of a retirement home comes to him, he up and leaves his house using 10,000 balloons to lift him off his own land and head to South America. He inadvertently takes an 8 year-old boy scout with him.

Up opened the Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first animated film to do so. As far as fun facts regarding the design, the animators actually computer-generated 10,927 balloons and twice that number in one scene when the house actually takes off.

Pixar Trends

John Ratzenberger has appeared in all 10 Pixar films, including “Tom, the construction worker” in Up.

Academy Awards: Since the inception of the “Best Animated Feature” for the 2001 ceremony, Pixar films have won 4 of the 8 total awards. The winning films were Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Wall-E, while Monsters, Inc and Cars are the only two not to win the award. Every Pixar film has been nominated for either original song or score and 5 Pixar films have been nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Toy Story won a Special Achievement Oscar for being the first film done completely with computer graphics.

Competition: Pixar is seen as the computer generated giant, with Dreamworks and Warner Bros. being its only real competition and the Shrek series being the only other CGI franchise to out-gross a Pixar film.

Critical acclaim: Aside from Cars (at 75%), every other Pixar film has rated above 90% Fresh on Rottentomatoes.com. On Metacritic, which measures the actual scores and not just a fresh/rotten meter, only Cars, A Bug’s Life, and Monsters, Inc rated below an 80 (which means each film got an average rating of at least 4 out 5 stars or higher).

Box office dominance: Every Pixar film has been very successful at the worldwide box office. Each Pixar outing, with the exception of Wall-E has made triple its budget (but Wall-E still made $534 million worldwide, so don’t shed too many tears) with the highest grossing being Finding Nemo coming in just under $900 million, working off a $96 million budget.

Upcoming projects: Pixar’s slate is full with Toy Story 3 coming out next June (and Toy Story 1 and 2 re-releasing in 3-D in September), Cars 2 for summer and Pixar’s first fairy tale The Bear and the Bow (a mix of Hans Christian Andersen mixed with the Brothers Grimm stories) around Christmas of 2011, and Newt, in 2012, about two newts who have to re-populate their species in a community college science lab. I suspect this will be Pixar’s first adult-themed feature.

Josh is a multi-tasker. He's been a cubicle monkey for the last few years, a veteran stage actor of over 10 years, a sometimes commercial actor, occasional writer of articles, a once-legend in the realm of podcastery, purveyor of chuckles in his homecity of Chicago as he has trained with the world renown iO (Improv Olympic) and Second City Conservatory and performed with both theaters, and can be seen doing a thing that actor's do on the website of his online sitcom, LackingDirection.com. Josh also likes to tackle the beef of his bio with one run-on sentence, because it befits his train-of-thought.

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