The Pixar Story (2007)

2018 #110
Leslie Iwerks | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 16:9 | USA / English | U / G

The Pixar Story

Made to celebrate the first 20 years of Pixar, Leslie Iwerks’ documentary charts not only the genesis, founding, and rise to industry-changing prominence of the beloved computer animation company, but also the birth of computer animation itself.

It starts at the very beginning, with John Lasseter’s education and time as a traditional animator at Disney, and, separately, explaining how computer graphics and animation even came to be. I won’t recap the full story here, but it recounts how Pixar come to be formed, how they pushed at boundaries, and, eventually, how the massive success of their feature films came to transform the American animation industry. While the documentary is primarily narrative, then, it also exposes a little of why all this happened — the processes and philosophies behind-the-scenes at Pixar that helped make their early films so good, and consequently so loved. It doesn’t explicitly dig into this, but their mindset and attitudes seep through in the stories of what happened.

For example, there’s the case of Toy Story 2: Lasseter had just come off the gruelling production and promotion schedule of A Bug’s Life when Disney decided to upgrade Toy Story 2, which was being made by another team, from direct-to-video to a theatrical release. Pixar reviewed the project and were unhappy, but Disney thought it was fine and refused to move the release date. So Lasseter abandoned plans for a much-needed break to spend time with his family and set about retooling the sequel from scratch — but while the original Toy Story and Bug’s Life had each taken years to make, for Toy Story 2 they had just nine months. The rest is history: not only did they get the film out on time, it’s arguably even better than the first one. Quite rightly, that whole palaver is named as their proudest achievement — the way everyone came together to make it happen helped define the company.

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter

It also exposes another major contributing factor to the company’s success: Steve Jobs’ patience. Toy Story is when the wider world noticed Pixar, but they’d been going for years, pushing boundaries and breaking ground with short films and advertising, but not making a profit. But Jobs stuck with it, giving them more money, because he took a long-term view. Of course, it paid off, and when they did hit it big, it was his business acumen that secured the future of the company: taking them public (which brought in massive funds) and striking a new, better deal with Disney. It’s easy for us to look at the quality of their films and go “that’s what changed things”, but the business side is a vital component too.

Change things they certainly did, as the documentary shows towards the end, with 2D animation dying off and the Disney buyout-cum-merger with Pixar that would lead to 2D being saved — hurrah! Of course, this film is now 11 years old, and we know things didn’t end so happily: despite Lasseter & co’s commitment to helping 2D stay alive, Disney have released jus two traditionally-animated feature films since then, and the last of those was in 2011, apparently with no more planned.

Luxo, pre-logo

It’s at this point the film is also forced to acknowledge Cars, which I think most would regard as Pixar’s first real critical flop. They talk about how it was “beautiful” and a “hit”, but then move past it speedily, presumably to gloss over the fact it didn’t go down nearly as well as their other movies. This highlights two things: firstly, that this is certainly no “warts and all” telling — if there were internal conflicts or difficulties, they’re glossed over. Secondly, that the film could do with an update. As I said, it’s 11 years old now, and much has changed in that time. Pixar had only released seven movies at that point and were on top of the world, but since then they’ve released many more (they’re up to 19 now, with #20 imminent) and faced challenges of less-well-received films, a resurgence in the quality and popularity of Disney’s main output, and the likes of DreamWorks and Illumination gaining ground. It would be very interesting to see an update on how that time has been for the company.

Despite those drawbacks, The Pixar Story feels like a very good overview of one of the most significant forces in 21st Century movies. Without being too sycophantic, it definitely feels like a celebration, but one that they’d earned.

4 out of 5

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Toy Story 2 (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #93

The toys are back!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 92 minutes
BBFC: U
MPAA: G

Original Release: 24th November 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 11th February 2000
First Seen: cinema, 2000

Stars
Tom Hanks (Apollo 13, The Da Vinci Code)
Tim Allen (Jungle 2 Jungle, Wild Hogs)
Joan Cusack (Addams Family Values, School of Rock)
Kelsey Grammer (Anastasia, X-Men: The Last Stand)

Director
John Lasseter (Toy Story, Cars 2)

Co-directors
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)

Screenwriters
Andrew Stanton (Monsters, Inc., WALL·E)
Rita Hsiao (Mulan, My Little Pony: The Movie)
Doug Chamberlin (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)
Chris Webb (Bruno the Kid: The Animated Movie)

Story by
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Tinker Bell and the Pirate Fairy)
Pete Docter (Toy Story, Inside Out)
Ash Brannon (Surf’s Up, Rock Dog)
Andrew Stanton (Toy Story, Finding Dory)

The Story
After Woody is stolen by a nefarious toy collector, the rest of the toys set out to rescue him — but, tempted by the idea of spending eternity in a museum with friends from his TV show, does Woody want to be saved?

