Perfectionists... or Panderers

by Bill Gibron

15 April 2013

With a rash of recent sequel announcements, many wonder if Pixar is still being creative, or merely going commercial.

With the recent announcement that Pixar, those purveyors of flawless (?) animated family films, was once again going back to the base for a sequel to the fan favorite Finding Nemo, a question has arisen among cartoon connoisseurs. To paraphrase said sentiment—are the masters of mainstream computer animation looking to be more creative, or more commercial? Posited another way, the issue becomes one of corporate interference, business model meddling, and a true lack of pundit perspective. Granted, John Lasseter and the gang stumbled a bit with Cars 2 (seen by many as made for merchandising reasons only) and Brave (which may have won the Oscar but few true converts), but for the most part, their reputation has remained unsullied…
That is, until the recent rash of announced reduxes which seem to suggest (A) the former flagship has run out of ideas, or worse (B) that their bosses at the House of Mouse - aka Disney - want more box office appeal and less critical accolades. Already in the pipeline is the aforementioned Finding Dory, as well as the upcoming Monsters University. There is even talk of a Toy Story 4, as well as additional takes on Wall-E, The Incredibles, and…dare we say it, more Cars (and, no, we aren’t talking about the recently announced Planes which is being advertised as “From Above the World of Cars”). In fact, with only two confirmed non-sequel projects on the horizon (The Good Dinosaur and something called The Inside Out), it appears that revisiting past triumphs is more important that actually continuing the reinvention of the genre.

Of course, that’s a bit facetious. Right now, at Cineplexes all across the world, the above-average Croods is raking in major moolah, and it’s all on the backs of Pixar. Before Ice Age and Madagascar, before any number of mid-level CG experiences like Robots or Rio, there was the company that set the standards. Indeed, Pixar laid the playfield, leveled it, realigned, re-envisioned it, and then, like a certain Supreme Being, it rested. While it did, a bunch of wannabes mucked up the works with their gimmicky, frequently god-awful aspirations. As of late, the entire genre has been flooded with fine work. But with Pixar, you get the feeling that something special is happening every time they announce a new release. The mind starts to boggle and the brain starts to free associate on just what these geniuses have up their sleeve now (like WHAT is The Inside Out about???). 

Cars 2 changed all that. Before, many felt Pixar was playing with a wealth of house money. They had made (arguably) 11 perfect films, and with this less than worthwhile sequel to an already specious effort, cash appeared to be replacing aesthetics. Brave may have bucked that trend - it’s a truly great film marred by expectations and demographic demands that the movie could never truly meet - but it didn’t stop those who believed the company had stumbled. Add in the recent announcements, the other issues with Disney (like firing much of their hand drawn animation staff after a vow to reinvest in the form) and the signals seemed ominous. In fact, many now believe that its Walt’s merciless minions in charge, dictating to the once independent artists on how best to proceed under the brand.

Some of that does ring true. After all, Disney did a number of its reestablished legacy late in the ‘90s by pushing through a string of electronic babysitters with titles like Return to Never Land, Jungle Book 2, and The Lion King 1&1/2. Milking the home video market for all they could, it took Lasseter, newly installed as the head of the department, to put a stop to the shilling. Yet now, a mere six years after mandating no more direct to DVD spin-offs, the filmmaker is following suit, and many feel his hands are tied in this regard. After all, the House of Mouse is a marvel of marketing, merchandising, and cross promotion. If they can find a way to make it, rebrand it, and slap it on the side of a sippy cup, they will.

For many, it’s the last manipulative straw, especially when it comes to Pixar. It’s like asking Stanley Kubrick and his extensive oeuvre to sell soap, or that ongoing trend of taking famous faces from Hollywood’s past - Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn - and sticking them in commercials for vacuum cleaners and candy. There’s an affection that goes beyond the obvious love for the films, a hands-off attitude that gets riled up the minute anyone feels the force of the all mighty dollar approaching. Of course, these loud voices tend to forget that Pixar has/had already dabbled in sequels - twice - and that in both instances (Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3), the results were resplendent. They remains some of the company’s best work.

In fact, it’s unfair to say that Pixar is pillaging its past. True, with Monsters University and Finding Dory, the company will be revisiting old friends instead of finding new ones, but there is no guarantee that the results will reek of Cars 2 desperation. In fact, there have been admissions that said movie was more or less made to meet the ever growing demand of the underage audience. Go into any Disney store and you will see a huge display of Cars collectibles…as well as dozens of little kids clamoring for their piece of the franchise. So if playing to the proposed ticket buyer is sacrilege, than Pixar is Satan without any regrets. Equally uncalled for is the belief that both Monsters University and Finding Dory will be as derivative as Cars 2. Yes, that stunted spy spoof may have misfired, but the ideas behind it were interesting, and often quite inventive.

It all comes down to a question of perfection (which for many was already in question when A Bug’s Life hit the big screen) vs. pandering. Granted, few could argue that Pixar actually plays to the lowest common denominator. Just look at the openings of Up, or Wall-E. They are not afraid to tackle tough subjects and explore character and depth instead of cheap pop culture gags. When compared to the pabulum passed off as viable contemporary animation, there’s no competition, and the company is not stupid enough to destroy their entire aura by overdoing it on the former glories. If Disney is behind this recent rash of sequels, it’s also allowing for unknown projects from prominent members of the staff, as well as a still in progress movie about the Day of the Dead and those delightful skeleton Muertos. Pixar may be playing fast and loose with its reputation, but it’s their reputation. Besides, the jury is still out on how much damage these recent decisions will actually do.

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