Discuss: Is The Golden Age Of Pixar Over?

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by Drew Taylor
July 17, 2012 4:09 PM
23 Comments
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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.)

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23 Comments

  • F.P. | July 19, 2012 12:06 PMReply

    I was prepared to pooh-pooh that sky-is-falling headline, but you make some solid points. I agree that no track record can ever be perfect, but yeah, since the excellent, best-of-the-decade brilliance of WALL-E, I haven't liked a Pixar film. UP and TS3 were very mean-spirited films, CARS 2 was a wreck, and yeah, the excesses of JOHN CARTER seem to indicate that absolute power corrupts absolutely (and by the way, Hollywood, you really need to stop doubling down on this Kitsch guy - he's never acted in a role worthy of his rising star status, and seems to be the equivalent of success kryptonite). Didn't know that Disney's involvement had stepped up as much as it had, so yeah, with Pixar experiencing sequelitis, maybe that moment from the 00's has really signaled the end of the greatness we once knew...?

  • Carbine125 | July 18, 2012 8:48 PMReply

    "movie that takes place in the world of the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos" So basically Grim Fandango. *foaming at the mouth*

  • Karen Young | July 18, 2012 11:15 AMReply

    You need a proofreader, desperately. When you are talking about key people at a company, the word is PRINCIPALS. Not "principles," which are the things which might prevent a company like Pixar from releasing a sequel to Finding Nemo.

  • anon | July 18, 2012 1:17 AMReply

    egos run wild over there with lasseter and crew

  • Mike | July 17, 2012 11:40 PMReply

    Brave was not a weak film at all, it was a nice twist on Disney's formula & gorgeous to boot. Of course it'd be hard for anyone to top the run they had from 2007-2010, but with their top tier directors working on really promising projects like The Good Dinosaur, the inside the mind project and the day of the dead film, I'm quite excited for Pixar's future. Though we likely have to wait until 2014 to start to see that future.

  • Troy | July 17, 2012 10:55 PMReply

    Yeah, I don't get the doom and gloom some people are projecting about Pixar. Nobody has a perfect record. The great Studio Ghibli botches it from time to time. My favorite filmmaker Billy Wilder made his share of stinkers.

    I'll take the good-but-not-great Brave any day over straight up babysitting garbage like Madagascar or Ice Age sequels.

  • Brian | July 17, 2012 6:35 PMReply

    Smart and wonderful piece. Thanks.

  • Rebecca | July 17, 2012 6:16 PMReply

    Pixar is making a sequal to Finding Nemo- completely unnecessary- I'm done with them. Hollywood needs a makeover, it's getting ridiculous.

  • Ferry13 | July 17, 2012 5:30 PMReply

    It's not Disney. Disney was always there, from the first Toy Story. We now simply discover Lasseter probably wasn't key to the success. I start to think Steve Jobs was. He didn't draw, sketch or write anything, but from all the biographies that have appeared lately we know he used to spend one day a week at Pixar, and was doing one thing over and over: keep telling people everything Pixar had to be great. Insanely great. I'm pretty sure he had to green lit every new project. And I guess he wasn't that much into sequels. Because Pixar made only one during his time. Now they're doing more sequels than original stories. Could be Disney is demanding cheap sequels. We know they're like that. But Pixar used to have someone who was strong enough to say no. That was Jobs, not Lasseter or Catmull. People have been worrying about the consequences of Jobs' death for Apple... but Pixar is missing out on him as well.

  • rubi-kun | July 18, 2012 10:05 PM

    Nah. Jobs was there when Cars 2 was being made. I'm thinking it's more Joe Ranft who was the genius behind the early Pixar films (plus Toy Story 3, which had story ideas thrown around for years before the Disney deal was ironed out to allow it to enter production at Pixar) and the run of Ratatouille through Up were the result of Pixar taking more risks during the short period they weren't certain if the Disney deal would go through. In all honesty, Brave doesn't really deserve the level of dismissal it's gotten; it's a better film than A Bugs' Life and about on par with Finding Nemo in my mind. If Cars 2 hadn't come out inbetween it and TS3, we'd be talking about it as another Pixar winner (though I do want to know what Chapman's version was like). And I wonder if John Carter's press and box office would have been better had they more strongly associated it with the Pixar brand (Stanton was the main reason I was interested in it, but none of the advertising highlighted that, and I'm sad its failure has basically forced him into doing Nemo 2). From now on I'm basically still expecting good things from original Pixar movies, but these sequels (unless it's Brad Bird doing another Incredibles) I'm just going to ignore. If Pixar's serious about ramping up productions, it's clear there's now "A-projects" and "B-projects", whereas before everything was treated as an A-project.

