Leslie Iwerks’ “The Pixar Story” charts the company’s rise to infinity and beyond, so to speak, and who better to chronicle the journey than the Oscar-nominated granddaughter of animation pioneer Ub Iwerks? Though a talking-heads retrospective by nature, pic boasts not only all the right heads (from the three Pixar principals — John Lasseter, Ed Catmull and Steve Jobs — to Michael Eisner and honorary godfather George Lucas) but also plenty of animated eye candy from Pixar itself, including early shorts and concept art. Result makes for a rosy inhouse portrait, sure to interest fans, especially down the road on DVD.
Version screened at San Diego Comic-Con was well polished but not quite complete, with credits still in flux and clearances still pending on a few of the clips.
In retrospect, it’s easy to mistake Pixar’s success as savvy planning on the part of Lasseter (“talented artist”), Catmull (“creative scientist”) and Jobs (“visionary entrepreneur”), but the docu goes a long way to remind just how remarkable the meeting of these three minds proved. After all, even Lucas, who developed Pixar as the computer-graphics arm of his own filmmaking operation, decided to cut it loose before the division had revealed its true promise.
Narrated by Stacy Keach, pic opens with the image of a spinning zoetrope, followed by highlights from a century of hand-drawn toons, a fitting reminder of just how far animation has evolved to reach the sophistication evident in Pixar’s product. The key, of course, was the introduction of the computer — a tool Lasseter has elsewhere referred to as a multimillion-dollar pencil.
In other tellings of the Pixar story, Disney figures as the would-be villain (for letting Lasseter go during the early days of computer animation), with Lasseter’s promotion to chief creative officer of Disney animation seen as the underdog-hero’s poetic victory. But now that Disney and Pixar are one and the same, and because Iwerks’ docu was produced internally, such dramatics have no place in this telling — which probably makes for a more accurate account of events, considering that neither company would be where it is today without the other.
Still, history is written by the winners, and “The Pixar Story” is first a tale of how computers saved the animation medium (ignoring that Disney was on a hot streak with “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” when “Toy Story” debuted) and how, in turn, the Pixar team will save traditional toon-making methods now that they run the show.
The movie is, above all else, a celebration of animation in all its forms. Iwerks naturally has a firm grasp of the medium’s history and rightly sees Pixar as the catalyst for the recent resurgence of audience interest in animation.
Early in the movie, Lasseter credits the book “Walt Disney’s Art of Animation” with inspiring him to enter the field, and Iwerks’ film will no doubt have a similar effect on future generations. She focuses less on Pixar’s behind-the-scenes methodology (with good reason, considering how exhaustively those details are chronicled on the Pixar DVDs themselves), but presents a treasure trove of rare footage, including clips of Lasseter’s first two Student Academy Award-winning film-school projects, “Lady and the Lamp” and “NiteMare,” which presage “Luxo Jr.” and “Monsters Inc.”
Iwerks also includes the computer-animated “Where the Wild Things Are” demo Lasseter and Glen Keane developed for Disney, as well as Catmull’s U. of Ohio experiment in rendering his own hand (the first 3-D computer effect featured in a movie) and Loren Carpenter’s 1980 fractal landscape experiment “Vol Libre” (which enabled Pixar’s work on “Star Trek II”).
The film acknowledges the existence of “Shrek” and other CG toons, but doesn’t devote much time to the competition. Instead, Iwerks puts Pixar in a league of its own, detailing the many “unheard of” hurdles the company overcame: a back-to-the-drawing-board revision of “Toy Story” nine months before its release, the decision to hire an outside director (“The Incredibles'” Brad Bird) to shake things up after four major hits and so on.
Though positive, the film does not feel overly promotional. Pic fits in nicely with the open-door tradition Walt Disney established in the 1930s and captures the corporate culture of the place, where employees ride Segways around the office and participate in paper-airplane contests.
Tom Hanks and Tim Allen appear to discuss their work on “Toy Story,” but Iwerks recognizes that the suits (or the Hawaiian shirts, in Lasseter’s case) are the real stars of the Pixar story.