Not so long ago it seemed that Pixar couldn’t put a foot wrong.
It had an unprecedented run of films that were as critically lauded as they were commercially successful. In fact anyone who dared to criticise its work was usually ignored, and usually dismissed as a troll or a hipster. It was inevitable that this couldn’t last forever, and Cars 2 was the first film to receive a generally negative reception.
This wasn’t an isolated event, however. If anything the general opinion of the film-fan community seems to now shifted the other way entirely. Indeed, the consensus seems to be that the studio has lost its way and that it’s best days are behind it. But isn’t it a bit premature to be writing off America’s greatest animation studio?
When Disney bought Pixar, there was a lot of concern from fans that it would have a negative impact on the studio’s output. Disney, with it’s huge corporate empire, merchandising focus and production line sequels was seen as the opposite of the pure creative force of Pixar. Despite the fact that Pixar has been working with the House the Mouse Built since before Toy Story, many were concerned its independence would be threatened. As it happened, most concerns proved unfounded, with Pixar’s John Lasseter taking a lead creative role high up at Disney. Lasseter’s first move? To reopen the hand-drawn animation department at Disney and shut-down the non-Pixar Toy Story 3 that was then in development.
Fast-forward to now, and you can argue that many of the predicted negative impacts of the buy-out have come to pass. Three out of the last four Pixar films are sequels (including 2013’s Monsters University) and more are in the pipeline. Several past Pixar films have been re-released as cash-grabbing 3D rereleases, and the originally straight-to-video Cars spin-off Planes has been upgraded to a cinema release.
On the other hand, one of those sequels (Toy Story 3) is arguably one of the greatest animated movies of all time, and one of the best sequels full-stop. One of them hasn’t come out yet, which leaves only Cars 2.
The sequel to the automotive-based toon is generally held up as the studio’s most cynical and cash motivated release, but you should not underestimate just how much kids love the original. Maybe it’s OK for an animation studio to make a film for children once in a while without being accused of cynical pandering? You can’t really blame Pixar for Planes either, as that’s made by the “DisneyToon “ studio, which specialises in direct-to-video sequels.
Last year’s Brave was also given the short end of the stick. Most critics focused on the fact that it didn’t “feel like a Pixar film.” It earned criticism simply by focusing on a more fairytale-like plot, and having a princess in the lead. As a result it didn’t really get a fair reception – ironically had it been a Dreamworks or Fox production (or even Disney), it would likely have been better received. It also didn’t get enough credit for finally bringing a female lead to the Pixar filmography, whether she happened to be a princess or not. With it’s beautiful European vistas and feisty female lead, Brave is the closest Pixar has come to the style of Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki.
Essentially Pixar is a victim of its own success. Such an impressive unbroken run did they have, that people’s expectations had grown to an unrealistic level. The idea of being a fan of a studio is pretty much unique to animation. Have you ever heard of a Warner Bros fanboy or a Working Title fanatic? No, because their output it usually so varied that it would be unusual to find one studio whose output appeals to one individual’s taste. Yet because animation studios’ output is much smaller (due to the time taken to make one film), and because they seem to have a more consistent style, animation houses do develop a following.
But you shouldn’t forget that Pixar employs a whole host of creative people, and inevitably, there will be some directors whose output appeals more to you than others. So, even in the unlikely event of Pixar putting out three absolute stinkers in a row, that doesn’t mean there’s not another stone-cold classic in the works.
I do understand that an upturn in the number of sequels it is producing is a little disappointing. I too would rather it produced something original. It’s easy to forget how big a risk it was taking with films like Wall-E, Ratatouille or Up. On the other hand, Finding Nemo 2 will be a guaranteed smash hit, and just maybe it will bankroll another Up.
Even though there are more sequels coming, there are still original Pixar productions to get excited about. 2015 will see the release of Pete Docter’s first gig since Up; Inside Out, which is a story that take place inside the mind of a little girl. Docter’s Up co-director is himself helming the 2014 release, the enigmatic The Good Dinosaur. Even though we know next to nothing about these films, there’s still a solid chance they are going to be something special.
The idea of being a fan of a studio is pretty much unique to animation.
So, maybe Pixar isn’t perfect. It may make the odd film that misses the mark for you, but does that make those earlier films you loved so much any less amazing? One or two lesser films isn’t enough to write Pixar off as a lost cause. Although the technology will date them, the films will be held up as masterpieces of storytelling for a long time to come. Pixar is a relatively young company too, and the fact that it got as far as it did until a backlash began was pretty impressive.
It’s way too early to call it the end of Pixar’s Golden age. Who knows what the future holds, but I think it has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. If anyone can one day make an animated film that can finally break out of the animated ghetto and go toe-to-toe with the best in live-action cinema at the Oscars it’s Pixar.
Its future is bright, and maybe, just maybe, the best is yet to come.