The Golden Age of Pixar

An analysis on the Golden Age of Pixar Studios
September 04, 2018
Imagine this:

It is Thanksgiving Eve of 2002

While you're mother is in the kitchen roasting a turkey & getting everything prepared for tomorrow, you are eagerly anticipating your distant relatives coming over to celebrate the classic American holiday about "giving thanks". In the living room, you're watching the cartoons. Later on in the night when it is usually your bedtime, and you're Mom would hound on you to go to sleep, instead asks "You want to watch something else?". You immediately jump in joy and of course you scream "YEAH!!!". Then you proceed to watch A Bug's Life on the family VCR.

It's nostalgic memories like these that evoke nothing but positive emotions, longing for more simpler times. For many children of the Baby Boomer Generation it was the Silver Age of Disney Classics like Cinderella, Lady and The Tramp, Peter Pan, and The Jungle Book. For children who grew up in the 1980s it was the Saturday morning cartoons of their day like Transformers, He-Man, and Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles.

However pertaining to animated film, one of the most notable and notorious eras of stellar excellence was the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. For many children that grew up in the 1990s this was the pinnacle of Walt Disney Animation and was a highlight of millions of Millennial childhoods.

However, as amazing and stellar the Renaissance era was, we are not going to be talking about that today. There are plenty of great articles on RetroJunk that are already fully devoted to that topic (Patricks Shields has recently crafted a great blog on the Renaissance period of Disney Animation, if you're interested), but I digress. Disney's comeback in the 1990s from its anemic stagnation of ideas immediately after Walt Disney's death during the Late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s led to great and innovative ideas for the company in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Ironically the explosion of new ideas and talent in the company was also when computer animation was slowly (but surely) gaining prominence.

Disney studios incorporated some modern elements of computer animation in their renaissance era films. Some of the most notable examples in the earlier renaissance films was the iconic ballroom waltz scene in Beauty and The Beast, and the Magic Carpet escape scene in Aladdin. Around during this same time, a little company named Pixar were making steady strides with their computer animated shorts. Founded as the Graphics Group in 1979, the company was originally a subsidiary for Lucasfilms, the film company most noted for Star Wars. From the group's humble inception in the mid 1970s, their goal was to eventually create the first ever 3-D Computer Animated film. Their first major project was the, unfortunately, shelved planned film The Works. Due to the lack in technological prowess that was made available in the early 1980s, The Works was bounced around immensely and the project never came to fruition. This would have been the first computer generated film, but due to internal conflicts and the technology not sufficiently being up to snuff at the time, the plan was shelved. In spite of this, Graphics Group remained vigilant and determined to eventually reach their goal in making a computer animated film. The company spun out of Lucasfilm and Pixar was born in 1986!

The intelligent inventor & marketer Steve Jobs was making great strides in computing technology in the 1980s, right around when PCs were becoming viable to purchase for the American public. Him and Steve Wozniak founded what we know today as Apple in 1976. By the mid 1980s, Apple was an unstoppable force. This was mainly due to Steve Jobs' sagacious leadership of the Macintosh Group, the main line of Apple Computers.

However in 1985, due to a power struggle between the Apple CEO (& former CEO of Pepsi) John Sculley & Steve Jobs on the direction for the company to undertake, the board of directors sided with Sculley and fired Jobs.

Steve Jobs, being the fluid man he was had to reinvent himself, and fast! Thankfully, in 1986 Steve Jobs decided to buy a major stake in a subsidiary of what was still called The Graphics Group. That same year, as Pixar was formed, Jobs' expertise in graphic technology & computing proved to be vital & needed for the studio if they wanted to succeed in making a computer-generated film. Thus the company of Pixar, with the help of Jobs, began to massively expand. Throughout much of the Late 1980s and Early-Mid 1990s, Pixar made various animated shorts that did decent, but were not gangbusters like their subsequent theatrical films. The growth was steady, but not as rapidly expanding as Steve Jobs wanted.

