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"The Pixar Story:" Almost to Infinity, But Not Really Beyond

by on April 21, 2008

There’s no little peril in attempting a biography of a still-living and active subject. No matter the merits of the final product, it will by definition be incomplete. The benefits of access must be measured against the risk that the subject cannot or will not speak with any objectivity. And other interviewees may not speak candidly about the subject, out of respect in some cases, or a fear of retribution in others.

Leslie Iwerks’s The Pixar Story is afflicted by many if not most of these problems. It’s a good documentary, but it doesn’t quite escape Pixar’s influential pull. Iwerks was granted access to all levels of the company and manages to get a surprising number of people to talk on-camera about how a small and dedicated team of outsiders came to set the standard for modern Hollywood animated films. The first half contains the best parts, when her interviewees can speak vividly of events not yet faded but still far enough in the past to be analyzed with some objectivity. But once she moves into the recent past and begins to touch on such subjects as the Disney/Pixar merger or the hiring of Brad Bird and his talented crew of collaborators, her film falls into what sounds like an unfortunate mimicry of a company line. Portions of this documentary appeared on the Pixar Shorts Volume 1 DVD, and the contrasting success of that shorter documentary with this longer one is an object lesson on how limiting your focus and running time can sometimes produce a better film.

Ed Catmull, Steve Jobs, and John LasseterThe Pixar Story takes the uncontroversial line that the company’s success is the child of three men with very different skill sets: the animator John Lasseter, the technologist Ed Catmull, and the entrepreneur Steve Jobs. The documentary spends the most time with Lasseter, starting with his grade-school discovery that people were paid to make cartoons for a living. We get a greatly compressed history of his youth, his education at the California Institute for the Arts, and his start at Disney, where he began experimenting with computer graphics. Ultimately, however, Lasseter’s views on the potential of computer graphics were not shared by his managers, and after a disastrous pitch meeting, Lasseter’s childhood dreams were dashed with his termination from the Disney Animation Studios.

At this point, The Pixar Story turns from Lasseter to Catmull, who wanted to be an artist and animator as well, but believed that he lacked the requisite artistic skills. Instead, he developed his affinity for math and science to become a physicist and computer scientist. Since Lasseter is the much more visible public face of Pixar, the contributions of Catmull (and, for that matter, technologists such as Loren Carpenter and Alvy Ray Smith) are not very well known to even Pixar fans, let alone the general public, so the film does a great service by giving him some deserved attention. Catmull quickly found himself at the forefront of the very new field of computer graphics, producing many of the field’s earliest breakthroughs. A fateful conference meeting, in turn, led to Catmull hiring the newly unemployed Lasseter on at Lucasfilm’s computer division in 1983 in an effort to bring characters to life in computer animation.

Many animation fans believe that George Lucas was acting foolishly when he dumped his company’s graphics division, but in his interview here he comes off as open and candid, stating that he simply didn’t have the funds to let the graphics group achieve their fullest potential. It was funding from Apple Computer’s newly minted millionaire Steve Jobs that enabled Lasseter, Catmull, and a band of rebels to eventually break away from Lucasfilm to form Pixar, and it was continued cash infusions from Jobs that enabled them to ultimately move from being a software and graphics house to a true movie studio. This is easily the most enthralling section of The Pixar Story, since it shows the many different ways the whole thing could have failed. The convergence of the three Pixar leaders captured lightning in a bottle, but even so, the firm skirted the edge of failure many times before the success of Toy Story. It also becomes fairly obvious that the incredibly hard work of the people involved was greatly aided by good timing and luck as much as foresight.

Marlin and Nemo from 'Finding Nemo'Unfortunately, the documentary seems to forget this important insight once it turns to the company’s post-Toy Story period, when it began pushing out hit after hit, inadvertently bringing American hand-drawn animation to the brink of extinction, and coping with an increasingly contentious relationship with Disney. After chronicling the difficult production of Toy Story 2, the film suffers a dramatic loss of objectivity. While it does convey the sense of stress that the Disney negotiations forced on the company, the documentary conveys nothing like the sense of uncertainty that had afflicted the studio when it was literally fighting for its life. For instance, the movie seems to gloss over a lot of well-documented production problems on Finding Nemo, reinforcing the popular myth that Michael Eisner delayed renegotiating the Pixar contract because he was clueless, not because he had a (failed) hunch that Nemo would be Pixar’s first flop. Instead, Nemo is presented largely as Andrew Stanton’s coming out party; Brad Bird’s hiring and the Disney/Pixar merger are similarly presented as unalloyed triumphs. By this point of the movie, nearly all difficulties and suffering seem to be left safely behind.

Make no mistake: The Pixar Story has non-trivial value as a historical document simply because it captures what many of the primary players have to say about how they got to where they are . It is also worth seeing for all the rare, early behind-the-scenes footage of the films and the people who made them. The documentary’s presentation of recent events may make for a good Hollywood ending but it also gives a premature sense of triumph to an evolution that is far from over. Something is always lost when you move from being the rule breaker to being the rule maker, and the dangers of complacency are more present than ever now that Pixar has essentially become the Establishment. The Pixar Story‘s ultimate lack of objectivity, and seeming blindness to this last fact, is an unfortunate misstep that prevents it from being more than merely good.

The Pixar Story will air on Starz on Tuesday, April 22, at 10:00pm (ET).

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