The Sorrows of Aging Pixar

Monsters University was greeted the same way that Brave was by critics and moviegoers alike: “It was cute. It would’ve been really good for a Disney movie, but it wasn’t what we expected from a Pixar movie.” The statement is, of course, doubly patronizing, and rather more unfair to one than the other. As hard as it is to believe, Toy Story is almost twenty years old, and Pixar released thirteen features after Toy Story burst gloriously onto the scene in 1995. Pixar has churned out hit after hit since that time; each film is the emotional equivalent of watching a bundle of Corgi puppies running. Yet in recent years (really only since 2011, though it feels much longer), the shine has begun to wear off. Cars 2 made as much money as the studio could have hoped for, but the reviews, for the first time, were bad. And check out the Rotten Tomatoes pages for Brave and Monsters UniversityPositively littered with comments like “Although it falls short of the best Pixar has brought to the screen” (James Berardinelli, Monsters U), “…a nearly bland effort from a studio that rarely hedges its bets” (Richard Roeper, Monsters U), “No, not another Pixar classic…” (Trevor Johnston, Brave), and “Though it falls short of the studio’s best in many respects” (Christopher Orr, Brave).

It’s the same thought every time: Pixar isn’t what it used to be (although this article proves that with a little imagination, Pixar will certainly never be dull). And of course, these reviewers aren’t wrong. But it’s hardly as simple as “Pixar’s on the downslide.” While Pixar’s glory days are probably past, there are good reasons for it, and thus the best reaction to those glory days ought not be one of “When’s the next Toy Story?” but “Thank goodness Toy Story ever existed.”

1. The Lessons of the Disney Renaissance

When Disney bought Pixar outright in 2006, taking Pixar from subsidiary to straight-up owned, they knew what they were doing. Pixar was never a rival the way that Sullivan Bluth had been twenty years before, or the way that Dreamworks and Blue Sky were at the time, but they were still a rival: buying them out was a shrewd business decision with the same thought process behind it as Henry VII marrying Elizabeth of York. And although Pixar wasn’t doing business on the same scale as Dreamworks was, there wasn’t any animation studio, Disney included, which could boast Pixar’s good reviews. Of course, ten years ago, Disney was getting those kinds of reviews themselves.

Disney had managed to weather the first major challenge to animation hegemony in the ’80s, when top animator resigned and founded his own studio: Sullivan Bluth’s An American Tail and The Land Before Time are two of the three best-loved animated films of the ’80s. Unfortunately for Sullivan Bluth, the most beloved is The Little Mermaid, the first film of the Disney Renaissance; the success of The Little Mermaid and the failure of All Dogs Go to HeavenThe Troll in Central Park, and Rock-a-Doodle sounded the death knell for Disney’s rival in the early ’90s.

The second challenge, unfortunately for Disney, wasn’t from one company but several. The Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, even after Pixar’s 2000s, remains arguably the best decade of animated films by any one company; certainly, Disney’s is the one that stuck harder. Disney’s clean and attractive Renaissance is so iconic that I have a hard time convincing people that Anastasia was not, in fact, a Disney picture, despite the fact that the style is so clearly aped by Fox Animation. For a few glorious years, Disney was mostly unchallenged: these are, perhaps not coincidentally, the years of Beauty and the BeastAladdin, and The Lion King. But in 1995, Toy Story is released and things change irrevocably. If computer animation is a pool, Toy Story dives into the deep end of computer animation in a way that no other comparable film had; films like Beauty and the Beast had only played in the shallow end, even though they had done so to great effect.

In 1999, Disney released TarzanTarzan made more use of computer animation than any Disney film before it, and yet it is instantly recognizable as a “2D animation” film in the style which had been in play since Oliver & Company. Some months later, Fantasia 2000 used obvious computer animation in lieu of the traditional style, although much of the film still relied on 2D; in 2000, Dinosaur was released in full computer animation. And while most Disney films since then have adhered to the traditional style, the tectonic shift had already occurred. Tarzan is an underrated turning point in the history of Disney, I think. It’s easy to make it the cutoff for the Disney Renaissance and leave it at that, but part of the reason that it’s the cutoff is that it influences the style of future Disney films: it looks more like Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Treasure Planet than it does Hercules or Pocahontas.  Not only does it look more like the former two than the latter two, it sounds more like them as well. While Phil Collins’ soundtrack to Tarzan is pretty good, Tarzan is not a traditional musical. Songs tend to play over montages instead of being sung by characters, as they had been throughout the Disney Renaissance. The game had changed, and it was continuing to change: changing more quickly, perhaps, than anyone at Disney could have dreamed possible.

Disney released The Emperor’s New Groove in December of 2000. By the time Lilo & Stitch came out in June 2002, the landscape had changed considerably. Shrek and Ice Age had been huge successes for Dreamworks and Fox (via Blue Sky), respectively; both were computer animated non-musicals with songs which relied largely on crude humor and unexpected pathos. Monsters, Inc. relied on less crude humor and more pathos, but the success for that movie was likewise undeniable. Disney’s one punch in eighteen months was Atlantis, which made back its budget through foreign rentals. In other words, the mighty had fallen; after Treasure Planet bombed historically at the box office, the mighty had not only fallen, they had been all but enveloped by quicksand.