This cultivated in 1994, when Steve Jobs was seriously contemplating on selling the company to Hallmark. However, with the anticipation for Toy Story starting to build in Late 1994, Steve Jobs begrudgingly agreed to put as much allocated resources into Pixar as possible to sustain the company, even becoming CEO. And well.... THE REST IS HISTORY!

The film ended up being a groundbreaking success, and the computer animation equivalent in shattering expectations as Star Wars did for the space western drama nearly 20 years prior. With the help of lead animators like John Lasseter, exceptional composers like Randy Newman, and screenwriters like Andrew Stanton, Pixar was able to rise in prominence.

Today I will be examining this golden age of fresh ideas and innovation from one of the most iconic animation studios in history, Pixar. I wont examine every film, but the ones that were the most notable in the progression of Pixar and some of my personal subjective favorites. I will also, similarly to how I explained how Pixar became an animation powerhouse through constant diligence, be examining what led to their unfortunate downfall. So come join me on this nostalgic look back at arguably one of the greatest eras in animation history, Pixar's Golden Age from circa 1995 with the groundbreaking success of Toy Story through 2010 cultivating the epic series of Toy Story in a fitting finale in Toy Story 3.

Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story was a blockbuster success when it premiered on November 22nd, 1995. The film grossed at $373.5 Million, and was nominated for countless accolades at the Academy Awards, including the reward for Best-Original Screenplay. The music, composed by Randy Newman was renowned for its simplistic yet stylistic and enjoyable lyrics that gave kids and adults pleasantness to their ears. Classic songs like "You've Got a Friend in Me" was especially praised and to this day remains well known and nostalgic to millions.

The plot was relatively simplistic, but yet so original at the same time. A film about the hypothetical possibility of toys being able talk and live freely. A young boy named Andy whom is in love with his favorite Cowboy slinging action hero Woody, gets a new 'favorite' toy in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command.

These anthropomorphic toys 'come to life' when there are no humans around & interact like, well, humans. They have feelings, they have deep thoughts, they have dreams. And in the case of Woody & Buzz, they do their utmost in competing to see which toy has the honor in being Andy's preference.

Something that almost every kid has pondered on at least once in their life, the film brilliantly executes this concept well. Lovable characters in Cowboy slinging action figure Woody, smooth talking Space Cadet of Star Command in Buzz Lightyear, shy and meek Slinky Dog, blunt smart allecky in Mr Potato Head (voiced by the legendary Don Rickles), or even the nervous and gentle soul in Rex, the characters in Toy Story were stellar. Not to mention, being voiced by great actors like Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, James Varney, and Wallace Shawn to name a few. The film's iconic quote, "To Infinity and Beyond" inspired millions of Americans, both young and old, to follow their passions. This prudential quote also helped elevating the spirits & ambitions of the many sagacious storyboard writers, programmers, musicians, executives, and other professionals associated with Pixar to go "beyond" their wildest expectations on the prospects this studio could undertake.

With the immense success of Toy Story, work immediately began on a new film that could potentially capture that same amount of magic. That film was A Bug's Life.

A Bug's Life (1998)

While this film was not as renowned as Toy Story, it was still a great addition to the Pixar Studios lineup. Similar to how Toy Story was a story about toys, A Bug's Life was a story about bugs. Yeah.... that description doesn't sound as inventive in the grand scheme of things, but it was still executed well. However, to evaluate furthermore, the film, unfortunately, was arguably one of the most controversial films in the Pixar Golden Age.

After the fallout between Jefferey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner in 1994 following the death of Franklin Wells, the president of the Walt Disney Company, Jefferey Katzenberg, who felt betrayed, decided to create his own animation studio, Dreamworks. Despite this strife, Jefferey Katzenberg remained in touch with his friend and high ranking Pixar executive John Lasseter. Around in Late 1995, Lasseter, who trusted Katzenberg, would console with Katzenberg about the in depth story elements and design choices for Pixar/Disney's next 'Bugs' Project for advice. While it has never been completely confirmed, many attribute these meetings as the catalyst for Katzenberg coming up with the idea of making his own 'Bugs' movie. This would later be known as Antz.

