Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Growing Pains: In the wake of Finding Nemo 2, just what is phase two of Pixar animation, and is it something to fear?

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.  

The Toy Story franchise had more stories to tell, ones that went deeper and deeper into the themes merely hinted at in the first film (when detailing the narrative core of the company's first 15 years, Toy Story 2 is the first 'pure' Pixar film).  And Cars 2 was a 'one-for-me', a passion project for Pixar head John Lasseter.  But Finding Nemo, while (in my opinion) Pixar's most perfect film and a defining encapsulation of their 'exist in safety or live in danger' thesis, is as close-ended as you can get.  Nonetheless, come 2016, Finding Nemo 2 will be coming to theaters everywhere, courtesy of Andrew Stanton.  Perhaps Toy Story 3, one of the company's crowning achievements and a stunningly powerful finale to their flagship franchise, was really the end of Pixar as we know it.  Perhaps Cars 2 was not a blip on the radar screen but a preview of Pixar as we know know it.  

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'.  

Scott Mendelson


Bill said...

People way underestimate the impact Steve Jobs had on Pixar.

Maxwell Haddad said...

I am simply establishing a wait and see attitude. I quite liked Brave, and think the slate of upcoming films looks promising. 3 originals, 2 sequels, all done by directors I admire and think are very talented. I think Pixar still has it in them to produce a lot of great work, and if they need to stretch their legs a bit... so be it.

David said...

Scott, I really enjoy your blog, and have been reading it for about 6 months (I'm sure it was something Avengers-related that brought me here at first). I love your wit, your writing style, and your insights.

But I do have a question about a complaint/observation that you've made often (and that's repeated in the media all the time). The observation in question is the "What's with all the sequels/prequels/reboots?" My question is, why are all of those things uniformly bad? Obviously, not each film is bad, but many people seem bothered by the idea of all of them. I mean, theater-goers don't say "Ew. Someone's doing Romeo & Juliet AGAIN." Music fans don't say, "Yuck. Not another Mozart," or "Gross! Bruce Springsteen's playing all his OLD stuff - why doesn't he play something NEW?!?!" So why are movies supposed to be immune to this?

My thesis is that the movie is only a 100-year-old medium. The fact is, a lot of good source material has been produced. Now, people want to tell those good stories in their own ways. I mean, true, this didn't really happen with theater for hundreds of years, but they didn't have instant access like we do with movies. I guess I just don't have a problem with people telling the same stories over and over again, whether it's 3 or 5 or 20 or 80 years later. If the story's good, and the storyteller/director has something to add (i.e., not a shot-for-shot remake, a la Psycho), I say go for it. I'd really like to hear your thoughts on this.

Rick's Cafe Texan said...

I note you used the phrase "a sequel that arguably no one was asking for" twice in one paragraph and a variation of that at the end. I doth think you don't wan't a sequel to a clear-cut masterpiece like Finding Nemo. I don't want one either, but perhaps it might add more. Toy Story 2 & 3 surprised and defied my expectations. I just hope Nemo doesn't get lost again...I already saw that at the ride in EPCOT.

Bulldog said...

I think at the end of the day, we will still give Pixar the huge benefit of the doubt and hope that the deliver an adequate sequel. Albeit as Scott mentioned, it seems to a very close ended story.

It still surprises me that the one animated movie in their stable that lends itself most easily to sequels, The Incredibles, has not been heard about it. It actually ended with another villain appearing. And with superheroes all the rage these days, I thought that would be an easy one to decide on.

Guido Rosas said...

What Bulldog said. I often wonder why Pixar is developing all these sequels, but not one for their most sequel-ready property, which was also one of their most succesful films. I also wonder why no one asked Brad Bird if he was interested in directing the upcoming Superman film.

Rob O'Daniel said...

Toy Story 2 was terrific, but TS3 was horrible. Oh sure, it looked fantastic and had a few moments of genius, but it was far, far too dark for the core target audience. I had to remove my distraught 4 yr old from the theater during the 3rd act and dry his tears in the lobby - the situation were too intense and the violent peril to his beloved on-screen pals was far too real. They only barely managed to wash some of the nasty taste away with the movie's ham-handed final 15 minutes of cloying shmaltz. I certainly have no desire for a 4th installment.

Likewise with Cars 2, all of the charm, heart, and message of the first movie was replaced with hyperactive chase scenes featuring lots of gunfire and violent explosions and the bad guys actually mentioning numerous times that they were going to "Kill McQueen." Again, I had to take my son out to the lobby to cool down because he was so certain that Lightening was going to die. I loved the Finn McMissile character, but the Pixar folks should've found a way to inject the spy movie elements without dredging to the bottom of the Bruckheimer barrel. And sadly, Lightening was a mere passenger in his own movie.

Children bond with these characters on a different level than we adults. And if that character's story isn't continued with a great deal of honor and respect for that relationship, it'll just be a hollow shell of a movie made for marketing Happy Meals, toys, and pajamas.

Pixar needs to get off the sequel train, pure and simple. No sequel is going to come close to the brilliance of their original works.


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