In 1995, the world was unceremoniously introduced to Pixar. With the release of Toy Story, American audiences were suddenly reminded that animation could be emotional, that it could be exciting and that it could (once again) be awe inspiring.
Roger Ebert had this to say about that seminal first offering:
For the kids in the audience, a movie like this will work because it tells a fun story, contains a lot of humor, and is exciting to watch. Older viewers may be even more absorbed, because "Toy Story," the first feature made entirely by computer, achieves a three-dimensional reality and freedom of movement that is liberating and new. The more you know about how the movie was made, the more you respect it.
This sentiment is all the more impressive if you consider that the first feature-length film made "entirely by *computer" should have been a disaster. After all, it's commonly remarked that technology is the bane of a quality cinematic experience and Toy Story practically oozed technology. (Never mind that we've learned so much since 1996 and that early CG animation can be picked out of a lineup fairly easily. In my mind, these 'exposed seams' are an endearing quality in this age of pure realism.)
Still, Toy Story was only one movie, and Pixar didn't (at the time) have a track record to fall back on. There was no reason to believe that their first release was anything more than beginner's luck; the sophomore slump was probably already in the making.
The hits keep on coming.
Eleven years after their first release, Pixar is long overdue for that slump. With the recent release of Cars, John Lasseter has proven (once again) that Pixar has something that no other animation studio in the world has: The ability to get it right.
And yet the Pixar formula for success is apparently so elusive and hard to mimic that there ought to be a "For Dummies" volume dedicated to detailing the process from start to finish. The answer seems so simple: It's the story, stupid!
It's not the story, stupid. (Sorry.)
I'm afraid it's just not that simple. If it were, there would be four or five Pixars pumping out Finding Nemo-quality fare on a regular basis. If you actually look through the Pixar catalogue, it's pretty clear that the stories being told are fairly basic. (One might even use the term "formulaic" as it's easy enough to pick out themes that have served Pixar well over the years.)
As has been noted elsewhere, Cars is practically a remake of Doc Hollywood and Wikipedia editors even utilize the headline "The Pixar Format" at one point in the Pixar entry. In other words, the Pixar approach isn't exactly a secret, nor would it be hard to duplicate. This does not mean that you'd get a PIxar quality movie by doing so.
Human Cloning presents a moral conundrum.
It's a little known secret that the recent push for human cloning has little to do with stem cell research and it has absolutely nothing to do with scientists wanting to ride the wave of discovery: It has everything to do with Pixar's rivals attempting to clone John Lasseter -- and a willingness to drop millions of dollars in a failed effort to do so.
And there you have the answer: The secret ingredient that cannot be duplicated from the formula (but that is vital to it's success) is John Lasseter. Apple utilizes the **same recipe but substitutes Steve Jobs. Studio Ghibli has it's own variation with strong hints of Hayao Miyazaki.
Those who try and fail simply don't have a secret ingredient as tasty as John Lasseter. They attempt to utilize gags and pop culture references and even fancier 'stylized' CG animation with the thought that the audience won't notice that something is still missing. (This is a lot like substituting Splenda for real sugar in Kool-Aid with the futile hope that we won't be able to tell the difference or claiming that Mexican Coca-Cola is the same as American Coke when only the former has real cane sugar.)
Everything I know about animation I learned from Hayao Miyazaki.
I suspect that John Lasseter might say the same thing. One of the features on the Spirited Away DVD is a "making-of" documentary that includes a segment where the master teaches his students a vital lesson about animation: You have to really understand the story you're telling as well as the ideals behind it. You can't realistically animate a dragon or a snake if you don't have any idea what a real snake is like or how it might move in a real situation.
John Lasseter provides this same philosophy for his team at Pixar and it's unlikely that this is merely a coincidence. When you watch Cars it's not the story that resonates, it's the idea that those who created the story honestly believed in the story they were creating. The Incredibles was a great film because it understood the nostalgia of reading comic books and distilled that feeling onto the screen. Toy Story managed to do the same thing (twice, no less) by reminding us that (at one point) we honestly believed that our toys were every bit as alive as we were -- and they did it with a straight face. It was clear that the men and women at PIxar once believed this about their toys as well. (That they managed to grow into adults without abandoning the purity of this belief is something we should all strive for.)
Lasseter is able to take that quality and instill it into everyone on his team. This results in a labor of love and a cinematic experience that everyone in the world can relate to. Personally speaking, I can't stand Nascar (or auto racing of any description) and despite this preconceived notion, Cars manages to be centered around that sport while not really being "about" that sport at all and still entertain: It manages to hit us on a far deeper level and this is why it's possible to watch a movie about cars, about toys and about bugs and still feel as though you're watching a movie about yourself.
And they all lived happily ever after.
This is just a reminder that we rarely attain greatness through obvious routes. If the opposite were true, the iPod's success would be duplicated in other players, Pixar would face stiffer competition and Disney would still exhibit the ***greatness that it once boasted. Rather than questioning greatness or attempting to boil success down into something that is more easily understood, we should just continue to be amazed by something that might never be duplicated. After all; there's only one John Lasseter.
* While it's technically true that movies like Toy Story are created on computers, I feel that it should be noted that even today, pre-production involves thousands of gorgeous hand-drawn sketches that ultimately provide the look-and-feel of any given movie. Often, these sketches are as interesting as the final product.
** PIxar actually utilizes a dash of Jobs as well, but I think he's less essential at Pixar than he is at Apple. Still, I'd never want him to leave.
*** My hope is that the acquisition of Pixar brings the Disney corporation back to it's former glory. I believe that PIxar could have success with traditional (2D) animation and that the Lasseter greatness could push that abandoned experience back onto the market in the United States. I've actually heard that the Pixar execs are not opposed to utilizing that format if they feel a story calls for it: My fingers remain crossed.)