Funnily enough, Antz actually released before A Bug's Life, debuting on October 2nd, 1998 and the latter debuting on November 25th, 1998. Despite this debacle, A Bug's Life proceeded to have raving reviews from critics, in contrast to the more mixed reviews espoused from critics in relation to Antz. The film also grossed about $363 million in the box office. On top of that it was one of my favorites growing up, hence the nostalgic story of myself watching the film on VHS on Thanksgiving Eve of 2002!

All in all this was a very stellar film that brought a lot of laughs and taught me great life lessons on perseverance. The film had an amazing musical score, arguably one of the best in Pixar's long history. The score, like Toy Story, was composed by the legendary Randy Newman.

The film also had a great licensed based game. I played this extensively as a kid on the Sony Playstation 1 back in the early 2000s. This was back in a time when licensed based games were of actual good caliber and quality, and this game was no exception to that rule.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Around the time Toy Story was in development in the mid 1990s, John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft began brainstorming ideas on films that explored common childhood fantasies. Two of the most prominent childhood beliefs that John, Joe, Pete, and Andrew had were the belief that toys came to life when no one were around and that monsters lived in children's bedrooms.

By 2001, obviously the idea of the former had already been released, along with a well received sequel. In 2001, this meant that the second childhood fantasy manifestation could finally hit the screen, and that was Monsters, Inc.

Released on November 2nd, 2001, Monsters, Inc at the time of its release was the highest grossing computer animated film. The film made about $577.4 Million, making it the second highest grossing animated film of all time (behind from The Lion King), albeit at the time of its release. This was another favorite of mines as a kid. Like many kids, I grew up with the fear of 'monsters in my closet'. So to see the concept flip over its head was pretty intriguing to me as a kid. It allowed 6 year old me to see another side, "perhaps maybe us humans are the 'monsters'".

The character Boo was for many people watching the movie, especially children like myself, pretty relatable. In my perspective, she just seemed to be an innocent child who just happened to get caught up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Her childhood innocence clashed with the cynicism of the main characters of Mike and Sully, the monsters trying to protect her. Overall; between the compelling characters, the cohesive story, and innovative concept of making manifestations of our childhood fears seem more humane, the film did an excellent job.

I loved the film so much as a kid that it was the one of the first DVDs I ever owned. I also had a game on the PS1 called, Monsters, Inc Scream Team. This was another Pixar based game I owned when I was a kid, once again
back during a time when licensed based games were actually good.

Overall it was by the time of Monsters, Inc success that showed that computer animation was the wave of the future. And with so much innovative ideas being spurned from the company, that success would only continue to surge.

Finding Nemo (2003)

In 2003 Pixar released its killer app, its 'Lion King' essentially. This film would become a critical success, a box office hit, and a subsequent juggernaut in toys, products, video games, and other forms of merchandise. That film was Finding Nemo.

Directed by Andrew Stanton, the film became the second highest grossing animated film, grossing over $940.3 Million Worldwide. The film received critical acclaim for critics and audiences alike (the film currently stands at a 99% in Rotten Tomatoes). Broadway star Nathan Lane, who voiced Teemon from The Lion King, called Finding Nemo his favorite film... did I mention a voice actor from The Lion King!?

As you could tell, the film had a resounding success. The plot was pretty simple, a Clownfish named Marlin goes on a epic journey to rescues his young son Nemo after being captured from a scuba diver. Marlin meets Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres) on the way, a blue tang suffering from amnesia, and they travel amongst many others whom accompany them on their quest to find and save Nemo. While nothing groundbreaking in the plot, the way the story was told was worthy of praise. The film also had a starred pack lineup of voice actors; Albert Brooks, Ellen Degeneres, Willem Dafoe, Austin Pendleton, Brad Garret, and Allison Janney, among others. You also had the young talent of Alexander Gould as Nemo, whom was only 8 years old at the time of casting.

The film, like the other wide array of Pixar classics, had a good musical score. This time it was composed by Thomas Newman, who did a good job in the instrumentation of the many tracks for various scenes. This helped give the film more raw emotion through its music.

