Pixar Animation Studios began as part of a technology company, and as with nearly every tech firm, its mission from the start has been solving problems. Founded as a Lucasfilm computer-effects house called The Graphics Group in 1979, the organization that became Pixar was acquired in 1986 by Apple’s Steve Jobs, who saw the potential in providing computer-generated images to various corporate and government entities, including movie producers. As a proof of concept, Jobs hired animators to show what Pixar’s tech could do, and one of those artists—a CalArts grad and Disney veteran named John Lasseter—helped boost the company’s profile by supervising short films, test-reels, and TV ads that combined amazing graphics with funny little gags and characters. Well into Pixar’s golden age in the 2000s, Lasseter was still encouraging his employees to treat the company like a laboratory, to work through creative challenges that could be useful later.
Pixar’s output has been so consistently fine for so long that it’s easy to forget how unlikely its rise was. Lasseter and Jobs partnered with The Walt Disney Corporation at a time when Disney’s cel-animation unit was resurgent, and churning out one new classic cartoon after another. When Disney backed and distributed Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story, in 1995, few knew whether mainstream movie audiences would enjoy computer animation or find it creepy. Even after Toy Story became a surprise hit, it took a while for Pixar to produce the follow-up. By then, more studios had started hiring technicians, until eventually, computer animation became the industry standard, and no longer one company’s unique brand. Even Disney’s animation department made the switch, not long after Disney bought Pixar.
But with the release of Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life—and the critically and commercially successful classics that followed over the next decade—Lasseter and his most trusted collaborators started to establish their own sensibility, distinct from their work’s visual style. Pixar films are known for their technical innovation, wit, and attention to the small details of character and storytelling. The studio approaches the more abstract mechanics of moviemaking—like how to hook an audience, or how to make them laugh or cry—the same way they’d approach the question of how to make a raindrop look realistic. A sizable number of Pixar’s features have plots where the heroes have to get to a place or accomplish a task in order to fix something important. That’s an organic byproduct of the company’s problem-solving foundation. The writers and animators analyze the shifts in human emotion and motivation with the eyes of tinkerers fascinated by the guts of a machine.
With a few exceptions, there aren’t wild fluctuations in quality to the Pixar films assessed below. This Career View leaves out the studio’s shorts and TV specials, which do have more highs and lows (and which deserve their own, separate column sometime… perhaps when Pixar’s next movie, The Good Dinosaur, comes out later in 2015). But when it comes to its features, Pixar is mostly working within the range of good-to-great. That’s what comes from art shaped by a culture of troubleshooting.
|4||A Bug’s Life||1998|
|5||Toy Story 2||1999|
Pixar’s first feature, Toy Story, pales in comparison to what came later. The animation is stiffer, the color palette is dimmer, and the textures are flatter. And at only 81 minutes, the plot is slim. Most of the film’s run time is devoted to setting up the premise: In the bedroom of a boy named Andy, vintage cowboy toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) keeps all his fellow playthings living in productive harmony, until an impending move to a new house and the arrival of spaceman toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) upsets the balance. For the remainder of the movie, Woody and Buzz bicker a lot—mainly because the “space ranger” thinks he’s real—until the latter accidentally ends up in the hands of a toy-abusing neighbor kid, and Andy’s gang has to band together to rescue Buzz in time to get to their owner’s new house. Toy Story leans heavy on puns, nostalgia, and a sanitized notion of “play” that’s about following instructions and telling coherent little stories. In retrospect, the picture is pretty square.
