Their movies have been the most consistent in the biz, creatively and commercially, but creators from trailblazing animation studio Pixar nearly always talk about a moment during production when they realized they were doing everything wrong.
Initially, “WALL-E” had an alien invasion. Woody used to be the villain in “Toy Story.” The lead of the Mexico-set “Coco” was going to be white. The emotion of Fear dominated early versions of “Inside Out” until creators realized Sadness was a better fit. Instead of a girl fretting that there were monsters in her bedroom closet, “Monsters, Inc.” started out being about an adult man.
All bad ideas, and none made it to the screen because Pixar movies are conceived with a “brain trust” of artists. Members of the collective tell each other when they’re headed down the wrong path and must scrap completed work because the movie they’re making isn’t the movie they hoped they were making.
The “Monsters” mistake is particularly revealing. Animated movies have gone in and out of fashion in the past hundred years (in the late ’70s and early ’80s, even Disney barely made them). When they succeed at the box office, it’s usually because they offer a story for kids that adults are willing to sit through, too.
I’d argue that Pixar has flipped that script, making movies for adults that, because they happen to be animated, kids are willing to check out.
Although the adult scaredy-cat vanished from “Monsters, Inc.,” grown-up concerns form the backbone of just about every Pixar movie, whether it’s the overprotective parents whose worries kick off both “Inside Out” and “Finding Nemo,” the nostalgic portrait of marriage in “Up,” the career concerns of “Ratatouille” or the fragile family dynamics of “The Incredibles.”
No matter how bright and wacky the cartoon characters look, Pixar creators clearly care most about the emotions of their stories — I’ve been in interviews where they cried about their childhood toys — which translates into films that make viewers cry, too. From the final goodbye of Nemo’s mom in “Finding Nemo” to the stars of “Toy Story” saying “hello” to a new owner in “Toy Story 3,” these emotions have led writers to produce think pieces. Lots of them.
Despite its impeccable box office record, Pixar has not been perfect. Founder John Lasseter departed the company because his behavior made employees uncomfortable. Representation has been an issue, largely because the early stories sprang from the personal experiences of the middle-aged white guys who launched the studio.
They were slow to broaden their storytelling base, too, but strides have been made, particularly in short films including “Sanjay’s Super Team” and the Oscar-winning “Bao.” It could be argued that Pixar shorts such as the heartbreaking “Red’s Dream” are even better than Pixar features.
Still, Pixar — which has won the animated feature Oscar 10 times and the shorts Oscar five — has become a familiar part of summer moviegoing. This is the first summer since 2015 that we aren’t getting a new one, now that “Soul,” conceived by Bloomington native Pete Docter, was moved from June to November. While we wait for the movie (which is about an adult jazz musician), I’ll be streaming my favorite titles to tide me over. All are on Disney+ and other platforms.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Really funny and really sad is a winning combination. “Nemo” gets the tears over almost immediately, when little Nemo’s mom dies, then plows into a story about growing up as the title fish and pal Dory learn about life while searching for Nemo’s dad (voiced by Albert Brooks). Dad, by the way, has to learn when to let go in a movie that’s also about parenting skills.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
I love all four “Toy Story” movies and it’s tough to choose “3” over “2” but the former gets a slight edge because of its pitch-perfect ending, which deepens a theme from “2”: All toys want is to please the kids who play with them.
Miguel longs to be a musician, but to make that happen he must break a curse and weather the disapproval of his titular great-grandmother. The Day of the Dead-inspired story is lovely, the exploration of what it means to grieve is sensitive and the mariachi and ranchero-influenced music includes performances by stars Gael García Bernal and Benjamin Bratt (the song “Remember Me” won an Oscar).
This Docter-directed adventure would be higher on my list if the second half were as good as the first. But its two main characters are indelible: Russell, an ebullient kid, odd-couples it with Carl, a crabby old man. The poignant, four-minute sequence that encapsulates Carl’s life with his late wife, Ellie, is one of my favorite scenes in any movie, ever.
The Incredibles (2004)
The masterminds at Pixar have created dozens of memorable characters but none is more distinctive than Edna Mode, the stylish, demanding, secretly-a-sweetie-pie who designs the titular superheroes’ capes and tights. Director/writer Brad Bird supplies her distinctive, German-accented voice.
It was practically designed to be loved by critics, what with a surly food writer (voiced by Peter O’Toole) revealing hidden dimensions of his personality. But the stunning Paris “locations” and the talented rodent who defies typecasting to become a Michelin star-worthy chef are the frosting on Bird’s delicious cake.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
The premise of the initial “Toy Story” was “what toys do when their owners are not around,” but “2” ups the emotional stakes by showing us how deeply invested Slinky, Buzz Lightyear and the others are in the children who give them a reason for existing. Randy Newman earned an Oscar nomination for the elegiac “When She Loved Me,” in which cowgirl Jessie dreams about a time before her child owner grew up — one of those numbers that is on a lot of people’s songs-that-make-me-cry-every-time list. Says heartsick Jessie, “You never forget kids like Emily or Andy. But they forget you.”