Social animation: Steve Jobs’ legacy with Pixar

l-r: Ed Catmull (President, Pixar), Steve Jobs and John Lasseter (CCO, Pixar)

Media coverage abounds in memoriam of Steve Jobs, and I must say, I’m pleasantly surprised that 1) I’m not bored, and 2) I actually feel refreshingly inspired by his story. He may not have invented the iPod, the Mac or the iPhone himself, but it was his brand of leadership that inspired those around him to give us what we wanted but didn’t think was possible. 

Before reading all this coverage, I had no idea that Jobs owned Pixar for two decades (1986-2006).  But it makes perfect sense – just as Apple products distinguish themselves from PC products, Pixar films distinguish themselves from the other animated films on offer.  Think Toy Story (1995) vs. The Lion King (1994). Monsters Inc. (2001) vs. Shrek (2001). Finding Nemo (2003) vs. Shark Tale (2004). Before Disney bought Pixar, their animated films banked on headstrong fantasy characters singing pop songs in exotic locales. DreamWorks Animation added more star power and humour to this formula, making sure to wink at the kids. But Pixar wasn’t afraid to feature humbler characters that don’t sing, often in familiar locations. Pixar’s pioneering films are bold enough to leave the simplistic cartoonish stuff behind and opt for more realism mixed in with the fantasy, developing more complex plots, modern themes and deeper character relationships.  Because of this, Pixar films offer much greater social relevance than its contemporaries, expanding the scope of animation’s reach.

The social commentary in Pixar films sneaks up on us grown-ups, who are usually just watching these films to keep the kids occupied. WALL-E is the most obvious example of this.  You expect a film about an endearing robot, but you also get a glimpse of a possible future in which Earth is littered with so much garbage it’s uninhabitable, leaving people stuck on spaceships with nothing to do but eat and stare at screens all day while machines do all the work . Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Finding Nemo is also clearly pro-sustainability – every time a human is featured, he’s attacking Nemo and his peeps.  Nemo gets captured by a scuba diver and imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank, then almost gets snared again by a fishing net.  This realism is a far cry from Sebastian the crab conducting pond creatures in a serenade in The Little Mermaid fourteen years earlier.

You could even argue that Toy Story 3 has social resonance in today’s struggling economy.  Yes, it’s about Andy going off to university, and we don’t hear about his tuition fees.  But those toys have essentially been made redundant.  Their employer Andy no longer needs them, and they feel like they’ve lost their purpose in life.  On the rebound, they get new jobs at a day care, where they get bullied and abused by a treacherous, overstuffed boss.  In the end, they escape that awful company and seek a quiet place to enjoy retirement.  Even the young one they left behind (i.e. Barbie) has unionised the workers to improve conditions.  Okay, I know it sounds like a stretch.  But look at some of Toy Story 3‘s contemporaries: Shrek is a fairy tale and Kung Fu Panda is an expanded fable.  The non-Pixar films don’t approach reality, let alone social commentary. And yes, recent films like Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir utilise animation for social commentary too, but they’re definitely niche films with more limited box-office appeal.

The social resonance of Pixar films would hardly be possible if they hadn’t utilised beautiful filmic language to tell their stories.  WALL-E contains so little dialogue that it’s more like a modern silent film with brilliant sound design. And that four-minute montage of married life in the beginning of Up moves any person with a functioning heart to tears, without using a single word. While other animated films may be visually tricked-out, Pixar has a way of humanising computer animation in innovative ways.

On their website, Pixar credits Jobs for their successes: “The one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great’. He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people.”  Pixar’s people may be better because of Jobs, but so are those of us who got a fresh look at society by watching their films.

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