The little animation studio that could, Pixar was established in 1986 not as a cartoon factory but as a computer manufacturer. Many on the skeleton staff were cartoonists at heart, but the shorts they produced on company time were designed to promote the company hardware. When Toy Story, their pilot feature, was greenlighted in 1991, they rushed out to a screenwriting seminar. They were amateurs.
Since then, Pixar has released eight films, all of them celebrated, and all of them blockbusters: none has earned less than $360 million, a run of unprecedented success. Up, which opens May 29, is the 10th—the story of a 78-year-old widower who, encroached upon by developers hoping to force him off his property and into a retirement home, does not exactly go gentle into that grumpy night. Just as remarkable, it is Pixar's latest release that stiff-arms, with conceptual ambition, unorthodox protagonists and difficult story material, animation's natural audience: children.
Cartoons weren't always kid stuff. The first animators were restless print cartoonists, sophisticated satirists who saw in early motion pictures possibilities beyond those afforded by newspapers and whose short entertainments were more ambitious, more peculiar and more demanding than the formulaic features that flickered on after them in the silent era. Many of those shorts were truly bizarre. In one 1915 cartoon by the Bronx-based semi-surrealist Raoul Barré, a chicken lays an egg that hatches a small car; in another, a mysterious box sprouts two hairy arms, which capture the hero—and don't stop there. Others were as bawdy as the adults-only under-ground comics produced in print a half century later: Leap Year, a 1916 short written by Rube Goldberg, follows "Miss Ophelia Fade-out, whose face had frightened all the children in the neighborhood, but who, nevertheless, still hopes to chloroform some poor simp into matrimony." Most remarkably, early cartoonists demonstrated a flair for metafiction completely lacking in features. In The Dachshund and the Sausage, a 1910 short by John Randolph Bray, a half-drawn dog, abandoned by his animator, eats a plate of sausages the animator left behind. "When it comes to 'pure cinema,' 'visual flow,' 'graphic representation,' 'the freedom of the cinematic medium,' and all the other things foreign cinema enthusiasts talk about," The New Republic said in 1929, "nothing has more than a roll of celluloid's chance in Hell beside Felix the Cat and the other animated cartoons." In those early cartoons, Vincent Canby would later write, "the freedom from form looks almost avant-garde."
Then came Disney. In his astounding first feature films—the first feature-length cartoons of any kind—Disney managed, brilliantly, to make good on all the impossible visual promise of the new genre without subjecting the audience to any of the difficulties of a complex or subversive narrative, to be spectacularly avant-garde with style and delightfully retrograde with story. In the lush and luminous films of his "golden era"—which began in 1937 with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and continued, in a remarkable succession, with Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941 and Bambi in 1942—Disney's technical accomplishment is truly towering. (The production of Pinocchio's whale sequence earned feature coverage in Popular Mechanics.) "The work of this master," fawned the Russian auteur Sergei Eisenstein, "is the greatest contribution of the American people to art." Eisenstein was especially impressed with Disney's facility with allegory, his skill at highlighting in painted fables the way in which animals "hold up to their older brother—man—a deforming mirror."
And yet, though they did make liberal use of animals, the Disney films were not truly allegories. Snow White, Dumbo—what real-world value did these impart? An immersive sequence of en-chanting images, the films were escapist fantasies made to function as cathartic dramas, and set often in the animal kingdom not for intellectual clarity but to draw on what John Ruskin memorably identified as the "pathetic fallacy"—our tendency to respond to nonhuman objects and characters as though they are like us. Disney did not instruct; he conjured. His movies were, if technical marvels, still a naive art, expressions of an American cult of childhood that had taken root in the shade of the Depression and would sprout spectacularly in the great sunshine of the postwar years.
The Pixar movies—particularly the second wave that constitutes the studio's own golden era—represent a sharp rebuke of the Disney cult of childhood. Pixar may represent the biggest technical advance in animation since Disney's multiplane camera, but in the scope and subversive ambition of its films, the studio draws far more on the spirit of the silent shorts than on Uncle Walt. (Up, like Wall-E, is dominated in the first act by an extended, though self-contained, vignette, wordless and rich with melancholy.) They do not feature musical numbers or rely on magic. They are not adapted fairy tales, and they take place in a world very much like our own: the animators devote considerable screen time to showing how even the peculiar plot details—a rat who can cook, a robot who has evolved genuine human feeling—are governed by the same laws as our universe.
The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up are also, and most important, allegories—morality tales, wrapped around adventure films, about the individualist spirit struggling against the forces of conformity and mediocrity, meditations on the fate of the hero in a padded, antiseptic era. In The Incredibles, a superhero movie, the nanny state is as much the villain as is the archnemesis. In the science-fiction fantasia Wall-E, the human race, ruined by our dependence on technology, is redeemed by a robot that refuses to follow our orders. Up—in which our geriatric hero raises his house with a cloud of balloons and steers south to a mythic tropical paradise—enjoins us to not forget the great dream life of exploration and invention that delivered, in the early part of the last century, so many of the discoveries and pleasures of modern life, lest we acquiesce to a future as circumscribed as our present. If the great Disney movies capture the long American love affair with innocence, the Pixar films are savvy tributes to our tortured romance with technology and self-improvement.