- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

As “Toy Story” (and its sequel) makes its way back into theaters, this time in eye-popping 3-D, it’s easy to forget how much animated movies have changed since — and because of — its release. But not all of those changes have been for the better.

When Pixar released “Toy Story” in 1995, it was an immediate sensation. As the first all-CGI (computer-generated imagery) feature in movie history, it was first and foremost a technological marvel. But what might have been a throwaway gimmick of no more consequence than smell-o-vision in fact turned out to be a cinematic watershed with real resonance.

The movie was a full-fledged hit with audiences and critics alike. And with its big raves and big box office, everyone wanted a piece: Pixar had opened the door to a cinematic digital wonderland, and all of Hollywood wanted to follow it through that door.

In the ensuing years, “Toy Story’s” influence spread. Not only did it spawn its own lucrative genre — in a typical year, Hollywood produces more than a dozen fully CGI-animated movies — it eventually replaced traditional animation almost entirely.

However, in the process of expanding on the considerable success of “Toy Story,” Hollywood seems to have learned the wrong lessons. Rather than mimic Pixar’s mix of cinema savvy, artful animation and tender, character-driven stories that appeal to a wide range of viewers, other studios have focused on eye candy, movie-star voice actors and crude blends of adult humor and childish sentimentality.

In the family-film market in particular, competitors have turned out expensive Pixar knockoffs that attempt to mimic the company’s impulses but end up vulgarizing them. Perhaps no studio has been worse about this than Dreamworks.

“Toy Story’s” look at the secret lives of children’s playthings was clever and nostalgically pop-savvy. Also, each of the characters had a unique, often unexpected personality. Despite being toys, they were, in the storytelling sense, real people, with moving but complex emotional lives.

With its “Shrek” and “Madagascar” series, Dreamworks seems to have done little more than crudely repurpose these elements. The “Madagascar” films are packed with one-note, one-joke characters and innuendos aimed at adults, which the studio tends to layer over simplistic themes. They alternate between gratingly obnoxious and gratingly sentimental, occasionally managing to be both.

The “Shrek” series, meanwhile, takes its cultural savvy as license for a shallow pop-referentiality. “Toy Story’s” pop-culture nostalgia is bred of genuine fondness; “Shrek’s” is bred of cynicism and knowingness.

Others, such as Robert Zemeckis, the director behind next-generation CGI films such as “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express,” have taken Pixar’s adult appeal and pushed CGI out of family-movie territory while playing up the techno-gimmickry. Mr. Zemeckis’ CGI films never feel like real movies, though. Populated with cold and inhuman CGI characters, they’re more like effects reels designed as part of some misguided ongoing quest for photorealism.

Meanwhile, only Pixar has managed to learn its own lessons and build on what made those first two “Toy Story” movies so wonderful and successful. Its movies have become more emotionally mature without leaving children behind. Their animation has become more vivid and vibrant without chasing detail for its own sake. And its pop-culture savvy has led it to adopt unexpected influences like silent films and postmodern comic books.

And it has managed to do all of this while remaining one of the most consistently profitable studios in Hollywood. It’s different and perhaps even weird — but in the best possible way.

It’s common wisdom now, but when “Toy Story” hit theaters 14 years ago, no one knew what to expect. Well, perhaps no one except the folks at Pixar.

Early in “Toy Story,” Mr. Potato Head, a plastic toy with interchangeable appendages, skews his facial features into an artful disarray, approaches Piggy Bank and says, “Look! I’m a Picasso!”

“I don’t get it,” Piggy replies disinterestedly. The moment was an early hint at Pixar’s brilliance: It established the characters and their relationship while making both children and adults laugh in a complementary way — children at the funny face, adults at the Picasso reference.

But it was also a nearly perfect illustration of how Pixar relates to the rest of the movie business: Pixar steps up and does something silly, funny and clever — and Hollywood responds by proving that, just like Piggy, it doesn’t get it.

Hollywood has spent the past decade and a half attempting to pass off two-dimensional rip-offs of what Pixar crafts with enormous personal love and care. It doesn’t take special glasses to see that only Pixar is the real thing.

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