Total Recall: The Pixar Story
Just in time for Toy Story 3, we run down the animation studio's output in chronological order.
Once upon a time, animation could be neatly divided into two eras: BD and AD, or before and after Disney. That all changed, however, with the release of 1995's Toy Story, a movie that -- although it bore the Disney logo -- marked the feature-length debut of an upstart studio named Pixar, one which signaled the imminent discovery of brand new, computer-generated vistas for kids of all ages. Pixar has released nine films since then, all of them remarkably Certified Fresh -- and with the studio's eleventh outing, Toy Story 3, landing in theaters this weekend, we thought now would be an opportune time to take a fond look back at the studio's extraordinary full-length filmography in chronological order.
Obviously, there won't be any surprises in this week's list -- but with Tomatometers ranging from 100 to 75 percent, who needs the added suspense of finding out what made the list? Whether you're an avowed animation buff or simply a fan of innovative, entertaining movies, you've probably got your own list of favorite Pixar moments, so let's relive them now, shall we? From Toy Story to Up, to infinity and beyond, here's this week's Total Recall!
In 1937, Walt Disney Pictures turned conventional wisdom on its head by proving that animation -- heretofore the realm of short films starring talking critters -- could be successfully utilized to tell a full-length story starring realistic human characters. That film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, charted the path the studio -- and animation pretty much in general -- followed for almost six decades, until Pixar came along and changed everything with Toy Story. Like Snow White before it, Toy Story was an eye-popping technical marvel with a heart to match its stunning visuals -- and like Snow White, it kick-started the growth of a studio whose unprecedented success would redefine an art form. Of course, no one could have known all that in 1995; we only knew that it was, in the words of Roger Ebert, "a visionary roller-coaster ride of a movie." Subsequent Pixar releases have deepened and refined the technology and storytelling approach seen here, but unlike pretty much anything else considered cutting-edge in 1995, it still seems almost as fresh as it did on the day it was released. As Michael Booth of the Denver Post wrote, "It's a landmark movie, and doesn't get old with frequent repetition."
Inspired by Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper -- memorably animated in the Silly Symphonies short titled, suitably, The Grasshopper and the Ants -- Pixar's John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton spearheaded the development of Pixar's second feature, A Bug's Life, the story of a nonconformist ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who ventures beyond his colony's island shores to recruit an army of bugs that can defend them from a gang of mean-spirited grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey). When the na´ve Flik mistakes a group of circus performers (including Denis Leary as a sass-mouthed ladybug) for fighters, the stage is set for another round of CGI-fueled family fun. Though A Bug's Life was overshadowed somewhat by DreamWorks Animation's superficially similar Antz, and critics weren't quite as unanimous in their praise as they'd been for Toy Story, neither a $363 million worldwide gross nor a 91 percent Tomatometer are anything to sneer at -- and in the end, as CNN's Paul Tatara observed, "if this movie doesn't make you smile you may not know how.
Considering how successful the first installment was -- not to mention Disney's original plan to make the sequel a direct-to-video affair -- not many people would have been surprised if Toy Story 2 had fallen flat when it landed in theaters in 1999. But with Tom Hanks back as Woody, Tim Allen back as Buzz, and an adventure that took Andy's toys on an adventure every bit as exciting as their first, the second Story proved that some movie characters really do have more than one story worth telling -- and that even when it came to movies with numbers after the title, Pixar meant business. Speaking of business, Toy Story 2's was extraordinarily healthy, to the tune of a $485 million worldwide gross -- and the public's obvious enthusiasm for the movie was backed up by the critics, who duplicated the original's 100 percent Tomatometer on the strength of reviews like the one from Jay Carr of the Boston Globe, who wrote that it was "everything you could want in a sequel," or Jeff Millar of the Houston Chronicle, who observed, "the Pixar people just get better and better."
It starred Billy Crystal as a fast-talking schemer who was physically dwarfed by his sidekick, but despite that surface similarity to the misbegotten My Giant, Pixar hit another home run with its fourth feature, 2001's Monsters, Inc. The tale of Mike (Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman), two employees of the titular kiddie-scaring company, Monsters imagines a world in which children's screams are the energy source that powers the secret city of Monstropolis -- and one in which the monsters themselves are just 9-to-5 clock punchers with problems of their own, such as mistakenly letting a child follow them back to the office. Mike and Sulley are worried about more than just getting written up -- the monsters believe the children are toxic -- but they soon discover that not only is inter-species harmony possible, but it may hold the key to their civilization's looming energy crisis. It's admittedly rather heady stuff for a family-friendly CGI comedy, but Pixar has always been good at slipping subtext into a candy-colored shell, and Monsters, Inc. is no different. "The analogy to our dependence on, say, oil is soon abandoned, the better to blur the distinction between abstract and concrete," wrote Lisa Alspector of the Chicago Reader, pointing out "something older viewers of this 2001 animated adventure may appreciate more than younger ones."
After going somewhat high-concept with Monsters, Inc., the studio took things back to basics for 2003's Finding Nemo, following the adventures of a single father (Albert Brooks) and his brain-damaged acquaintance (Ellen DeGeneres) as they desperately search for his kidnapped son. It reads like a tense, Missing-style thriller, but this is Pixar: the characters are all animated talking fish, and in lieu of pulse-pounding drama, it serves up the adorable antics of ocean critters like a porcupinefish named Bloat (Brad Garrett) and a laid back sea turtle named Crush (voiced by writer/director Andrew Stanton). Which is not to say that Nemo lacks action or adventure -- there are numerous edge-of-your-seat set pieces -- nor does it come without a valuable message, underscoring the difficulty (and the importance) of letting children develop their own identities. Audiences expected nothing less from Pixar at this point, and rewarded the studio with a worldwide gross just shy of $865 million; meanwhile, critics set aside their usual cynicism for a couple of hours to pronounce Nemo, in the words of Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, "a thing of beauty, hugely entertaining and way cool."