Oscar Preview: The Incomparable Studio: Pixar

Every week from now until the critics groups start giving out their prizes for the best of the year, I’m going to be spotlighting the big Oscar players and their chances at Oscar glory this year.

We’ve talked about actors, director, cinematographers and foreign film submissions, but we’ve not tackled a studio and this is probably one of the most successful: Pixar.

Founded originally as part of LucasFilms, the firm was purchased in 1986 by Steve Jobs who wanted to take the technology the company was producing and turn it into a successful computer manufacturing house. Sales were sluggish and in an attempt to revitalize the flailing company, Pixar employee John Lasseter, who had created various computer-generated effects to demonstrate the capabilities of the company’s machines, began producing work for outside companies, most notably advertisements for Tropicana, Listerine and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The company continued as such eventually selling off its hardware division and reducing staff until a handful remained. After a successful partnership with Walt Disney Studios, Pixar was commissioned to produce three computer animated features for Disney and in 1995, the film that changed the landscape of animation forever was introduced: Toy Story.

The film landed Lasseter and honorary Oscar and launched one of the most successful animation studios in history, dwarfing much of what Walt Disney had accomplished in its more than 60 years in the industry. The consistent quality, adult and kid-friendly productions thrilled audiences and expanded the possibilities of the medium. Although it led to the ultimate demise of hand-drawn animation as a major box office force, its creative distinctiveness have embellished and strengthened the medium when Disney’s stranglehold would be relinquished and its string of bad films would force the studio to re-evaluate its model.

After successful self-produced features, distributed by Disney, the Mouse House finally made a move on Pixar, purchasing it and then folding it into its own animation division, to create one of the most powerful production houses in cinema history.

Pixar’s first encounter with Oscar was in 1986 when the short film Luxo, Jr. one of the many Lasseter had created to show of their computers, was nominated for an Oscar for Animated Short Film and launched the iconic animated desk lamp as the permanent symbol of Pixar Animation. The studio’s first Oscar came two years later with the short film Tin Toy which would be the first of three Animated Short Film Oscars Pixar would win; however, it’s the film history that’s more impressive.

With Pixar’s first full length animated film, Toy Story, Oscar took notice. The film received three Oscar nominations in categories it that would become mainstays for the studio: screenplay (7 total nominations), score (7 nominations) and song (6 nominations). The second Pixar feature, A Bug’s Life earned only one nomination and the third film Toy Story 2 also picked up only one, but from its fourth feature (Monsters, Inc.) four or more nominations would be the norm with every subsequent feature length animation picking up a minimum of four nods with the exception of Cars in 2006 which received only two mentions. Other frequented categories including Sound Mixing (3 nominations) and Sound Editing (7 nominations).

When the Animated Feature category was introduced in 2001, Pixar was among the first nominees with Monsters, Inc. which lost to Shrek. Of the eight outings in the Animated Feature category, Pixar has picked up an impressive six trophies losing only for Monsters and Cars. It’s an impressive array of nominations for a studio with under twenty years of feature length experience and at 45 nominations and 14 Oscars to its credit, there is no studio with a better track record producing films today (of its films and short films produced since 1995, only one Partly Cloudy has failed to earn a nomination.

But 2011 might be the end of an era. Cars 2 the ill-advised sequel to the Animated Feature losing original has not only failed to earn sufficient positive notices from critics, its competition is fierce this year. Could this be the first year Pixar doesn’t get a nomination? It’s quite possible, though at least they have the short film contender Hawaiian Vacation that preceded Cars 2 this year.

Cars 2

What a dismal film this feature ended up being. Perhaps the first true influence of the Disney parent on the recently acquired company, it seems the only reason to make a sequel to a film frequently cited as among Pixar’s least impressive efforts is for merchandising revenue, which they succeeded at even if the film’s lackluster performance with the box office and critics puts the studio’s future output quality in jeopardy. Still, Pixar has a lot of representation in the Animation Branch and could easily sneak into a five-wide field for an Oscar nomination that it would most certainly not pick up a trophy for. Also look to other commonplace Pixar categories: Original Score, Original Song, Sound Editing and Sound Mixing for potential Oscar nominations, though a failure to enter the Animated Feature race would be a stinging blow for the studio.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Animated Feature, Original Score, Original Song, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing

Hawaiian Vacation

This cute and funny Toy Story-based short film may have been the best thing about watching Cars 2 at the theater. The film has imagination, humor and a great sense of perspective. While Pixar’s run at the Animated Short Film category has been notably muted (the wonderful Day & Night didn’t get an Oscar last year and the clever Partly Cloudy didn’t even merit a nomination, there’s still a chance that the beloved characters of Toy Story can push the short into at least a nomination. Standing in the way of a win is what I perceive to be an anti-Pixar bias in the Animation branch as more outside studios gain membership. On top of that, it’s been more than a decade since its last Oscar in the category. Perhaps the Annie Awards trend against Pixar will continue with the Academy, at least in categories where the general membership doesn’t have any influence.

Forecast Categories (where the film is most likely to compete): Animated Short Film

Pixar’s Oscar History

  • The Adventures of André and Wally B. (1984)
  • Luxo, Jr. (1986) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • Red’s Dream (1987)
  • Tin Toy (1988) – Received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film
  • Knick Knack (1989)
  • Toy Story (1995) 3 / 1 [Original Screenplay, Original Comedy/Musical Score, Original Song (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”), Honorary Oscar (John Lasseter)]
  • Geri’s Game (1997) – Received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film
  • A Bug’s Life (1998) 1 / 0 [Original Comedy/Musical Score]
  • Toy Story 2 (1999) 1 / 0 [Original Song (“When She Loved Me”)]
  • For the Birds (2000) – Received the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film
  • Monsters, Inc. (2001) 4 / 1 [Animated Feature, Original Score, Original Song (“If I Didn’t Have You”), Sound Editing]
  • Mike’s New Car (2002) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • Boundin’ (2003) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • Finding Nemo (2003) 4 / 1 [Animated Feature, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Editing]
  • The Incredibles (2004) 4 / 2 [Animated Feature, Original Screenplay, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing]
  • One Man Band (2005) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • Lifted (2006) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • Cars (2006) 2 / 0 [Animated Feature, Original Song (“Our Town”)]
  • Ratatouille (2007) 5 / 1 [Animated Feature, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing]
  • Presto (2008) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • WALL-E (2008) 6 / 1 [Animated Feature, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Original Song (“Down to Earth”), Sound Mixing, Sound Editing]
  • Partly Cloudy (2009)
  • Up (2009) 5 / 2 [Picture, Animated Feature, Original Screenplay, Original Score, Sound Editing]
  • Day & Night (2010) – Nominated for Best Animated Short Film
  • Toy Story 3 (2010) 5 / 2 [Picture, Animated Feature, Adapted Screenplay, Original Song (“We Belong Together”), Sound Editing]
  • Hawaiian Vacation (2011)
  • Cars 2 (2011)

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