There is nothing short of a giddy delight in watching the fine folks who founded PIXAR living out their dreams in ways much larger than even they could ever have imagined. It covers all the usual ups and downs of any show biz story, but PIXAR is not just any show biz entity, and the documentary by Leslie Iwerks does a whiz bang job of showing not just why that is, but also why this little studio turns out such consistently dazzling films.
The word is synergy, not in the jargon sense, but the genuine meshing of differences that produces something unique. In this case, an animator, John Lasseter, and a computer mogul, Steve Jobs, and Ed Catmull, a frustrated animator turned physicist, all of whom could see beyond the bottom line and into worlds of possibilities that left less imaginative types in the dust. By focusing on these personalities, and others who were there at the beginning as well as those, like Brad Bird, who came later, Iwerks gets to the creative stew of the culture at PIXAR. A generation that grew up on Disney films, loved them, and were almost stymied by that studio’s inability to see the future. Case in point is Lasseter himself. He was one of the first students at the Disney-sponsored art school, trained by the animators who had worked on the early classics. He landed his dream job at Disney only to be summarily fired when he thought he believed he was on the verge of making his first feature film.
In fact, an interesting swath of the doc pays tribute to the art of hand-drawn animation that is dying out in the face of CGI’s success. Far from denigrating their roots, these guys are more than a little wistful about what will be lost when the next generation of animators takes over without ever having put pen to paper to create motion. It’s all the more poignant for Lasseter and company embracing the computer convinced that it wouldn’t impact artists at all.
The actual problems of computer animation get a thorough going over, but Iwerks plays it like a hi-tech cross between a mystery and an adventure tale. Each advance taking on significance and an excitement that is palpable even if the effect, a three-dimensional hand or a buzzing plasticine bee, is now passé. As one guy puts it, art pushed the technology, the technology pushed the art and it’s impossible not to be swept into the exhilarating race where everyone wins and no one gets enough sleep. Also getting a thorough going over is the dicey history of Pixar’s business side, as an unprofitable side business, a leap of faith by Jobs, a creator of dazzling commercials, each step uncertain to everyone except the people doing the work.
The history of Pixar’s releases plays like the cinematic version of the overblown purple prose of a publicity hack in overdrive, and yet everything is true. Every film topped the previous one in style, artistry, and writing, while raising the bar on technology into ever more stratospheric heights. So much so that it was almost impossible to describe. It had to be seen, which is why the studio invited Tom Hanks to see a clip of what they had in mind rather than describe it. Hanks is seen recalling his reaction to see a clip of what would be TOY STORY and finding that he, too, couldn’t quite describe it to people afterwards.
The saga of TOY STORY is also what is at the heart by why Pixar works. The people in charge and involved on every level are not putting out a product or a commodity, but rather creating the stuff that dreams are made on. Plus they’re in the business of amusing themselves as much as pleasing an audience. This is why when Disney took charge of TOY STORY II and created a direct-to-DVD film that the original creative team at Pixar couldn’t stomach, they did the impossible. With virtually no time, they worked 24/7 to re-make the film from the ground up, producing another classic that was the equal of the original while not mimicking it. Most telling is Lasseter’s wife, recalling that the family trip, the one that was supposed to make up for all the time John spent at Pixar to get it going, was put on hold so that he could fix the sequel. There is sadness, but also a little glimmer of pride along with the acceptance that this is the guy she married and maybe it isn’t such a bad deal.
THE PIXAR STORY is an enlightening look at people with an improbably buoyed sense of optimism who weren’t just ahead of their time, they were light-years and then some ahead of it. When there was not a traditional place for them, they didn’t cave to the conventional wisdom of fitting into what was available. In stunning flashes of inspiration and determination, they turned down the obvious, went with their gut, and created an industry, and a fantasy world, that is as improbable as it is enchanting.