April 22, 2008

The Pixar Story

Reviewed by Martin Tsai
The Pixar Story, a documentary airing tonight on Starz, features the stuff fairy tales are made of. Best known for computer animations such as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, the Pixar Animation Studios’ eight feature films all rank among the 150 top-grossing movies of all time at the domestic box office. The documentary traces the company’s Cinderella transformation from a peripheral division at Lucasfilm to its $7.4 billion sale to the Walt Disney Company in 2006.
John Lasseter, Ed Catmull, and Steve Jobs are, respectively, the brains, the brawn, and the capital integral to Pixar’s success. Mr. Catmull was a researcher at the New York Institute of Technology who developed computer graphics, while Mr. Jobs, who co-founded Apple, was the risk-taker who stepped in when George Lucas wanted to spin off the division. But The Pixar Story mostly parallels the career of Mr. Lasseter, the animator who directed A Bug’s Life, Cars, and the two Toy Story films.
A lifelong Disney fanatic, Mr. Lasseter enrolled in the California Institute of the Arts to study with legendary Disney animators and he even worked at Disneyland while on vacation. Upon graduation, he landed his dream job as an animator for Disney. But the clock quickly struck midnight when his first short film led to a pink slip and his exile from the Magic Kingdom. But there’s a happy ending to his story: Mr. Lasseter was hired by Mr. Catmull for a position at Lucasfilm when the two met at a conference, and thus Pixar’s triumph-over-adversity tale commenced.
The Pixar Story aptly attributes the company’s success to the childlike playfulness and wide-eyed wonder of its films, while its chief rival, Jeffrey Katzenberg (of Disney and later DreamWorks), championed edgier animations that overflowed with pop-culture references and adult humor. But Pixar’s trademark pixie-dust whimsy is notably absent from this documentary, which was written and directed by Leslie Iwerks. Instead of the magic carpet ride one might expect, the TV special unfolds like a promo reel that might play before an annual shareholders meeting. It’s extravagantly overproduced and garishly over-scored, with extraneous digital effects and gratuitous archival footage signaling a production flush with cash — even when it’s presenting Pixar’s college dormlike corporate culture.
Another reason that the film looks like a promotional video is its one-sided fluff-piece approach. Pixar’s now-reconciled new corporate parent, Disney, is cast in the role of the antagonist, while the word “DreamWorks” is uttered exactly once in the entire film — never mind that DreamWorks’s computer-animated Shrek 2 is the top-grossing animated feature of all time. The Pixar Story also seems woefully dated considering the glaring omissions of its latest hit, Ratatouille, and the forthcoming WALL-E.
© Copyright 2008 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.