Magical Kingdom? More like immeasurable empire!
…because how many other studios actually believe in quality over quantity? Pixar is the brand that simultaneously sets and challenges the trends, producing computer rendered animation with authentic human emotion and creating real characters out of talking objects, animals and emotional avatars. The company’s commitment to great storytelling has made its films appeal to pretty much everyone – kids and adults, girls and boys, even the legion of haters on the web. For all the talk about the lack of imagination in contemporary Hollywood, Pixar’s franchises are, perhaps true its Northern California roots, purely homegrown products.
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Even the most beloved and iconic of animated characters have a certain degree of, well, cartoon quality: Mickey and Donald, Snow White and Cinderella, Sebastian the Crab and Mrs. Potts. As much as audiences enjoy their antics and adventures, they’re difficult to relate to on a human level (even when they’re humans). Even though Pixar uses computers to bring its characters to the screen, the company has never been content to let audiences simply marvel at the technical qualities of the astounding CGI creations. The characters, whether animals, superheroes or robots with seriously limited vocabularies, are grounded in human emotions and relationships. Pixar even layers some self-awareness to this aspect of its character development. For instance, the central conflict of "Toy Story" involves a toy who thinks he’s a real person. Yet much of the humor derives not just from Buzz Lightyear’s misguided idea of his own existence – he thinks he’s people LOL – but the fact that he has as much of a personality as any of the other toys. In fact, as "Toy Story" grew into a franchise, the toys served as a way to explore the life of the family/owners in a way that’s arguably more human than simply focusing on the people themselves. Or take Remy in "Ratatouille," a rat whose main desire in life is to cook like the best (human) chefs. However, to achieve this, he has to overcome the inherent discrimination he faces as an animal even though he otherwise behaves like a human being; the film's message of "anyone can cook" could easily translate to "anyone, including our toys, machines and talking animals, can portray the human condition." And Pixar does not partake in reverse discrimination, depicting human characters with the same degree of complexity and emotion. If you don't believe us, try watching the first ten minutes of "Up" without crying.
While it's tempting to think of corporate branding and the creative arts as diametrically opposed concepts, Pixar has managed to define itself as a brand through imaginative storytelling. The Pixar logo conjures up ideas of what to expect in terms of story, character and visual style, much like its parent company Disney once did. Pixar's company philosophy begins with its commitment to great storytelling, which is inseparable from its chosen medium. As animators, Pixar's creative team storyboards every project as a way to provide both a template for the final CGI and a way to develop the story. Rather than fixing each frame in stone (which might effectively be the case if they went ahead and animated right away given the time and resources involved), the storyboarding serves as a creative collaboration to improve the project. This allows the creative team of writers, directors and animators to consider how every literal, figurative and narrative angle works in service of the overall story. Judged through the results, it's an effective process, though certainly one that depends on talented, open-minded people being involved.
While Pixar is not above sequels, spin-offs, trans-media, merchandising and tie-ins, the company also takes a daring approach to its projects. To understand this, try to imagine selling the idea of two robots who barely talk falling in love on the futuristic landfill of Earth. Got it? Then try to reassure the investors spending millions of dollars with the fact that the creative folks will be watching the classic silent comedies of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton for inspiration. While "WALL-E" definitely stands out as the most audacious film from Pixar – or pretty much any major studio in the last thirty years – it's indicative of the company's overall desire to tell challenging stories. Whether it's a rat who becomes a great chef or the emotional dysfunction of an 11-year old girl, the subjects of Pixar's work are never obvious or derivative. While a film like "Finding Nemo" may have a more conventional story for an animated feature, this is balanced out by strong character relationships and the dangerous world of the deep sea environment. Even when the company has produced sequels, such as with the "Toy Story" trilogy, the material has reflected a sense of maturity in dealing with more serious themes. Sure, the company's track record of success may allow its storytellers a little more room to experiment...but at the same time, the risks have also generated this good will in the first place.
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