Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Riske Business: What is Happening to Pixar?

One is a fluke. Two is a trend. Three is a losing streak.

Coming off of two straight duds (Cars 2, Brave), Disney-Pixar has a lot riding on this week’s Monsters University. Maybe not financially – their last two movies cleaned up – but in terms of quality, they have something to prove. The early reviews are saying their latest is an improvement but not quite up to the gold standard of Pixar’s insane hot streak that began in 1995 with Toy Story and dried up after Toy Story 3 in 2010. I sure hope that’s the case. It’s been depressing to see Pixar shit the bed in the past few years. Sadly, though, I think Pixar’s golden era is over.
How did this happen? Since 2006, Pixar has released a new movie every summer. Is it a case off too much output too quickly? I would say "no," because Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 all came within a year of each other during this period and each were very good to terrific. Is it competition from rival animation studios like Dreamworks, Fox or Sony? Again, I don’t think so. An exception or two aside, their movies are not even up to the standards of Pixar’s weakest efforts. So what could it be? I think it all has to do with the influence of Pixar’s parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company. In recent years, the output from Pixar seems less creative, more cynically put-together and branded for quadrant hitting.
Before The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar in 2006 (for $7.4 billion), Pixar was an independently run company that was in control of their own production and only utilized Disney for marketing and distribution. It was a separation of church and state that was mutually beneficial for both companies. Pixar maintained a reputation as being creative and truly original, while Disney took Pixar product and made their characters and properties as popular worldwide as Mickey Mouse. The money rolled in, but Disney wanted more and bought Pixar. Conditions were laid out in the deal to ensure Pixar remained a separate entity, but some telling things changed -- the most important being that animator John Lasseter (the man behind most of Pixar’s success and the director of Toy Story and Cars) was made Chief Creative Officer of Disney/Pixar animation and also Principal Creative Adviser for Walt Disney Imagineering, the division that designs theme park attractions. Being a filmmaker is no longer good enough; you have to be John Hammond from Jurassic Park.
The acquisition of Pixar was just one step in Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Iger’s master plan to gobble up profitable franchises. Following Pixar, Iger acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012 to further broaden the Disney Company’s properties. In short, Pixar is now a Big Mac, just like Marvel is a Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Lucasfilm is a Double Cheeseburger. The product exists to give you the same predictable experience you expect each and every time you consume it. This is why Pixar is creatively stuck in the mud. It’s now about selling happy meal toys.
Think about their movies in the past few years. Kids love cars; Disney can sell lots of car toys. Thus a sequel to Pixar’s most derided feature, 2006’s Cars. Disney princesses are a very big earner for The Walt Disney Company and Pixar hasn’t had any movies featuring a female protagonist, so they make Brave (that might sound cold, like "You can’t make a good animated movie with a female lead," but I don’t mean it that way – Brave’s Princess Merida is also the first Pixar character to be included in the Disney Princess line). Toy Story 3 was a no-brainer. The franchise features Pixar’s two most marketable characters (Woody and Buzz Lightyear) and there was a whole new group of kids to sell toys to, as Toy Story 2 came out ten years before Toy Story 3. And now we get Monsters University, which is the same thing – there are new kids who don’t have Monsters toys. This movie is even more cynically put together than Toy Story 3 (which repeated A LOT of ideas from Toy Story 2 and did not need to exist in the arc of the Toy Story universe – it’s a miracle it came out as good as it did), because Monsters University is a prequel. Because we can’t sleep at night without knowing how Mike and Sulley got to Boo’s house. How did they train for that? No one gives a shit.

It gets even more manufactured in the slate after 2013. In 2014, Pixar releases The Good Dinosaur, because kids want dino toys as much as they want cars toys (but at least it’s an original story). After that it's Finding Dory, an unnecessary sequel to Finding Nemo, because now there are new kids to buy fishy toys. Do you ever wonder why there hasn’t been a sequel to The Incredibles, arguably the Disney-Pixar movie most appropriate for a sequel? Because it hasn’t been 10 years yet. There are no new kids to whom we can sell toys.
When I came to this realization, I became a little sad. It was after I saw Disney’s non-Pixar computer animated effort Wreck-It Ralph and realized the studio’s B-unit was delivering better than the A-team. The student surpassed the teacher. While Wreck-It Ralph was heartfelt, character-driven and hip (like how Toy Story felt in 1995), Brave was a movie so misguided that it asked us to care about a teenager that maliciously turns her own mother into a bear and bungles that situation so much that her Viking father almost kills her bear mother. I hate this word, but honestly the movie should have been titled Bitch.

