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With the release of last week’s new Disney/Pixar film Onward, it seems that, at least in the short term, the studio is sticking to its brand and following “the formula” to a tee. With the release of a new Soul trailer, and a look back at the history of the computer animation pioneer, its history suggests that this is more of an outlier than a shape of the things to come, as the studio has made a living off of beautifully defying “the formula.”
Built by the risks and chances that Pixar has taken over the decades of existence it’s occupied in the Hollywood animation game, those movements were, of course, a response to “the formula” that animated films from other studios had mapped out. Even Disney itself had that “formula” locked down, which made the pairing and acquisition of Pixar all the more vital.
And in those moments where Pixar defied the supposed laws of animation, pure magic sprung forth. It’s what put the company on the map, and it’s what we’re here to look at today, as the movies we’re discussing are examples of why Pixar has made such a lasting impression on the world.
You don’t even need to go far when starting at the beginning of the Pixar timeline, as Toy Story’s release in 1995 broke ground for Pixar from the word “go.” The very first CGI feature-length animated film, it would have been easy to just lay down a simple story, with history already made. But with a top notch story, and characters as iconic as Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the rest of Andy’s toy box, it was able to stand out even more.
It was truly a debut that launched this company, and its landmark franchise, to infinity and beyond. The heart that went into this odd couple pairing of partners elevated what was a technical marvel into an enduring classic. It's something that would come in handy throughout the entire history of Pixar’s run as a company.
Years after establishing a beat in terms of what Pixar movies stood for, the studio shot for a new frontier: its first dramedy. While most of their films before Finding Nemo were “The Secret Life of X, Brought To Life!”, this touching movie showcased the love of a father (Albert Brooks) as he searched for his missing son (Alexander Gould).
There were still plenty of laughs and adventure in the mix, for sure. However, considering how deep and dour director Andrew Stanton’s film could get at times, this felt like Pixar’s first stab at telling stories that weren’t normally present in animation.
What’s a studio to do when it has crossed the borders of sequels, genres and making other species and inanimate objects talk? If you’re Pixar, with the help of writer/director Brad Bird, you move the action into the human realm, just as The Incredibles had! As the first story that was entirely told with human characters in the Pixar canon, The Incredibles introduced a superpowered jolt of action and adventure in line with something you’d see in a live-action film.
Topped off with the drama and humor that the studio was honing on Finding Nemo, it was one hell of a surprise to see CGI characters like Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) saving the day in a way we’d only ever seen with real people doing the super stuff.
It didn’t take terribly long for two of Pixar’s brightest creative stars, writers/directors Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, to deliver rather impressive follow-ups to their previously impressive efforts. While helping Pixar push the envelope in terms of their storytelling abilities, Bird’s return to the director’s chair would yield Ratatouille, a whimsical journey, but with really grounded stakes.
Focusing on the high stakes world of haute cuisine, Pixar’s comedic tale of interspecies friendship breathed new life into exploring a “Secret Life” story. Rather than just telling a story where our narrator Remy (Patton Oswalt) could talk, we got to see our protagonist interact poignantly with the world of rats and humans. With an ending that was realistic, but most assuredly heart-warming, Ratatouille kept the spirit of Pixar sailing into a bright, progressive future.
As for Andrew Stanton’s second outing in the Pixar director’s chair, Wall-E, the challenge was a pretty exciting one that had been part of the first batch of originals dreamed up by the studio. A love story between two robots was certainly nothing new to audiences, be they adult or child in age. However, the big difference with Wall-E and Eve’s love story came from the fact that for almost the entire first act of the film, their love was silent.
While humans would come into the picture later on in the plot of Andrew Stanton’s dystopian romantic-comedy, Wall-E had to make an audience invest its attention in two robots that spoke very little snippets of actual dialogue. Sure enough, by time our hero is jetting off into space, in the name of his romantic partner and eventually the human race, we were already on board for whatever was to come next.
When you’re making a movie for mass audience appeal, it’s important to set the tone effectively in your opening moments. Which makes director and co-writer Pete Docter’s decision to deliver the series of gut punches that the opening of Up contains all the more daring. Seeing the bittersweet love story of Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie go through their entire life, from meeting as children to her passing in old age, certainly set a tone to be followed.
Of course, it was all the more interesting that Up then segued into an adventure comedy that threw flying dogs, a demented adventurer and a bird named Kevin at its audience for the bulk of the film. But it all tied back to those initial moments, with Carl fulfilling the dream he shared with his late wife, ultimately tying together those precious tears with the welcomed laughter throughout the rest of the movie.
Toy Story 4
If we really wanted to, we could have included every movie from the Toy Story series on this list. The second film proved that sometimes you can make a sequel so good, it’d be a crime to send it straight to video. The third film showed that sometimes, handing down the treats of the past to the next generation does pay off in a beautiful and loving way.
But the big lesson that Toy Story 4 proved was that even when it looks like your best days are behind you, there’s always the chance that you can pull out a win after all. As it introduced new characters, answered old questions and potentially concluded the saga of Woody and Buzz’s friendship with a satisfying end, the fourth film turned out to be the best of the bunch in my eyes. It was something that exceeded even the most jaded of expectations and delivered another solid record breaking hit in 2019.
While there are certainly ups, downs and complete disappearances (RIP Newt) with a studio like Pixar, it’s rarely ever over. So while Onward may feel like a return to formula to some, it doesn’t mean that the films of the future have to stay in that slump. Keep that in mind as you approach Pixar’s next film, Soul, as it tries to challenge the Pixar formula on June 19. Or, if you haven't checked out any of the Pixar titles mentioned above, you can get current through a 7-day free trial of Disney+!