For 15 years this animation company is the best on the planet. Then Disney bought it.
A profession has a sharp point of view in Hollywood recently suggested that a film sequel could be "a kind of creative bankruptcy." He discussed about Pixar- the legendary animation studio, and the public distaste for cheap spinoffs. More specifically, he argued that if Pixar had only made the sequel, it would have "shrank and died". Today, all sorts of industry experts say everything. But it is certainly related to the observations made by Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, in his 2014 bestseller on business leadership.
And then there was Cars 3, which hit theaters in the summer of 2017. You may remember the original 2006 Cars that was widely considered the studio's worst film up to that point. Cars 2, five years later, was criticized even worse. And if Cars 3 wasn't enough to disappoint you, two of the three Pixar movies that line up behind it are also sequels: The Incredibles 2 and (let's just say it isn't!) Toy Story 4
The painful verdict is indisputable: The golden age of Pixar is over. 15 years of unparalleled commercial and creative excellence, beginning with 1995's Toy Story and culminating with 2008's Wall-e trilogy, 2009's Up, and Toy Story 3 (yes, its sequel) , but it's a great movie) 2010. Since then, other animation studios have consistently come up.
With better movies. Stop-motion magicians in Laika have provided such gems as Coraline, Kubo and the Two Strings. And, in a dramatic reversal, animation studio Walt Disney — struggling at the time of acquiring an unrivaled Pixar in 2006 — bounced back with hits like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6. Just consider the 2017 Oscars: two films of Disney , Zootopia and Moana, were nominated for best animated feature, and Zootopia won. Finding Dory of Pixar was completely disqualified.
This high-quality animated storytelling would not have been possible without Pixar. The studio reinvented the genre with Toy Story, the first 3D computer-animated film. Every subsequent Pixar film brought new feats of technological magic, from the delicate tracing of millions of furs in Monsters, Inc. 2001 to capture the wonderful interaction between light and water in 2003's Finding Nemo.
Even as others gradually caught up with Pixar's visual aesthetic, the studio continued to tell stories of unparalleled depth and sophistication. The signature Pixar achievement was perfecting a kind of crossover animation that appeals to both children and adults. The key was to find a way to tell two stories at once, building a simple children's story on top of a more complex moral and narrative architecture. For example, Up takes the relatively conventional boy-adventure story and delves into a touching, fully adult tale of loss, heartbreak, and resurrection.
The theme that Pixar has explored with greatest success in its first decade of operation is parents, whether explicit (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles) or implicit (Monsters, Inc., Up). The profound understanding of the parent-child relationship that characterizes Pixar stands out from the very beginning. In “Toy Story”, it doesn't lose that power in the two creative and unifying films that follow. “Who wants to see a movie about a boy playing with a doll?” Michael Eisner, the Disney executive at the time, asked silly when talking about Pixar's debut film. (Disney co-financed.) But the film's creative premise is exactly and mostly the opposite: “Toy Story is a movie about dolls who want a boy to play with”.
That reversal complicates and intensely adds to the film's emotion. Six-year-old Andy's longing for the attention, the toys especially Woody the cowboy and the astronaut Buzz Lightyear — reflect the children's longing for parental involvement. Of course, Andy is not the parent. He's a kid, and it's the toys that make him grow up. (Like most children, Andy uses them to be adults.) So, to the same stage, Woody and Buzz are children to Andy, to another they are like parents to Andy: the boy's happiness is their responsibility, and they will use the most extreme measures imaginable to ensure it.
Toy Story has moved both adults and children with its wise and moving portrayal of the parent-child relationship. The film's creators seem to appreciate the understanding and show the rich emotional and dramatic circuit they have been able to do. Following the film's success, Disney, then the publisher for Pixar, pushed for production of a fast-paced, direct-to-video sequel. This second-rate film has long been a lucrative Disney spin-off, often produced by its Disneytoon subsidiary. (Examples of its products include classics such as The Lion King 1½ and The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning.) But Pixar resisted, on the grounds that it only wanted excellence. Instead, the studio produced, at breakneck speed, a theatrical sequel that met the high standards set by the first.
In his 2014 book, Creativity, Inc., Catmull described the episode as "the furnace where Pixar's true identity is forged." Toy Story 2 (1999) isn't just on par with the original. The sequel enriches the first, presenting Woody with a new, contemporary parental dilemma: Should he spend the rest of his life untouched and clean on the shelf of an antique toy collector? Or should he return to loving play with a scandalous boy (at the beginning of the film, Andy accidentally breaks Woody's arm) who will grow up and throw him away? In the end, Woody chooses the messy mix of joy and sacrifice with Andy, as the parenting metaphor you've probably seen. And with the eventual scrapping known, Toy Story 2 lays the groundwork for further developing the theme. That promise was fulfilled nearly a decade later, Toy Story 3, the final chapter in which Andy goes to college and has a new life, leaving behind both toys and parents.
The popular cooperative culture roughly equated to Pixar's on-screen magic during this period. Led by founder and creative wizard John Lasseter, the studio relies heavily on a small team of talented animators and editors: Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Lee Unkrich, and Lee Unkrich. Brad Bird (joined Pixar in 2000). Known as the “Braintrust,” the group has grown over time, but these five men and Lasseter stood out for their equal self-criticism and their relentless principle of perfection in their pursuit of perfection. Their synergy was so strong that every time outside directors joined the film (like Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille), they were eventually replaced by one of the original Braintrust members. In 2004, a Disney subsidiary, Circle 7 Animation, was created to produce sequels to Pixar films. Dubbed “Pixaren't”, this company was soon shut down and all scenarios were scrapped.
