June 22, 2010

In 1965, Gordon Moore of Intel noted that silicon chips had been quickly doubling in transistor density, and forecasted that computers would continue to get twice as powerful every 18 months to infinity and beyond! (Or words to roughly that effect”€””Moore’s Law” soon entered the realm of urban legend.)

Pixar’s computer animated Toy Story 3, released 15 years after the first mature computer animation movie, 1995’s landmark Toy Story about a little boy’s playthings who come to life when he’s not looking, has thus benefited from about ten subsequent doublings in computer firepower. So, is the latest sequel 1024 times better than the original?

Advances in technology eventually call forth artistic geniuses, but the lag time is unpredictable. The first commercial electric guitar, for example, went on sale in 1932, but it was initially used mostly to just make louder plinking sounds. It was 35 years until Jimi Hendrix’s performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.

Arts apparently progress in S-shaped curves. At first, nothing publicly notable happens (for instance, the electric guitar’s 1930-1940s). Then there’s a rapid takeoff (rock music in the 1950s-1970s). And finally a period of diminishing marginal returns (the 1980s-2000s).

Unlike the surprising ascent of the electric guitar, the potential of computer animated movies was relentlessly foretold. By 1982, computer graphics mania had built to such a peak that Disney’s Tron was both the first heavily computer animated blockbuster and the first film whose preview was reviewed on the financial pages. (The Wall Street analyst’s verdict on Disney’s stock: Sell!)

“It established Pixar as the guy alternative to Disney’s gay pandering to the daddy’s little princess market. Pixar movies are made by men who have managed to extend their childhoods into fatherhood.”

Thus, 1982 turned out to be too early for computer-dependent movies. Yet, 24-year-old Disney cartoonist John Lasseter was electrified by Tron. He pitched to his bosses a computerized version of the nerdy kids”€™ book The Brave Little Toaster about five household appliances at a summer cottage who feel lonely when their beloved young master departs. Disney immediately fired him.

Lasseter wound up at a Lucasfilm spinoff called Pixar. Their hit movies (Toy Story 3 will be the eleventh straight to make at least $162 million domestically) always remind me of what Pixar’s oldest employees must have endured in the 1980s: heroic boredom.

I began writing two decades ago because my attention had been permanently distracted from corporate work by the tedium of waiting for early personal computers to recalculate spreadsheets. While my computer labored, I”€™d sneak a look at the newspaper op-ed page, and soon become engrossed in the logical flaws in some poor pundit’s essay.

Lasseter, I presume, is a man of steelier concentration.

By 1984, Lasseter’s team showed they could achieve a fuzzy sort of 3D solidity in the short Andre and Wally B. In 1986, Pixar delivered 90 seconds of perfection with Luxo Jr., a father-son tale about table lamps playing catch. In retrospect, it established Pixar as the guy alternative to Disney’s gay pandering to the daddy’s little princess market. Pixar movies are made by men who have managed to extend their childhoods (Lasseter says, “Every animator is a child at heart”) into fatherhood. Lasseter, for instance, has five sons, now ages 10 to 29.

It took nine years from Luxo Jr. until Toy Story, a period in which computers became, according to the most popular version of Moore’s Law, 64 times faster. Over that decade, everybody in show biz knew that eventually somebody was going to figure out what to do with computer animation. As I was walking my kids down the theatre aisle to see Toy Story on Thanksgiving weekend 1995, I could see—before we had even sat down—that Pixar had pulled it off.

Toy Story was an ideal match of subject (cheap plastic toys) to the computer technology of the mid 1990s, meaning that the exquisite effects available now barely matter. So, no, Toy Story 3 isn”€™t 1024 times better.

Still, Toy Story 3 is awfully good. Andy is going off to college, so Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), and the gang get reluctantly donated to a daycare center. They”€™re welcomed to the idyllic Butterfly Room by a seemingly grandfatherly teddy bear (Ned Beatty) and his right hand man, Barbie’s beau Ken (Michael Keaton). But the old con-boss shunts them off to the Caterpillar Room to be pounded on by toddlers.

The prison escape plot mostly exists to give the toys something to do before the gorgeously sentimental conclusion has the audience sniffling. Yet, Pixar’s mastery of storytelling is now so confident that they show off by making a memorably complex character out of Ken.

Still, is it necessary for every Pixar film to strive to be a poignant masterpiece of mature wisdom? Yes, it’s churlish of me to complain, since they succeed so often, but wouldn”€™t it be fun if you didn”€™t know walking in that lately every Pixar film ends up bittersweet?


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