Short digression: I saw Brave about a week after it came out and I was the only person in the entire theater. The day after I saw the movie, the theater closed for business. Coincidence? Yes, but for the sake of the story, Brave is a movie so bad it broke a movie theater.
Pixar used to be a studio that explored interesting themes for children and adults such as self-improvement, helping friends and family and taking on the real world. Their movies were inspired by great filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki and Disney chestnuts like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Now they are about filling your mall’s Disney Store with merchandise and occupying real estate at a theme park.

What can Pixar do to reinvigorate themselves creatively? If I had my druthers, I would challenge them to re-launch hand-drawn animation. I feel bad for kids today that won’t learn to appreciate vivid, warm and gorgeous hand-drawn animation. I know The Princess and the Frog was a disappointment, but if at first you don’t succeed…something something try again. (It’s been a long time, we shouldn’t have left you without a dope beat to step to..step to..step to..step to..step to..step to..wicky wicky wicky).

In closing, I found a quote from John Lasseter about family movies and his pride in Pixar. It now reads as ironic – you become the things you once mocked:

“Let me tell you a funny story. I took the family to see this film one weekend -- I'll go to see almost any film that's good for the whole family. And so we're sitting there watching this film, which I won't name, and there are long stretches that are just not very entertaining. My little son -- he was probably 6 at the time -- was sitting next to me, and right in the middle of this dull section, he turns to me and says, 'Dad? How many letters are in my name?' I must have laughed for five minutes. I thought, Oh, man, this movie has lost this little boy. His mind has been wandering, trying to figure out how many letters there are in his name. So I told my wife, Nancy, what he said, and she started laughing, and then the story went down the row through my whole family, our four other sons, and we're sitting there as a family giggling and laughing. And I thought to myself, if ever a child anywhere in the world leans over to their daddy during one of my movies and asks, 'How many letters are in my name?' I'll quit.”

Do you think Pixar can rebound? What are your favorite Pixar movies?

Adam’s Top 10 Pixar Movies
1. Ratatouille
2. Toy Story
3. Finding Nemo
4. Up
5. Toy Story 2
6. Wall-E
7. Toy Story 3
8. The Incredibles
9. Monsters Inc.
10. A Bug’s Life


  1. I agree with your overall point, but I do have to bring up a few things in regard to Brave.

    First, the fact that it features a female protagonist, and unlike a lot of traditional Disney princesses, one who doesn't rely on a male character to save the day or resolve the problem, is a pretty big deal and definitely not the cookie-cutter standard for these type of films. I know several women for whom this was an astounding and welcome change from the norm. While yes, Disney does have the Disney Princess line to market with it, making a girl or woman the lead of your film, even a kid's movie, is still unfortunately considered a big risk. Hell, that's part of the reason we still don't have a damn Wonder Woman movie.

    Secondly, that said, the film does have so pacing and plot problems but we should also remember that there was a lot of behind-the-scenes turmoil on the production, with original director Brenda Chapman being replaced by Mark Andrews midway through in what has been acknowledged as a messy transition.

    Finally, I think it's a bit of a mischaracterization that Merida 'maliciously' has her mother turned into a bear. Remember that initially she only asks for a spell that would change her fate by changing her mother's mind. Her problem was being non-specific.

    Also, bear in mind (no pun intended) that one of the film's main points is that she still has growing up to do. I mean, she's a teenager who's put into a really unfair situation wherein she doesn't get to choose who she will be. Who wouldn't be upset?

    I think that's one of the film's best aspects and something that makes it a bit unique in children's films; it isn't a case of one character being in the wrong and learning the error of their ways. Both mother and daughter have growth.

    Merida, while she does act selfishly in some ways and doesn't respect traditions, is completely right about her situation being unfair while her mother, though forcing her daughter into a marriage she doesn't want, is right about Merida needing to be more respectful of the family and her duties in the community. I definitely think this qualifies as character-driven and heartfelt.

    It may not have been the home run financially or critically as much of their other work, but I do think Brave is a really important film in Pixar's history and I'm happy to be see them stumble here and there if it means trying something different and risky like that.

    1. Tim, just wanted to add your comments by saying that a lot of my moviegoing friends who are moms really liked the mother/daughter dynamic that BRAVE was going for, or at least felt that part of it was free from cynicism. Perhaps not being a parent made me a little desensitized to some of the things that BRAVE was trying to offer.

