Pixar – The New Magic Kingdom
With the critical adulation that has greetedÂ Toy Story 3, even now, with half a year of contention left, it would be a fair bet that Pixar have the Best Animated Feature Oscar in the bag. Again. Since the category was introduced in 2001, Pixar have won more times than any other single animation studio. But what is the magic formula that has seen Pixar so spectacularly outshine its peers, even Disney?
Producer Darla K. Anderson sums up Pixarâ€™s success in one sentence: â€œWe stay true to the story weâ€™re telling.â€? And thatâ€™s the beauty of Pixar â€“ everything comes down to the story. Thereâ€™s no stunt casting, actorsâ€™ names donâ€™t even appear on their posters (not even when their casts include Oscar-winners like Tom Hanks and Holly Hunter). There are no gimmicks, no gags that are out-of-character. Even now, where every horror movie and cartoon are throwing their flashy 3D effects at you, Toy Story 3â€™s animation is beautifully subtle. â€œ(3D) is a really fun way to watch a film,â€? says Anderson, â€œbut we approach it with a lighter touch â€“ we donâ€™t want to distance the audience, we want to draw them in. We use it to create a window into the world, a diorama. Yes, it takes a little longer to produce, but we have a team of passionate 3D enthusiasts and it is all done in concert with the film.â€?
Despite essentially creating the CG animated film, the visuals are probably secondary in the public consciousness to Pixarâ€™s brilliant characters, be it the forgetful but memorable Dory in Finding Nemo or Wall-Eâ€™s adorable titular hero. This year, Pixar have added a whole host of new characters to Toy Storyâ€™s already stellar cast, foremost of which is the stroke of genius that is Ken. â€œWe pitched the character of Ken to Matel, how we were going to make fun of him, and they were totally on board,â€? says director Lee Unkrich. â€œFor years Matel tried to find a special feature for Ken so that they could price him above $4.99. Then they realised that was his special feature â€“ he was only $4.99! Heâ€™s an insecure guy, heâ€™s played with by girls, heâ€™s an accessory for Barbie, heâ€™s overcompensating!â€?
Pixar also produces family films with surprisingly grown-up, rich messages. At the heart of Up is a grieving widower, Finding Nemo is about a father who fears his son is dead, Wall-E is about environmental disaster and heartbreaking loneliness. Toy Story 3, in turn, was largely inspired by Executive Producer John Lasseterâ€™s experience of leaving his son at college for the first time. Many animated movies fall back on that simple moral of Be True To Yourself, but itâ€™s Pixar that can reliably make you cry. â€œWeâ€™re proud that people find the movie affecting,â€? says Unkrich. â€œBut we never set out to make grown men cry! Themes emerged as we made the film, there was no laundry list of what to include. Itâ€™s a funny movie too, a prison break movie. We find a balance.â€? Anderson adds: â€œA toy is meant to be played with, so thereâ€™s a natural tension because one day the child will grow up.â€?
â€œIt used to be harder to attract a cast before Pixar was known as reliable quality,â€? Unkrich admits. But now they are more than just a stamp of quality â€“ Pixar is known for being a family, nurturing its animators and directors up through the ranks. Unkrich, for example, began as an editor on the first Toy Story. â€œIâ€™ve been lucky to be part of all three Toy Story films. In the first one we knew we were making something special, something the world hadnâ€™t seen before, but we didnâ€™t realise it would enter pop culture the way it has. I freaked out about taking the helm of such a beloved film series. I didnâ€™t want to be the person who screwed it up!â€?
Â â€œSo much of the fun of Pixar comes from John Lasseter,â€? says Unkrich of Pixarâ€™s (and now Disneyâ€™s) Chief Creative Officer. â€œHe sets the tone and the spirit of fun has never gone away. The animators have a frat house mentality â€“ all craziness and debauchery.â€? Famously, everyone on the Toy Story 3 team undertook a number of dares and tasks during the making of the film, including beard-growing contests and shaving their heads, the reason behind Unkrichâ€™s current lean and mean look. â€œWe act very immaturely,â€? Unkrich laughs. â€œWe were in our 20s with Toy Story and when we get back together we just act like kids again. And these days our children keep us young.â€?
Maybe that is the real reason behind the success of Pixar, the reason they speak to children so deeply without speaking down to them, the reason adults love their films just as much â€“ because they never lost that spark of childhood magic. Pixar is a Peter Pan company, all primary-coloured plastic furniture and toys lining the corridors, bringing that spark to full flame on the screen. â€œThese new talented guys are coming in saying Toy Story inspired them when they were eight years old.â€? Anderson marvels. An entire generation has been brought up on the films of Pixar, and as the studio begins to move towards its first live-action production letâ€™s hope that they donâ€™t grow up any time soon.
By Abigail Chandler
Toy Story 3 is out now