WE LOVE PIXAR: How Hollywood Cynicism Almost Ruined 'Toy Story' (and Pixar)

Okay okay, Big Hollywood — and people all over the world — love Pixar. I get it, I get it. But why is Hollywood missing it?!

It is obvious the studio honchos can’t quite fancy what gives Pixar the upper hand in churning out hit after hit, otherwise they would have bottled and sold it in mass quantities. Here’s a hunch — Pixar’s success might have something to do with respect for the audience.

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Toy Story 3 was again the week’s #1 movie topping new fare from Adam Sandler, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. For well over a decade, Pixar has single-handedly delivered a new golden-age of animated film-making. Just like it was thrilling to be a teenager growing up with Luke Skywalker, E.T. and Marty McFly, it is easy to see why today’s kids are electrified by Buzz Lightyear, The Incredibles and Wall-e.

But it’s worth considering that the original Toy Story never should have worked under the Hollywood studio executive orthodoxy. In the early 1990’s, computer animated feature films did not exist, yet Disney took a risk to fund a group of PhD’s who swore they could make it work. It wasn’t just the technology they believed in, but in the stories they could tell. The animation was futuristic, but Pixar leader John Lasseter envisioned using it to tell a home-spun tale of a typical American boy and his best pal Woody, who happened to be a 1950’s era toy cowboy. But…

…Jeffrey Katzenberg, then Chairman of the struggling Disney Animation Studios, pressured Lasseter and the budding geniuses of Pixar to steer away from family entertainment. In the documentary “A Pixar Story,” Disney’s Tom Schumacher recounts, “Jeffrey would always be pushing for what he called ‘the edge… snappy, adult, on the edge of inappropriate, and not too young.’ In fact, Katzenberg even suggested they lose the word “toy” from the title so as not to scare away teens.

Under Katzenberg’s charge, Toy Story became an irreverent, mean-spirited muddled mess. It was only when Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and others returned to the old-fashioned idea of staying true to their vision that Toy Story came alive. The ‘edgy’ storyboards were thrown on the scrapheap, and the characters were re-drawn from the heart of the writers. The rest is history: Toy Story became a family-oriented, masterfully told hit film and one of the most beloved franchises in modern cinema. But it is worth mentioning the film’s allure came when the budding filmmakers stopped making what they thought the studio wanted, and instead made the film they would want their kids to watch.

Could it be that the boring old concept of quality, unoffensive family entertainment could be something that makes good box office? Fact is, Katzenberg, and much of the Hollywood establishment, seem to hold a cynical view of American audiences. It is one reason the LA Times called Katzenberg an “indefatigable huckster” for his obsession with driving box office revenue through gimmicks like 3-D (often at the expense of quality storytelling).

Pixar happily chugs along making thoughtful, even wholesome, blockbuster pictures like Toy Story 3, Up and Finding Nemo, while Katzenberg working on his latest indellible contribution to American cinema: Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom. Fear not, it is sure to be offered in eye-popping 3-D.

I’ll save my money for whatever Pixar comes out with next.


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