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Back to the future

Think of Pixar as an up-to-the-minute studio throwback

'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Up' (MGM/UA Home Entertainmment (left); Pixar Animation Studios And Walt Disney Pictures) ''The Wizard of Oz'' was the product of the classic studio system, a model Pixar has followed with successes like ''Up'' (above right).
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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"The American cinema is a classical art," the French critic Andre Bazin wrote in 1957, "but why not then admire in it what is most admirable, i.e., not only the talent of this or that filmmaker, but the genius of the system."

Half a century later, Hollywood lacks system even more than it lacks genius. Bazin was describing the heyday of the Studio Era, a period roughly coinciding with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, 1933-1945.

The Studio Era was the assembly line as art - "the dream factory" the anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker called it. Its most notable achievement didn't lie in the work of any one filmmaker or given genre or style. Rather, it was the systematic organization of talent, craft, and technology to manufacture a high-quality, high-volume entertainment product which managed to achieve two seemingly opposed ends: to create work of considerable artistry at the same time that it generated even more considerable profits.

By the time Bazin made his observation, the Hollywood studio system had been in irreversible decline for a decade. Studios were increasingly concerned with distribution rather than production. The rise of television, the growing popularity of independent production deals for stars and filmmakers, the antitrust consent decree that forced the studios to relinquish their theater chains: These were only the most important among multiple factors in reconfiguring the Hollywood landscape.

That landscape is all but unrecognizable today. Yet certain Studio Era hallmarks endure. The Academy Awards continue as a monument to mediocrity and self-importance, the filmmaking equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Such names as Paramount and Universal and 20th Century Fox are no less familiar now.

The greatest living testament to the genius of the system comes from a name no one would have recognized 15 years ago, let alone 60, and the studio that bears the name isn't even in Hollywood. Pixar Animation Studios is based in Emeryville, Calif., 350 miles and several sensibilities away from contemporary Hollywood. It's not all that far, though, from the Hollywood of six decades ago.

In terms of product, what most distinguished Studio Era Hollywood was a devotion to three principles: a corporate approach to creativity, being in it for the long haul (rather than just a one-weekend killing), and reaching every part of the moviegoing public. There was nothing especially idealistic about these principles. The studios thought they were the best way to make the most money. Quality paid, and the more possible ticket-buyers there were the more money was likely to be made.

Add to those three principles unfailing creativity and innovative use of computer technology, and you have the genius of the Pixar system. It's not just that the 10 features the company has released have consistently been so successful both commercially and artistically. It's how they've been so successful.

The single most striking thing about Pixar has been its ability to have such an unmistakable sensibility (character-driven comedy that manages to be at once wildly energetic and deeply humane) while providing a home to so many diverse talents. The work of a John Lasseter (the two "Toy Story" movies, "Cars") would never be mistaken for that of a Brad Bird ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille"). Yet all four movies are unmistakably Pixar.

Part of that balance lies in how Pixar draws on those individual talents for multiple projects. It's a team effort. Some of that multiplicity is up there on the screen. Pete Docter, the co-director of "Up" and "Monsters, Inc.," helped write "Wall-E," directed by Andrew Stanton. Stanton, who also directed "Finding Nemo," helped write the two "Toy Story" movies and "A Bug's Life," and did voice work on all those movies, as well as "Cars" and "The Incredibles."

The more important part of that multiplicity isn't listed in any credits. "We are the first audience" for Pixar films, Docter said in a recent Globe interview, referring to his directing and writing colleagues. "Part of our job is just to be a filmwatcher, an audience member. I think that's one of the keys to the success of the studio.

"In some ways, those screenings are more nerve-racking than showing it to the general public. I know at the end I'm going up to the room and they're going to have a lot to say. . . . That's where you start poking at the weaknesses. They expose things I hadn't seen, come up with great ideas that, ultimately, I get to take credit for."

Giving credit where credit is due, the Venice International Film Festival in September will present its Golden Lion award to the Pixar directors in toto: Lasseter, Bird, Stanton, Docter, and Lee Unkrich (director of the forthcoming "Toy Story 3"). It's the first time the festival has honored a group of filmmakers rather than an individual.

A Pixar feature usually takes five years from conception to release. That schedule in no way resembles the assembly-line tempo of the Studio Era, but it does recall the attention to quality control that was no less important an element in the system's genius.

"That's the great thing about Pixar," Docter said. "They allow the time to invest in something, and you're expected to make mistakes. . . . Let's allow the time to make sure we're going the right way here."

Docter cited something Pixar president Ed Catmull once said to him. "His thinking was, 'We'll never make a bad movie. We might make a movie that isn't a hit at the box office. But we want to continue to make sure we make good movies. We're not going to release one that's not good.' "

That may sound unrealistic. In fact it's simply good business. Pixar quickly established itself as a brand - as did, 70 years ago, Walt Disney. (Disney has been Pixar's distributor from the beginning and now owns the company.) Maintaining the brand's quality pays long-term dividends.

One such dividend has been allowing the studio to extend the brand and - what's far rarer in Hollywood - deepen it. Toys, bugs, monsters, fish, cars, superheroes: Those are all standard animation subjects. But what if the superheroes belong to a family that verges on dysfunction? And how about Parisian rats, voiceless robots on a desolated Earth, or an elderly widower? In content, no less than execution, Pixar is anything but kids' stuff.

The most enduring Hollywood films have appealed to all ages. Think of "The Wizard of Oz" (which, in fact, the flying house in "Up" inevitably recalls). There again Pixar looks to the past.

No small factor in the animation boom of the past two decades has been the tweaking of cartoons to appeal to parents as well as children. Dreamworks Animation has been especially proficient. Its "Shrek" films include as many pop-culture references as a season's worth of "Saturday Night Live." Yet although boomers may not realize it, making a movie palatable to them as well as their offspring isn't the same as seeking to appeal to the entire filmgoing public. It's unthinkable that Dreamworks would build an animated feature around a crabby old man, let alone acknowledge a character's barrenness and death, as Pixar has with "Up." The Pixar demography is humanity, in both senses of the word.

The final laugh may be Pixar's, though. It's not just a matter of box office. ("Up" earned $68.2 million last weekend; nothing Studio Era about a three-day take like that.) It has to do with that other Studio Era mainstay, the Oscars.

The academy's bias against animation is longstanding. Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" is the only animated feature to be nominated for best picture. Even though a strong case could be made that "Wall-E" was the best US film of last year, it wasn't nominated for best picture. If ever there was a picture that could have broken the animated ceiling, it was "Wall-E." Ah, but academy membership notoriously skews old. Things might be looking "Up." Having an elderly hero might be what it takes to get voters to overcome their disdain of animation.

How nice to imagine a remnant of the Studio Era acknowledging the Studio Era reinvented.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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