Seeing Dory to Cars 2: Pixar’s greatest reaches and misses

Pixar redrew the rules of animation with its groundbreaking CGI and the gorgeous visuals are matched by lovable characters and thrilling storytelling

Inside Out (2015)

By the time the credits rolled on Pete Docters boisterous existential satire, it was easy to imagine that we all have a Star Trek-style bridge inhabited by colourful motivators representing different aspects of the human persona, from Joy and Sadness to Anger and Disgust, inside our minds. Pixars ingeniously simple idea smartly reimagined a childs inner turmoil as an epic white-knuckle ride through conflicting emotions and memories, as 12-year-old Riley Andersen desperately tries to adjust to strange and terrifying new experiences (such as broccoli infested pizza and hipster California classmates) with the help of the funny little people in her head. The sublime anarchy of the human condition beautifully rendered in dazzling primary colours.

Up (2009)

Unlikely
Unlikely friendship Carl and Russell in Up. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The best Pixar movies are often the ones the merchandise department must have struggled with the longest: it seems unlikely that Disney stores have sold many Carl Fredricksen and Russell toys over the years. Only Pixar would make a film about the friendship between a curmudgeonly old widower determined not to give up his home to the ravages of corporate greed and a perky boy scout with daddy issues. A movie to brush away cobwebs from the soul, remove cataracts from the eyes and remind us that the spirit of adventure can never be entirely grounded, no matter how old we are.

WALL-E (2008)

Chaplinesque
Chaplinesque WALL-E with love interest EVE

Like HG Wells The Time Machine, Andrew Stantons clarion call to the dangers of consumerism imagined a future in which we have lost our humanity through the horrors of indolence. But there are no terrifying Morlocks to menace the corpulent Eloi of the Axiom, only evil robot feeder types determined to keep their human charges in contented slothfulness for the rest of eternity. WALL-E himself makes for an unlikely, Chaplinesque hero, built entirely from mechanical parts yet somehow emerging as by far the storys most ardently human participant.

Toy Story (1995)

Revolutionary
Revolutionary cowboy Woody in the first Toy Story. Photograph: Disney/Pixar/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Video never did quite kill the radio star, but Toy Storys Oscar-winning CGI revolution really did wipe out the gilded Hollywood tradition for hand-drawn animation (though there have been occasional, sporadic rumblings of life in recent years.) However, an even more radical shift in the zeitgeist may have been the films relative absence of songs. Before Toy Story, most animated movies were musicals. After Woody, Buzz et al made their presence felt, the genre was able to climb out of its box and begin talking a whole new language.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Villain
Villain of the piece Lots-O-Huggin Bear with Buzz Lightyear and Woody in Toy Story 3

The real joy of this unexpected sequel lay in its ability to invent a meaningful circle of symmetry for the saga, Pixar boss John Lasseter throwing a curveball by reconfiguring the trilogy around Andys story arc, rather than that of his colourful playthings. But, before the soon-to-be freshman can say goodbye to his toys for ever and begin the pathos-drenched journey into adulthood, theres one last adventure to be had thanks to the nefarious plotting of the sagas greatest villain yet an evil bear who smells of strawberries.

The Incredibles (2004)

Secret
Secret superheroes The Incredibles. Photograph: Allstar/Disney/Pixar/Sportsphoto

A meta-infused take on the superhero movie that reimagined Alan Moores Watchmen for a younger generation and established Brad Bird as a talent to watch, after the film-makers brilliant, earlier non-Pixar effort The Iron Giant. Does The Incredibles hint that parents should strain against the conformity that might have turned them into identi-dads and mums by letting their offspring in on the secret of their younger selves? Perhaps this explains all the kiddies raving at Glastonbury these days.

Ratatouille (2007)

Theres
Theres a rat in mi kitchen Ratatouille. Photograph: Disney/AP

What a strange confection this foodie feast represents. Despite its Francophile framing, Birds paean to epicurean pleasures feels fiercely Dickensian in its depiction of a naive young cuisinier vying to make his way in a cynical world (with the help of a gourmet rat). It was released in a golden age for Pixar during which the studio, by now owned by Disney, won the best animated film Oscar four years in a row.