It’s also pretty ingenious. Understanding the limits of computer animation at that time, director John Lasseter and his team filled the film with characters that already had limited movements and expressions, turning a weakness into a strength. Or to put it another way: These toys are super-cute, with the way they waddle and hop about. (They were so adorable that during the 1995 Christmas season, stores saw a heavy demand for Toy Story products that suppliers had trouble meeting… even for established brands like Mr. Potato Head and Etch-A-Sketch.) More importantly, Pixar established with its first movie that cutting-edge technology couldn’t be an end in itself. Lasseter and his chief henchmen Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Joe Ranft were all animation nerds and film buffs who wanted to make something with the thrills of classic cinema, peppered with the gags of a great cartoon, all nestled into a complete story. Because Toy Story was such a novelty when it came out, and because it took three years for Pixar to follow it up, its plot twists and action sequences may seem overly familiar to the people who watched the movie over and over back in the late 1990s. But anybody interested in learning about screenwriting would do well to study how much thought and care went into every line and beat of this film.
Like Toy Story, Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life, now looks shabbier than it did at the time—though again, it’s remarkable what the studio was able to accomplish while in the process of inventing a new artform. Building on the cinematic ambition of the earlier film, director Lasseter encouraged his co-writers and crew to make a widescreen movie that called back to classic Westerns and The Seven Samurai. Set in an ant colony dominated by vicious, thieving grasshoppers, A Bug’s Life follows a inventive misfit named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who thinks he’s hiring “warriors” to help fight off the bigger bugs when he’s actually employing a confused circus troupe. Even when Flik works with the entertainers to find ways to fool the grasshoppers, nothing goes entirely according to plan.
Once again, Pixar does a lot with a little in A Bug’s Life, by building a movie around tiny insects with simplified features. There’s more of a forced effort this time to give the film a point—or multiple points, actually. A Bug’s Life is about creatures becoming their best selves through a process of trial and error, and it’s also about the power of the collective to stand up to bullies, and about allowing social reformers to help forge sustainable systems. (In other words, it could double as the biography of a scrappy little company trying to make its mark in Hollywood by proving the power of positivity and collaboration.) But mostly, as with Toy Story, A Bug’s Life is about the wonders of clockwork plotting, as the screenplay carefully sets up every confrontation, catastrophe, and narrow escape.
At the same time the Pixar staff was working on A Bug’s Life, a smaller unit was developing what was supposed to be a straight-to-video Toy Story sequel. But as the film started coming together, both Lasseter and the executives at Disney saw Toy Story 2’s potential as a theatrical release. Lasseter took lead on the project again, and made some late-in-the-game changes to fill out the story into something more suitable to play on the big screen. The result was a movie that topped its predecessor in nearly every way: funnier, more meaningful, more surprising, and more action-packed. It was a pleasantly unexpected level-jump for Pixar: from “skilled craftsmen who make some of the best mainstream motion pictures in Hollywood” to “inspired artists making some of the best films, period.”
Here’s what’s so great about Toy Story 2: Because of Pixar’s insistence on fine-tuning its scripts, the plots’ rapidly spinning, interlocking gears are sometimes glaringly evident. But in this film, even when the “go to Point B to accomplish Action Y” maneuvering is obvious, the intricacy of it all is still dazzling. The story sees Woody getting stolen by a collector, and Buzz leading a small team of Andy’s toys to get him back, but the mission’s obstacles pile up quickly, and aren’t limited to the great distances Buzz has to travel, or the difficulty of taking something from a human without being seen. Rival Buzz Lightyear toys get in the way, as do a prospector, cowgirl, and horse from Woody’s long-forgotten 1950s TV show. And where often in Pixar, there’s only one obvious outcome, here Woody faces an actual choice: get home to a kid who’s only going to play with him for a few more years, or become a collector’s item, preserved and displayed for decades?
All this ends with one of Pixar’s best action sequences: a chase across the criss-crossing baggage treadmills at a major metropolitan airport, with reversals and close shaves aplenty. But the real stroke of genius in Toy Story 2 is a mid-film musical number, “When She Loved Me” (written by Randy Newman and performed by Sarah McLachlan), that recalls what happened to Jesse The Cowgirl when her owner grew up and lost interest in toys. There have been a lot of recurring themes in Pixar movies over the years, having to do with community, civic responsibility, “specialness,” and innovation. The most powerful idea that runs through so many of the studio’s films, though, is that humans can be wasteful and carelessly cruel, because we’re too busy living to recognize how fleeting life can be. With Toy Story 2, for the first time—but not the last—Pixar got the parents in the audience sniffling over the prospect that the little ones they’d brought to the movie with them would soon grow up and toss the best of their youth aside.
