For Sean McEvilly, the arrival of a new Pixar film isn't just a promise of a good time. The computer-animation studio's digital marvels, whether populated by creatures furry, finny or metallic, serve as his personal scrapbook of Hallmark moments.
Ever since he took his future wife, Anna, to see 2001's "Monsters, Inc.," for their second date, the Elgin, Ill., resident, 32, has used the latest release from the top-of-the-line 'toon factory to celebrate a milestone.
When he and the missus-to-be were considering a dive into matrimonial waters, they saw "Finding Nemo" in 2003. "The Incredibles" served as an action-packed treat for McEvilly's birthday in 2004. His college graduation was noted with a trip to "Carsin" 2006. "Ratatouille" was on the menu when he and his wife decided to go out for the first time after becoming parents. "WALL·E" in 2008? McEvilly and son Ryan did some male bonding with the love-struck robot for their first guys-only multiplex experience.
As for "Up," Pixar's 10th outing, which opens May 29, about a cranky codger and an overeager Asian kid who fly off to South America in a house hoisted by helium balloons, it will likely be the first film that all three — father, mother and child, who turns 2 today — enjoy together.
Disney might own Pixar after buying the company for $7.4 billion in 2006. But when it comes to brand loyalty among family moviegoers, Pixar is the new Disney, especially since its primary visionary, John Lasseter, is now the chief creative officer in charge of both animation houses.
Why such dedication? Fans boil it down to one word: story. "What separates Pixar films from the rest is that they focus on story first," says Dana O'Dell, 28, of Hudsonville, Mich., mom to Aidan, 6. "Their attention to detail might draw people in, but it's the well-crafted story lines that make a great movie."
Since 1995, when "Toy Story" introduced the world to the novelty of a film-length cartoon done entirely by computers, the studio has been blessed with box office (more than $2 billion total) and acclaim (30 Oscar nominations, including four wins for best animated feature) for each release.
Yet some in the entertainment media are wondering whether the pixel-producing pioneers based in Emeryville, Calif., can keep it, well, up. Ecstatic reviews out of Cannes, where "Up" became the first animated film to open the venerable festival, suggest the answer is a passionate "oui."
Among the swayed is Ed Asner, who is no less easy to impress than Carl, the squat and stolid 78-year-old coot he speaks for in "Up." "I got the job and thought, 'OK, I'm going to do a voice-over in a big-time feature.' I let my ego grow when it came to my importance to this film. But when I saw it, I was knocked silly. My ego shrank in those 90 minutes to a minimum when I realized the enormity of what all these people put up on screen."
His entrée into the pantheon of Pixar characters has gotten a mixed reception from his six grandchildren, ages 3 to 9 (a seventh is on the way). There is a good reason. "The younger ones are just too young to enjoy the film," he says. "But the older one — he's gaga."
As a recent New York Times article reported, some toy dealers and Wall Street types are less buoyant about the film. There's concern that Up, Pixar's most unconventional fantasy and one of its priciest ($175 million), lackscommercial liftoff — especially with a senior citizen as its hero.
Adding to the uneasiness: Although each Pixar film since "Toy Story 2" in 1999 has cracked the $200 million blockbuster barrier, ticket sales have been dipping after "Finding Nemo's" peak of $339.7 million — somewhat offset by the fact that global box office often has exceeded expectations.
Plus, Disney is in need of a big hit after its slump so far this year with such live-action underperformers as "Confessions of a Shopaholic" and "Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Experience." Not helping matters is the likely lingering popularity of the equally family-oriented "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," which opened Friday.
But while "Up" might not pop any box-office records, analysts are expecting it to open to a healthy $60 million — similar to last summer's "WALL·E."
"The first 12 minutes or so of 'Up' are amazing," says Hollywood.com box-office specialist Paul Dergarabedian, who believes Pixar films will stand the test of time, much as Disney classics do.
He points to an early montage that silently encapsulates the stages of a marriage, which drew tears from the mostly adult-male gathering of theater operators at ShoWest earlier this year. "The whole notion that an older character doesn't have kid appeal is wrong. Carl reminds me of a grandpa, and kids love their grandparents."
Besides, Hollywood already has proof that grouchy septuagenarians mentoring an Asian youngster can draw crowds: Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino."
"Quality is the best business plan" is one of Lasseter's favorite mantras. However, the originality Pixar prides itself on and devotees have come to expect can be seen as a liability in an industry that squeezes every last dime out of the tried and true. Even some longtime fans are wavering.
