Review: The Pixar Story


[This week is Pixar Week here at Flixist, so we’re doing special reviews and features for all things Pixar. Keep your eyes on the Pixar Week tag page for more updates, or just watch the front page!]

The Pixar Story isn’t a documentary that will floor you, change the way you look at life, or move you to tears. That’s what the Pixar films are for. It will, however, present a unique look at the unexpected rise to power of the world’s most successful animation company. You will meet and learn about a special graduating class of character animation students that went on to find commercial and critical success beyond their wildest dreams, and yes, you might even learn something about why you aren’t an animator (hint, it’s really hard work).

The Pixar Story begins with a lovely retrospective on the art of animation, beginning with the first moving images courtesy of a zoetrope. Soon, early cartoons (preceding even Steamboat Willy) make their appearance, and later, stop-motion animation. The next step, of course, is Disney, who for decades made the world’s best animated features and shorts. Soon however, we land in the present day, where the indelible image of Pixar’s little lamp, Luxo Jr., comes to life. We have arrived, the film announces, at the threshold of a new generation. The Pixar generation. 

Pixar started, innocuously enough, with a talented class of students at Cal Arts in the late 70’s. Animators from the Disney Golden Age taught a class (the first ever) of students eager to learn the ins and outs of animated character design. In this first graduating class were John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and Tim Burton. That’s like being on a college basketball team with James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Michael Jordan (1982 Tarheels). The students at Cal Arts all pushed each other, and their teachers, to create characters and stories that pushed the limits of their talents and their technology. Lasseter in particular stood out from the group, and was soon given the job of his dreams as an animator at Disney. Unfortunately, however, not all roads are paved with gold, and soon Lasseter found himself persona non grata at the studio. Fate has a way of moving great people towards great things, and in said fashion, Lasseter ran into a company in need of an animator. That company was Pixar, and the rest is history.

Leslie Iwerks, the director and producer of The Pixar Story, has a few other industry documentaries under her belt, and clearly knows what she wants to get out of this film. To anyone that has an interest in Pixar, this film is a great behind-the-scenes look at the story of this unbelievable company. Throughout we hear from the men who helped build this titan, including Steve Jobs, Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, and of course, the ringleader of them all, John Lasseter. It is Mister Lasseter’s unbridled enthusiasm, incredible eye for characters and story, and the drive to get it all done that really fuels both the Pixar doc and the films themselves. 

It’s a real treat to see the creative minds behind these films, and fans of the Pixar directors (Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, and Pete Docter all make appearances) will get to see their idols hard at work (and occasionally at play). There are a few sequences here that are great examples of what the Pixar people (and not the ones at your work) do for fun and inspiration, and the camaraderie on display is a insight into the way outside-the-box thinkers get the most from their co-workers. 

The film’s subject is strong enough to carry the film, but the footage is mostly borrowed from homemade movies inside the studio (including a great piece featuring John Lasseter touring the Bug’s Life section of Disney World). Interviews give us great info on the filmmakers and animators that make the Pixar films possible, but the film feels somehow unfulfilling. Perhaps it is the absence of Up, Ratatouille, and Wall-E (the film was made in 2007) that leave us wanting more. The film does have a few sequences, however, that make the short running time of 88 minutes worth the viewing (especially for Netflix members, who can stream the film at their leisure). 

It’s tough to critique a documentary that isn’t controversial and relies so heavily on information that is easy to digest. There aren’t any villains here, the stakes aren’t very high, and you aren’t cheering for an underdog or watching the demise of a historic enterprise. What you see is what you get, the story of Pixar. The best thing I can say is if you like Pixar, it’s worth the watch. If you don’t happen to be a Pixar fan, and haven’t seen much of their work, stay away from this one. Also, you have my condolences on being a lonely curmudgeon.

Fans of Pixar: 7.4/10

Everyone else <7.4/10

Overall Score: 7.40 – Good. (7s are good, but not great. These films often have a stereotypical plot or are great movies that have a few minor flaws. Fans of this movie’s genre might love it, but others will still enjoy seeing it in theaters.)