On top of all of that, it was the first Pixar movie I remember seeing in theaters when I was a kid. I remember this film being marketed to us 90s babies like crazy back in the day and thinking that I 'Needed to SEE THIS!'. So guess what one my oldest cousins, whom had just graduated from Law School, wanted to celebrate with one of his favorite youngest cousins decided to do? He took me to see Finding Nemo in theaters, and that was surely a blast!

Because of how impressive the film did in the box office, the critical acclaim it achieved, its lasting legacy, & overall this film being my favorite Pixar Film of All Time (& one of my favorite animated films of All Time as well), well its no contest, Finding Nemo was surely so impressive, it can't even be explained fully in words.

The Incredibles (2004)

A year & a half after the groundbreaking success of Finding Nemo, Pixar's growth did not slow down. On November 5th, 2004 Pixar's next killer app took the studio to even higher heights. That stellar film was The Incredibles.

Directed by Brad Bird, who at that time previously had directed the 1999 classic The Iron Giant, Brad wanted to go big. He wanted to reach a next sector of imagination that hadn't been seen yet for the studios. The film was in essence a Superhero film, in a time before Superhero films were oversaturated and still had a bit of charm & originality to them. This was the Tobey McGuire Era of Spiderman, & it was months prior before Batman Begins would shatter the film industry, especially in relation towards Superhero flicks, forever.

So keep in mind that when comparing to the complexities regarding many Superhero films today, the original Incredibles is a bit dated in that regard. But do not make that grave mistake, the story may have been a bit on the simpler sides, but that surely did not impede on the effectiveness of how the film was able to portray the Superhero genre in a new light. The mere fact that the movie was about a family of Superheroes living relatively normal & mundane lives was definitely a break from normal conventions, and was a welcome change. The concept worked well and the film would eventually gross $633 Million at the box office, not at Finding Nemo levels, but surely still a killer.

The cinematography was also (arguably) the best out of all of the Pixar films in the Golden Age. Its perfect ambiance of bright & dark colors, especially in relation to the respected scenes, helped to further convey the emotions of the characters.

Who could forget the awesome musical score? Composed by Michael Giacchino the music draws influence from the genre known as 'Spy Jazz', prominent in many classic Spy films from the 1960s (a little tongue in cheek), especially the James Bond films from that era. This also coincides with the film's plot, as the origin stories of Mr. Incredible & Mrs. Incredible are taken place in what seems to be a sort of 1960s/1970s era comic book fantasy of a crime ridden city.... looking for heroes. So not even just the cinematography & color composition, but even the music immensely grabs the audience into the world of The Incredibles.

And it would be a disservice to this wonderful film without mentioning the villain Syndrome. Easily the best villain in Pixar history due to his complexities & ambitions. Also, the mere fact that he was inches away from accomplishing his goals. This only bolstered the stakes that our heroes were facing, and seeing them overcome them was certainly glorious!

Oh and you certainly cannot forget about this iconic scene of the movie! Frozone was hands down the best side character in Pixar history.

This leads into the second half of the Pixar Golden Age. Now keep in mind, Pixar was still a juggernaut in the mid-late 2000s, however, I wasn't a kid anymore by the time these films were released so my nostalgic connection to them aren't the same as the ones I had for the earlier films. With that being said however, two significant things occurred in 2006 that would prove to be pivotal in the history of Pixar as we know it. One being the acquisition of Pixar by its former sister company Walt Disney Studios. Second, the release of one of the most polarizing films in the Pixar Golden Age.

Cars (2006)

Now let me be clear, I actually liked the first Cars film. I know thats a bit sacrilege to say in the Pixar fandom community, but I thought for what the film was trying to accomplish, implementing a world in which its society is run by anthropomorphic cars, was pretty neat & done well. I also liked the high stakes action sequences pertaining to many races involving the main protagonist of the film Lightning McQueen. I would say this film is right next to The Incredibles in the intensity of its action. The film also had exceptional cinematography & stunning visuals, particularly in the second & third acts of the film that take place in Radiator Springs. Also, Lightning McQueen's romance with Radiator Springs native Sally Carrera is pretty joyous to watch on the silver screen.