Our Heroes
Buzz and Woody are back, and now the best of friends. This time, Woody is confronted with his past when he meets a gang of other toys from the TV series he starred in, but will he stay with them or return to Andy? Meanwhile, Buzz sets out to rescue Woody, but has issues of his own to tackle when he comes face to face with his nemesis, Emperor Zurg.

Our Villain
Al McWhiggin, the owner of Al’s Toy Barn and serious toy collector, who steals Woody when he’s accidentally put in a yard sale box.

Best Supporting Character
Jessie, a cowgirl from Woody’s TV show. Fundamentally an excitable and chipper character, she was left distraught after being abandoned by her owner, and is now scared of being put back in storage — which will happen if Woody isn’t part of Al’s collection.

Memorable Quote
“You never forget kids like Emily, or Andy, but they forget you.” — Jessie

Memorable Scene
On their hunt for Woody, the other toys explore a giant toy emporium, in which Buzz comes across an aisle filled with fellow Buzzes. Spotting one with a new utility belt, he tries to acquire the accessory, only to awaken his double…

Making of
Toy Story 2 was originally commissioned by Disney as a direct-to-video sequel, because they did that a lot back then, and went into production without Pixar’s primary staff, who were already busy creating A Bug’s Life. When early work looked promising, Disney bumped the project’s status up to a full theatrical release. Conversely, Pixar were unhappy with the quality of what they were seeing. The main team took charge, redeveloping the film’s entire story in a single weekend, but still had to meet the release date Disney had already set. Although most Pixar films take years to produce, the production of Toy Story 2 was compressed into just nine months. The pressure got to people: at one point someone accidentally deleted 90% of the film’s files, representing two years work. Fortunately, another crew member working at home had back-ups of all but the last few days’ work.

Previously on…
The original Toy Story was the first computer-animated feature film.

Next time…
Toy Story 3 followed 11 years later, with Toy Story 4 set to come 9 years after that. Also shorts, TV specials, and the Buzz Lightyear spin-off (see last time).

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Song)
7 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Female Voice Acting (Joan Cusack), Male Voice Acting (Tim Allen), Music, Storyboarding)
2 Annie Awards nominations (Character Animation, Production Design)
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Music)
1 Teen Choice Awards nomination (Choice Hissy Fit)

What the Critics Said
Toy Story 2 is a brilliant example of that rarest of Hollywood phenomena — a sequel to a major hit film that’s as good, if not better, than the original. This is mainly the result of a perfect mixture of two essential elements. First, there’s an excellent script by Andrew Stanton and his team of writers […] Second, there’s the remarkable technology developed by Pixar for the film A Bug’s Life. It’s this approach they’ve now taken to even greater heights […] These filmmakers have taken the 1995 characters and given them more depth, creating a new story that lets the toys interact in a larger world. It all comes down to amazing visuals and basic storytelling — and this is one heck of a good tale.” — Paul Clinton, CNN

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
Toy Story 2 is considered, by most, to be a perfect film. The characters are amazing. The stakes are higher than the first film. And the emotional beats hit harder than before. With two successes under their belt, it’s hard to believe that Pixar could not only be consistent with that quality, but somehow also manage to pull off something even more amazing than we thought possible. Expanding the mythology of this world and really making us feel for the toys that we forgot as children, Toy Story 2 is, in the words of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.” — Jaysen Headley, Jaysen Headley Writes

Verdict

Sequels are notorious for not being as good as their progenitor. I feel like this is a trend that is increasingly being bucked — with everything Hollywood makes designed to be a franchise, Film 1 is often about setup and Film 2 is where the makers are allowed to do what they really wanted to do in the first place. But when you strike gold first time out, it’s still hard to do it justice second time round. Pixar do that and more here, with a sequel that is slicker, funnier, more exciting, and more emotional than its forebear. Even if it’s happening more often now, good sequels are still hard to do — trust Pixar to have got there ahead of the pack.