Pixar repeated Toy Story 2’s theme of childhood zipping by too quickly—along with the elaborately pinballing climax—in Monsters, Inc., a movie which at the time was praised more for how advanced the animators’ hair and skin effects had become in just a few short years than for how funny and heartwarming it is. By 2001, Pixar’s formula had become familiar, and that year, some critics (and awards-giving bodies) were more impressed by the monsters in DreamWorks’ sarcastic Shrek than by Monsters, Inc.’s sincerity and childlike wonder. Regardless, the latter has worn better over the last 14 years. While Shrek’s pop-culture references and frenetic pacing now come across as more dated and desperate—especially given the cruddiness of the movie’s sequels—Monsters, Inc.’s retro designs and simple story are still effective, without ever seeming crassly manipulative.
The main weakness of Monsters, Inc. is that there isn’t really a lot to it. Unlike Toy Story 2’s complications-within-complications, the follow-up has a rudimentary and fairly predictable plot, about what happens when a human toddler, “Boo,” wanders into the world of monsters who scare kids for a living by converting their screams into energy. Yet the elaborate designs of the monsters, coupled with the ordinariness of their work and names—including those of the hulking James P. Sullivan and his squat buddy Mike Wazowski—is consistently amusing. Plus, the creative team led by director Pete Docter sneaks in some subtle but meaningful commentary about the importance of pursuing alternative fuel sources. What helps Docter and company slip that message through without seeming preachy is that they tie it to the idea of kids’ tastes changing, particularly as they mature. Like Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. has a spectacularly exciting final setpiece, as the heroes leap through a rapid succession of doors leading in and out of the human world. But also as with Toy Story 2, that action is ultimately trumped by a quieter moment of reflection, as Sulley checks back in with Boo one more time before she gets too big to care about her furry giant buddy.
Pixar made the implied parental anxiety of Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. more overt in Finding Nemo, and the studio was rewarded with its biggest hit to that point, kicking off an era where Pixar established itself as an American cultural institution. There’s a confidence and polish to Finding Nemo that in a way makes it seem like the culmination of all the company’s early experiments. Set in the ocean waters around Australia, the movie has a luminescent glow, enhanced by all the colorful fish characters and filtered sunlight. And it has a primal kid-flick plot, akin to classic Disney, in which a nervous widowed father named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) goes looking for his captured son with the help of a forgetful fish named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres). In essence, this is another task-oriented Pixar movie. But co-writer/director Andrew Stanton keeps the pace and the plotting nicely controlled, sending these fish through a series of episodic adventures, in different locations with different kinds of dangers.
Fans of Pixar’s first half-decade might’ve missed some of the early films’ funkiness with Finding Nemo, but it seems petty to fault it for being too good. Even though Finding Nemo recycles themes and beats from its predecessors—right down to the reliance on adorable anthropomorphism—it has its own striking look, along with a winning sense of humor, a strong streak of pathos, and several well-staged, white-knuckle chase scenes. It’s a sleek beast, this Finding Nemo, and a testament to how Pixar’s “just keep swimming” work ethic can take the studio a long way.
Up through its first five films, Pixar’s main credited feature-directors were John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter—all people who’d come up together and had worked in close collaboration. With The Incredibles, an outsider arrived with his own passion project. Brad Bird, who’d been a CalArts classmate of Lasseter’s, had a disappointing experience with his animated feature debut, the magnificent The Iron Giant, and so looked to his old colleague for help in realizing his dream of a retro superhero adventure. At a time when movie superheroes still looked ridiculous more often than not, Pixar and Bird delivered something absolutely thrilling, with the style and panache of a 1960s spy picture and the inventive capering of a Silver Age comic, telling the story of a super-powered family living in a world where costumed heroes have been outlawed.