So, as laid out above, there were certainly a lot of positives going for the film. However, there were certainly a lot of negatives for the film as well. Lets start with the obvious (and ironically how this ties in with the Disney buying Pixar); the obtuse marketing of the film through its merchandise, toys, video games, etc:

While this isn't inherently a bad thing per say, it showed to Pixar and to Disney (especially) the amount of money they can make from the popularity of anthropomorphic race cars for years after the original release of the film. All of the other Pixar films prior had merchandise that typically tied into the original film's release & approximately for the following year. This was balanced, and allowed the film production to make more money from its intellectual properties, but it was obviously principled into not making films for the sole purpose in selling merchandise. Disney & Pixar's unholy alliance in the Late 2000s took a page out of how cartoons in the 1980s were marketed to kids, and for all of the wrong reasons.

(Although, I will admit that I did enjoy the Cars video games on both Playstation 2 & GameBoy Advance back in the day! So I guess I was partly to blame for Pixar's selling out period in the second half of the 2000s, lol.)

Back to drawing criticism for the film itself; while Lightning McQueen was a great character, the rest of the main crew were.... meh at bad. They either were too melodramatic in their roles or too boring for me to even care. The story, while done, was also a bit cliche in many aspects. Like, "Oh I've Seen That Before!" or "Oh that's Original.... (obvious sarcasm", you get the point. This was also the first Pixar film in which the soundtrack really wasn't that memorable, like at all.

The only notable song I can remember from the film was, wait for it, Life is a Highway....

So its safe to say that Cars remains one of the most controversial films in the Pixar Golden Age, let alone the entire history of Pixar Studios as we know it. While at the time, when the film premiered on June 9th, 2006, the film had relatively good reviews from critics and grossed about $462 Million form the box office. No where near Finding Nemo or The Incredibles levels, but still very good in the grand scheme of things. Especially since Cars had a budget of $120 Million, the largest in Pixar's history up to that point, which obviously lead to the films stunning visuals & cinematography.

However, while I still liked the film, especially back when I saw this as a kid, over the years the flaws of the film have become more apparent. I can also empathize with many people whom detested the film back then & still vehemently bash it today. While I do think the film gets a little too much hate, I do agree with the general consensus that this film set Pixar in a downward spiral.

So the later years of Pixar's Golden Age offered a glimpse into how Pixar will inevitably change into today. However, things didn't necessarily change overnight, for good reason. The last four Pixar Golden Age films proved to be great success. All I can say, in a brief amount of time, was that all of these films were spectacular!

Ratatouille in 2007 offered a great dynamic between the main characters of Remy, a rat that loves to cook, and Linguini, a bus boy whom had ambitions to make it big.

Wall-E was great in almost every single category. However, the relationship between Wall-E and Eve was certainly romantic & heartwarming. You also some great story elements, an awesome musical score, and very intelligent way of tying in an important environmental & technological message for all people to see.

Up (2009)

You also had the Award Winning Masterpiece, (one that actually was nominated for Best Picture from the Academy Awards, the first animated film since Beauty and The Beast to be nominated for this high honor) Up from 2009. This stellar film had a great riveting story, and a great dynamic between the old & cynical Carl and his young & optimistic boy scout accompanying Carl on his journey named Russel. Together, the two travel up to the clouds, across the globe, in Carl's house thats tied to thousands of balloons in search of the mystical Paradise Falls.

The ambitions of Carl became realized after discovering the mysticism of Paradise Falls from his childhood, & eventual, life long love Ellie, whom both shared a passion for the famous explorer Charles. F. Muntz. The first 10 minutes of the film, thus, is a highlight of Carl & Ellie's life through the good and the bad, the triumphs & times of defeat, from the joyful moments & melancholic ones.

