With the news today that Disney and Pixar are moving forward with a sequel to their beloved 2003 masterpiece "Finding Nemo" (to be helmed, once again, by Andrew Stanton, apparently newly freed from director jail after this spring's notorious flop "John Carter"), it is another indication that Pixar has truly been absorbed into the Disney bloodstream. Even though it's arguably one of the least open-ended movies Pixar has ever made, Disney is intent on wringing more dollars from its name brand and all the squishy toys that can be made from various aquatic wildlife. It's enough, with Pixar's recent string of sequels and the creative fogginess of this summer's "Brave," to wonder: is the Golden Age of Pixar truly over?
Pixar has enjoyed the kind of creative, commercial, and critical success that few studios even dream of, much less achieve. But they did it. Film after film was a smash – from "Finding Nemo's" domestic haul of $339 million to the fact that New York Times critic A.O. Scott named Stanton's second feature, the robots-in-love space opus "WALL-E," the best movie of the decade. What was more – they were topping themselves each time out. "Ratatouille," writer/director Brad Bird's bold turnaround of a troubled project that also doubled as a deeply felt metaphor for Pixar/Disney relations at the time, was followed up by the fearlessly experimental "WALL-E" (largely silent, incorporating human performances, sharply satirical) and then came "Up," a sweet-natured ode to the gracefulness of aging that also had elements of steam-punk adventurism (plus a talking dog and a magical, multi-colored bird).
While there were often small chinks in the armor (the frustrating fact that "Up" climaxed in yet another Pixar chase sequence), even things like "Toy Story 3" – ostensibly one trip to the well too many – turned out to be a profoundly emotional experience (and another runaway financial, critical and cultural success). After Disney owned Pixar outright (after much back-and-forth), you could feel a subtle shift – Pixar characters started to overtake the Disney parks (why are Mike and Sully in Tomorrowland in Florida anyway?) and the Pixar films themselves seemed to pivot in the direction of commercial, rather than creative, sustainability. The serviceable "Cars" was easily the Pixar film met with the most amount of lukewarm indifference, but that didn't stop a sequel from getting made (with a direct-to-video spin-off in the works), mostly because of the billions of dollars of "Cars" merchandise that is sold every year and the fact that Carsland, the centerpiece of the $1 billion+ expansion of the Disney California Adventure theme park, would be opening soon.
"Cars 2" was a disaster – visually cluttered with a narrative less fuel-injected than running on fumes – but it might have been the shape of things to come. This year Pixar suffered two fatal blows – this spring's "John Carter," which, up until a few months before its release was still being touted as "Pixar's first live-action feature," and "Brave," a costly movie mired in creative difficulties that has been released to solid box office but not nearly the kind of critical support the studio is used to. (It proved that, if you're not Brad Bird, you can't turn around a troubled project and come out on top.)
First, "John Carter" – Disney has been very good about keeping quiet just how much of a Pixar movie this costly failure really was. But it was a Pixar film in everything but name only. The movie was directed by Stanton, who is part of the Pixar "Brain Trust" and who was at the studio as much as he could be – the film was almost completely pre-visualized there and when the studio decided to bring reporters into the editing bay to see how the film was progressing, they weren't flown to Disney studios proper, they came to Pixar. (Recent video of a Pixar animator showing how he helped direct the animators at Double Negative, the effects house that handled the bulk of the character animation on the film, substantiates this.) "John Carter" isn't nearly the trainwreck people make it out to be but it is proof of a Pixar-ian single-mindedness (highlighted by the lengthy New Yorker profile of Stanton) that can often get them into trouble.
It's this, "no, we can fix it" attitude that seemed to doom "Brave," originally slated to be the first feature at the studio directed by a female filmmaker (Brenda Chapman, of "Prince of Egypt" fame). With eighteen months before the movie was scheduled to be released, Chapman was unceremoniously removed and Mark Andrews, a writer and second unit director on "John Carter," stepped in to replace her. And unlike "Ratatouille," which was unified by the single creative voice of Brad Bird, "Brave" feels like disparate elements desperately clinging together to form a movie. No one knows exactly what happened or why Chapman was removed (yet), but it's clear that Pixar was unhappy both with her work and its own ability to create product that was at least up to snuff with earlier Pixar works. (Keep in mind this was around the time they altogether cancelled another project, Gary Rydstrom's "Newt," because of similarities to Blue Sky Studios' "Rio." Um, okay. Wasn't DreamWorks' "Antz" and Pixar's "A Bug's Life" in production at the same time? Thought so.)
