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by Eric Kohn
June 15, 2012 1:12 PM
22 Comments
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Critic's Notebook: Has Pixar Gone the Way of 'The Simpsons'?

Pixar's "Brave."
Pixar is known as mainstream animation's saving grace, but all good things must come to an end. "Brave," the company's fifth feature-length release since being purchased by Disney in 2006, shows a more evolved strain of corporate influence hinted by last year's DOA "Cars" sequel.

While visually polished and never painful to watch, "Brave" (which opens next Friday) tells an uninspired story of a rebellious princess inadvertently transforming her mother into a bear. It has the kind of transparent message and inoffensive story that Pixar's best efforts masterfully funneled into far more advanced cinematic tapestries. A once-complex house of stories has been downgraded to the happy meal alternative: "Brave" is a movie for six-year-olds.

This should come as no great surprise. The Pixar brand could not have grown so powerful without eventually reaching a breaking point. Ever since Pixar mastermind John Lasseter won an Oscar for the computer animated short film "Tin Toy" in 1988, the studio maintained a superhuman run of successful efforts. Businesses admired its ability to channel efficient management into the creation of quality product. Animation buffs marvel at how Pixar movies channel the technical skill of the medium's finest accomplishments while upgrading them to the standards of the digital age. Pixar's stories oozed a very commercial form of movie magic that invited mass audience approval while embedding deeper themes beneath the shiny surface.

Those halcyon days seem to have passed. Last year, James B. Stewart, the author of "Disney Wars," outlined the approaching storm in a story for The New York Times with the telling headline "A Collision of Creativity and Cash." At that point, one could anticipate the possibility of Disney's influence on a creative team that had largely operated as an independent. Disney CFO Jay Rasulo's 2011 speech about the potential to exploit Pixar franchises sounded like bad news no matter how you spun it.

While "Brave" is an original enterprise, its derivative ingredients -- princesses, spells, a blithe medieval kingdom -- dominate over the more progressive way that it foregrounds a young female protagonist with no love interest or care for family tradition. It ends with a neat segue to a sequel and could very easily spawn one for the same slobbering demographic likely to absorb the imagery without questioning its quality.

Welcome to the new era of Pixar, where artistry takes a backseat to marketplace initiative. It only takes a cursory glance at Pixar's recent and upcoming slate to anticipate further decline: From a "Toy Story" sequel to a "Car" sequel to "Brave" to a "Monsters Inc." prequel, "Monsters University," scheduled for release next year. It's vaguely possible that, as it did with "Toy Story 3," Pixar could defy expectations and deliver a new installment in an existing franchise that's as satisfying as the initial entry. But at this point the picture is not an encouraging one.

Watching "Brave" and waiting for something more original or inspiring than an underdeveloped kids movie, I realized that Pixar's apparent downfall mirrors that of "The Simpsons," a show largely seen as one of the freshest, insightful and widely accessible pop culture achievement during its initial five or six seasons.

In the last 15 or so, however, "The Simpsons" has suffered from any number of factors that have lowered its quality: overexposure, commercial demands, and a dearth of good ideas, not to mention the diminished presence of creator Matt Groening. Similarly, Pixar has lost two of its best directors, Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird, to live-action projects; the remaining wreckage calls to mind the post-apocalyptic Earth of Stanton's "Wall-E," a formerly vibrant home to innovation that has devolved into a flimsy reflection of its former self.

There's an upside to Pixar's stumbles: An end to the company's reign over quality animation could pave the way for smaller, weirder animated efforts to gain more attention. When Pixar's two "Cars" movies found commercial success but disappointed critics and audiences, the gap made room for two other unconventional animated features to take home the Oscar: "Happy Feet" and "Rango," respectively, which enabled directors George Miller and Gore Verbinski to win a prize they would never have received for their live-action work. If Pixar loses its grip on the animation mantle for good, these other filmmakers may continue to find more interesting platforms to explore the animated form.  

Beyond that, the responsibility to keep animation alive lies in the hands of truly independent animators. Veteran Bill Plympton, who turned down an offer to work at Pixar some 20 years ago, probably feels pretty good about that choice now. His DIY-animator-in-arms Don Herzfeldt has said he would like to finally venture beyond his popular handmade animated shorts to take a crack at making a feature. Terence Nance's debut narrative "An Oversimplification of Her Beauty" has impressed film festival audiences for its similarly low-budget animation used to reflect his inner feelings about a decaying romance. These filmmakers are just as capable of making bad movies, but nobody will ever force it out of them. The golden age of Pixar may have come to an end, but the medium lives on.

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22 Comments

  • RICH | August 2, 2012 12:36 AMReply

    The 2 Cars movies were great. And STORMS ARE GREAT! Don't use The Term "Storm" as negative.