This emotional roller coaster of emotions was so pleasant to witness, & equally traumatizing to watch. These first 10 minutes of this film are critical in gauging the audience's attention into how the rest of the narrative would inevitably play out.

Ultimately, the film did an exceptional job in doing so.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Last but not least, you had a film that was a perfect finale to this golden period of innovation in the animation studio of Pixar. That film being Toy Story 3. Directed by Lee Unkrich, this film was perfect way to show the prowess of Pixar's amazing history of animation excellence, & he did an exceptional job in directing this film.

Toy Story 3 is special to me because in many ways it was the perfect culmination of Pixar's period of excellence. The film was also symbolic as it officially marked the end of my childhood of sorts, something that many other people whom were born in the 1990s & grew up with the original Toy Story could relate to. I was actually starting high school when this film came out, and of course the main character from the first film, Andy, was about to start college.

So the fact that Pixar decided not to make this movie apart of a floating timeline, IMHO, was a great idea. It meant that the 15 years that had progressed between the first film in 1995 & the third in 2010 had both a real-world effect in our realities & the characters in the films. Andy goes from a happy-go-lucky kid in 1995 to a young adult in 2010 about to embark on a new frontier.

Because of this the toys, unfortunately, do not have much of use to Andy anymore, because he had grown up. This mere fact is heartbreaking to the toys that have essentially grown up with Andy, through the good times & bad. For all they have been through, most of the toys feel betrayed. Andy's family, thus, decides to donate the toys to a daycare, and well the rest is history.

The toys live out their days in this new frontier, this new environment, & ultimately their new home. This film is the epitome of bittersweet. However, while the film is heart wrenching at times to watch, it does teach important lessons. One of those being the concept of self sacrifice. Doing what is best for the greater good. Being apart of something greater than yourself.

It is a timeless message that anybody, of any age, can appreciate and learn from. The film's beautifully captured moments, amazing soundtrack (also composed by Randy Newman), return of a stellar ensemble cast in the hopes of beautifully capturing the moments of tension, tenderness, & love; this film went "one step beyond".

Grossing $1.067 Billion at the box office, and the second Pixar film (and third animated film overall) to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, this film was surely a home run for both audiences & critics alike.


Pixar unfortunately went into a downward spiral starting with the critically panned film Cars 2, which most people over the age of 12 saw as blatant marketing with no real substance. In 2012, Brave, while had a great & intriguing concept, overall wasn't executed very well & received mixed views from critics. Monster's University is a shadow of Monster's Inc, and anybody could tell that the studio made the film to simply get the nostalgia from many first year college students that grew up with the original (noticing a trend here?).

That doesn't mean that all of these films are necessarily bad, but it shows that ever since Disney became more involved in the production of Pixar films that the process has become 'Disneyfied' in a sense. What that means is that instead of creating good standalone films that, like the Renaissance films of the 1990s, that serve as timeless stories, Disney instead wanted to milk every single dime that these properties could make. Its why since 2010 we have had 5 sequels (not including Toy Story 3) for Pixar films, and only 4 new originals (one of those being The Good Dinosaur actually bombed in the box office, it was Pixar's first official flop in its studio's history).

Despite this tragedy, it is always a pleasure to look back at the Golden Age of Pixar from 1995 to 2010 with pleasure & joy. It was a time of invigorating innovation. Amazing stories that gripped you to your seat till the end. Amazing & vivid musical scores that entranced you into the film & the characters. Finally, it was an age when Pixar actually cared for its intellectual properties, it didn't try to milk every penny of its budget, it truly handled these films with immense care & integrity. At the end of the day, I am glad to have seen this era of animation before my very own eyes & I hope to pass down to my children, & my children's children, the magic that Pixar encapsulated. Hopefully, Pixar bounces back from its stagnant rut they are in now, because it truly would be glorious if the studio returned to the height of passion as they did 10-20 years ago.

(This was easily my biggest production upto this point. It took me from March of 2018 to August 30th, 2018 to finish. Hopefully you enjoyed the read! What were some of your favorite moments from Pixar's Golden Age? Please let me know in the comment section below. God Bless.)
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