Disney+ has established and maintained a reputation for stellar documentary programming, which is often overlooked in favor of its flashier movies offerings and narrative series (like everyone’s current obsession, the return of The Mandalorian). But far and away, whether it’s Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, The Imagineering Story or Howard, these nonfiction series and movies have become one of the undeniable highlights of the company’s direct-to-consumer output. Into this space comes Inside Pixar, a new documentary series that evokes some of the earlier documentaries but also breaks new ground. What else were you expecting from a trailblazing studio like Pixar?
Instead of full-on hour-long episodes like earlier this year’s exemplary Into the Unknown: Making of Frozen 2 (the series it most closely resembles), Inside Pixar consists of micro-documentaries: Most installments are less than 10 minutes and you can get through all five of this first batch (all released on Friday) in less than an hour. But that isn’t to say that the scope of these episodes is limited or that you’ll feel shortchanged or unsatisfied. Far from it. The first crop of episodes exist under the grouping of “Inspired,” as each one tells the story of how the artists at Pixar find or maintain inspiration for their projects. The subjects are diverse and exhibit the new, more inclusive mentality of Pixar under the leadership and guidance of Pete Docter, the director of Up and the upcoming (and deeply brilliant) Soul, who is now the chief creative officer of Pixar.
One installment focuses on Jessica Heidt, a longtime script supervisor who helped develop a program to track the gender disparity of characters within the Pixar scripts, exemplifying the kind of commitment to technological advancement and investment in emotional depth that has been a hallmark of the studio’s features and shorts. Another takes a look at Deanna Marsigliese, one of the most versatile and exciting young artists, who has done everything from design costumes for Incredibles 2 to the 2D-ish counselors in Soul. She talks about her inspiration and how she finds it on the streets of San Francisco as well as in her own personal vintage style. Touchingly, another follows Steven Hunter, an animator who wrote and directed “Out,” the first LGBTQ+-themed Pixar short film (it’s on Disney+ right now if you’ve never seen it; it’s wonderful). Kemp Powers, co-writer and co-director of Soul, is the star of a super-powerful installment that details how important a neighborhood barbershop was to the development of the film.
These installments give you a full sense of who these artists are and where they came from. Both the installment on Hunter and another on Onward director Dan Scanlon follow the artists to their hometown, and Marsigliese’s entry charts her research in Italy as she works on the upcoming feature Luca. But more than the scope, these shorts offer deeply dimensional portraits that detail the human personalities behind some of your favorite animated films, most of whom you probably won’t recognize. For so long, Pixar has been a kind of magical, impenetrable place, like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory or Santa’s workshop. What Inside Pixar does so well is show you that it’s much more everyday than that — these are just people who work really hard at their jobs and who love what they do. There’s no secret sauce, no hidden agenda. And yet that doesn’t do anything to lessen the mystique. If anything, learning more about Pixar only heightens its specialness.
And it does feel like a true fly-on-the-wall documentary. At one point in Marsigliese’s entry, you see her help design the sea creatures for Luca. These characters haven’t been officially been revealed yet and seeing them in the documentary feels like you’re looking at something you’re not supposed to. But it’s a testament to how much the studio believes in their artists and the process that they are allowing this kind of stuff to sneak through. Can you imagine if, during The Imagineering Story, somebody walked through the background with the plans for the next phase of Galaxy’s Edge? Neither can I.
Inside Pixar is directed by Erica Milsom and Tony Kaplan, two veterans of the exemplary home video documentaries that accompany most Pixar films. And you can tell that the artists were comfortable with the filmmakers being there, since they have been staples at the studio for so long. (Maybe taking them back to their hometowns was odder.) Given the brief running time, nothing is milked for longer than it needs to be or interjected with unnecessary drama. Each short lasts about as long as they need to, they’re beautifully shot, and they will occasionally pull on your heartstrings hard enough to elicit tears (in this regard, they’re sort of like the perfect Pixar short film). For entries grouped under the idea of inspiration, that is how Inside Pixar will leave you — breathlessly, wonderfully inspired.
Inside Pixar premieres Friday, November 13 on Disney+.