Friday, June 21, 2013

Is Something Wrong with Pixar?

It wasn’t that long ago that I said – repeatedly – that Pixar was the most consistent force in mainstream American filmmaking. It’s easy to see why I said that – between 2003-2010 Pixar made 7 films – and six of them made my end of year top 10 list (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3). The lone feature in that span that did not was Cars in 2006 – and I didn’t dislike that film in the least. I just didn’t think it was at the same level as the other Pixar films. Before that span, Pixar had only made 4 features – Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. Of those four, the two Toy Story movies rank amongst Pixar’s best, and Monster’s Inc. was merely a small notch below. A Bug’s Life, like Cars, just wasn’t quite up to the same standard. Still, during a 15 year span, Pixar made 11 films – 8 of them legitimately great films, 1 a near great one, and 2 that were really only disappointments in relation to the high water mark they set for themselves. That type of consistent output is nearly unheard of amongst filmmakers.

But now, on the eve of the release of Monsters University, it appears that for the third year in a row, Pixar won’t live up to expectations. The reviews for Monsters University are far from bad – they are very respectable, and like last year’s Brave there are some ones that call the film brilliant (I hope I concur with those ones when I see it myself this weekend) – but they don’t come close to the near universal praise the best efforts from Pixar receive. By itself, this wouldn’t be a big deal – Pixar bounced back from A Bug’s Life, even though critics preferred Dreamworks’ Antz released the same year, by giving us Toy Story 2. They bounced back from Cars, with Ratatouille – one of their very best films. The problem is this isn’t the first time Pixar has failed to live up to expectations. It’s the third year in a row they haven’t.

In 2011, Pixar released Cars 2 – and almost immediately it was almost universally considered to be their worst film. And for good reason – it was. Even if you consider A Bug’s Life or the original Cars to be disappointment, they were still fine films – hell, they would be a triumph for most animation studios. But Cars 2 was the first time I actually disliked a Pixar film. It seemed to me to be the exact opposite of most Pixar films – all action, bright colors, fast movement and lame jokes. Gone was the charm that allowed adults to love the films as much as their kids did. Cars 2 was just another animated film made for kids only, that parents had to suffer through.

Last year’s Brave was a definite improvement – and has an Animated Film Oscar to prove it – and it is undoubtedly one of Pixar’s greatest visual triumphs. The animation on display in Brave is among the best that Pixar has ever produced. But the plot and characters were a notch below Pixar’s best efforts. It seemed like Pixar was trying to copy parent company Disney’s affinity for Princess’, albeit with a modern twist. I will say one thing in Brave’s favor however – perhaps one of the reasons it was perceived to be a critical disappointment is because the vast majority of critics are men (something like 80% in a recent survey I read). I know women liked Brave more than men did – which is understandable, as it is a movie about mothers and daughters (an under represented theme, especially considering how many father-son stories we get), and the film was clearly in response to the complaint that the first 12 Pixar films all had a male lead. My wife liked Brave more than I did, and my red headed niece LOVED it, in part because she never sees women with red hair in her cartoons (she was four at the time though). I’m not all that down on Brave actually – I see it akin to Monsters Inc. – just not quite at the same level as Pixar’s best, but certainly better than most animated films. But because it comes sandwiched between two sequels – one of which, Cars 2, was a critical disaster, and the other, Monsters University, seems to be merely respectable, it gets lumped painted with the same brush, whether that’s fair or not.

So what happened? It would be easy to say that Pixar completely sold out. While Cars was not the highest grossing Pixar movie ever made, and certainly not the most critically acclaimed, it got a sequel at least in part because of one major factor – merchandising. Cars may have made less money at the box office than many Pixar films, but it more than made up for it with a ton of merchandising dollars by selling toy cars to boys. A new film means more merchandising opportunities and means millions more in revenue for them – in addition to what the movie itself makes. You could argue the same thing about Brave – I have a few young nieces, and they were (are) nuts about all the Disney Princess stuff. Pixar jumps in, adds Merida to the mix, and can make even more money on merchandise. I assume something similar is at play with Monsters University – who wouldn’t want a giant plush Sully in their bedroom? Sure as hell beats a giant stuff rat from Ratatouille or a giant stuffed Ed Asner from Up.