In 1994, when The Lion King was released and summarily became the most beloved animated film of all time, it must have been hard to imagine that Disney would falter. This was the studio that had bestowed Ariel, Belle, Aladdin, and Simba on a thankful world. Ten years later, Disney was releasing Home on the Range to a much more apathetic world and Shrek 2 was becoming the top-grossing animated film of all time (a record it held until 2010).

Disney tripped up. At the turn of the last century, they started to get away from the formula which had been massively successful: take a story that everyone has heard of, become the definitive version of that story, add another princess to the brand, use the same animation style, add Alan Menken songs. By 2001, it was over. Princesses, musicals, and even the classic animation style had faded away. If Disney, the most powerful, successful, and important animation film studio that has ever been and, in all likelihood, will ever be, can’t be flawless for more than ten years, how could Pixar?

2. Sustaining Success

One of my favorite games to play is a more-subjective-than-usual affair which asks unanswerable questions like, “Who had the better decade: Kubrick in the 1960s or Coppola in the 1970s?” or That kind of debate, other than being great fodder for car trips or long lunches, has a sad kind of truth behind it. There’s a difference between greatness and, for lack of a better term, legend, and it really comes down to longevity. It’s entirely possible that no director had a better output than Coppola did between 1970 and 1980: The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now. But hundreds of directors have had better decades than his 1980s and 1990s. With Kubrick, you can play that decades game without even inviting anyone else. Would you rather have Kubrick’s ’60s or ’50s? His ’70s or his ’80s? This works in other areas as well. Picasso’s two best pieces, Les demoiselles d’Avignon and Guernica were made three decades apart; Pierre-Auguste Renoir had a magnificent 1870s, but his 1880s and 1890s also boast some great work. W.B. Yeats wrote brilliant poetry for forty years. And sometimes, the same effect can be achieved simply by being prolific in a short span. The Beatles may not have lasted forever, but from 1963 to 1970 were almost frighteningly productive, and John Keats, though dead at 25, wrote enough great poetry in six years that he’s only a step below the likes of Shakespeare, Joyce, and Faulkner.

But even though my little road trip game doesn’t necessarily require this consideration, movies aren’t like poems or songs or paintings. The process of making a movie is certainly more daunting and more lengthy than the process of writing an ode, and a much more visible one as well. It’s also more collaborative than  any other form of art, I would imagine: the credits on a novel, an album, or a painting take much less time to read than the credits after a picture has ended. There are simply more moving parts to a film, and especially an animated one, than there are in other art forms. This is all a long way of saying that it’s easier for Yeats, Beethoven, or Picasso, each working alone, to become legendary figures than it is for a whole studio to become legendary over a similar number of decades.

The magic runs out for everybody in the end. There are pockets of redemption for those who flame out, I think; Bram Stoker’s Dracula isn’t The Godfather, but it was a quality picture for Coppola. But for every Coppola or Altman who comes back in the nineties and early 2000s to make one last good picture, there is a Friedkin or a Bogdanovich or a Cimino or a Towne or a Paul Schrader (you get the idea) who never got the chance. Those were directors working at a time when they had more control than directors had before and will ever have again; think about how hard it was for individuals with power to get it right, and then imagine how hard it is to do that as a studio.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Pixar is still capable of making pictures at the level of Toy Story, WALL-E, and Up. Perhaps it’s more probable that they’re more like Monsters, Inc. and Ratatouille going forward, but even that’s something to be happy about. To expect greatness every time out from any one person in the arts is unfair; to expect it from a massive group of collaborators is plain unrealistic. It’s time to appreciate what we got in those miraculous years, where Toy Story and Up bookended instant classics released on a regular basis, instead of expecting that we get a masterpiece from them every time we see one of their films and then whining that we didn’t.

3. Pixar and Original Stories

In 1994, one of the most remarkable meetings in film history occurred, as four films (five if you count released sequels, six if you count as-yet unreleased ones) which together grossed $2,846,890,132 worldwide, were hypothesized. The meeting was really focused on A Bug’s Life, which would be the least-successful and least-impressive of the bunch. But along the way, they came up with Monsters, Inc. (and by extension, Monsters University), Finding Nemo (thus Finding Dory), and WALL-E. Toy Story and thus its two sequels were already accounted for; that only leaves The Incredibles, both Cars movies, Ratatouille, UpBrave, The Good Dinosaur, slated for release next year, and Inside Out, slated for release a year after that. If you’re playing along at home, by the fall of 1994, Pixar had seventeen films in front of them by the fall of 2015; nine of those films had been conceived of in some material way — the movie was almost finished (Toy Story), characters were in place (the Toy Story trilogy), the plots were being built (Finding Nemo)or there was at least a conception of what the film would be (WALL-E). It’s a disservice to Pixar to say that their 21st Century success is simply riding a wave of Toy Story and the fruits of one really good meeting, because that not only ignores half of their oeuvre, but it overstates just how much they had done of films like Monsters, Inc. and especially WALL-E; it’s one heck of a long way between “there’s a little robot in the future on a ruined Earth who is left behind to clean up the mess” and “let’s make a picture which is a much better silent movie than The Artist could ever hope to be.”