#94 will be… transportive.

Toy Story (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #92

The toys are back in town.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: G

Original Release: 22nd November 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 22nd March 1996
First Seen: cinema, 1996

Stars
Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle, Catch Me If You Can)
Tim Allen (Galaxy Quest, The Shaggy Dog)

Director
John Lasseter (A Bug’s Life, Cars)

Screenwriters
Joss Whedon (Alien Resurrection, Avengers: Age of Ultron)
Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, John Carter)
Joel Cohen (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield)
Alec Sokolow (Cheaper by the Dozen, Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties)

Story by
John Lasseter (Toy Story 2, Planes)
Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc., Up)
Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3)
Joe Ranft (Beauty and the Beast, Cars)

The Story
In a world where toys come to life when humans aren’t around, Woody is six-year-old Andy’s favourite doll… until he gets Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger action figure, for his birthday. An upset Woody clashes with Buzz, but when the bickering pair are left behind during a house move they must work together to get back to their kid.

Our Heroes
Woody is a cowboy doll, the favourite of his kid, Andy, and consequently the leader of all Andy’s toys. That is until Andy gets a shiny new Buzz Lightyear action figure, whose newness ingratiates him with all the other toys. Plus, to Woody’s continued annoyance, Buzz believes he really is a space ranger and has no idea he’s just a toy.

Our Villain
Sid, Andy’s nasty neighbour kid who does terrible, terrible things to toys…

Best Supporting Character
Mr Potato Head, whose various body parts are slotted on and therefore removable and interchangeable. Hilarity ensues. Also has a nice line in snarky comments.

Memorable Quote
“To infinity, and beyond!” — Buzz Lightyear

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“You are a sad, strange little man, and you have my pity.” — Buzz Lightyear

Memorable Scene
One of Buzz’s claims as a real space ranger is that he can fly, so Woody challenges him to prove it. Buzz closes his eyes, dives off the bed… and, through a series of flukes, bounces and coasts his way around the room, landing back on the bed. “That wasn’t flying,” cries Woody, “that was falling with style!”

Memorable Song
The film’s themes are perfectly reflected in Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated and endlessly catchy song, You’ve Got a Friend in Me. Both Toy Story sequels have tried to emulate it, with… less success.

Technical Wizardry
Only the whole movie — it was the first feature-length wholly-computer-generated animated film. As such, we have it to thank/blame for the current entire state of popular Western animation.

Making of
The animators perfected the movement of the toy soldiers by nailing a pair of shoes to a wooden plank and trying to walk around in them.

Previously on…
Toy Story was the first feature-length computer-animated film — there is, in that sense, literally nothing before it.

Next time…
Two feature film sequels, both of which are at least as artistically successful as this first, with a fourth set to follow in 2018. Also, three short films and two TV specials to date, plus direct-to-video spin-off movie Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins and the TV series that follows it. You could also argue the entirety of Pixar’s highly-praised output is a follow-up to the success of Toy Story, as well as American feature animation’s almost entire conversion from traditional cel animation to 3D CGI.

Awards
1 Special Achievement Oscar to John Lasseter for “the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film.”
3 Oscar nominations (Original Screenplay, Song, Musical or Comedy Score)
1 BAFTA nomination (Visual Effects)
8 Annie Awards (Animated Feature, Directing, Writing, Producing, Music, Production Design, Animation, Technical Achievement)
1 Annie Awards nomination (Voice Acting (Tom Hanks))
2 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Writing)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation

What the Critics Said
“Far from just a technological breakthrough, this hellzapoppin fairy tale […] is a magically witty and humane entertainment. It has the purity, the ecstatic freedom of imagination, that’s the hallmark of the greatest children’s films. It also has the kind of spring-loaded allusive prankishness that, at times, will tickle adults even more than it does kids. The moment Mr. Potato Head arranges his snap-on features into a Cubist mash and says, ”I’m Picasso,” it’s clear that director John Lasseter and his team of writer-technicians have taken their most anarchic impulses and run with them. […] In its techno-cool photo-realist way, though, this movie, too, invites you to gaze upon the textures of the physical world with new eyes. What Bambi and Snow White did for nature, Toy Story, amazingly, does for plastic — for the synthetic gizmo culture of the modern mall brat. The film’s wit (and resonance) is that it brings toys to life exactly the way children do in their heads. It molds plastic into pure imagination.” — Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

