From Toy Story to Bolt: a golden age of animation

The renaissance of animated films, spearheaded by John Lasseter and his teams at Pixar and Disney

The past decade in movies has undoubtedly been dominated by animation. The arrival of Toy Story in 1995 began a golden age for the form, spearheaded by John Lasseter and his teams, first at Pixar and now at Disney.

The resurrection of the cartoon from children's entertainment to serious forum for artistic expression has been remarkably swift, the genre's competition and reputation enhanced by the creation of an increasingly coveted Oscar category and the acceptance of Shreks I and II into the main competition at Cannes.

Wall-E, overseen by Lasseter at Disney, could well find itself among the Best Picture nominees when the Oscars announce their line-up on Thursday. If it got the nod, it would be only the second animated film to have received one, alongside Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which lost out to The Silence of the Lambs in 1992.

Audiences and awards bodies now readily accept animations as serious, grown-up movies - witness the success of Marjane Satrapi's Iranian coming-of-age tale Persepolis, Bafta nominated last week, and Ari Folman's hallucinatory war meditation Waltz with Bashir, already a Golden Globe winner and unfortunately lent increasing relevance by the current war in Gaza. However, most significant in the rise of the cartoon, I think, was the Oscar nomination for Lasseter's Toy Story in 1995 in the Original Screenplay category because it underlines how Lasseter's creative energies have been channelled as much into script and story as into special effects.

Computer-generated animation takes miraculous leaps forward with every new picture (how distant now seems the fuss they made about animating Donkey's fur in Shrek, and remember how Finding Nemo was delayed while Pixar invented the technology to render water properly?) but such advances would be worthless unless allied to impressive scripting. Lasseter has led the way with stories that appeal to children and adults, operating on many levels without ever resorting to the sardonic in-joking associated with Dreamworks projects.

Films such as the first and second Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Cars and The Incredibles combine wit and imagination with a classic all-American sense of family, belonging and identity, often with wistful pastoral scenes and minute detailing, the richness of which is only revealed on repeated viewings. In Bolt, for instance, the little girl is seen reading from a teen gossip magazine and we then cut to a shot of the dog, Bolt, who's reading Dog Fancier - the shot was too swift for me to see what was on the cover but I'll catch it next time, and it's bound to be something funny.

I don't have children yet but when I do - eight weeks off and counting nervously - I'm sure the joys of these animations will increase for me: friends who do have children tell me they thank heaven for Pixar, Disney and Lasseter, who keep their offspring entranced and quiet for hours on end. Lasseter has five children himself and says his philosophy was formed by his wife, who begged him, as he was making Toy Story, to make it "not for the first time children see it, but for the 100th time parents have to sit through it".

But hasn't Lasseter participated in the increased infantilisation of mainstream culture? Is it right that adults now go to see cartoons at the cinema on their own instead of supporting more realistic, intellectual works? For all the beauty on show and all the anthropomorphic humour and tenderness, let's not forget Bolt is still a talking dog and Nemo a fish. Mickey Rourke could make mincemeat of them both. Not sure about Leonardo DiCaprio, though.


Jason Solomons

The GuardianTramp

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