Friday, January 05, 2007

The Emergence of Pixar

Pixar Animation Studios, originally a division of Lucasfilm (and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM)), was purchased by Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and made an independent company in 1986. [ILM had created the startling, first completely CGI-animated character - the 'stained-glass knight' in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), bringing the film a Best Visual Effects nomination.]

Pixar Studios (and director John Lasseter) and Disney (with their first collaboration), in a 1991 deal worth $26 million, created the first completely computer-generated animated feature film - the landmark Toy Story (1995) - Pixar's feature debut. The visuals were entirely generated from computers, creating a wonderfully-realistic 3-D world with lighting, shading, and textures, that included real toys in supporting roles (Etch-A-Sketch, Slinky Dog, the plastic toy soldiers, Mr. Potato Head, etc.). The story itself dealt with the anxiety experienced by a toy (cowboy Woody) upon the arrival of a rival plaything (spacetoy Buzz Lightyear)-- mirroring the tension felt by a child when a younger sibling is born. The tale also referenced the historical change in genre emphasis in the 50s when westerns were supplanted by science-fiction films.

DreamWorks and Pacific Data Images (PDI) released the second computer-animated feature film in history - the adult-oriented Antz (1998), with Woody Allen's voice for a misfit, individualist worker ant named Z. At about the same time, A Bug's Life (1998), a children's-oriented, computer animated tale based upon Aesop's fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, was released by Pixar and Disney (their second teaming).

Disney also released in 1995 the hand-drawn animation Pocahontas (1995), the studio's 33rd feature-length animated movie and the first to be based on actual events and people. The surprise hit of 1995, however, was Best Picture-nominated Babe (1995), the charming and highly entertaining story of the title character - a talking barnyard pig with a talent for sheep herding. Disney released two hand-drawn animations in the next two years, the dark and ambitious Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) based upon the Victor Hugo novel, and Hercules (1997) about the mythological strong man, and Fox released the disappointing Anastasia (1997).

The year 1998 also showcased other animated films, including the low-budget Rugrats Movie (1998) (based upon the characters on Nickelodeon's TV series), Disney's hand-drawn animated Chinese folk tale Mulan (1998) (Disney's 36th feature-length animated film), and DreamWorks' epic - the animated musical feature The Prince of Egypt (1998) about the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt.

Pixar's sequel to its successful 1995 computer-animated hit was released in 1999 with Disney (their third collaboration) - Toy Story 2 (1999), again with Woody the Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear. So were Disney's Tarzan (1999), the first full-length, hand-drawn animated feature about Edgar Rice Burrough's King of the Jungle, and two hand-drawn animations from Warner Bros: the critically-acclaimed animated adventure Iron Giant (1999) by director Brad Bird, about a fifty-foot robot befriended by a nine year-old boy, and the animated musical The King and I (1999). Sony Pictures brought to life E.B. White's classic children's story Stuart Little (1999) featuring a clothes-wearing and talking white mouse (voice of Michael J. Fox) - it was a hugely successful film, with a combination of computer animated characters and live action.

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