Yet at the same time, it’s incredibly difficult to come up with really wonderful new material so you can release a new picture every eighteen months. What John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton managed to do in that meeting was not giftwrap their future; rather, they primed it. You could sit in a cafe and go to a hundred lunches and never come up with A Bug’s Life, much less WALL-E. Since this power lunch now has reached the status of legend, I’m sure they didn’t literally come up with the plots for those four movies at lunch; it’s more likely that they shared and refined and workshopped those ideas to some extent. But whatever the case may be, they managed to be so productive in such a short amount of time, and to come up with the bare outlines, at least, of so many beloved films, that they gave themselves a great headstart. Ten years later, two Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo had been released. A company which had previously relied on that lunch bunch for ideas beforehand got a breath of fresh air when Brad Bird became the closest thing an animated film can have to an auteur with The Incredibles, and then headlined the creative team on Ratatouille as well. If you’re keeping track, Pixar didn’t have to rebuild the wheel until 2004, and when they did, they outsourced it to a guy who had a historically fecund mind. 

Those of you who are keeping track will have noted that I skipped a film: CarsLasseter and Ranft (especially Lasseter) were the driving force behind that picture, and it was the first picture that the lunch bunch made that had not been conceived of in any real way by 1994. And for whatever reason — the fish out of water plot was just too hackneyed, the ode to Route 66 was buried too deep behind layers of pseudo-NASCAR to be fully appreciated, Larry the Cable Guy’s Tow Mater was a little bit Jar Jar Binks — Cars just didn’t really work as a film. Yet the toys did, and Cars 2 appeared, really rather cynically, in 2011, and the movie was the first Pixar offering to be panned critically. And speaking of sequels, here’s a nice long list.

The Godfather Part II. The Empire Strikes Back. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. AliensThe Dark Knight. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Wrath of Khan. Toy Story 3. Lots of people will tell you that we’re dumbing down the movie industry with our obsession with sequels. And maybe those folks are right, but there’s nothing inherently bad or wrong with sequels. I think it’s just the blatant money-grabs we don’t like; people who complain loudly about sequels aren’t really complaining about sequels so much as bad sequels.

I’ve just suggested that Pixar’s traditional creative team went a long time without having to think up a brand new concept for a film because of a brilliant lunch and Brad Bird. And while that is the case, it also sort of ignores another good reason for putting off that brand new concept: four of the fourteen films that Pixar has released as of this date are sequels; one of them, Toy Story 3,  is still occasionally referred to as Pixar’s best film; on the other hand, Cars 2 is unanimously considered its worst. It’s also worth noting that before 2010, Pixar had released one sequel; from 2010 on, Pixar has released three. I don’t think Pixar’s braintrust has run out of ideas or anything quite that dramatic; the run of sequels probably has a lot more to do with the fact that those make way more money than original flicks, and being bought outright by Disney means Pixar was going to be ultra-monetized ultra-quickly. It’s also worth noting that Pixar certainly does have ideas come down the pipe: Newt was a rumored film which never did make it to theaters, although Brave did. The Good DinosaurInside Out, and a picture about Dia de los Muertos are all presumed to make their debuts by the end of 2016. Pixar didn’t run out of ideas, and they certainly don’t appear to be running out of ideas in the near future. But did the flow of ideas slow after a while? Of course this is conjecture, but it certainly seems like the founding elements of the studio stalled between 2004 and 2013. They poked around for new blood (Brad “The Incredibles” Bird and Brenda Brave” Chapman), took on risky projects (WALL-E and Up are no one’s idea of marketable kids’ movies), and began producing sequels at a high rate. No one can deny that their output during that time was incredibly impressive…but looking back now, we can see the warning signs, such as they were.

I used this Neil Gaiman quote (found in The People vs. George Lucas) in a recent blog post, but it’s so fitting (again!) that it’ll get used here as well.

Fans know exactly what they want. Fans want more of the last thing they read and they liked. That’s what fans want. They liked that thing you did, they would like another one of those, please.

We know, when Brave or Monsters University or The Good Dinosaur is released, that we want another Toy StoryFinding Nemo, or WALL-E. We would like another one of those, please, and preferably every time out. But as the sequels proliferate, we begin to realize that we’re getting exactly what we asked for. Better, then, that we do with our Pixar viewership expectations as Edmond Dantes advised Maximilien Morrel and Valentine de Villefort to do: “Wait and hope.” There will be another Toy Story. We just haven’t seen it yet.

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