With the news today that Disney and Pixar are moving forward with a sequel to their beloved 2003 masterpiece "Finding Nemo" (to be helmed, once again, by Andrew Stanton, apparently newly freed from director jail after this spring's notorious flop "John Carter"), it is another indication that Pixar has truly been absorbed into the Disney bloodstream. Even though it's arguably one of the least open-ended movies Pixar has ever made, Disney is intent on wringing more dollars from its name brand and all the squishy toys that can be made from various aquatic wildlife. It's enough, with Pixar's recent string of sequels and the creative fogginess of this summer's "Brave," to wonder: is the Golden Age of Pixar truly over?
Pixar has enjoyed the kind of creative, commercial, and critical success that few studios even dream of, much less achieve. But they did it. Film after film was a smash – from "Finding Nemo's" domestic haul of $339 million to the fact that New York Times critic A.O. Scott named Stanton's second feature, the robots-in-love space opus "WALL-E," the best movie of the decade. What was more – they were topping themselves each time out. "Ratatouille," writer/director Brad Bird's bold turnaround of a troubled project that also doubled as a deeply felt metaphor for Pixar/Disney relations at the time, was followed up by the fearlessly experimental "WALL-E" (largely silent, incorporating human performances, sharply satirical) and then came "Up," a sweet-natured ode to the gracefulness of aging that also had elements of steam-punk adventurism (plus a talking dog and a magical, multi-colored bird).
While there were often small chinks in the armor (the frustrating fact that "Up" climaxed in yet another Pixar chase sequence), even things like "Toy Story 3" – ostensibly one trip to the well too many – turned out to be a profoundly emotional experience (and another runaway financial, critical and cultural success). After Disney owned Pixar outright (after much back-and-forth), you could feel a subtle shift – Pixar characters started to overtake the Disney parks (why are Mike and Sully in Tomorrowland in Florida anyway?) and the Pixar films themselves seemed to pivot in the direction of commercial, rather than creative, sustainability. The serviceable "Cars" was easily the Pixar film met with the most amount of lukewarm indifference, but that didn't stop a sequel from getting made (with a direct-to-video spin-off in the works), mostly because of the billions of dollars of "Cars" merchandise that is sold every year and the fact that Carsland, the centerpiece of the $1 billion+ expansion of the Disney California Adventure theme park, would be opening soon.
"Cars 2" was a disaster – visually cluttered with a narrative less fuel-injected than running on fumes – but it might have been the shape of things to come. This year Pixar suffered two fatal blows – this spring's "John Carter," which, up until a few months before its release was still being touted as "Pixar's first live-action feature," and "Brave," a costly movie mired in creative difficulties that has been released to solid box office but not nearly the kind of critical support the studio is used to. (It proved that, if you're not Brad Bird, you can't turn around a troubled project and come out on top.)