The downside to The Incredibles being such an auteur project is that it’s more slanted and strident than Pixar’s norm. Bird has something to say about a culture that punishes the exceptional and fosters mediocrity, and though he’s not necessarily wrong, the persistence of his message gives the movie a sour aftertaste. But it’s never so sour that it spoils The Incredibles’ dynamic action sequences, its tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of superhero tropes, its unusually realistic family melodrama, and its fine voice performances. (Especially by Holly Hunter as Elasti-Girl.) The film is still a marvel, even if it’s a few degrees less fun than what Pixar had produced before.
After making the Pixar version of a big Hollywood action movie, the studio went even broader with Cars, a combination sports drama and fish-out-of-water comedy—and the first film that had the studio’s early supporters questioning whether it was starting to lose its way. The story of an arrogant, lonely race-car named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who learns humility and finds some real friends when he’s waylaid in a forgotten Route 66 tourist trap, Cars is bloated and ungainly in comparison to the more tightly plotted early Pixars. And by setting the film in a world with no humans—only vehicles—the movie raises all kinds of distracting questions about how everything works. Director John Lasseter carries the studio’s anthropomorphizing to an absurd degree here, almost as if he were more interested in creating merchandisable characters than in making another modern classic. (Sure enough, while Cars had a weaker box-office performance than Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, it’s a toy-selling machine.)
But Cars is hardly a lemon. There’s real affection for vanishing Americana in its depiction of “Radiator Springs”—a town that started dying out when the interstate bypassed it—and the racing sequences are as fast-paced and shiny as anything a live-action movie could generate. There’s also something charming about how Lasseter tries to replicate in animation the style and tone of 1990s hits like My Cousin Vinny and Doc Hollywood, apparently moved by the way they champion the gentle goodness of small-town life. As Lightning McQueen starts slowing down and thinking about how he can help Radiator Springs, it becomes increasingly apparent that Cars is a highly personal project, not just because it reflects Lasseter’s love of motor vehicles, but because it’s about a mega-successful enterprise figuring out how it can use its high level of visibility for something positive.
|4.5||Toy Story 3||2010|
The mild creative letdown of Cars, coupled with its immense popularity with younger kids and Disney’s Pixar buyout (complete with Lasseter’s reassignment to monitor two animation departments), left some wondering whether the studio’s heyday was ending. Instead, Pixar embarked on a four-year run of films that reached far beyond its “cute anthropomorphic stuff” model, both in tone and narrative ambition. These movies inspired heated cultural debates, competed for major awards, jostled for position on “best of the decade” lists, made a ton of money, and set a standard so high that years from now, each new Pixar picture will still likely be judged by how it stacks up against this foursome.
The era began seemingly inauspiciously, with a project that had a bizarre premise, had been delayed for years, and had undergone a change of writer and director. Post-Incredibles, new Pixar superstar Brad Bird was asked to help salvage the long-gestating Ratatouille (originally developed by Jan Pinkava), a movie about a rat named Remy who becomes the best chef in Paris. With Bird’s help, Ratatouille became another huge critical and commercial hit, even though it’s more mature in subject matter and content than anything Pixar had done before. As Remy (voiced by Patton Oswalt) helps a gawky young man named Alfredo Linguini become a culinary superstar, the film explores questions of talent, self-determination, and the soft bigotry of low expectations, and does so in a story that involves probate law, debates over the morality of stealing, a romance between two human adults, and copious amounts of wine.
In a replay of the Incredibles hubbub, the entertainment media debated the message of Ratatouille, which once again seemed to advance Bird’s argument that only a select few are “special,” and that everyone else needs to know their place in the world—including Linguini’s chef girlfriend, whom the movie belittles as not just lacking Remy’s imagination, but actively ruining his food with her insistence on following recipes. But there’s nothing wrong with an animated movie being provocative, especially when it’s as open to interpretation and as engagingly presented as this one. From the autumnal hues to the balletic cooking action to the complex characterization of snooty critic Anton Ego, Ratatouille is consistently surprising and disarming.