Score: 100%

What the Public Say
“The Animation is superb. Given that this was one of the first ever feature length computer animated movies, those guys at Pixar really hit the nail on the head. The colours are vibrant and the characters are dynamic. An excellent use of Blues, Yellows and Reds really accentuate the ‘children’ and ‘toys’ feel. There are also beautiful realistic elements such as a scene where Woody and Buzz find themselves under a lorry in a petrol station. With this, I was simply amazed at the attention to detail with the stones, tarmac and oil stains on the textures. It really looks like you are close-up to the ground and I love it!” — Alexander Potter, Pottercraft’s Pictures

Verdict

Just because something’s the first to do something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good, but Pixar didn’t strike gold with Toy Story just because computer animation was New. It’s the likeable characters, how they develop and learn, the amusing situations they’re put in, plus some heartwarming messages about friendship. There’s more emotion and character development in these wooden-and-plastic toys generated with pixels in a computer than many a film can achieve with real human beings, and that’s why Pixar came to revolutionise and dominate the Western animation genre.

Some would say “the original is still the best”, and it is up there, but on Sunday I will beg to differ…

#93 will be… a superior sequel.

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

2015 #85
Stephen Anderson | 91 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | U / G

Meet the RobinsonsDisney’s 47th Animated Classic comes from their weak ’00s period, after the end of the so-called Renaissance and before what’s apparently been dubbed the neo-Renaissance (presumably no one could think of a synonym). This hails from the tail end of that lamentable era, though, so there are signs of recovery: Meet the Robinsons isn’t bad, just mediocre.

Loosely adapted from a children’s book, the story sees orphan boy-genius Lewis invent a machine to display your memories, which is stolen by the moustache-twirlingly-evil Bowler Hat Guy. Then he meets Wilbur Robinson, who tells Lewis that Bowler Hat Guy is from the future, where they promptly set off for, and where Lewis does indeed meet the Robinsons, a crazy family of crazy people.

Along the way, the film manages some funny moments… the entirety of which are in the trailer. The “Todayland” sight gag and the subtitled bit with the T-rex: that’s your lot. Elsewise, Lewis and Wilbur are decent enough protagonists, but “decent enough” is about the extent of their likeability. On the bright side, the film at least functions when it keeps them in focus: the villain is mostly underwhelming, meaning things drag when centred on him for too long, and there are just too many Robinsons — the montage where we meet them all begins to feel endless. They’re too one-note, and of too little consequence in their brevity, to be of much interest.

Lewis and WilburThe time travel element of the plot is weakly thought-through. It’s not the point of the film, which is more about family ‘n’ stuff, but it’s central enough that it robs the already-underpowered climax of much weight — you’re too busy thinking “wait, does that make sense?” to be invested in events. Finally, the animation style has aged badly, now looking plain and under-detailed.

Meet the Robinsons is not a Chicken Little-level disaster, but if you want a computer-animated movie about a child inventor, there are at least two much better options, and I hear the other one about a time travelling kid is pretty good too. Apparently nearly 60% of this was re-made after John Lasseter became chief creative officer at Disney and had some suggestions — what’s the betting that’s where most of the best bits came from? And I’d also wager that explains why Disney’s next film, Bolt, was their true emergence from the creative doldrums.

2 out of 5

Cars 2 (2011)

2012 #51
John Lasseter | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G

Cars 2Pixar, oh exalted studio of wondrous excellence, who produce naught but critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved films that may as well just be given the Best Animated Feature Oscar without the need for fellow nominees, dropped the ball with Cars. So why did it become only the second Pixar movie to earn a sequel? As most people know, because of the merchandise. Little boys love toy cars (and grown men too, apparently) and the things sold like hot cakes, and continued to do so for years afterwards. Running out of ways to milk the first movie’s characters, the only solution was to make some new ones — and that involves making a new film.

