I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with having a Lightning McQueen suitcase. If you like the story and characters enough, why shouldn’t you be able to bring them with you when you leave the theater? Heck, I myself own a Toy Story mug and a Wall-E beach towel. There’s nothing intrinsically evil about merchandising, but in today’s struggling film industry, it holds more importance than ever before. Indeed if this wasn’t the case, it’s unclear whether Cars 2 would’ve ever been made. Because of this, I don’t think Pixar considers story to be king anymore. Story still holds the largest seat of power, but the monarchy has become a capitalist democracy. It can’t call all the shots; although it’s been elected into power , it still has umpteen parliamentarians to answer to. Story is the president formerly known as King.
I believe Pixar is currently experiencing the growing pains of adolescence. However, this in no way means that Pixar has given up all claims to integrity, at least from their perspective. I still believe their main goal is telling stories and telling them well, and I think Planes is actually evidence that Pixar hasn’t lost its self-awareness. The spinoff is clearly designed to be Cars but with planes, with a new cast of anthropomorphic vehicles that kids will just die to collect and throw across the room while making “vroom vroom” noises.
But it is worth noting that Planes isn’t being made by Pixar. Instead, the film is being produced by DisneyToon Studios, a division of Disney that used to produce all the direct-to-video sequels before Lasseter put a stop to that nonsense. Transitioning the Cars franchise out of Pixar could in fact be seen as an effort to maintain artistic integrity. It’s as though they’re saying, “We can’t let it go, it’s a golden goose. However, we can keep it away from our other films, so they won’t be corrupted too.”
They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too.
To be fair, the problems Pixar is facing aren’t all that different from the rest of the film industry. Less people are going to the movies and home video sales are in a slump. As a result, studios are increasingly shy about green-lighting any property that isn’t guaranteed to be a hit, which results in lots and lots of sequels. Of the Top Ten films for North America in 2012, only three weren’t sequels; for the Top Ten of 2011, there was only one. To a studio executive whose job is to pay attention to the bottom line, the safer and more merchandise-ready a project is, the better. So, in this progressively cynical age, it’s natural that the announcement of Finding Dory invites the perception that the film is no more than an unscrupulous cash-in on the first film’s most popular character. The fact that director Andrew Stanton may owe Disney after his recent film John Carter massively bombed isn’t helping matters, nor that Finding Nemo is the best-selling DVD of all time.
This isn’t to say that Pixar doesn’t have original films in the works as well. Bob Peterson’s The Good Dinosaur is releasing Summer 2014, and Peter Docter and Lee Unkrich are working on films about the inside of the human mind and the Mexican holiday Diá De Los Muertos, respectively. We could be in the midst of a shifting release strategy, where Pixar releases an original film every other year, with a sequel in-between. We’ll have to wait and see.
Even with myriad reasons to be cautious about Pixar’s future, and this is really the point I want to stress, let’s not forget what Pixar has accomplished. Prior to Cars 2, the company had an unprecedented eleven-film streak of success. All of their films made boatloads of money, and their critical reception ranged from “passably enjoyable” at worst to “masterpiece” at best. (Cars is really the only film that fits the former label; at the time, their second-worst reviewed film was A Bug’s Life, with a 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating) Additionally, Pixar has won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars eight times in the award’s 13-year history among many other awards. Are there any companies or filmmakers can claim to have a track record half as impressive? With such clear evidence that Pixar is committed to quality filmmaking, don’t they deserve some patience?
The people who run Pixar aren’t infallible demigods of artistic filmmaking – they’re people. Even with the best quality-control in the biz, human nature dictates that, periodically, someone is going to screw up. Unless they suddenly disappeared off the face of the earth after Toy Story 3, then Pixar’s streak of critical success had to end sometime. However, failure can be constructive;- for example, it can lead to ego deflation, something Pixar may have sorely been in need of.
Failure, much like success, is also temporary. For an example, I point to Pixar’s forebears: Disney Animation. In the early 2000s, they had more failures than successes. Today, they’re on an upswing. Under the guidance of Lasseter himself, Disney’s successful 3D offerings have included Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, while their 2D division is slowly recovering, with The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh both achieving success (though the latter’s success was mostly critical). If Disney can bounce back, why can’t Pixar?
So, does this mean that Monsters University and Finding Dory are going to be wonderful films? Beats me – it’s hard to tell how good a film is going to be before it’s actually come out. [UPDATE: You can read my early review of Monsters University here.] Personally, I’m more hopeful about Finding Dory, considering animation is a field Andrew Stanton has had success in twice before. Additionally, it’s the first film Ellen DeGeneres has starred in in over 10 years; her last film was Finding Nemo. DeGeneres is a very busy talk-show host, and I don’t think she would’ve carved time out of her schedule to star in Finding Dory if she wasn’t impressed with the script.
In sum, Pixar’s faced with many issues right now, but this stormy sailing could be just what Pixar needs to grow as a studio. Pixar’s future is unclear, and their problems aren’t going away, but after achieving as much as they have, it would be unfair to bail on them while they’re still in the game. I think Pixar’s earned our loyalty, for better or worse, to infinity and beyond.