Among the fabled Pixar legends, which include the “Black Friday” Toy Story reel, the cancelled Newt project, and the reason why Cars 2 exists, there is the story of one quietly life-changing lunch. In 1994, a year before Toy Story came out and birthed the digital animation craze, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and the late Joe Ranft all went out to lunch at Hidden City Cafe. It sounds relatively inauspicious, but what made the lunch special was that these four men discussed story ideas that day, all of which would go on to become multi-million dollar grossing Pixar films.
If only every lunch could be that productive.
However, all the ideas discussed over that fateful lunch have now been used; the last film born out of that conversation was Wall-E. To a casual observer, this doesn’t mean much. After all, how many multi-million dollar grossing films should a group of human beings be expected to conceive over the course of one lunch? If you answered four films, you’d seem a bit over-zealous, but you’d also be correct (A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-E). Moreover, between that lunch and the release of Wall-E, Pixar produced an additional four films (Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Cars, and Ratatouille), all of which were successful and conceived with no aid of Hidden City Cafe’s mystical powers of inspiration. To a cinephile more familiar with Pixar’s current history, however, the legend could be seen as another symptom of a company possibly reaching the end of its creative hot-streak.
The latter interpretation is probably a likelier response as we dive into 2013, particularly when put in the context of the recent announcement of Finding Dory, a Finding Nemo sequel scheduled for November 2015 (Nemo fans should also check out Søren’s theory regarding the film). While I’m happy to hear Nemo’s apparently staying found for this second outing (it’s not like we need another Taken 2), it means we have yet another Pixar sequel coming our way. Of the films Pixar has released or announced for the 2010s, only half are non-sequels. This is a pretty stark change for a company once known for its aversion to sequels – an aversion so strong it very nearly tore Pixar asunder from its partner-turned-parent-company, Disney.
Back in 2004, Pixar was still an independent company in a distribution agreement with Walt Disney Studios. Disney held the sequel rights to all of Pixar’s properties, but they held a gentlemen’s agreement that no sequels would be developed unless Pixar wanted to make them. Pixar was adamant that they would only make sequels if they could think of good enough stories for them, regardless of their financial potential. Pixar’s motto is that “Story is King”, and their track record reflects this: Toy Story 2 was their sole sequel among their then six films.
Naturally, the success of Toy Story 2 meant Disney CEO Michael Eisner would pester Pixar constantly about when they’d make Toy Story 3. When Disney-Pixar contract renegotiations began to turn sour in 2004, Eisner announced the creation of Circle 7 Animation, a studio founded for the sole purpose of developing sequels to Pixar’s films without their input. Taking Pixar’s intellectual property hostage didn’t work, however, and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs announced that they would seek another distribution partner once Disney’s contract ended with Cars.
Pixar’s ploy was far more effective; with an untarnished string of hits and even more in the pipeline, they were fully capable of standing on their own – but the same cannot be said of Disney. At the time, their 2D-animated films were failing spectacularly, their unscrupulous spewing of straight-to-dvd sequels to their classic films was considered by anyone over 10-years-old as a cheapening of the Disney brand, and no one at Disney knew how to dig themselves out of their quickly decreasing profits and relevance.
With the emergence of 3D-animation as a major box office draw, Eisner’s best idea to save the company was to take the brainchildren of Disney’s successful 3D animation partner and point a gun to their heads. Naturally, Eisner was ousted and his replacement, Robert Iger, went to Pixar and begged them for forgiveness. Then, in 2006, Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion, and Pixar’s top dogs assumed positions as part of Walt Disney Animation Studios. For example, John Lasseter became Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Disney, and Steve Jobs (Pixar’s CEO and first investor) became Disney’s largest shareholder and earned a seat on their board of directors until his death.
Basically, Disney bought Pixar and put Pixar in charge. Pixar HQ still remains separate from Disney, and Leslie Iwerks’s documentary The Pixar Story (it’s a special feature on the Wall-E DVD if you’re interested) has a scene affirming that Pixar’s creative practices weren’t going to change as a result of the buy-out. The result of this is that Pixar doesn’t really have to answer to Disney, because the Pixar regulars themselves are the higher-ups. This certainly sounds good: what could be wrong with Pixar having more power and sway than they did before?
Lasseter’s first actions upon becoming Disney Animation’s Chief Creative Officer were certainly admirable; he disbanded Circle 7 Animation (though he found jobs for 80% of the staff) and ceased the onslaught of direct-to-video Disney sequels. Lasseter has also overseen the birth of Disney’s in-house 3D animation and the [short-lived] rebirth of Disney’s 2D animation. Even with Lasseter’s divided attention, Pixar’s films released after their acquisition didn’t show any decrease in quality; yeah, there was Cars, but there was also Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up. However, great power comes with great responsibility. And in Pixar’s case, greater power may come with greater fiscal pressure. Pixar is now part of a very big company, rather than being in a distribution deal with one, and consequently they may be faced more than ever before with the added pressure to turn out a profit.
Something else extremely significant happened in 2006: Cars was released. It’s infamous for being Pixar’s first film to not earn vast critical acclaim, though a 74% Rotten Tomatoes rating is far from scathing. However, what’s much less well-known, and far more significant, is that Cars merchandise was surprisingly lucrative. It was so lucrative, in fact, that three years after Cars’ theatrical release (from which it earned $462 million worldwide), the film’s merchandise grossed $5 billion all by itself.
Now it’s time for an exercise: picture yourself as a filmmaker. You pride yourself on artistic integrity and making films only if the story is good enough, and your large devoted fanbase, financial success, and long list of awards serves as indiction that you regularly succeed. In fact, you’ve yet to fail. Then you release your seventh film, and you know it’s not one of your best. It’s good, but not stellar. It’s no skin off your back, though, because you’re already working on better films. But then you take a look at the merchandise sales figures for your good but not great film, and you see that it’s over $5 billion, which is more than the worldwide theatrical grosses of all your previous six films combined.
How do you feel about your artistic integrity now? You probably still believe in its merit; after all, it’s what accrued your success. But when $5 billion made solely from merchandise is staring you in the face, dwarfing the theatrical profits of your films, can you honestly say it hasn’t affected the way you think about your role as a storyteller? Do you still believe that “Story is King”?
As to whether or not Pixar still believes in the sovereignty of story, let me ask another question: of all of Pixar’s films they could’ve chosen to make a sequel to, besides Toy Story, which one did they choose first? Cars 2 was the first Pixar film to have a negative rating on RottenTomatoes (38%), but that didn’t impede its worldwide box office gross ($559 million), and Cars merchandise sales haven’t diminished. In fact, they’ve grown, and the franchise is launching a spinoff called Planes, which begins with a film releasing this August. This would suggest that maybe quality wasn’t what Pixar was aiming for in this instance. However, if you read any interview with John Lasseter, who directed both Cars films, he does come across as someone passionately in love with his brain-child. He’s often photographed wearing Cars shirts or surrounded by the merchandise.
Perhaps Cars 2 lackluster reception was due more to Lasseter’s extremely busy schedule as Chief Creative Officer of Pixar and Disney, rather than a lack of commitment to story. And yet, Lasseter’s words in the previously linked interview, given shortly after the release of Cars 2, could reveal a shifting perception. In the article, Lasseter said, “I make movies for that little boy who loves the characters so much that he wants to pack his clothes in a Lightning McQueen suitcase.” It’s as though his worldview has shifted to accommodate merchandising by writing it off as a symptom of people loving his film. But is Lasseter saying he wants people to love his film, or that he wants people to love his film so that they’ll buy the accompanying merchandise?
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.