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Pixar, You Sure Can Pick ‘Em

August 3, 2008

By Frank Gabrenya, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

Aug. 3–With all due respect to Batman, the Joker and fans of dark crime dramas, the best-reviewed movie of 2008 is an animated feature rated G.

WALL-E, the sci-fi comedy-adventure from the Pixar studio, has received a score of 93 on the Web site Metacritic.com, which tallies numerical grades of zero to 100 based on reviews from key publications and online sites.

That score is the highest of the year; The Dark Knight, by comparison, boasts a strong 82.

WALL-E gives Pixar, the studio that invented the computer-animated feature, its ninth acclaimed hit out of nine attempts. Its previous films and their Metacritic scores are: Toy Story (91); A Bug’s Life (77); Toy Story 2 (88); Monsters, Inc. (78); Finding Nemo (89); The Incredibles (90); Cars (73); and Ratatouille (96).

Of the seven films that have won the Academy Award for best animated feature since the category was created in 2001, three have been from Pixar. No other studio has won more than one. DreamWorks released two winners, Shrek and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, but the latter was made by England’s Aardman Animations.

How do the Pixar wizards keep doing it? While computer animation has become so familiar that efforts such as Over the Hedge, Barnyard and Open Season come and go like changes in wind direction, Pixar efforts remain the highlights of their seasons.

What accounts for the consistency and originality, especially within the context of G-rated entertainment, which other studios avoid like commercial death?

For one thing, the loose spirit that dominated Pixar from the early ’80s, when it was a computer-graphics subsidiary of Lucasfilm, has certainly fostered a breath of fresh creativity. The company’s reputation for innovation, risk and quality has attracted top-flight animating talents, particularly directors John Lasseter (Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Cars); Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E); and Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille).

Still, every Pixar feature — with the arguable exception of Cars, its one slight speed bump — has included a clever element that surprises the viewer and raises the level of the work.

Consider Toy Story 2, a sequel insisted upon Pixar by its distributor, the Disney company. All Disney wanted was a straight-to-video sequel it could exploit like all those Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin sequels. What Pixar came up with, though, was an exciting, emotionally involving story that introduced three elements not found in Toy Story: that some toys are collectibles that become neurotic from not being played with by children; that toys are mass-produced (shelf after shelf of deluded Buzz Lightyears); and that kids age while toys don’t, and the toys get left behind. That’s a lot of storytelling for an animated sequel.

Anyone else plotting Finding Nemo would have had the title fish turn up in a tank in a pet shop where a sad-eyed but sweet girl would see him, buy him and later help reunite him with his father. But the Pixar folks came up with something more original and funnier: Nemo landed in an aquarium in a dentist’s office, among other fish who have been there so long that they can comment knowingly on dental procedures.

Who but Pixar would set an animated movie in the kitchen of a Paris restaurant, then cheer on a rat with the talent of a gourmet chef?

How much audacity and confidence does it take to set a G-rated movie on a future version of Earth that has been abandoned by mankind — leaving behind a diligent robot to clean up the human species’ accumulated trash — and then do almost completely without dialogue for half the feature? One of the more amazing aspects of WALL-E is that audiences have taken the rather bleak premise in stride.

And while Pixar entertains adults and children alike without pandering to either half of the audience, rival DreamWorks fills its animated fare with crude humor, pop-culture references and cynicism. If you want to measure the difference between the studios, compare the sweetness of Finding Nemo with the crass stereotypes of Shark Tale.

Thanks to its incredible success, Pixar is no longer the little company whose films are distributed and marketed by Disney. Lasseter is now the head of Disney animation, and Pixar honcho Steve Jobs is Disney’s largest stockholder.

Considering the recent Disney record in feature animation (Treasure Planet, Atlantis: The Lost Empire), Disney animators would do well to ask Pixar what we all wonder: How do you guys keep doing it?

fgabrenya@dispatch.com

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