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The story of Pixar itself isn’t without a little bit of magic, some interesting characters and a few creative twists. Before we ever saw its “I” stomped down by that clumsy little lamp, Pixar was making pioneering strides in CGI technology within the computer division of Lucasfilm. When the company’s lifeblood – the Pixar Image Computer, a powerful graphic design system – wasn’t reaching a wide enough market to stay afloat, the folks at Pixar began producing short animations to showcase the product’s capability. These tech geeks had more heart and humor than their profession generally suggests, and under the leadership of then-CEO Steve Jobs, Pixar ran several animated ad campaigns and intensified its relationship with the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio.
But no good story is without some conflict and a little kick of destiny. Pixar only ever switched hands from George Lucas to Steve Jobs because, at the time of this change, the original Star Wars trilogy had ran its course and Lucas wasn’t selling as many stuffed Yodas as he would have liked (coupled with divorce expenses, this put the sci-fi wizard in a tough place). Even right up until the production of Toy Story, Pixar was losing money each year, laying off workers, flirting with the idea of being sold again, and generally just trying to keep its head above water as it approached an uncertain future.
We know the company found its happily ever after, and it’s been telling its own story, in a way, repeatedly for the past 17 years. Whether it’s through machines searching for life within their wires, a group of bugs struggling to prove their value amidst the harsh realities of nature, or a little fish learning the reason behind the often rigid structure of love, it’s a story loaded with seeming impossibilities and fantastical scenarios, near misses and second chances. As it continues this summer with Brave, we take a look at Pixar’s most memorable stories. If the nostalgia becomes too overwhelming, just remember there’s more to come.
7. Toy Story 2 – 1999
They’re cashing in on the success of the original; it’s just a ploy to sell more toys, posters and bed sheets; these beloved characters are being wasted on a pointless sequel… All of these claims were put to rest when Toy Story 2 hit theaters Thanksgiving weekend in 1999. More colorful, kinetic and comedic than the original, this second chapter was the first proof that Pixar valued the purity of their characters and quality of storytelling above all else.
6. Up – 2009
Don’t let the animated exterior fool you: whether you’re 8 or 80, Pixar is aiming directly for your heart. And it’s an expert shot. Up is a story about embracing people different from yourself, finding enough courage to make up for physical limitations, and realizing you’re never too old for a life-changing adventure. Early scenes in this movie hit a sentimental level that most live-action romances can’t quite reach, and the adventure that follows is as unpredictable as it is poignant.
5. WALL-E – 2008
It’s an idea that, decades ago, was seen as mere science fiction: that humankind will grow beyond the earth’s ability to support it, and in the process of abandoning our planet we will lose the very humanity we’re trying to preserve. WALL-E – which doubles as Pixar’s love letter to the earth and a warning to the population – doesn’t shy away from the bleakness and potential reality of this idea, presenting earth as a vacant garbage dump and sporting a script that strings together materialistic, capitalistic and ecological themes. But it’s far from a condemning doomsday lecture – this is one of Pixar’s most earnest and inventive films, as entertaining as it is important.
4. Finding Nemo – 2003
The stunning underwater animation is only the initial draw of Finding Nemo. Ocean-deep themes, some surprisingly dark humor and a unique and compelling cast of characters make this fish tale one of the most widely-appealing animated films in existence. You’re just as likely to find a copy in a college dorm room as you are in a daycare.
3. Toy Story – 1995
Pixar’s baby, the film that changed the landscape of animated cinema, the reason why kids still peek over their shoulder after they leave a room full of toys. Who can forget the horrors of Pizza Planet, the hilariously sadistic Sid or the mix of comedic friction and stubborn loyalty between Woody and Buzz? Seventeen years have passed and Toy Story still retains all of its magic.
2. A Bug’s Life – 1998
A Bug’s Life was born from images captured in Pixar’s garden by a tiny camera mounted to Lego wheels. This practical approach, combined with the restless imaginations and impressive attention to detail of the animators, made Pixar’s second release an immersive experience. An anthill becomes a bustling dome of drama and a heap of trash beneath a trailer becomes a sprawling city as Flik and his band of “warrior bugs” defend the ant colony against an army of tyrannical grasshoppers. But it’s the little moments between all the spectacle that hint at Pixar’s warm and fuzzy center, such as when the Hungarian pill bug acrobats break into a routine or when the morbidly-obese caterpillar finally transforms into a “beautiful butterfly.”
1. Toy Story 3 - 2010
Toy Story 3 was poised to be a disappointment. It seemed, in the best case scenario, that it would be an amusing, although unnecessary, reminder of the toy magic from the ‘90s; worst case might have been something along the lines of Cars 2 but with more at stake. To the delight of those who grew up with Woody & Gang, not only did Pixar make this third installment an honorable addition to the franchise, they made it feel necessary. A triumph of 3D animation, Toy Story 3 is bursting with suspense, humor, arresting visuals and honest emotion. The scene where Andy passes his toys down to a little neighborhood girl was enough to make grown men cry in their seats, and was the most satisfying conclusion imaginable for one of the most original trilogies in modern cinema.