"Since Pixar came around, I was a totally there-is-none-better person," says Kevin Kapanowski, 37, of Detroit and dad to Kaylee, 6. "But after the last three pictures, I'm not that way anymore. It seems like Pixar is reaching and getting a bit boring. 'WALL·E' was fine and all, but eh. Now 'Up' is up, and it's not really doing anything for me. Rats, lonely robots and old men? Really?"
There is a sense the company is at a crossroads, although the Pixar gang has no plans to compromise its standards. It's the rare film company where artists run the show. "I've always described Pixar as a filmmaker-led studio," says Lasseter, who directed four out of its 10 features. "These movies come from the heart of every director. There are life experiences we all had that find their way into these movies."
He remains steadfastly upbeat about "Up's" potential. "Honestly, every single one of our movies has challenged us," he says. "We are always striving to show the audience something they have never seen before. Not every movie is going to be a merchandising bonanza. That is not why we make the movies."
But he isn't being complacent, either. Steps are being taken to ensure that Pixar's future remains as bright as those multihued balloons that send Carl's home into the stratosphere.
•Rejoining the 3-D revolution. "Up" is the first Pixar full-length feature to be presented in the digitally enhanced format, which will become standard procedure for all its releases.
But few realize that the studio previously dabbled in the visual technique. "Oh, man, I love 3-D," says Lasseter with his usual boyish enthusiasm. "In the computer, we are creating a three-dimensional world, but we have only been able to see a two-dimension view of it. In 1989, I did a short film called 'Knick Knack' that was in stereo 3-D. But there was no theater in the world where you could watch it. It was crazy." It was later shown in 3-D when attached to the 2006 rerelease of "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
"Up" will play in 3-D on at least 2,600 screens, according to RealD, the main company behind the technology in non-IMAX theaters. Coming Oct. 2: a double-feature reissue of "Toy Story" 1 and 2 in 3-D.
•Restocking the talent pool. Pixar's output has been dominated by four directors — Lasseter ("Toy Story" 1 and 2, "Cars"), Pete Docter ("Monsters, Inc.," "Up"), Andrew Stanton ("WALL·E," "Finding Nemo") and Brad Bird ("The Incredibles," "Ratatouille"). Some animators, such as Jimmy Hayward, who co-directed 2008's Horton Hears a Who! for 20th Century Fox, end up leaving Pixar to have a chance to take charge of a film.
But now that some of the stalwarts are expanding into live action — Stanton with John Carter of Mars and Bird with an adventure about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake — the studio is getting serious about prepping more talent for the director's chair.
Just as Walt Disney launched a program at California Institute of the Arts in 1975 to deepen the animation ranks (grads include Lasseter and Bird), Pixar is actively expanding its talent base. One source: the shorts that run before their features. "We have younger filmmakers experiment with ideas and technology," says Lasseter. "The next thing you know, we have assigned them to come up with feature ideas."
Upcoming directors include longtime Pixar-ite Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 3," summer 2010), "Ratatouille" producer Brad Lewis ("Cars 2," summer 2011) and Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom ("Newt," summer 2012).
•Repairing the gender gap. Just as there has been no female lead in a Pixar film, the studio has yet to have a woman director.
Both of those situations have been addressed with the arrival of Brenda Chapman, formerly of Disney and DreamWorks (co-director on "The Prince of Egypt") before joining Pixar in 2003 to work as a story artist on "Cars." "I still feel like a newbie," she says.
Chapman attributes the lack of feminine influence simply to the male-dominated nature of the profession. "It wasn't for any conscious sexist reasons. When I look back at the ratio of women who go to school for this, it was five out of 30 in my class."
She describes "The Bear and the Bow," scheduled for Christmas 2011, as true to dark fairy tales of old and inspired by her relationship with her daughter, Emma, 10. "She's quite a firecracker, and it makes for some interesting developments at home."
The fable that unfolds in Scotland features Reese Witherspoon as Merida, a headstrong princess who rebels against her parents (Emma Thompson, Billy Connolly) and becomes an archer. Unlike traditional Disney fairy tales, "she drives the story as opposed to having things happen to her. And there is no waiting for a prince."
Chapman was pleased to discover that while the studio might be filmmaker-centric, it also encourages top staffers to contribute to movies besides their own. "They support you with a brain trust," she says. "There's a lack of competition. Between films, everyone will drop everything to help. That part is so refreshing."
Even with a game plan in place, Lasseter knows some grousing is inevitable. "We've got 'Toy Story 3' and 'Cars 2' coming up, and by then people will say, 'All Pixar is doing is sequels. Why don't they do an original film?' Every single day, we are thinking about our audience. And that is who we make our films for."