And then, after Toy Story 3, the Pixar magic began to fade. The last film of its golden age, also the first to begin after Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, when Lasseter and Catmull were made, respectively, creative directors and president of both studios. The subsequent films — 2011's Cars 2 (a spy parody) and 2013's Monsters University (college comedy) — do not have any thematic or emotional connection to the films that spawned them. While better than either of those movies, Brave, Pixar's 2012 forayed into the princess genre, was also a disappointment. The studio calmed down with 2015's Inside Out, but 2016's The Good Dinosaur (also 2015) and 2016's mediocre Finding Dory only confirmed the overall downturn, which was particularly notable compared to the resurgence underway at Disney Animation.
Catmull has said that Pixar's intention was to make a sequel to the two original films. Since 2010 the ratio has been almost inverse. Especially unfortunate was the announcement of the Toy Story 4 plan in 2014. The storyline and emotions of the trilogy were completed with Andy's departure to go to college. The third season even closed, lovingly, with a scene that brilliantly mirrors the first film's opening scene: the wall of white-soft-white clouds in the sky-blue in Andy's bedroom. Toy Story has given way to real white clouds in a real blue sky. However, instead of ending on that moving tune, Pixar opted for what has been described as a "sequel reboot" - the phrase that is undoubtedly the most disappointing in contemporary cinema.
Who doesn't see the different trajectory of Pixar and Disney Animation?. At the time of the merger, Disney was a "recession company" and a "failure," as Catmull several years ago remarked, before adding, "Disney is succeeding now." Regarding Pixar, he is less optimistic: "There are big problems we're dealing with at Pixar right now."
After all, Lasseter and Catmull worked so many hours of their day dedicatedly competing at Pixar and Disney, as Catmull was made clearly in his book. If the studio had to prioritize the parent company's name, that was not surprising. It was also not surprising that the loss of focus has taken its toll, given how much Pixar's culture relied on a close circle of creative minds. (Other members of the Braintrust have pursued interests outside of Pixar: Stanton explored live-action filmmaking with John Carter, and Bird did the same with Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland.)
However, it was not an inadequate oversight, which caused the erosion of Pixar's uncompromising creative independence. The Disney merger and acquisition seems to bring with it new imperatives. Pixar has always been good at making money, but it has historically made money in its own way. Remember, Pixar rejected the low-quality Toy Story 2 released via video directly, and instead of working days and nights to come up with another wonder. But Lasseter, among other obligations, also oversaw Disneytoon Studios. In that capacity, he served as executive producer on 2013's Planes and its sequel Planes: Fire & Rescue in 2014. These two films — like most Disneytoon films are derivative works for brazen money. These two movies are unique because they are also blatantly spin-offs of Pixar's Cars franchise, a development that would have been almost unimaginable without the merger. As Lasseter himself explains, "By expanding the world of Cars, Planes gave us a whole new set of fun situations."
That is not to mention a whole new set of toys. Of course, merchandise is always tempting with Pixar (as it is with any purveyor of children's movies). And Disney has played a central role in the marketing and merchandising of Pixar movies since 1991. But when you become part of the largest entertainment conglomerate in the history of the world, commercial opportunity multiplied exponentially. There are dozens of Disney theme parks scattered around the globe that need themes for amusement rides. So, a year after buying Pixar, Disney announced it would open Toy Story Midway Mania next year at both Disney World and Disney California Adventure. In late 2007, Disney announced a $1.1 billion redesign of its unsuccessful Adventure California park, with a 12-acre Cars Land. Add Toy Story-themed rides - and Finding Nemo - at Disney Parks in Shanghai and Tokyo.
In fact, the overlap between Pixar movies with sequels and those that inspired Disney amusement rides is almost the whole point. Theme park rides are based on awareness of the topic in question, and young park goers are less likely to be familiar with movies that are more than a decade old. If you want them to scream the Toy Story Midway Mania experience, they'll need a Toy Story 4 movie. Cars Land can use Cars 3, and Finding Nemo-related rides are thanks to Finding Dory.
Pixar has promised that after the recent flood of sequels, the studio will focus on original movies. But we've grown, and while this can-not-copied studio has taught us to believe in resurrection, it has also trained us in pain and loss. Not sure if we dare to hope more for what once made Pixar Pixar: personal stories, deep emotional resonance, subtle themes that don't easily translate into park trips. I'm thinking of the sobbing, melodious "Marriage Life" segment in Up, which is full of emotion in just four minutes of the movie than most Oscar-nominated films can do in its entirety. Or the sad loneliness of Wall-e's robotic protagonist, left on Earth to clean up the mess of its creators. Or Anton Ego's artistic critique at the end of Ratatouille, considered the wisest wording on the subject since Addison DeWitt in All About Eve.
None of these movies are scheduled to be a sequel. And no movie is anything but a theme park ride (although Disney announced Ratatouille: The Adventure at, where else, Disneyland Paris). It is impossible not to ask: Would Pixar even bother making those movies anymore?
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