There’s something about Pixar that just works.
Since the Academy created the Best Animated Feature category in 2001, Pixar has taken five of those nine Oscars and every one of their films released in the last 10 years has been nominated.
Before that, Pixar had never released a feature film that wasn’t nominated for at least one Oscar.
Up and Toy Story 3 are two of only three animated films ever nominated for Best Picture (Beauty and the Beast was the third).
There might not be a single production company that consistently makes such commercially successful and critically acclaimed films. What’s the secret to Pixar’s impeccable record?
According to Pixar’s corporate statement, its objective is simply “to combine proprietary technology and world-class creative talent to develop computer-animated feature films with memorable characters and heartwarming stories that appeal to audiences of all ages.”
That sounds easy enough, and Pixar’s certainly managed to accomplish such a goal with each of its films.
Its incredible box office record is proof of these films’ mass appeal. Toy Story 3 was the highest grossing film of 2010, pulling in a whopping $920 million. That kind of money isn’t just kids’ stuff.
But Pixar’s corporate objective doesn’t capture what makes it special.
All movies ought to strive for memorable characters, and heartwarming endings generally fall within the territory of family fare.
Of course, Pixar is not the only company that makes excellent animated films. It just inexplicably does it the best.
Last year, five of the highest grossing films were animated. Dreamworks is generally considered Pixar’s biggest competition in terms of quality animated movies, and the former’s How to Train Your Dragon was highly praised.
It is arguably the second-best reviewed among those top-grossing films, following only Toy Story 3, whose 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes just barely outdoes Dragon’s 98 percent.
Pixar’s and Dreamworks’ animation domination hasn’t stopped others from getting into the fray, but those who try rarely live up to the absurdly high bar that Pixar has set.
Last weekend’s release of Gnomeo and Juliet, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy in which the main characters are lawn gnomes, is the first of many family releases set for 2011. It’s reception has been lukewarm at best.
New York Times’ critic Stephen Holden writes that the Gnomeo and Juliet characters have “little emotional resonance.”
Granted, Woody and Buzz have had more than 10 years to work their way into our hearts, but the emotional resonance of characters like lovesick robot WALL-E and Up’s crotchety old Carl is undeniable.
Variety, on the other hand, gives the gnome romance a generally positive review, but specifically notes that it “never quite plumbs the existential depths of [the Toy Story] franchise.”
Pixar’s stories delve into issues such as love, loss, death, growing up and what it means to be a family. Many of the best films — animated or live action — simply don’t achieve the complexity and sophistication that Pixar somehow manages to pull off every time.
So is there a secret to Pixar’s unheard-of consistency?
When Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, visited USC in 2009, he didn’t provide any easy formula for the studio’s success. Pixar seems to just always assemble incredible teams to tell great stories.
“We realized having lower standards for something is bad for your soul,” Catmull said.
The fact that Catmull cares about his team’s collective soul already sets Pixar miles apart from the major studios and countless production companies, such as those willing to produce Saw XI, to make a quick buck.
The people at Pixar care. They care about the quality of their product and they care about telling good, original stories. Even when the characters are monsters, cars or toys, there is something deeply human in every story Pixar tells.
The originality and genuine heart of Pixar features are a breath of fresh air among all of the meaningless dreck that is released by studios every week.
Toy Story 3 might not win Best Picture in a few weeks, but Pixar has created something better than award bait. It made something that is good for the soul.
Cara Dickason is a senior majoring in cinema-critical studies and English. Her column, “Cine File,” runs Tuesdays.