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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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John Carter Taylor Kitsch

First, "John Carter" – Disney has been very good about keeping quiet just how much of a Pixar movie this costly failure really was. But it was a Pixar film in everything but name only. The movie was directed by Stanton, who is part of the Pixar "Brain Trust" and who was at the studio as much as he could be – the film was almost completely pre-visualized there and when the studio decided to bring reporters into the editing bay to see how the film was progressing, they weren't flown to Disney studios proper, they came to Pixar. (Recent video of a Pixar animator showing how he helped direct the animators at Double Negative, the effects house that handled the bulk of the character animation on the film, substantiates this.) "John Carter" isn't nearly the trainwreck people make it out to be but it is proof of a Pixar-ian single-mindedness (highlighted by the lengthy New Yorker profile of Stanton) that can often get them into trouble.

It's this, "no, we can fix it" attitude that seemed to doom "Brave," originally slated to be the first feature at the studio directed by a female filmmaker (Brenda Chapman, of "Prince of Egypt" fame). With eighteen months before the movie was scheduled to be released, Chapman was unceremoniously removed and Mark Andrews, a writer and second unit director on "John Carter," stepped in to replace her. And unlike "Ratatouille," which was unified by the single creative voice of Brad Bird, "Brave" feels like disparate elements desperately clinging together to form a movie. No one knows exactly what happened or why Chapman was removed (yet), but it's clear that Pixar was unhappy both with her work and its own ability to create product that was at least up to snuff with earlier Pixar works. (Keep in mind this was around the time they altogether cancelled another project, Gary Rydstrom's "Newt," because of similarities to Blue Sky Studios' "Rio." Um, okay. Wasn't DreamWorks' "Antz" and Pixar's "A Bug's Life" in production at the same time? Thought so.)

John Lasseter.
John Lasseter.

The reasons for the sharp decline in quality and oversight are many – firstly, when Disney brought Pixar into the corporate fold, they installed many Pixar principles to head arms of Disney. John Lasseter, an executive vice president and filmmaker at Pixar, became the Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as the Principal Creative Advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering (the folks that handle the rides, attractions, and pavilions at Disney parks the world over), while Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, additionally became President of Walt Disney Animation Studios. They both, presumably, have many more yachts, but their attention was now spread that much thinner – in addition to keeping an eye on Pixar's slate they were effectively running the creative side of Disney, overseeing things like "Tangled" and the scouting of locations for Disney's South American park (Brazil was the ultimate decision).

Also, many of the creative principles have moved on to other things, there has been something of a vacuum in terms of creative leadership. Stanton walked away (or at least down the hall) to direct "John Carter" and part of the way that Disney and Pixar got him to hang around for the "Finding Nemo" sequel is by offering him another live action movie (from Disney); Chapman, in her reduced role at the studio, has been removed from the Brain Trust; and Brad Bird left to direct "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," a huge financial and critical success that has left him in no particular hurry to return to the Emeryville animation studio. Bird has got at least one more live action movie on his plate – "1952," co-written by "Lost" mastermind Damon Lindelof and Entertainment Weekly reporter Jeff Jensen (though, it is set up at Disney). When we talked to Bird in December, he said that he's at Pixar as much as he can be, but we're pretty sure the only thing that would lure him back full-time is the promise of his live action Earthquake drama "1906" (originally planned as a Disney/Warner Bros/Pixar co-production) finally coming through. Other Pixar mainstays like Michael Arndt, whose original six-months-out-of-the-year commitment to Pixar has turned into a year-round affair, are drifting too – Arndt has been tapped to be involved in the "Phineas and Ferb" movie for Disney proper and contributed to Joseph Kosinski's sci-fi actioner "Oblivion" (probably when it was still at Disney) and next year's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

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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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