Feature // 25 Years at the Top: Pixar’s Animated Dynasty

Illustration by Thomas Durham

As the curtain falls on Incredibles 2’s summer dominance, we examine how Pixar has spent a quarter of a century at the top.

Everyone has their favourite childhood films, not all of which are necessarily good. While nostalgia may reign supreme for the likes of Pokemon: The Movie and a future generation may look back upon The Emoji Movie with similar affection, great films they are regrettably not. Yet great films can be and are made for children. In the last 25 years, a bulk of the best children’s films have been overwhelmingly made by a small group of people running one very successful company – Pixar Animation Studios.

Birthed in the hayday of Lucasfilm when a band of animators split to form their own studio, Pixar’s initial success could be attributed to their remarkable first staff. Pixar’s early executive team included 3 future industry heavyweights, namely John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Steve Jobs. Lasseter (retired 2018), began his career as a cel animator with Disney in 1969 while Docter joined Pixar in 1990 fresh out of college. Yet since their humble beginnings, these two men have directed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, Up, Monsters Inc., and Inside Out. Jobs’ early contribution was to fund Pixar’s initial leap of faith away from Lucasfilm and to bring Brad Bird, director of The Simpsons and The Iron Giant onboard. Two lesser known names, producers Alvy Ray Smith and Edwin Catmull finish out the roster of a handful of men who have been the consistent creative force behind Pixar since day one. People who learned their trade on the shop floor and never lost sight of that crucial aspect to working in animated film.

Pixar’s first film, Toy Story, released to groundbreaking enthusiasm in 1995, heralded a new era in cinema, the first feature to be entirely computer animated and set the high standard that Pixar would continue to raise. Yet technical innovation quickly began to play second fiddle to their other successes. The stories they crafted not only innovative in their presentation, but in subject matter too. Avoiding overly trodden ground of fairytales and well established lore, Pixar have favoured original stories and have not been afraid to tackle social issues that affect all families in one way or another. Basing their films around minority characters and foreign cultures, single parenthood, grief and loss, even the message of less child-relatable causes like climate change has not seen Pixar stumble, but rise to the challenge. When films are as charming as Pixar make them, you forget how socially aware and progressive they can be, and how formative these messages are for children who view them with open eyes and hearts.

Steve Jobs’ business ethos of class, reliability and substance played a huge part of Pixar’s formative years. While Jobs was known to be a very opinionated and difficult person in his later years at Apple, his Pixar colleagues only spoke well of their time with him. Ed Catmull noted that in the 26 years of working together, they didn’t have a single heated argument. This professional yet creative environment allowed small ideas to be grown into full movies without rushing into anything and compromising quality. Accordingly, their films have always been appropriately timed and well written, not cashed in, next summer repeat business. While Pixar is home to a handful of franchises, they haven’t sucked the teat dry in an era where Shrek, Madagascar and Despicable Me have seen dwindling audiences and acclaim.

Pixar really nailed down their audience early on too, knowing that for every child seeing their films, the parent chaperoning them needs entertained as much as any child does. So it’s no surprise when The Incredibles films end up as much about being a parent as they are about being a superhero, or when Up showed that even the most grumbling of old men can still swing a sword when he needs to. On an educational slant, Inside Out even broke down brain function to a level that primary school children could not only understand, but enjoy – as their parents learned alongside them and pretended they knew it before. From Buzz Lightyear’s heartbreaking realisation that his dreams of flying will never be, to Mr. Incredible juggling a screaming baby and two adolescents, there has always been a voice in Pixar that deliberately speaks to an adult worldview. Every demographic takes something different away when viewing a Pixar film, which is why their films are so re-watchable, even generations later.

As well as being loved by audiences, Pixar also has somewhat of an awards dynasty. 19 Academy Awards, 8 Golden Globes and 11 Grammys. Of their 19 Oscar wins, 9 have been for Best Animated Feature (since the inauguration of the award in 2001). Two films have even been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, namely Toy Story 3 (2010) and Up (2009), following in the footsteps of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to be only the second and third animated films ever nominated. Awards aren’t everything of course, but if you can find a family who can’t speak fondly of at least one Pixar film, you’ve found the needle in the haystack.

Their next release will be summer 2019’s Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley, who began his career with Pixar as an intern on The Incredibles, 15 years ago. As long as Pixar stick to their roots, finding and nurturing their talents from within, they will no doubt continue to dominate the animated film world and provide classic family films for generations to come.

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