The Pixar Story
Director : Leslie Iwerks
Screenplay : Leslie Iwerks
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 2007
There are few success stories in modern Hollywood like that of Pixar Animation Studios, and Leslie Iwerks' hagiographic documentary The Pixar Story chronicles it with enthusiastic detail and a well-rounded slate of interview subjects. If the feature film plays a bit too much like a supplement on a DVD special edition of one of Pixar's animated hits, I'm not sure we can blame Iwerks because her subject is such a sunny success story that it would be hard to dig out any dark recesses (for the record, this is an independently produced film, but Iwerks is the daughter of legendary Disney animator Ub Iwerks, which explains why she was able to corral interviews with everyone from George Lucas to Disney CEO Robert Iger). Pixar's only real sin is unintentionally bringing about the virtual demise of traditional hand-drawn two-dimensional animation, but even that potential tragedy is given the hope of salvation at the end of the final reel.
In some ways, The Pixar Story is actually two stories, the first infinitely more interesting than the second because it has drama, hardships, and surprise, whereas the second story is simply a listing of success after success after success. It's not Pixar's fault that they do what they do so well, but it does mean that they cease to be a particularly interesting documentary subject once they become known as the studio who can do no wrong.
The first half of the film, though, spins the fascinating tale of how three unlikely men--a computer programmer with failed artistic ambitions named Ed Catmull, a dynamic entrepreneur named Steve Jobs, and a born artist named John Lasseter--came together and revolutionized an industry. All three of the men are heralded as heroes in the film, but Lasseter is the one who takes center stage and shines the brightest, especially since his story has the most ups and downs. A prodigy student at California Institute of the Arts, he was immediately hired by Disney, his dream job, in the late 1970s and then fired several years later because his dreams and ambitions were too big for the animation studio during its darkest days in the early 1980s. Lasseter was then hired on by the computer animation division of LucasFilm's special effects house Industrial Light & Magic, which was headed by Catmull, and there he found his niche and started producing short-form animated films that offered the perfect marriage of art and technology.
The Pixar saga reaches its fever pitch with the creation of Toy Story (1995), the first feature-length computer animated film. The actual creation of the film is a fascinating portrait of collaborative enterprise, with the Pixar team initially pitching an edgy, more sarcastic version of the story in the hopes of meeting a perceived demand and then going back to the drawing board and producing what turned out to be the movie that changed everything. A Bug's Life (1998) was the potential sophomore slump that instead soared, and Toy Story 2 (1999) was rescued from straight-to-video mediocrity at the last minute by Lasseter himself. After that, though, The Pixar Story falls into an unavoidably repetitive slump because Pixar just kept producing wonderful, brilliant, eye-boggling entertainment that delighted audiences and critics, and where's the drama in that?
This doesn't mean that The Pixar Story loses all interest, though, as it continues to provide intriguing glimpses behind the scenes, suggesting that any place that is capable of producing such consistently great films has to be a bit of a magical madhouse. Rough video footage shot inside the Pixar studios over the years shows it to be exactly that, and the glimpses we get of early animation tests, pencil drawings, and collaborative meetings reinforces the oft-overlooked fact that great cinematic art comes from many minds working in concert. Lasseter may be the individual hero, but The Pixar Story really celebrates the wonders of teamwork.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2007 Leslie Iwerks Productions