Pixar re-entered controversy a year later with WALL-E, a dystopian science-fiction comedy about a resourceful trash-compressing robot left behind on Earth to help clean up our garbage and make the world habitable again. Co-writer/director Andrew Stanton took heat for foisting both scary ecological warnings and what seemed to be an anti-consumerist message on children, painting mankind as lazy and doomed to destroy the Earth by ceding too much control of our resources to greedy corporations. But that’s a limiting take on WALL-E, which is actually a hopeful film, with a positive impression of the human spirit. The second half of the film finds the hero on a cruise ship in outer space, where after hundreds of years, the population has become shockingly blob-like and infantile. Yet when the opportunity arises for these people to be brave and helpful, they literally rise to the occasion, shaking off a complacency that was largely unintended.
Anyway, the reason WALL-E routinely tops critics’ lists of Pixar’s best films isn’t because of what it has to say, but how splendidly it says it. This remains the studio’s most daring feature, and every piece of it works, from the dialogue-free first half-hour to the closing credits sequence that serves as both an epilogue and a mini-history of the development of art in human culture. Even the Thomas Newman score is consistently delightful, with its pinging electronic tones.
The one persistent quality of all Pixar films is that each of their elements seems thought-through, with the creative team making sure every joke is sharp, every twist is earned, and every bit of decoration serves a purpose. That’s especially true in WALL-E, which has the crack comic timing of a Buster Keaton short and the visionary scope of a fantasy epic. The film’s action is driven by the most rudimentary example of Pixar’s “race to put a thing into a thing” plots—as WALL-E and his robot pal Eve work to get a tiny plant into a spaceship’s processor—and yet all the details of life in outer space and the obstacles in the heroes’ way are so well-articulated that virtually every second of WALL-E is incredibly satisfying.
Even those who love WALL-E will admit it’s a front-loaded movie, with a brilliant first third and a more conventional final hour. Pixar’s next film, Up, squeezes its best moments into its first 10 minutes, which recount the tale of two childhood friends who get married, make big plans, and then see life get in the way as they grow old together. But while the remaining 80 minutes of Up isn’t as lovely as its opening, this is still an outstanding movie, with the most original idea Pixar has ever devised. Ed Asner voices Carl Fredricksen, an elderly widower who honors his late wife Ellie’s dream of visiting the South American wilderness, by attaching helium balloons to their old house and flying away. What happens next—involving a stowaway Boy Scout (or “Wilderness Explorer”), talking dogs, a rare bird, and a long-lost adventurer—is unpredictable and strange, straying way beyond Pixar’s usual problem-plots.
But Up is all of a piece, really. As Carl drags his floating house into the wilderness, nothing goes as he intended—much as was the case with his life with Ellie—but he has an incredible adventure anyway, and does so by letting go of his expectations and his attachments to things that don’t really matter. Meanwhile, writer-directors Pete Docter and Bob Peterson leave logic and reason behind, following the story wherever it meanders while letting the sensation of flight, the stirring Michael Giacchino score, and the color of the balloons serve as pure audience-stimulation. The animation on the human characters in Up is way beyond what Pixar was doing with Toy Story, but even better is its depth of understanding of what moves people.
After scoring with three straight originals, Pixar returned to its roots with Toy Story 3, a movie that seemed superfluous when it was announced, and essential after it was released. Like Toy Story 2, the sequel was born of necessity, as part of an agreement made with Disney to prevent the parent company from taking the third movie to another animation house. When Pixar regained control of the project, it quickly refashioned Toy Story 3 into something more in line with the rest of the series: a consideration of what happens to Woody, Buzz, and the gang when Andy goes to college. While Woody prepares to settle into a box of Andy’s mementos from home, the rest of the toys decide to donate themselves to a daycare center, where they’re soon consigned to the horrors of the toddler room by the dictatorial Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear.
