The New Age of Pixar

June 27, 2011 — Leave a comment

I have long had my misgivings about the future of Pixar. My apprehension really began back in 2006, when Disney acquired the independent studio for a cool $7 billion. It wasn’t just that Pixar was being folded into a larger corporation; that wouldn’t have to be a big deal considering the actual studio would remain far away from Hollywood, in the beautiful Emeryville, in Northern California. No, the real problem was John Lasseter being spread thin, and the creative integrity of the studio going away as a result. Now, with Cars 2 being a critical failure, a Monsters Inc. prequel on the way, and reports of a Toy Story 4 being cooked up, I have come to terms with the fact that we are headed into a New Age of Pixar. But maybe that isn’t such a horrible prospect.

A lot of people are blissfully unaware of the perfect storm of factors that made the Pixar the most consistently successful studio in the history of cinema. Pixar was a true independent. Built outside of Hollywood, started as a tech company, not an animation studio, and looking to push the boundaries of what could be done with computers. That sort of pioneering spirit hadn’t been seen in the film industry since the dawn of film and its first few decades. Between the release of Toy Story in 1995 and just before Cars in 2006, Pixar did basically whatever it wanted, with only a distribution deal with Disney to temper them.

But it wasn’t just a simple, agreeable distribution deal. When Steve Jobs and Pixar signed their original deal with Disney, they were covered for three films. But Disney, being Disney, had to go and bully the little computer animation company. Toy Story 2 was original meant to be a straight-to-video release and thus not part of the three-picture deal. It was eventually re-tooled and given a full theatrical release, but Disney was unwilling to make it a part of the overall distribution deal. Under the contract, they claimed, Pixar owed Disney two more films. That’s where the animosity began. It was only exacerbated by the feelings of inequity in the partnership. Though the profits on the each film would be split 50-50, Disney retained all rights to story, characters, and sequels.

Many people mistakenly believe that Pixar did not produce any sequels between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 because of some sense of artistic integrity. Nothing could be further from the truth. The folks at Pixar were always interested in making sequels, but they knew it would hurt them to do so under the deal they had with Disney at the time. Cars was the last film to be fully produced under the old distribution deal, before full acquisition took place. Then there was the “art-house trilogy”, as it’s come to be known. The string of films with artistic aspirations beyond what Pixar had done up to that point. Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up. There were those who pointed to those films as a sign that ownership by Disney would not dilute the Pixar brand. This thought was true to an extent, but it patently ignored the fact that all three of those films were in various stages of production before the acquisition occurred. The real truth of the matter is, Toy Story 3 was the first Pixar film to be fully conceived after Pixar became a part of the Disney corporation. And it’s not surprising at all. Until now, Pixar had constantly had to prove themselves as the leader in both quality and box office, because otherwise they would be at a disadvantage in negotiations with Disney. That was no longer the case. Finally, Pixar was able to scratch their sequel itch.

Now, I don’t have a problem with Pixar making sequels. Toy Story 3 was brilliant, and I actually thought Cars 2 was an enjoyable-though-slight romp through the expanded world of the original film. But I am a little worried about the future prospects of a company whose creative head, John Lasseter, is also the creative head of a second animation studio, Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as the owner of the admittedly awesome title, Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering (that’s the theme park division). This worry primarily stems from history. John Lasseter has often been compared to another animation pioneer: Walt Disney. But fans of Walt know that after WWII, he became less focused on animation and began spreading his talents into many many other fields, including live-action films, theme parks and even urban utopian planning. Walt remained a genius, and that genius could be seen all over his many domains, but the consistency of quality certainly dropped from that original string of Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. Lasseter appears to be headed down a similar path. And the lessened involvement of Pixar icons Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird signal that the Golden Age of Pixar truly is over.

That isn’t to say that the New Age of Pixar will be something to write off. Their next feature, an original project called Brave, looks to have a wonderful tone and spirit, and looks completely different from anything Pixar has done before. After that we’ve got Monsters University, which could be great, it’s hard to know. They’ve also announced that they will have another original title out for the Fall of 2013. What we will all have to come to terms with is that the Pixar we once knew is not the Pixar we have today. And that’s not a bad thing. Walt Disney may have produced The Aristocats, but he also produced 101 Dalmations and Sleeping Beauty. It was never really fair to expect only greatness out of Pixar, but they provided it anyway, and for a length of time nearly unimaginable in Hollywood. Now, after Cars 2, it is clear that all we can expect really of Pixar is to deliver movies, and hopefully those movies will be good, and maybe, every now and then, they’ll see fit to give us another masterpiece. Until then, I’ll be sitting at home, watching all their amazing films over and over and over again.

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