As a child growing up in the 90s, I have nothing but fond memories associated with Pixar Animation Studios. Every time a new Pixar film was about to enter its theatrical run, the collective anticipation for the iconic studio’s next installment was already palpable; each subsequent story was radically different from its predecessor and consistently kept millions of moviegoers of all ages on their toes. Perhaps it had something to do with Steve Jobs, but for the longest time everything Pixar touched was destined to turn into gold.
From feature-length films encapsulating epic adventures in alternate universes to five-minute shorts about mischievous desk lamps, each film would irrevocably go on to become both a critical and commercial success. In a time where animated movies were too often relegated to cheap pop-culture references and clichéd slapstick humor, their winning formula of unique settings, quirky characters tied together with a firm emotional core would constantly set them leagues apart from the competition.
Fast forward to present day. Monsters University – a prequel to one of their most endearing creations – is opening this Friday to moderately polite reviews (at the time of publishing, it currently holds a good but not great 71% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes). The studio is coming off Brave and Cars 2, which many would consider to be their two least well-received films since the animation powerhouse’s inception back in 1986. After having been emotionally invested for close to two decades, the mere thought of Pixar going downhill is barely imaginable, let alone endurable. How could anyone dare think something like that? To entertain this idea seems ungrateful – almost derisive – considering all the great classics that they have offered us throughout the years. All feelings aside, however, the question remains: Is there something wrong with Pixar?
Many critics have identified Disney as the potential culprit their recent string of disappointments – and for a good reason. During the production of Toy Story 2, John Lasseter and his uber-talented team of animators were combining all their creative efforts to provide the most satisfying sequel imaginable to their iconic first feature-length film. Sadly, as history recalls, the dictator known as Disney stepped in midway through production and demanded that they churn out a rushed, direct-to-video style sequel, which famously brought the two companies at an impasse.
Pointing fingers at Disney is all too easy – the enormous, evil media empire known for its conservative fiscal decisions vs. the “little lamp that could” that is Pixar – it all makes for the quintessential David vs. Goliath scenario. Despite that, the real underlying issue is much less romanticized and significantly more textbook. In any case of mergers and acquisitions, the corporate values and culture of the acquiring company inevitably supersede those of the other company. While it took several years for them to manifest themselves, the telltale signs of Disney’s high-turnaround, quick-profit culture were bound to become ever-present within Pixar’s yearly summer offerings.
Disney’s business model is elementary: establish a great original brand that the audience will respond to and squeeze every dollar of profit from that venture through sequels, prequels, squishy toys, cheesy decals and every cheap plastic gadget and gizmo imaginable. While this tried and tested strategy earns mounds of profit for Disney and its hungry shareholders, it comes at an arguably higher cost: a lack of creative integrity in times of crisis where making something fast, safe and cheap is at the opposite end of making something wonderful and innovative. If you’re in need of concrete examples on how Disney is starting to tarnish Pixar’s image, look no further than Disney’s Planes, a deceivingly Pixaresque production coming to grab the cash of unsuspecting parents across North American theaters this August.
Another interesting observation would be that perhaps Pixar’s decline is a misconception because it’s the non-Pixar offerings that have kept improving over the years. As far as technical sound and quality of animation, Pixar has always been the indisputable industry pioneer and leader, far surpassing the competition. Or at least, it used to be that way. For the past several years, “Non-Pixar” animated movies have been slowly encroaching on their territory, poised to challenge the artistic dominance that Pixar holds over the whole industry. As other studios have become more proficient with their animation techniques, their movies are becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from Pixar films.
Take Dreamworks for instance – after years of churning out generic, unmemorable duds like Flushed Away, Bee Movie, and Shark Tale (to name a few), they suddenly unleashed How to Train Your Dragon – a movie that could arguably be Pixar’s first viable contender. While some of their previous efforts did showcase a strong penchant for charm and artistic detail, How to Train your Dragon was their first offering to come with the whole package. Co-directed by ex-Disney talent Chris Sanders, it felt just like a Pixar Movie – full of heart, wonder, fantasy, and equipped with stunning animation to boot. One could almost wonder if some of its cleverly-written supporting characters didn’t inspire Brave’s mediocre scenes of clumsy medieval decorum.
Perhaps it is somewhat of an overstatement to say that Pixar has literally gone downhill, but it remains difficult to dispute that they have dabbled into the pool of mediocrity. But is that really so bad? Is it unreasonable to expect their success to be 100% sustainable? In my opinion, the answer should be a resonant ‘no’. Pixar has become a pillar of unbridled imagination and youthful creativity – a cultural standard that has set the benchmark for every animated films we have today. Being in this esteemed position, it becomes nothing short of a responsibility to deliver high-integrity material.
And yet, I realize that a shadow of my younger self might be holding Pixar on a pedestal – an impossibly high standard that is overly idealistic, to which new material could never surpass regardless of how hard it tries. The hard truth is that great things never last and people – especially great talents – inevitably leave, drawn by the prospect of achieving even greater things. Fifteen straight years of magic, from Toy Story to Toy Story 3 should be considered a good run. A really, really good run.
Despite all my misgivings about Pixar’s recent performance, I remain optimistic about their imminent future at this point. Their promising new line-up has already been chalked up to be wildly daring and ambitious – a much needed beacon of hope for secretly desperate fans who have grown nostalgic of the days when the lights went dark in the theater and we were about to discover their latest classic. I can only hope that the Pixar I fell in love with (the little lamp that could) is still alive and bright; a non-complacent Pixar that doesn’t tell empty stories for the lucrative promise of merchandising, but stories that can instill warmth and wonder within the minds and hearts of countless generations to come. – The Skeptical Sloth