• J.R. Zbornak

Finding An Incredible Story: Growing Up With The Golden Age of Pixar

It's hard to believe that a small computer division of Lucasfilm would grow into one of the most iconic movie studios of all-time.

Throughout its history, Pixar has always been at the forefront of groundbreaking 3D animation. From aiding the digital boom in blockbusters to cutting-edge short films, Pixar was always destined for greatness. Yet, the faithful day of November 22nd, 1995, was the day the studio and the film industry as a whole changed forever.

After years of trials and tribulations, Toy Story was released to critical and financial success. Toy Story ushered in a new era of animation and to this day remains a cinematic classic. Its groundbreaking animation, touching story, unforgettable music, and lovable characters spawned a media franchise and a cinematic legacy that still reigns supreme to this day. You'll be hard-pressed to go to any store without seeing Sheriff Woody or Buzz Lightyear on something. Pixar's films and characters over the years can rival those from Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Disney's own library in terms of popularity and adoration.

In 1998 and 1999 respectively, Pixar upped the ante with A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2. While Disney distributed the pictures, it was Pixar's name that was making it into the history books. Proving they weren't just one-hit wonders, Pixar was succeeding in more ways than one. While others (including Disney) were nearing the end of their hand-drawn dominance in the industry, Pixar was painting a picture that times were changing. Computer animation was the way of the future and for 15 years, they were untouchable and seemingly infallible.

A few weeks ago, I made a tweet saying that no studio had a more successful run of movies than Pixar did between 1995 and 2010. How many studios can say they released 11 critically and financially successful films in a row, all of which managed to leave their mark on the cultural zeitgeist? Their legacy during this period was unprecedented then and still is now. Monsters, Inc. was a big step forward for the studio back in 2001. Not only did it win Randy Newman his first Oscar, but it was among the first three nominees for Best Animated Feature. While far from the first movie I ever saw in a theater, Monsters, Inc. is the earliest movie memory I have. Almost every kid in the world walked out of the theater quoting Mike Wazowski and have been annoying their friends and family by singing "Put That Thing Back Where It Came From Or So Help Me!" for nearly 20 years.

Pixar has practically always been a part of my life, yet it was the release of Finding Nemo when I really noticed the "Pixar Phenomenon". I distinctly remember attending 4 different birthday parties with a Finding Nemo theme. It was the also the first time I remember seeing a packed theater. The fall of 2003 and winter 2004 was filled with repeat viewings of the film on home video. Of course, a lot of us couldn't even comprehend how big of an impact Pixar movies were having on our lives. We were all 5 years old, or even younger - it was a concept we couldn't even begin to understand. The grown-ups of the world definitely knew what was happening, as Finding Nemo was winning all the awards and was on its way to becoming the best-selling DVD of all-time. While the adults were witnessing a change in the Hollywood landscape, we were probably trying to speak whale and failing miserably.

But what was it that made Pixar movies so special? Why do stories of a cowboy doll and a spaceman action figure set our imaginations on fire? Why are talking fish, monsters, cars, rats, and robots so endearing? The answer is the talent and commitment of the animators and filmmakers of Pixar. The studio has built a dynasty around characters. The Incredibles still remains an all-time superhero movie because you remember and love characters like Mr. Incredible, Syndrome, and Edna Mode. You can't help but fall in love with a Pixar character. You relate to the struggles of Woody and Remy. You laugh at the antics of Dory, Mater, and Alfredo Linguini. Between all the beautiful animation, gut-busting humor, and great music (all courtesy of Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, and Michael Giacchino), it's the characters that make us love Pixar's movies.

While Cars may not be the most beloved movie of the Golden Age, it still has its fans and was still a success. Lightning McQueen and Mater became icons within themselves, and 5 billion dollars in merchandise sales does not hurt either. It says a lot that even a weaker outing from the studio still manages to tell a good story with characters that will be remembered for generations to come. I think that's a testament to Pixar's power. I have never been and probably will never be a car enthusiast or a fan of country music, but I can easily watch Cars and enjoy it without a second thought.

Pixar's period between 2007 to 2010 was a sign that not only was the studio maturing, but we were as well. Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 still remain, in my eyes, the most mature and adult films in the Pixar library. They still had the same lovable characters, humor, and colorful animation that we grew up with, but they also gave us lessons that we would take home with us. Ratatouille taught us about the ups and downs of ambition. Wall-E taught us about love at first sight. Up taught us about taking a leap of faith. Toy Story 3 taught us the art of saying goodbye.

Of course, every Pixar movie has a lesson to it, but I remember these four films with a little sprinkle of reality to them. The Incredibles had this extra boost of maturity as well. The likes of Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Brad Bird, and Lee Unkrich knew that we wouldn't be kids forever, so they made sure that we were entertained as kids, but we also took the lessons with us as we grew up. They knew that some of us would be inspired by them and would be encouraged to write stories and make movies of our own. Another shining example of the immense power of animation.

More cynical Pixar fans will tell you that the studio peaked after 2010. Sure, Cars 2 started a slippery slope and put a dent a perfect track record, but it's not all bad. Inside Out, Coco, and Toy Story 4 are all damn near perfect films that more than stand alongside the classics from the Golden Age. Monsters University, Cars 3, and Incredibles 2 may not be the most revered, but they still have their fans. Even Brave and Finding Dory broke ground as the studio's first female-led films.

And if Onward and Soul meet the incredibly high expectations set upon them, a new age of the studio could begin. All of us grew up with these movies and we are currently showing the generations after us the stories and adventures that we know and love. Our younger siblings, family members, and even children have a lot of challenges ahead of them, so it's good that we provide them with an escape that they will always cherish. Until we get the chance, we can always revisit these movies to remind us that adventure is out there. We'll have Pixar's movies in our hearts and in our minds forever, or should I rather say "To Infinity and Beyond!".



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