  2. I think your analysis is right on target. You mention that several high-quality Pixar movies came out in relatively quick succession, but each of those movies was in development for years before its release. Whenever I saw a behind-the-scenes piece about Pixar during its glory years, whoever was being interviewed (usually Lassiter) would talk about how much emphasis the creative team put on the story. It's about the STORY, stupid! That priority has long since expired.

    If you'll forgive an aside - I feel I must stand up for Cars, because it seems that it's universally considered meh by the F this Movie-ers. I love that movie. Part of it is because my parents grew up with Route 66. That's a movie we always watch all together (and finding a movie that both my parents want to watch at the same time is akin to getting Obama and Bush to star in a remake of Tango and Cash). They get every reference, and the movie's themes speak very deeply to them. As they do to me.

    In addition to Cars, my fav Pixar movies are Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2, Wall-E, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille (having Patton Oswalt voice Remy was genius).

    1. I saw Cars before my son was born and didn't like it. Now I have affection for it not just because of how much it means to him, but because I've now seen it enough times to know that it has some things to say. Cars 2, for all its incredible animation, still might as well be a Dreamworks or Blue Sky movie.

  3. Great article, Adam. I think you are on to something. Lately, whenever we see a trailer for a new Disney live-action film, my wife has more evidence for her theory that everything that comes out of the Disney pipeline of late is to shore up attendance at one of the theme parks. So The Lone Ranger gets green-lit to shore up attendance at the flagging Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, etc.

    Could it be that Pixar originally set the bar so impossibly high that they themselves can no longer clear it? And why doesn't anyone talk about A Bug's Life anymore? It is my second-favorite remake of Seven Samurai!

    My two favorite Pixar films are Ratatoille and The Incredibles-- they both contain great messages for kids about not letting other people define you.

  4. @Tim - Great comment! So well put. I really didn't like Brave (it just rubbed me the wrong way) but I appreciate you going to bat for it like you did.

    @Steve K - Ditto to what I wrote for Tim. I think it's so cool that you guys are standing up for the more maligned Pixar movies. It's making me think there might be more "there" there.

    Also I'm loving the Ratatouille props so far. That movie is effervescent. The ending (with the food critic's turnaround) is one of the most rewarding movie moments I can remember.

  5. Lately, Pixar doesn't seem to know who they're making these movies for. The alternative fuel and spy business in Cars 2 is clearly not intended for kids, and the rest of the movie isn't engineered toward adults, so who is the ideal audience for the film?

    Now Monsters University is coming out, because if there's somebody that apprectiates jokes about college, it's small children.

    It seems that the some of the worst animated films out there try to "update" the humor by inserting jokes they think will be funny to modern audiences, like references to social media, current pop stars and celebrities, and memes that were popular for three months in 2010. The best animated movies are timeless and speak to all ages, cultures, and classes.

  6. I'm going to come off pretty crusty here, but Pixar movies have never really BLOWN ME AWAY. I've enjoyed many of them (haven't seen Cars (either), Monsters, Inc., Ratatouille or Finding Nemo or Brave), when I used to babysit my cousins they were a great alternative to the usual kiddie-crap and because they look so great on blu-ray I do have some in my collection, but for the most part they never really get me like they seem to others (e.g. Up had some touching moments to be sure but I never had to choke back tears or anything). The first half of Wall-E is probably my absolute favourite Pixar.

    I don't know, I guess I need more kids in my life, because the odd time I've sat down with just my spousal equivalent to watch them, I feel like we should be doing/watching something more "adult". Don't get me wrong, I recognize the quality film-making there and I get that there's plenty for adults to enjoy in them too but it's like, when you watch it with a kid the adult stuff stands out more but when you watch it with just another adult the kid stuff stands out more. Again, not to say I don't enjoy them, they just rarely knock my socks off.

    All that being said, I'm sure you're right that Disney is to blame. For many decades they've been able to be this gigantic multinational corporation that still managed to be unique and deal in QUALITY, but they're getting monolithic in their old age. And no wonder - that's what today's economy seems to reward.

  7. It's weird that the shift seemed to have happened shortly after Pixar's most experimental movie, too. Although Up came between Wall-E and the start of sequelization, so maybe there's nothing there.

  8. @Sol - I agree with you about Pixar sometimes being a little overrated. I think they sometimes fall into action nonsense especially in the third acts. CGI animated action sequences are not exciting to me.

