Cartoon kings: the power of Pixar...
In recent years, Pixar Studios' unparalleled reputation for excellence has begun, ever so slightly, to slip. While Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012) and Monsters University (2013) were all respectably reviewed and performed very solidly at the box office, by Pixar's sky-high standards they didn't seem quite up to scratch, and lacked the touch of genius displayed in classics like Toy Story, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and Up.
The defining characteristic of Pixar films had always been their determination to push the boundaries of conventional animation and blend high-concept stories with elements of social realism, for instance the motherless fish in Finding Nemo or the overweight, ostracised boy scout in Up. No one else could come close to Pixar in terms of invention and innovation, and since the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature was first introduced in 2001, the studio has won it no less than seven times. But all good things come to an end, and after the charming but comparatively lacklustre 2013 sequel Monsters University, one began to wonder had all Pixar's big ideas been used up.
Not so, as it turns out, because their latest film, Inside Out, is about as high-concept as it gets. It is, for the most part, set inside the rapidly evolving mind of an 11-year-old girl called Riley, whose happy life with her doting parents is threatened when they move from rural Minnesota to San Francisco.
Alone in a strange city, Riley misses her friends and school, and begins to resent her father, who's moved the family to California to start a tech company. Inside Riley's mind, it's battle stations for her embodied emotions, whose leader, Joy (Amy Poehler), must fight the negativity of Sadness, Fear and Anger if she's to protect Riley's well-being.
All of that might sound like a bit of a reach, but veteran Pixar writer/director Pete Docter and his team do a brilliant job of translating a lofty concept into a fast-moving and very funny film full of trademark flights of fancy and daringly dark moments. In fact, Inside Out is nothing less than an animated account of early puberty.
It's typical of the kind of projects that, with their complexity, storytelling ambitions and easy Zeitgeist wit, have always distinguished Pixar from the animation herd. At their best, Pixar's films combine the shiny commercial appeal of classic Disney films with the braininess and soul of Japanese animation.
They've been brightening up our cinema-going summers for 20 years now, and the multiplexes would be much duller places without them. But Pixar was founded with very different intentions, and only became an animation house by accident.
Originally called the Graphics Group, the company was founded in 1979 as part of George Lucas's corporation Lucasfilm. After six years working at the forefront of cinematic special effects, the Graphics Group was bought by Apple's boss Steve Jobs. He renamed it Pixar, and turned it into a high-end computer company working on innovations in hardware.
Their core product was the Pixar Image Computer, which helped automate the 2-D animation process and whose leading buyer was Disney. Apart from them, however, the Image Computer never sold well, and it was in an attempt to boost sales that enterprising employee John Lasseter began creating short animations to show off the machine's capabilities.
In 1991, after substantial lay-offs in Pixar's computer department, the company signed a $26m deal with Disney to produce three computer-animated feature films with Lasseter as creative director. The first of these would be Toy Story.
The idea for Toy Story came from a 1988 cartoon short Lasseter had made to sell the virtues of new animation software. Tin Toy followed the adventures of a one-man-band toy and his efforts to escape the clutches of a destructive baby. It earned standing ovations from bemused scientists at software conventions, and went on to win Pixar their first Oscar, for Best Animated Short film.
After some testy negotiations with Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg, the animation giant agreed to back the film, but early script drafts went down like a ton of bricks at Disney. Lasseter and fellow Pixar 'brains trust' members Pete Docter and Andrew Stanton came up with a story involving the one-man-band figure from Tin Toy and a ventriloquist's dummy, whose principal tormentor was a toy cowboy called Woody.
Katzenberg thought their idea didn't work, and encouraged them to reshape it as an odd-couple buddy movie. In the new treatment Woody became a hero, who reluctantly joined forces with his rival Buzz Lightyear, a conceited space robot, to save the toys of their master, Andy. At the core of Toy Story was the genius idea that toys live for the moments where children play with them, and dread the purgatory of rejection.
