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To infinity, the aquarium and beyond: interview with Lee Unkrich, director of Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3

Both myself and my three-year-old niece love Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Does having an impact on a person’s formative years feel daunting for a filmmaker? I speak to director Lee Unkrich about this, the colossal influence of Pixar Studios and more.

Lee Unkrich

A few months ago I accompanied my three-year-old niece on her first expedition to an aquarium. Beforehand we shared sushi across the road (she’s not adverse to the occasional avocado hand roll) and came up with a plan. She made it very clear which two kinds of fish were on the itinerary. They were — and these were their scientific names, at least in her mind — Nemo and Dory. Also known, if one is to grudgingly acknowledge their real life counterparts, as a clownfish and a pacific regal blue tang.

Penguin smenguin. Shark smark. Eel shmeel. The objective was clear: we were to find, as it were, Nemo. Everything else didn’t register a blip on the radar.

These aren’t, of course, the only film and TV characters she knows. Her young memory is dotted with various creatures strewn across the pop culture landscape and the narratives and scenarios that contextualise them. I remember thinking that it must be a wonderful thing to take part in a creative process that influences, sometimes in profound ways, the formative years of a person’s life. I also remembered thinking, as we hot-footed from one Nemo-less tank to the next, that it could be daunting.

“Actually I think that’s kind of cool,” the co-director of Finding Nemo (2003), Lee Unkrich, told me last week, in the country to speak at a Graphic festival at the Sydney Opera House.

“Back when we were making Nemo I was at an aquarium with my wife. It was fun for me to see all the different fish I knew were in the movie, but nobody was giving them any particular attention. I remember saying to my wife, ‘Watch, in six months when this movie’s out you’re gonna see all the kids in this aquarium pushed up against that glass’ and that’s exactly what happened. It’s amazing that ten years later that’s still the case.”

Unkrich is an old hand at Pixar Studios, home of America’s most esteemed creators of animated family movies. The studio began in 1979 as a division of Lucasfilm, became a Steve Jobs-funded corporation in 1986 and was acquired by Disney two decades later for US$7.6 billion.

Unkrich has played a key role in many of Pixar’s biggest features. He edited John Lasseter’s 1995 game-changer Toy Story, was co-director of Toy Story 2 (1999), co-director of Monsters Inc. (2001), co-director of Finding Nemo (2003) and embarked on his first venture as a solo director for Toy Story 3 (2010), which earned him an Oscar for his troubles.

Toy Story 3 was a notable release in that marked the completion of (in this critic’s opinion) probably the finest film trilogy of all time, depending on your definition (Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, for example, weren’t intended to be connected in terms narrative and characters, so it’s debatable whether the “t” word applies. Star Wars, on the other hand, expanded from three to six movies — and counting).

It was also notable for another, far more unusual reason: a spate of reports that popped up in news outlets around the world about how a seemingly countless pool of grown men had been reduced to blubbering wrecks while watching. Unkrich says these ‘tears-staining-the-seats-of-cinemas’  reports caught him and his colleagues completely by surprise.

“There were things in the movie that were emotional to me and to us at Pixar. We kind of thought that part of why we were feeling so emotional was that so many of us had been working on the Toy Story movies for so long that they had spanned big life events in our own lives,” he says.

“We had lost friends here and there. We had raised children and some of us were sending kids off to college. We thought a lot of it had to do with our own personal ride so it really did surprise us that, on a global level, people were so affected by the movie. We realised that we had inadvertently tapped into some really deep-seated emotions.”

Pixar have made a suite of heart-warming and story-rich crowd-pleasers including The Incredibles (2004), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), Ratatouille (2007), Monsters Inc, Nemo and the Toy Story trilogy. With only 13 feature films under their belt (plus a number of shorts) the studio has collected 23 Oscars and innumerable critical plaudits. They have street and industry cred — a lot of it — but nor, of course, are they solely some kind of philanthropic ‘for the love of it’ enterprise.

Pixar’s influence is colossal. Their films have generated some of the greatest amounts of revenue in the history of cinema. Toy Story 3, the studio’s most successful title to date, collected over one billion dollars at the worldwide box office and is currently listed as the ninth most successful movie of all time. Box office figures don’t include merchandising sales, which generate billions. Unkrich is adamant, however, that the studio is not under pressure to make commercially friendly — i.e. financially “safe” — investments.

“You would think we would be but if we were making decisions based on how we thought a movie might do or how much merchandising we could get then we would never make movies like Up, because that movie conceptually is a head scratcher,” he says, and he’s got a point. A film in which the protagonist is a grumbling geriatric doesn’t immediately spell “Happy Meal”. (The mostly silent WALL-E could also be considered a daring choice).

“Nobody made much merchandise from it. Nobody made much in the way of toys but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy and great story to tell. So we will always go first and foremost with what we think is a great story. If all that other stuff ends up being a part of it, so much the better, but it’s never driving the choices that we are making…we don’t make movies as toy commercials.”

The irony, perhaps, is that the Toy Story franchise — with its colourful assortment of figurine characters that come to life when humans aren’t watching — may have inadvertently become one of the most popular and widest-reaching toy advertisements of all time. If its creators are not shrewd money-makers, capable of juggling artistic credibility with incredible amounts of capital, they certainly appear to be.

“I think we would be the worst business people in the world, thinking we could wait 12 years between movies, which is what happened between Toy Story 2 (1999) and Toy Story 3 (2010),” says Unkrich. “Hopefully that time span alone tells people we were making that movie for the right reason and not just as a cash grab.”

Having said that, Unkrich acknowledges the weight of expectation heaped upon him when he starting making Toy Story 3.

“I think people were braced for it to be bad. I think they were expecting it to be bad because it was a third film, and when are the third films any good? So yeah, there was huge pressure.

“At a certain point you have to kind of push it aside and not think about it because it’s not doing anything to make the movie better, so it’s best to kind of put on blinders and move forward.”

Unkrich’s next project is a yet-to-be-titled feature film about or involving Dia de los Muertos, the famous Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ holiday. It will be another animated family feature from Pixar, but Unkrich says the assumption he won’t one day direct a gruesome horror film (my suggestion) is “probably being presumptuous. My goal was never to make family friendly movies.”

If that ever happens I probably won’t take my niece along, but I might take her to see the Mexican movie. She won’t be old enough for a tequila beforehand, but perhaps we can chomp down a taco.

Finding Nemo is now available on Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray.

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