The Improbable Heroes of Toontown

How Pixar's founders turned their dreamcomputer-animated filmsinto a wildly successful movie studio

Editor's Rating:

The Good: An artful rendering of the animation studio's formative years.

The Bad: The volume ends without giving an report on Pixar's status today

The Bottom Line: Fascinating characters and engrossing tales make this one worthwhile.

The Pixar Touch:The Making of a CompanyBy David A. PriceKnopf; 308pp; $27.95

If the history of any movie studio reads like a Hollywood script, it would have to be that of Pixar Animation Studios. It was founded by frustrated animator Edwin Catmull, who began using computers because he couldn't draw. He and his team went on to create many of the technologies required to make full-length movies using this new medium. And they weren't just any movies. By the time Pixar was sold to Walt Disney (DIS) in early 2006 for $7.4 billion, it had run off seven consecutive blockbusters. In terms of consistency, profitability, and dominance of its genre, the independent Pixar may have been the most successful movie factory ever.

Now comes the first comprehensive look at the phenomenon of Pixar, David A. Price's The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. Price, the author of Love and Hate in Jamestown, a much lauded history of the Jamestown colony, successfully brings to life the band of animation enthusiasts behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. The book deserves a thumbs-up for its artful recounting of the studio's formative years, but it ends without giving a report on Pixar's status today.

The first half of The Pixar Touch is full of fascinating characters, all struggling—in classic Pixar film style—to overcome seemingly impossible odds. There's Catmull, a straitlaced Mormon who somehow kept his hippie-ish staff together through the early '80s as he convinced Star Wars hitmaker George Lucas and Apple (AAPL) co-founder Steve Jobs to buy the group. Director-extraordinaire John Lasseter kept his love of cartoons a secret from his friends during high school for fear of committing "social suicide." And of course there's Jobs, who'd been banished from Apple and was struggling to keep his NeXT Computer afloat in the years after he bought Pixar in 1986. Over the following decade, Jobs poured $50 million into the venture, growing more frustrated as repeated attempts to build a business around Pixar's underlying technology fell flat. Shortly before Toy Story made him a billionaire in 1995, he nearly sold the company to archrival Microsoft. "We should have failed," says Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, but "Steve just would not suffer a defeat."

All this drama gave way to 11 years of unrelenting success—which makes it hard for Price to sustain the narrative drive of his book. In later chapters, the Pixar movies replace its executives and employees as Price's main characters. While there's lots of yummy trivia, this part of the book reads too much like extended production notes.

And The Pixar Touch concludes too soon. Many industry insiders wonder if the company will be able to maintain its string of hits now that it's part of the Magic Kingdom. True, Disney has put Catmull and creative genius Lasseter in charge of its faltering animation efforts. But the independent Pixar, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, flourished in part by maintaining its distance from Hollywood. To know whether Pixar has retained its magic, we'll have to wait for the release of robot flick WALL-E on June 27.

That said, the chapters on Pixar's early days are worth every penny of the book's price. Happenstance was everything. For co-founder Smith serendipity took the form of a skiing accident: During his three months in a body cast, he reconsidered his academic career in computer science and tracked down Catmull, who was just pulling together his animation effort. Then there's the tale of how Catmull ran into Lasseter at a computer graphics talk on the Queen Mary—and, minutes after learning Lasseter had been fired from Disney, discreetly pulled him out of a session to offer him a job.

From such moments came a ground-breaking partnership of art and technology. Indeed, readers will gain an appreciation for Pixar's high-tech tricks, including one called subsurface scattering that makes animated humans look more realistic by letting some exterior light penetrate below their skin.

Price's book should also clear up the controversy as to who deserves credit for Pixar's success. Smith, for example, was written out of Pixar's official history when he departed after repeated clashes with Jobs. Here, his role is clearly documented. In the end, parts of The Pixar Touch are so richly told that I wished I'd written it myself.

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