The reasons for the sharp decline in quality and oversight are many – firstly, when Disney brought Pixar into the corporate fold, they installed many Pixar principles to head arms of Disney. John Lasseter, an executive vice president and filmmaker at Pixar, became the Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as the Principal Creative Advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering (the folks that handle the rides, attractions, and pavilions at Disney parks the world over), while Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, additionally became President of Walt Disney Animation Studios. They both, presumably, have many more yachts, but their attention was now spread that much thinner – in addition to keeping an eye on Pixar's slate they were effectively running the creative side of Disney, overseeing things like "Tangled" and the scouting of locations for Disney's South American park (Brazil was the ultimate decision).
Also, many of the creative principles have moved on to other things, there has been something of a vacuum in terms of creative leadership. Stanton walked away (or at least down the hall) to direct "John Carter" and part of the way that Disney and Pixar got him to hang around for the "Finding Nemo" sequel is by offering him another live action movie (from Disney); Chapman, in her reduced role at the studio, has been removed from the Brain Trust; and Brad Bird left to direct "Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol," a huge financial and critical success that has left him in no particular hurry to return to the Emeryville animation studio. Bird has got at least one more live action movie on his plate – "1952," co-written by "Lost" mastermind Damon Lindelof and Entertainment Weekly reporter Jeff Jensen (though, it is set up at Disney). When we talked to Bird in December, he said that he's at Pixar as much as he can be, but we're pretty sure the only thing that would lure him back full-time is the promise of his live action Earthquake drama "1906" (originally planned as a Disney/Warner Bros/Pixar co-production) finally coming through. Other Pixar mainstays like Michael Arndt, whose original six-months-out-of-the-year commitment to Pixar has turned into a year-round affair, are drifting too – Arndt has been tapped to be involved in the "Phineas and Ferb" movie for Disney proper and contributed to Joseph Kosinski's sci-fi actioner "Oblivion" (probably when it was still at Disney) and next year's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."
Hope isn't lost, though, and once we get through next summer's surefire "Monsters University," about as creatively bankrupt a concept as we can think of (it's the characters from "Monsters Inc."… in college, with a teaser trailer that suggests "Animal House" with tentacles), it looks like the "Second Renaissance" of Pixar Animation could be upon us. (This would mirror Disney Animation's Second Renaissance, which started at the end of the eighties and included "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty & the Beast" and "The Lion King.") There are three really intriguing projects already announced by Pixar – 2014's "The Good Dinosaur," directed by "Up" co-director Bob Peterson and Peter Sohn (who did that amazing "Partly Cloudy" short a couple years back); 2015's untitled movie that takes you inside a little girl's mind (directed by "Up" helmer Pete Docter and written by Arndt) has been described to us as "wildly ambitious"; and "Toy Story 3" director Lee Unkrich's movie that takes place in the world of the Mexican celebration of Dia de los Muertos (which could be out as early as 2015, when Pixar plans on ramping up to two movies a year, utilizing some of the talent at their Vancouver satellite studio).
What would be really sad is if there would be little fits of Pixar genius here and there, little bursts that remind us of the old quality that we had come to expect, instead of a sustained performance. Maybe this is the nature of the beast, and for Pixar to be able to set movies in Mexican holidays or young girl's minds, they will have to do another "Monsters Inc." or two (or three or four). We've heard that the Disney corporate energy is seeping into the culture, with more and more demands being made from the higher-ups, which wasn't the case as much when Pixar was an autonomous entity that simply worked with the studio.
Earlier this year we wondered if Pixar was in trouble, now we fear that it truly is time to worry. Unnecessary sequels are a part of loving movies, but we can't help but feel like it's a huge step back for Pixar to waste its considerable time and resources chasing the easy money when they've proven themselves to be willing to go out on a limb, creatively. At one point Pixar seemed unstoppable – a studio whose winning streak could not be broken. Now that it has been broken, by a series of high-profile mediocrities (and, as today's announcement showed, more on the way), we are left wondering if they can get back on track.