Watching all three Toy Story films in succession means watching how much Pixar has advanced technologically in just 15 years. The improved articulation on Woody when he runs or flails makes a huge difference in how he functions as an action hero. (It’s a leap as profound as when The Muppets started appearing in movies, and fans could suddenly see their entire bodies.) The range of designs and motion in the clutter of daycare toys is something that wouldn’t have possible back in 1996, and director Lee Unkrich and the Pixar team use those breakthroughs to add excitement and humor to what to amounts to an elaborate prison-break movie, as thrilling as any ever made for adults.
The only thing that keeps Toy Story 3 from being an out-and-out masterpiece is that its themes of obsolescence and children growing apart from their roots is mostly a retread of Toy Story 2 (and, to some extent, Cars; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo, et cetera). But the main difference is that Toy Story 3’s sappiness isn’t aimed at parents so much as at kids who spent their grade-school years watching the first two Toy Story films. When Andy gives his toys to a new child, his “one last playtime” and final farewell is Pixar providing a sense of closure to its first generation of young fans. That last scene is also one of the studio’s greatest moments, up there with “When She Loved Me” and the opening sequence of Up.
Though Cars wasn’t the most widely beloved Pixar feature (children aside), the studio earned some benefit of the doubt after its Toy Story sequels. Given that John Lasseter was returning to the director’s chair for Cars 2, there was reason to hope for the best. Instead, Pixar produced its worst film to date—although “worst” is a relative term, given the studio’s high level of quality control. And to be fair, a lot of the animosity toward both Cars and Cars 2 is pegged to a dislike for broad Southern comedian Larry The Cable Guy and his rusty tow-truck character, Mater. That’s why, intentionally or not, Cars 2 is as meta as Toy Story 3. Since so many cinephiles don’t like Mater, Lasseter tried to win them over (or openly defied them) by making an entire movie about how Mater is undervalued.
Like its predecessor, Cars 2 thrills when it’s at its most action-oriented—like during the racing sequences, and whenever Mater is dragged into the international-espionage plot that anchors the film. Many of Pixar’s movies represent the studio’s attempt to explore a popular genre in their own way, and with Cars 2, the writers and animators do a credible job of giving the old-fashioned caper picture a Pixar stamp. But the confusing world of Cars is no less baffling when it goes global, and too much of the humor here is based on Mater being dumb and other cultures being weird. The movie is visually stunning as always, but even its best moments don’t really stick.
But Cars 2 isn’t as frustrating as Brave, an ambitious project that went through a change of director and came out as a singularly beautiful but only half-brilliant film. The studio’s first foray into classic fantasy—with an original story conceived by Brenda Chapman, who was later replaced as director by Mark Andrews—Brave is about a tomboyish Scottish princess named Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) who doesn’t want to get married and become like her mother, the queen. In an attempt to “change mah fayte,” Merida buys a spell from a witch that ends up turning her mom into a bear. Then, as the bear and the maiden fair venture back into the woods to correct the problem, Merida begins to grapple with her responsibilities to her family and her realm. The plot is wonderfully odd, the heroine is appealingly nuanced, and the rendering on the characters’ hair and clothing is so vivid, it’s almost tactile.
But Brave also feels underdeveloped and overly cartoony in comparison to Pixar’s best. There isn’t a lot of story, and there aren’t very many characters—not even in the background. And there’s a deterministic quality to the actions and attitudes of the two main leads, who seem to be hitting set marks in order to fulfill some larger plan to subvert the usual Disney Princess paradigms. Often throughout Pixar’s run, other studios released similar movies that over the long haul have seemed less essential. A Bug’s Life is better than Antz. Finding Nemo beats Shark Tale. Monsters, Inc. edges out Shrek (even though the latter spawned multiple sequels and a Broadway musical). But Brave’s mother-daughter dynamic—while well-done—isn’t as poignant as Disney’s 2010 feature Tangled, and Brave’s depiction of an exotic ancient kingdom is less engrossing than 2010’s How To Train Your Dragon. Coming from another company, Brave would be an impressive achievement. From Pixar, it feels too slight.
