Is Pixar as we know it finished? Has a fifteen-year run of uniformly fine cartoons given way to an act two filled with half-hearted misses and needless sequels? It's a somewhat sensationalistic argument, but the timing is not a little disconcerting. Andrew Stanton, fresh off the epic financial failure that is John Carter (which in many ways can be considered a Pixar live-action venture), is now back at Pixar to helm the sequel to one of his animated hits, a sequel that arguably no one was asking for. And Pixar, fresh off a critical disaster (Cars 2) and a somewhat middling original effort that was supposed to restore their luster (Brave), is now set to make a sequel to their most popular film, a sequel that arguably no one was asking for.
Others have hypothesized here and there regarding various 'theories'. Disney outright bought Pixar in 2006, and there have been rumblings (some of it pure speculation) that Pixar has slowly come in line with the Mouse House's 'monetize everything' philosophy. Much of the original titans of Pixar have gone their separate ways, or at least found homes elsewhere in the Disney company. Lasseter and Pixar president Ed Catmull basically run Disney animation, dividing their time between Pixar, traditional Disney Animation films (Tangled, Princess and the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, etc.), and various theme-park related projects. Brad Bird found critical and commercial acclaim with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol and can pretty much write his own ticket at this point. Joe Ranft died in a car accident back in 2005 while Brenda Chapman was more-or-less sent packing after she was removed as director of Brave just 18 months before the film's release.
Lee Urich, who directed Toy Story 3, is still around and helming Pixar's admittedly ambitious "Dia De Los Muertos" (Day of the Dead) project. Also on tap is an untitled film that 'takes you inside the mind' of a female protagonist in 2014 and an original 2015 project called The Good Dinosaur. But by 2017, we'll have had four Pixar sequels and four originals (assuming the Day of the Dead project drops in 2017), with an a genuine stiff already among each category. The emergence of sequels isn't so much cause for alarm so much as the sheer number of sequels being produced compared to the overall number of films Pixar makes. Dreamworks has sequels and spin-offs out the ass (oh how I want their Penguins of Madagascar spin-off to be a bloody R-rated crime thriller), but they also make 2-3 animated films a year, giving How To Train Your Dragon and Megamind room at the table alongside Shrek: Forever After.
The astonishing 1.000 batting average at Pixar had to end sometime, and perhaps we'll see Pixar not sink into a sea of mediocrity but merely become an animation studio that occasionally produces terrific animated films alongside some less-than-terrific films. That's not the best case scenario, but it's something we may all have to learn to live with. In short (well, in short for my essays anyway), let's not panic quite yet. Pixar has had two bad films in a row and are following it up with a relatively needless prequel. Still even that prequel (Monsters University) presents a unique challenge of telling a G-rated story in a hard-R-rated genre (the college comedy). Moreover, Pixar is at a crucial juncture as they have basically tapped out their central thesis and now have to figure out what a Pixar movie stands for over the next several years. Pixar's unofficial trilogy of living life to the best of your abilities (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille) were followed by their unofficial trilogy of accepting death with grace (Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3), and there really isn't much else to say when it comes to Pixar's core themes of living life to the fullest and embracing the harsh reality of growing up, moving on, and letting go.
What does a Pixar film represent now? That is the question that they must answer. I'm not thrilled with this apparent sequel-filled direction either, but all of the same concerns I had over Finding Nemo 2 (a needless sequel brought about by box office-related panic) also applied to Men In Black 3, a film I ended up very much enjoying. I hope that Finding Nemo 2 doesn't follow the same template as Disney's recent direct-to-DVD sequels (the child is now a parent whose child undergoes the same adventure but for polar-opposite reasons) and I hope that Pixar's original properties (especially that 'inside the mind' thing) end up being at least as good as Monsters Inc. or A Bug's Life. But despite my initial eye-rolling and cries of 'time of death' for the Pixar institution, things may not be as grim as they appear. We may be entering an age where Pixar is no longer the untouchable film production house that it once was, but one of a handful of topflight animation studios alongside Dreamworks and Disney (Blue Sky and Illumination have a ways to go).
That's not exactly the 'act two' that we all were hoping for, but it's too soon to write off the possibility of 'happily ever after'.