    1. I think what gave Pixar their reputation is that at one point they focused a LOT on things like story, character and theme at a time when many other Hollywood movies had abandoned them. Once upon a time, that would have been the norm. But as so many movies got away from the basic tenants of TELLING A STORY, Pixar became a unique flower that gave us the things for which we go to movies. As you point out, Adam, they are going the route of everyone else and slowly starting to abandon that.

  9. In the old days before home video Disney animated movies were only released once every seven years. Again, whole new generation who now wanted Mickey Mouse watches and Cinderella Dress-Up Sets. So this is really just going back to the original company policy. Even now the landmark movies in whatever video form goes "back into the vault" for a few years.

    Every "death notice" in Hollywood might as well begin with "Today, Disney Studios acquired..."

    But the biggest change I've noticed since Pixar became a part of Disney is the shorts that they make. When independent, Pixar made shorts as self contained stories with original characters and were extremely funny. Since then, I've seen two pre-movie shorts featuring characters from Toy Story (a/k/a toys). One pretty much starring Barbie. The other one about the Happy Meal version of Buzz!!!

    If it can't sell something to a kid, Disney's not interested.

    Meanwhile, they've taken over Star Wars. Remember how Lucas said he created the Ewoks thinking about a plush toy his daughter would like...? Wonder what Disney is thinking right now?

    1. Gad, this is depressing. You're absolutely right, Kathy. I remember seeing Geri's Game attached to a Pixar movie I got on DVD (can't remember which one). It was like getting an unexpected gift. And it was about an old guy playing chess! Yeah, what are the chances Disney would spend a penny on something like that now?

  10. Something interesting I've always thought about Pixar is that a lot of my favorite stuff was accomplished with the aid of old Simpsons writers and directors. Jim Reardon helped write WALL*E, David Silverman co-helmed Monsters Inc, and my personal favorite (Incredibles) was Brad Bird's dream project. Not that I don't love Nemo, Up, and the Toy Stories. But as you said Adam, the guys behind those are being drafted to the higher echelons of Disney (I wish Andrew Stanton would take another shot at live-action). At least Lasseter is helping to slightly increase the quality of other Disney projects. Keep in mind all the shots the Simpsons took at Disney over the years, maybe Pixar could use some more of those guys. I'm a lifelong Disney fan, but it is getting harder and harder to defend my love when the moustache-twirling corporation is making no efforts to hide itself.

  11. I agree with a lot of your points Adam, being a huge Pixarian myself. There are a couple elements of Cars 2 I like (visuals and Michael Caine's 007 car character) but I agree Brave felt kind of same old same old a little bit, perhaps I have been overexposed to Disney princess fairy tale stories for too long. It had a slight twist with the princess not fawning over a guy but that just wasn't enough for me.

    I think Pixar can get it back and am actually cautiously optimistic about Monsters University since it feels like there may be a bit more of a personal touch by the animators on this one from their college experiences. The best Pixar movies are the ones that aren't just great on a story level but have that little extra personal touch. For example Toy Story movies were about letting your kids grow up, Finding Nemo was about not being overly protective about your kids, and finally UP is about not waiting to take that great adventure and remembering that no matter what travesty may hit you in your life its important to move forward.

    I could go on and on with examples of Pixar greatness but they have enough goodwill stored up for me to believe in them resurrecting themselves. As for Lasseter he has been spread a little thin with two jobs and needs to get back full time to animation. In his defense a lot of the park add ons he has supported in Disneyland are really good, Cars Land in California is really well done.

  12. I never saw "Brave", but considering all the negatives I heard about it, I was shocked that it won the Oscar for Best Animated Film. I honestly thought "Wreck It Ralph" was going to win.

    Now that Pixar has shown that it's mortal, I'm reminded of that line from "Predator" or "Rocky 4": If it bleeds, we can kill it/He's not a machine!

    Studios have been waiting for Pixar to fumble so they can knock them to the ground with their animation departments--and the evil trollboy, movie going public enjoys seeing mighty empires flounder.

    Just think of the chaos when comic book movies begin to fail and studios collapse on top of each other. It's only a matter of time unfortunately.

  13. "UP" still has the most amazing, depressing, inspiring, tear inducing beginning of any film in the last 20 years.

    1. It's a great sequence! But then the rest of the movie kind of leaves me cold.

    2. The scene near the end where Carl finds his wife's scrapbook, with the happy photos of the two of them and a note thanking him for the adventure and encouraging him to go on a new one - that's the one that gets me every time during Up.