For what is essentially a near-two-hour toy commercial, Cars 2 fares quite well — it’s better than Batman & Robin anyway. Well, it’s less offensive to one’s sensibilities. Not ruining a great character and a once-great franchise helps. And, despite its lowly Rotten Tomatoes rating (which is flat out appalling, and doubly so for a Pixar movie), there’s a solid argument to be made that it’s better than the first Cars.

The plot is just as predictable though: character arcs are so well-trodden they only seem to bother including them because they push the story along; surely everyone will guess who the ‘surprise’ villain is as soon as he/she/it shows up earlier in the film; and so on. But instead of the stock “slick city guy finds his true self in the country” tale told first time round, Caine, Michael Cainehere we get an international spy movie — much more fun. The espionage stuff is clearly inspired by Bond (the primary secret service is British, for starters), and the opening eight minutes — an action sequence starring the film’s Michael Caine-voiced Bond analogy — is probably the best stuff in either Cars movie. Actors like Caine and Emily Mortimer lend the whole affair some much-needed class.

Mater, voiced by Some Idiot (I believe Larry the Cable Guy is actually his ‘name’) was a mildly irritating character in the first film, but at least there was less of him than the marketing suggested. Clearly he clicked with someone — the pre-pre-teen toy-buying audience, I suppose — and so his role is massively bumped up here. In fact, I don’t think anyone would disagree that he’s the main character, with Owen Wilson’s McQueen relegated to a supporting role. Mater isn’t the most irritatingly stupid animated character ever conceived, but he’s not a huge amount of fun either. Like so much else, his whole schtick is tiresomely predictable fullstop, and depressingly familiar from first time round — and it was barely amusing in the first place.

McQueen, then, may still be front-and-centre in the marketing, but his story — the racing aspect of the movie — gets quickly relegated to a subplot. It’s kind of ironic, as the first film was all about races on boring NASCAR loops, whereas here we getting exciting European street circuits and we barely see them. On the bright side, we all know how race movies pan out — Touristythe back-and-forth battling, the last-minute surge, etc etc — so it’s not really any loss.

There are a raft of cameos — more than the first film, I think — the most obvious being Lewis Hamilton as a black racing car. He’s joined in a sort-of-double-act by some American voice who I presume is also a racing driver. This is the role picked for localisation, getting region-specific racing drivers in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Russia, Sweden, Latin America and Brazil. I’d wager at least half of those voices would be infinitely more recognisable to a British audience than that yankee bloke they do have in there — I don’t follow racing and I’ve heard of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Jacques Villeneuve, but I’ve not got the first clue who Jeff Gordon is.

One much-criticised aspect of the first film was its world (who built these cars? where are the humans? etc). It was possible to gloss over it, just about, when the film was doing other things to hold your attention. Here, it’s almost like they don’t want you to forget. It’s plenty exciting and fast-paced enough to leave behind concerns about what’s going on, but then throws in all sorts of unnecessary snatches of dialogue or small details in set design that slap you with a brief remembrance that this world doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. One I didn’t even notice until I was collating pictures for this review: Why is a CAR wearing a HAT?why is the police car wearing a giant hat?!

The technical faults don’t stop there: despite its pedigree, direction is strangely amateurish much of the time. The action sequences occasionally sing, but not always, while the entirety of the dialogue scenes are flatly shot, showing a repetitive choice of boring angles. It doesn’t help that they don’t contain much engaging material, especially the instances when they seem to be literally trotting out all the first film’s characters to deliver a single line each in not-that-quick succession. At times it verges on painful.

The Cars films are really aimed at kids no older than about six. They won’t be familiar enough with movies to see the tired plot points, they won’t question the film’s bizarre world, they’ll probably be enamoured of Mater, they’ll certainly be suckered in by the talking cars and the glossy action sequences… It’s their very lack of familiarity or critical faculties that makes the film easily entertaining. And then they’ll want all the toys, which is why this movie exists.

And one of the reasons people heavily criticise the Cars films in spite of that increasingly obvious fact is because they’re made by Pixar. In themselves, these two films are fine — but that’s all they are. When Pixar can make so many innovative, exciting, emotional, Action!entertaining films, how can they also produce something so uninspired?

Cars 2 still suffers from many of the first film’s faults, being lacklustre in vital departments like character, humour and storyline. But it’s shorter, faster-paced and more exciting, which for my money makes it the lesser of two evils.

3 out of 5