Some can argue it happened almost immediately, with the release of A Bug’s Life. Others offer that Cars signaled a chink in their artistic armor. For many in the Pixar fan club, however, Cars 2 proved to be the moment when the animation dynamo went from creators of clever, inventive masterworks to mere producers of product. The anthropomorphic automobiles featured in John Lasseter’ love letter to Route 66 and American’s obsession with the open road had, between the first and second film, become one of parent overseer Disney’s most profitable toy lines. They wanted more merchandising power, and pushed Pixar to bring back Lightning McQueen, Mater, and the rest of the impulse-buy players (it also explains the non-Pixar Planes, which is listed as “from the world of Cars”).
In fact, it seems like, more and more, the House of Mouse has taken over in the quality vs. quantity department. Last month, The Hollywood Reporter released a rather ambitious production schedule for Disney’s animation division, a plan that has both companies completing one film a year. When you consider that Pixar has been in the business of making CG offerings for 18 years and only produced 13 examples of same, some shortcuts had to be introduced. Those ‘quickies’ appear to be arriving in the form of more sequels to established fan favorites. Just this week, for example, Monsters Inc. is getting a prequel about the creatures’ college days entitled Monsters University. In the future, Finding Nemo is getting Finding Dory, and there’s even talk of a Toy Story 4 and an Incredibles follow-up.
Now, don’t misunderstand. This is not going to be some kind of anti-sequel rant. After all, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 represent some of the company’s best work. They are so good in fact that they can forgive the less than stellar qualities of Cars 2‘s lax spy games, and Monsters University proves that, when done with respect and the right amount of creativity, you can make a decent, if not wholly definitive, update. No, the bigger problem here is the idea that a company once noted for taking its time, rewriting entire projects (see: Ratatouille and the recent Brave), and meticulously crafting each and every entry in their catalog is being reduced to a manufacturer, a factory of fun stuff for a media giant who loves its dominance and the dollar bills that come along with same.
As a business model, it makes perfect sense. Pixar is the gold standard. They are the benchmark by which all other animation operations measure themselves. Sure, the Ice Age films may make millions more at the box office and Madagascar and Shrek often revel in their pop culture relevance (no matter how fleeting), but Pixar was and always has been in it for the long haul. They want to make gourmet meals, not cinematic fast food. They focus on story and character, not action sequences, 3D gimmickry, and fad gadget punchlines. Yet it looks like Disney wants to change all that, or if not alter it completely, strive for a kind of Steven Soderbergh-esque strategy.
For those unfamiliar with the Oscar winning director of Traffic and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he has often said that he makes “one for them, and one for me,” meaning one commercial film for the studio, and one artistic, overly ambitious project for himself. He can do that. He’s earned the reputation and the box office receipts to call his own shots (like his recent “retirement” from making movies). Pixar is in the same place. If they wanted to, they could churn out a dozen Cars 2, just as long as they are allowed to make Wall-E, or Up. The key here is, they never wanted to. When Disney deemed Toy Story worthy of a sloppy, direct to video sequel, the minds behind the original reluctantly stepped in and turned it into a classic. They hadn’t planned on it, but when push came to shove, they wanted to make anything with a Pixar label on it the best it could be.
Under the current clime, however, that seems questionable. Sure, as mentioned, Toy Story 3 was sensational, and Monsters University is a pleasant, if slightly formulaic, collegiate comedy. It’s Cars 2 that causes concern, along with the Disney’s desire to push instead of support. So far, only Dory is definite. Other possibilities haven’t passed through the corporate confluence of revenue vs. risk assessment for a greenlight. Considering the limited titles present, it seems hard to envision a follow-up to certain films. Where would a Wall-E sequel go? Or another take on Up? Would the company go as far back as Bug’s Life, or the near perfect Ratatouille?
And what of the originals coming down the line? We’re getting something called The Good Dinosaur in 2014, and that will be followed up by a look at life within the brain entitled Inside Out in 2015. There is also a film based on the Mexican holiday Día de los Muertos, as well as other rumored ideas. Are each one of these being prepped with a sequel in mind? Sure, other studios do it all the time. Man of Steel is already prepping its next installment, while Sony just announced The Amazing Spider-man 3 and 4 long before The Amazing Spider-man 2 hits theaters…next year! But Pixar used to wait until inspired before saddling up for another cinematic go-round. With Disney in the driver’s seat, however, that appears to be a position of the past.
All of which leads to the sad conclusion that we will never see the same Pixar we saw before. We won’t agonize over the years a title struggles in preproduction before suddenly surprising us with a release date. We won’t wonder what the next concept or plotline will be, since now they will be spoon fed and filtered to maximize audience interest and action figure sales. While it’s true that most of these decisions are coming from the man who made Pixar what it is today (John Lasseter is the Head of Disney’s Animation division), they are also mandated by a bulging bottom line that gets bigger and bigger as the branding bucks come rolling in. The House of Mouse has figured out a surefire way to rake in the green (they have a successful TV show called Dog with a Blog, after all) and they aren’t about to miss out on more money.
With Monsters University (a good film, go see it), Pixar has stopped playing perfectionist forever. From now on, merely being good will have to do. Greatness seems like a thing of the past. The distant past.
// Notes from the Road
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