Finding Dory (2016)

Awash
Awash with fresh ideas Finding Dory. Photograph: Pixar/AP

Andrew Stantons return to animation after the disastrous response to John Carter does far more than just tick all the sequel boxes. Finding Dorys genius (though some might call it cheating) is to find preposterous ways to bring the watery world of clown fish and blue tangs closer to our own as Ellen DeGeneres forgetful fish goes searching for her long-lost parents in a coastal oceanarium populated by grumpy octopi, helpful sea lions and a godlike disembodied voice known only as Sigourney Weaver. A fresh catch as bountiful as this is an encouraging sign that Pixar is entering a new, rich vein of form.

Toy Story 2 (1999)

Existential
Existential dread Mr and Mrs Potato Head in Toy Story 2. Photograph: Allstar/Disney/Pixar/Sportsphoto

Disney wanted a quick, cheap, straight-to-DVD sequel to Toy Story, and part two of Woody and Buzzs adventures, in which the rootin tootin cowboy is stolen by a toy collector and reunited with the Roundup Gang, was almost a disaster. Only Pixars refusal to compromise and its commitment to work around the clock to meet release deadlines allowed the final film to live up to the quality of its predecessor. With a fresh focus on the existential dread of the abandoned plaything, the sequel gave us perhaps the most emotive segue in animated history: Jessie the cowgirls tearful lament When Somebody Loved Me.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

A
A masterful feat of conceptual thinking Monsters, Inc. Photograph: AP

No compendium of childhood eccentricities would be complete without taking in the night terrors, so Pixar invented an entire world of menacing creatures whose job is to scare the living daylights out of poor little kiddies. John Goodman and Billy Crystals incomparable double act as Sulley and Mike brought a warm humanity to the freaky netherworld of Monstropolis, whose titular grand factory of ever-shifting doors, each one leading to a childs bedroom, represented a masterful feat of outlandish conceptual thinking.

Finding Nemo (2003)

Awesome
Awesome ocean odyssey Finding Nemo

Marlin the clownfishs fishy odyssey across the ocean in search of his missing son was the first Pixar film to really go in hard on the age-old animated staple, the death of a family member. But, while Disney classics such as Bambi and The Lion King balanced grief with an abiding sense of fate and glorious birthright, director Andrew Stanton used it as fuel for comedy, as dear old dad is forced to leave the safety of the reef for open waters populated by all manner of wickedly vivacious creatures, from vegetarian sharks to surfer dude turtles and garrulous Aussie gulls.

Brave (2012)

A
A paean to childhood rebellion Brave. Photograph: Pixar/AP

Pixars sole foray into medieval fantasy is a rambunctious, vivacious affair that celebrates the power of non-conformity while pecking away at the nagging scab of childhood rebellion. Sister studio Disney Animation may have attracted more attention, with the following years Frozen, for reminding us that young women are not entirely reliant on romance and the willing arms of a charming suitor. And yet, with this lively, Oscar-winning tale of Caledonian pluck, Pixar was the first to split the arrow.

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Part
Part coming-of-age story, part western The Good Dinosaur. Photograph: Allstar/Pixar/Disney

A long and tortuous production process saw this tale of talking apatasauruses delayed by more than a year, with original director Bob Peterson removed to allow Pete Sohn to take charge. Its part western, part coming-of-age story, with dino Arlo forced to find his own way in the world following the death of his hardworking dirt-poor farmer daddy. There are some nice touches, from sociopathic, parasitic pterodactyls to unexpectedly decent cowboy tyrannosaurs, but you wonder if the film suffered from the high bar Pixar had set for itself. It is noticeably superior to rival studio Dreamworks Animations own prehistoric fable, The Croods.

A Bugs Life (1998)

Day
Day of the locust (and ant) A Bugs Life. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Disney/Pixar

Like its controversial rival Antz, Pixars second film came into being because insect-like shapes and surfaces were among the few styles of animation that nascent CGI technology could do really well. Unfortunately for the studio, Dreamworks Animations venture had Woody Allen on board and a smarter storyline that used insects as a metaphor for the rigidity of human societies. Yet A Bugs Life is decent enough entertainment, and in visual terms at least it has dated better than its competitors.

Monsters University (2013)

Back
Back to school Monsters University. Photograph: Allstar/Pixar/Disney/Sportsphoto

Monsters Incs genius was to imagine that the monsters hiding in childhood closets are mostly just friendly, freakish-looking fellows going about their jobs. But this unnecessary prequel insisted on showing us what happened to Sully and Mike before they accidentally extracted little cutie Boo from her cosy bedroom. Tales of student debauchery can make fine R-rated comedies and semi-raunchy 80s frat boy romps, but they are far from logical material for a childrens animated film.

Cars (2006)

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