Similarly, Monsters University feels like the no-big-deal sequel (or prequel, technically) Pixar fought hard to avoid with Toy Story 2 and 3. Another film made to fulfill an agreement with Disney—which again had planned to outsource the next Monsters movie before Pixar balked—Monsters University tells the story of how the book-smart/scare-poor Mike Wazowski and the cocky, slacker James P. Sullivan met and became friends in college. When a mishap gets them kicked out of MU’s scaring program, they try to get back in by joining a fraternity of misfits and winning the annual intramural “Scare Games.” Along the way, they learn everybody—even the dopiest-looking monsters—has skills that can be put to use.
The campus hijinks and competition scenes in Monsters University are highly enjoyable, as Pixar once again does what it did with the Toy Story and Cars sequels and uses already-beloved characters to back-door a way into a different genre—in this case, the 1970s/1980s “slobs against snobs” comedy. And the movie as a whole is more fully plotted than Brave, and makes better use of the Wazowski/Sulley partnership than Cars 2 does with Lightning/Mater. But the third act feels tacked-on and insubstantial, the theme is fairly paltry, and after a while, the winking references to Monsters, Inc. start to seem more self-congratulatory than charming. For the third movie in a row, Pixar made something serviceable, but not exactly touched with genius.
Due to production delays on The Good Dinosaur—now coming out later this November—2014 marked the first year since Cars that Pixar didn’t release a new feature film. And given the relative weakness of its previous three movies, and the high quality of Lasseter-supervised Disney computer-animated projects like Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Frozen, Pixar wasn’t as deeply missed as it would’ve been a decade earlier. That is, until Inside Out arrived, and reminded audiences why the studio is so vital.
On paper, Inside Out sounds like a creative regression: another anthropomorphism-heavy comedy, making characters out of the emotions in a pre-teen’s head as she matures into a person her parents no longer recognize. But the director and co-writer here is Pete Docter, the man behind Up and Monsters, Inc., who’s proven his ability to find strong stories and deep emotion within premises that don’t initially sound that promising. In Inside Out, Docter quickly establishes the ground rules for what’s going on in the brain of Riley Anderson, where Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust work together to help Riley make good choices and build the lasting memories that will become the foundation of her adult personality. From there, the movie very quickly takes on the form of a standard Pixar quest picture, with Joy and Sadness traversing the outer reaches of Riley’s mind in order to save her “core memories” and preserve the quickly crumbling “islands” that make her who she is. As with Docter’s previous films, the larger meaning of the adventure creeps up on the audience.
There are two main keys to Inside Out’s greatness. The first is that its protagonist, Joy (perfectly voiced by Amy Poehler), knows less about Riley than she thinks she does. The audience finds itself in Joy’s dainty little shoes, confident that she’s “saving” Riley, when some parts of the girl need to die off, as an essential part of growing up. The second key is that all the explaining that goes on throughout Inside Out gives Docter and company the freedom to keep the dialogue to a minimum in the crucial climactic sequence. When the story reaches its most important point, a lot of the imagery becomes more abstract, relying almost exclusively on flashes of color to connect the dots in viewers’ heads.
This has been at the center of Pixar’s overall success. The studio’s founders understand the fundamentals of animation and storytelling, even when they’re just moving brightly colored shapes around on a screen. There’s a scene in Ratatouille where Remy tries to explain the sensations in his head when he eats a piece of cheese or a strawberry, and how he’s almost overcome with emotion when he combines those two ingredients. When Pixar’s at its best—as in Inside Out—the films have that “take a bite of cheese with a bite of strawberry” feeling. It’s hard to explain why they work the way they do. But the audience can trust that the people who made them have tried every combination before finding the most effective one.