  • Ferry13 | July 17, 2012 5:46 PM

    @Marko: He probably has too much on his plate... but would he forget about staying true to everything he said in many interviews about sequels? I think he simply isn't strong enough to safeguard Pixar. He's an animator - a good one. He is a visionary filmmaker. Someone who was at the dawn of computer animation. That's all great. But it doesn't make him a strong leader. That's a different talent. Unfortunately, we see Pixar suffer from this now.

  • Marko | July 17, 2012 5:32 PM

    Or the problem could be that Lasseter has too much on his plate now.

  • starway2001 | July 17, 2012 5:10 PMReply

    I love how the goalposts of success are convenient moved around at whim to suit the theme of this article.

  • Dryer | July 17, 2012 4:48 PMReply

    There's any easy way to assess this situation, look when bathroom humor and pop music entered the fray. Pixar used to be the gold standard because they didn't swing to the cheap seats. Brave is the perfect example of old vs new Pixar. The opening sequence, the fight between mother and daughter, and the discovery of Muldoon bear was perfect old style Pixar. Everything else was Disney marketing fluenced. You either got the subtle message or you enjoyed the basic plot and it's brilliant animation. It's was'nt like Dreamworks which took Katzenburgs Touchstone formula and applied it to computer animation though reversed with broad comedy purposefully created for children but a few induendos for adults. But Lasseter sold the company out with Cars, purposefully aiming low and now there is no difference between the two studios. This same combination brought down Disney animation in the late 90s when they began favoring dollars over product, stories played second fiddle to merchandise machine.

  • bob | July 17, 2012 8:18 PM

    Agree. Well said

  • cory everett | July 17, 2012 5:08 PM

    Excellent comment. On the nose.

  • Leonardo | July 17, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    I still have faith in pixar, it just Disney is trying really hard to absorbe it and becoming another money making machine.

  • Tom | July 17, 2012 4:33 PMReply

    Back in 2006 when I read that Disney had bought Pixar, I actually cried. The effects of the parent company are becoming more apparent all the time.

  • Mike | July 17, 2012 11:47 PM

    I don't know, Disney had the guts to let them release films aimed at adults with Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up (sure they could market them to families with the talking animals and comedy aspects of them, but the impact of the stories are over kids' heads) and release a finale to their most lucrative series that was more for the adults who were kids when the original came out than the low-hanging fruit of the toy buying children with Toy Story 3 (which also features an utterly harrowing climactic scene). The only real 'Disney ruining things' effects we've seen is the commissioning of Cars 2, but Cars was created and loved by Lasseter who is Pixar's head and the head of all Disney animation, so that and the fact that despite being basically their lowest grossing film it's made them the most money on merchandise got it a sequel. That's a mutual black eye. Brave is Pixar taking on Disney's turf and taking the story & characters in directions Disney never would, and the post-2013 projects all sound like highly viable creative premises & are being made by Pixar's best directors. Disney hasn't run them into the ground, the 2007-2010 Pixar run was stunning.

  • Aiden Rush | July 17, 2012 4:24 PMReply

    In short, yes.

  • Huffy | July 18, 2012 1:21 AM

    Most of those projects were probably already in production at various stages when Disney bought them out. The point that the article is making, a point which is valid I believe, is that Pixar has started to become mediocre right around the time that they've started to become more and more integrated into Disney. They weren't nearly as integrated into the Mouse House in 2008 as they are today and the on-screen results are hard to ignore. Combined with the exodus of talent and I think that it's going to be a while before they can match their past glories, at least on a consistent basis.

  • Anhedonia | July 17, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    We already did: http://mubi.com/topics/is-pixar-going-downhill?page=1

  • steven | March 29, 2013 12:45 AM

    sorry but this fucking article is poorly made crap and god why do we let people like this reproduce

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