Earlier this year, blogger Jon Negroni created a, shall we say, buzz with ‘The Pixar Theory’, his astonishing speculation that the studio’s animated features form one long story about sentient animals, machine revolution and Earth’s survival in the post-apocalypse.
Yet as proved by this infinity-sized boxset – which collects all 14 features to date alongside shorts going back to 1984’s The Adventures Of André And Wally B – there’s a simpler theory to unite Pixar’s output. Whether toy or car, fish or monster, everybody achieves their best results when they work together – or, more specifically, when they work at Pixar.
Make no mistake: Pixar has arguably been mainstream cinema’s greatest success of modern times. It’s the digital start-up that pioneered the biggest shift in ‘film’-making since the arrival of sound – yet many of its movies are already seen as timeless classics.
Check the credentials. Half of Disney/Pixar’s features have received a screenplay Oscar nomination, and only three have failed to win Best Animated Feature since that category was created to acknowledge the post-Pixar CG boom. Now count the numbers. Every single film has been a smash hit. Toy Story has the lowest global box office (a mere $362m) but that was back in 1995, before Pixar became a household name.
The world caught on quickly – but so did Pixar. Toy Story remains the studio’s blueprint, depicting life as a playroom where creativity is unfettered... as long as nobody gets too big for their boots. When the arrival of Buzz Lightyear causes Woody to go rogue, the plot forces this odd couple together until Woody sees the error of his jealousy and Buzz is freed from his delusions of grandeur.
That seemingly mirrors events behind the scenes, where studio boss John Lasseter could be seen as a Woody-esque first among equals who thrives on working with like-minded talents. And in they came: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Lee Unkrich and Brad Bird, to name but a few.
The credits of any Pixar film make a nonsense of the auteur theory, where a singular vision – the director’s – holds sway. Unkrich, for example, debuted as director with Toy Story 3, and yet as co-director he provided pivotal back-up on many earlier classics. And while Ratatouille is known as Bird’s film, he famously replaced original director Jan Pinkava.
This has prompted criticism of Pixar’s approach to hiring and firing, but it misses the point. Look again at Toy Story. The boss isn’t Woody, nor Buzz. It’s Andy. Everybody at Pixar has the same thing stamped on their boots: ‘the audience.’
That attitude prompts fierce loyalty. When, in Toy Story 2, Woody is tempted by alternatives (Disney? DreamWorks?) he realises he’s best off where he is, and it’s revealing how often Pixar asks this same question: up sticks, or stay put? The answer isn’t always clear-cut. For every Up, finding adventure in a long and faithful marriage, there’s a Ratatouille: of course a rat should flee the nest to become a chef!
If there’s a common thread, it’s to follow your heart. Pixar’s films have an undimmed romanticism, a belief that laughter is more valuable than a scream. That formula is fluid enough to provide writers with endless opportunities. Want to make a gag about Picasso, or create a neo-silent, Chaplinesque first act? Go for it.
Meanwhile, animators are consistently encouraged to break new ground, whether it’s making notable advances in the simulation of fur and water, or WALL.E’s Roger Deakins-influenced photorealism.
The tonal variety and creative freedom is most obvious in the shorts, ranging from the slapstick of Presto to the moonlit loveliness of La Luna. Even so, there’s no mistaking the Pixar touch, palpable in everything from 1986’s studio-defining Luxo Jr. to the ultimate meet-cute between opposites, Day & Night.
The timing of this boxset would appear to be perfect, given Pixar’s recent decision to delay releasing its next film, The Good Dinosaur, until 2015. Arguably, however, the ideal end point would have been Toy Story 3, both a satisfying conclusion to Woody and Buzz’s story and the culmination (after WALL.E and Up) of a mature, moving trilogy about the twilight of life.
By then, the original gang was breaking up – Bird and Stanton to make live-action films, Lasseter to run Disney. Were the films of 2008-10 a warning that the party was about to end? Cars 2 – the studio’s only major misstep – brought a realisation that the innovator had turned imitator.
Two of its last four films have been franchise continuations; the third (Brave) a belated attempt to do a Disney-style folk tale; and there’s already something wistful about Monsters University’s subtext as a Pixar origins story. Perhaps having a year off in 2014 is the best possible outcome, especially since Docter and a returning Stanton will unveil new films after the break.
Really, though, these are minor quibbles considering that this boxset is a concentrated blast of cinematic joy, as close as any Hollywood studio has come to achieving perfection. “To infinity and beyond”? It’s not just a catchphrase; it’s a mission statement