''We do want people to take the rating seriously,'' says Bird, whose boys 10, 12, and 16 are all old enough to handle the ride. ''If they have a child who would be upset at something like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, they should probably wait a few years.'' He sighs and sounds an old refrain. ''Animation is a strange medium in that people make assumptions about [something] simply because it's in that medium. We shook a lot of people up with The Simpsons. But [creator] Matt Groening likes to remind people that there was a little show called Rocky and Bullwinkle that predated The Simpsons by a couple of decades. And a lot of those writers went on to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I think people have forgotten that [Bugs Bunny cartoons] were made for people who were about to see the latest Humphrey Bogart film. They weren't made for kids. Animation is not a genre, it's a medium. And it can express any genre. I think people often sell it short. But 'because it's animated, it must be for kids.' You can't name another medium where people do that.''
You also can't name another medium that's changed quite so dramatically in the last 10 years. As everyone with functioning retinas now knows, Pixar's 1995 feature debut, the $192 million-grossing, Lasseter-directed Toy Story, altered the landscape of feature animation, shifting the paradigm abruptly away from the 2-D hand-drawn pictures that industry leader Disney had relied upon for over half a century. Now, as legitimate competition emerges in the form of DreamWorks (whose Shrek 2 and Shark Tale have taken in more than $500 million this year alone), Pixar will, by most accounts, take a bold existential step: In 2005, barring some last-minute rapprochement, it will end its lucrative relationship with Disney, where its revenues have in the past reportedly accounted for up to half the studio's grosses.
In the meantime, Pixar seems to believe it's found a way to extend its pattern of success: by not imposing a pattern for success. ''If we make these director-driven movies, no two movies will be exactly alike,'' notes Stanton. ''We will not fall into this formula.''
''Pixar is truly a director-driven studio,'' says Lasseter. ''But these directors are not dictators. It's a very collaborative studio.'' Still, Pixar's fantasies are increasingly idiosyncratic in nature. ''They're popular entertainments, but I think they're also personal,'' says Bird, who saw Mr. Incredible's agita as an extension of his own. ''[Monsters, Inc. director] Peter Docter always wondered, If there's monsters in your closet, where do they go? And [Finding Nemo's] Andrew Stanton was worried about being overprotective of his son, and was also fascinated with fish.''
''The movie is the movie,'' says Lasseter, now back in the director's chair for Cars, a tale of autos on autopilot in a world without humans, due in fall 2005. ''The story is the story, and each one has its own requirements.'' He refuses to place any limits on the kinds of movies Pixar might produce in the future. So listen up, 'toon auteurs of tomorrow: If you're looking to make that long-overdue CGI Ulysses adaptation with talking flatworms, your hour may have arrived. (Additional reporting by Steve Daly)