But completing the film wasn't easy: it was the first ever computer-animated feature, and production was shut down repeatedly because of technical problems and creative disagreements.
In the four years it took to make it, Pixar was haemorrhaging so much money that Steve Jobs seriously considered selling it. But when Toy Story was finally released in December 1995, its massive success (it took more than $365m worldwide and changed the face of animation) put Pixar in the motion picture business for good.
What's really remarkable about the Pixar story, though, is how they followed that initial success with such a consistent run of excellence. Their experiences on Toy Story convinced Lasseter and his team to establish a collegiate working environment at Pixar in which directors and animators working on different projects regularly subjected their ideas to the robust criticism of their colleagues. In other words, everyone kept everyone on their toes, which is a big part of the reason why there's never been any such thing as a bad Pixar film.
In 1999, Lasseter achieved the remarkable feat of releasing a sequel - Toy Story 2 - that was even better than the original. Two years later, Pete Docter gave us the delightful post-modern fairytale Monsters Inc., which imagined a world parallel to ours in which monsters power their city on the screams of frightened children. But when a little girl enters their world through a portal in a bedroom wardrobe, it's the monsters' turn to run scared.
Monsters Inc. grossed almost $600m at the box office, but its achievements were dwarfed by the success of Finding Nemo, a witty and fiendishly clever 2003 animation about a daddy clown-fish's search for his missing son. It caught the world's imagination, making almost a billion dollars at the box office and later becoming the best-selling DVD of all time.
As Pixar nurtured an expanding array of writing and directing talents, more sophisticated movies began to emerge. In Brad Bird's sparkling action animation The Incredibles (2004), a forcibly retired superhero yearned to break free of suffocating suburban conformity and resume his crime-fighting ways.
For me, Bird's next Pixar project, Ratatouille, was even better, a hilarious fantasy in which a Parisian sewer rat's dreams of becoming a celebrated chef are realised.
John Lasseter's Cars movies are my least favourite of the Pixar films, but even they have grossed $500m apiece and gained a huge following among the very young. But the studio really stretched the boundaries of what was possible in animation with its astonishingly sophisticated features WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009). Andrew Stanton's WALL-E made a garbage disposal robot the hero of its environmentally themed tale set on hopelessly polluted and abandoned Earth (see panel).
Up was every bit as accomplished. Docter's enchanting story starred the voice of Ed Asner as Carl Fredricksen, a bitter and reclusive old man whose old wooden home is threatened on all sides by high rise developments. He promised his late wife that they'd one day explore South America together, and with the help of a chubby young boy scout called Russell, Carl uses a huge bunch of helium balloons to turn his home into an impromptu airship.
The Pixar team's ability to tell complex, high-concept stories while never losing the attention of their core audience - children - is truly extraordinary. And with Inside Out, they've done it again.
Pixar's finest moment
Pixar's moving and magnificent 2008 science-fiction animation WALL-E is set in the year 2815, when the earth lies deserted apart from one small, box-shaped robot and his pet cockroach. We learn that in the early 2100s the planet got so polluted it could no longer sustain life. Mankind departed aboard massive airliners, leaving behind a small army of WALL-Es (Waste Allocation Load Lifters Earth-class) to clean up the mess.
Our WALL-E is the last of them, and over the centuries he's developed something of a personality: he lives in an old cargo container lined with a veritable treasure trove of scrap, his prize possession being a video of the musical Hello Dolly! which he plays over and over on an old iPod. When a probe robot from one of the airliners arrives to check for signs of life he falls in love with it, but EVE is more interested in a lone plant she finds growing among the rubbish, and departs in haste for the mother ship.
But WALL-E is no quitter, and when he follows EVE into space he embarks on the adventure of his life. This delightful film pokes fun at the pretensions of human civilisation, but engages you completely with the struggles of its puckish hero, a beautifully realised cartoon character.