But while this was probably a factor, it does ignore the fact that Pixar was bought back in 2006, so that’s really when they sold out, and they continued to produce great films for a few years after that fact. Plus, Disney has given control over all their animation to Pixar, so that shouldn’t be a factor. Perhaps now that Pixar has all of Disney Animation under their control, they are stretched too thin. If Pixar took over in 2006, than the great movies after that date would have already been in the pipeline. And Pixar has certainly improved Disney’s animation – Wreck It Ralph was nearly Pixar level in itself last year.

Perhaps it’s something else though. Brad Bird directed two of Pixar’s very best films – The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and he has since moved on to live action films (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol). They want him to do an Incredibles sequel, but he hasn’t been interested. Andrew Stanton directed two other great films for Pixar – Finding Nemo and Wall-E, and last year also moved over to live action with John Carter (and because of that failure, apparently he’ll do the Finding Nemo sequel). Pete Docter did one near great film – Monsters Inc. and a great one – Up. That’s almost half of Pixar’s films – not including any of the “disappointments” - directed by three men. Lee Unkrich – a longtime Pixar employee – directed Toy Story 3 – and remains the lone “one time” Pixar director to truly hit it out of the park. Brave was directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman – who hadn’t directed one before – and Monsters University was Don Scanlon – another first timer. The rest of the films – five of them – were all directed by John Lasseter – and while he has two great ones – the first two Toy Story films – he also has three of the “disappointments” – A Bug’s Life, Car and Cars 2 – on his resume. Perhaps the individual directors have more to do with shaping the films than we think they do.

There is hope on the horizon however for Pixar. Bob Peterson is directing their next film – The Good Dinosaur – scheduled for release next year – and although he is another “first time” Pixar director, he has been there a long time, and was one of the people behind Up (as co-writer and co-director). At least, unlike two of the last three, it is an original idea and not a sequel. Details are slim, but I’ll hold out hope. After that comes Inside Out from Pete Docter which sounds ambitious, although all I know is that it will take the viewer “inside the mind” whatever that means. That is scheduled for 2015. And the one after that is Finding Dory – yes, another sequel – but considering that Finding Nemo is more Toy Story and less Cars or Monsters Inc. – perhaps the sequel will be worthy. After all, two of Pixar’s best are Toy Story 2 and especially Toy Story 3.

Perhaps though, this is all an over-reaction. Pixar had a remarkable consistency for 15 years, and has really only fumbled one movie – Cars 2 – badly. It’s funny how I actually think Brave is a better film than Wreck It Ralph (although it’s close), and Brave is considered a disappointment and Wreck It Ralph a pleasant surprise. That’s nothing more than expectations really – and when you’re as good as Pixar has been, those expectations are almost impossibly high. Just look at the reviews for Monsters University so far – even the ones that are “bad” essentially say that it’s technically proficient, just lacking that normal Pixar magic that elevates them above the rest of the animation field. If a studio other than Pixar made Monsters University, I would bet the reviews would be at least slightly better.

But that’s what happens when you’re so good for so long – it becomes expected of you. So fair or not, we’re all going to be asking this question every time Pixar releases a movie that isn’t one of the very best films of the year. Unfair? Sure – but it’s also the truth.

Updated Pixar Ranks:
On the eve of the release of Toy Story 3 back in 2010, I did a top 10 list of Pixar films that can be found here: . If you go there, you can see my opinion has changed slightly since then – I’ve elevated Ratatouille and Up, and moved The Incredibles and Finding Nemo slightly down – and also had to find room right near the top for Toy Story 3, and closer to the bottom for Brave and Cars 2. There is no real reason why I juggled the order slightly - #1 is ALWAYS #1, but you can basically put 2-6 in any order you'd like, and I wouldn't complain much.

13. Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011)
12. A Bug’s Life (John Lasseter, 1998)
11. Cars (John Lasseter, 2006)
10. Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)
9. Monsters Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001)
8. Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)
7. Toy Story 2 (John Lasseter, 1999)
6. Finding Nemo (Andrew Stanton, 2003)
5. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
4. The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)
3. Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
2. Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)
1. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

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