  • RodimusBen | June 23, 2012 7:22 AMReply

    It's apparent that this reviewer's biases make him unsuitable for an objective analysis of Brave's quality. He seems almost foaming at the mouth to trumpet the "fall of Pixar" in the same way that many cynics take delight in kicking the chair out from under lauded cultural institutions. Perhaps he put too much stock in Pixar as some kind of zeitgeist, connecting the ebb and flow of its artistic aspirations to our downfall as a society. So, now that it releases what he considers to be an "uninspired" tale, he despairs for all of humanity!

    After all, how dare a children's film have a "transparent message" and "inoffensive story?" Because kids' movies certainly never have those. Would anyone really try to argue that Wall-E or The Incredibles didn't have utterly transparent messages? The implication almost seems to be that animated movies can't be good unless they subtly subvert the very parents who take their kids to see them. Since Brave doesn't do that-- by contrast, it touts the value of the wisdom parents strive to bestow upon their children-- it must be a narrative failure.

    I think the biggest problem reviewers have had with Brave is that they've been confronted with another Pixar film that defies conventions-- only, in the reverse direction they're used to.

  • ecco6t9 | June 23, 2012 2:59 AMReply

    Even if Pixar has hit a snag, Disney was once in the same boat people called them done and they turned it around hit another snag and seem to have turned it around again.

    Maybe a downturn for Pixar is a goodthing?

  • Freddie | June 19, 2012 4:00 PMReply

    The idea that artistic failure must simply derive from Disney's influence is classic confirmation bias. You have no idea if that's true.

    Incidentally, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin stand with Disney's very best.

  • Cory Johnson | June 19, 2012 12:19 PMReply

    I am shocked at your lack of respect for the artist and creators at Pixar, a company which has maintained it's standing as a animation powerhouse for over a decade. You write them off so fast after one movie-- Cars and Cars 2 excluded as they are obviously commercial movies-- without having the proper amount of empathy for the art: it's purpose, and what it is trying to say: and the correct amount of respect for a studio that has produced some of the greatest animated features of the century. I can understand you not liking a movie, and feeling the way you do-- if a film is bad, a film is bad-- but to imply that Pixar has jumped the creative shark as a whole is inappropriate. I am only a contributing writer at my college newspaper, but when they told me about my role as a critic and a journalist they did not mention writing sweeping generalizations, praising the "fall" of a company, or spreading "independent" propaganda.

  • bungalow joe | June 18, 2012 6:03 PMReply

    nonsense

  • Meh | June 16, 2012 8:26 PMReply

    I find it funny that your article criticises "Brave" for appealing to children. Yet at the same time you look back favorably on the cutefest that was "Happy Feet". Now 2006 was not a strong year for animated film. But in my opinion "Monster House" was a much stronger film than any animated feature in 2006. Didn't make as much money as "Happy Feet" but hey (cute penguins vs haunted house ) thems the breaks. "Happy Feet" was overrated and heavily marketed to children. The fact that its sequel bombed this year proves its resonance with audiences.

    I also like to point out your claim that "Happy Feet" and "Rango" were small features. Hard to believe $100 million dollar animated films with name hollywood directors like "George Miller" and "Gore Verbinski" can be considered small but hey its your article. "A Cat in Paris" only cost 1 million I wonder how you assess the worth of that film.

  • CE Horton | June 16, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    You guys are calling it way too early for PIXAR.

  • Justin | June 16, 2012 5:15 PMReply

    If you think The Simpsons success can be attributed to the presence of Matt Groening then you do not know much about the production of The Simpsons.

  • Cynic Al | June 16, 2012 3:49 PMReply

    Take the word "Pixar" and substitute "IndieWire," take the word "Disney" and substitute "SnagFilms," take the names "Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird" and substitute "Eugene Hernandez and Brian Brooks"

  • Sam E. | June 16, 2012 1:57 PMReply

    Brad Bird wasn't part of the original Pixar team and it should be noted that he was one of the original creators and stayed through out the shows 'glory days'.

  • Esoth | June 16, 2012 12:56 AMReply

    It's cliched to be cynical at Disney and Pixar! I hope they continue to make all that noise with their bright and shiny toys and ignore the killjoys.

    Pixar had an unequaled run at the table, often converting long odds into gold. "Toy Story" was novel for it's time but much of the succeeding hits that followed were highly derivative. Part of the Pixar magic was tied up in the undefeated streak, which they embraced. But when you keep your winnings on the table for the next roll of the dice the odds have a way of piling up against you. And when they come up snake-eyes it hurts all the more.

    I think there were and are some gifted people at Pixar, and their was obvious value in the culture they cultivated. Maybe their success went to their heads--maybe they started to believe with the talent and Pixar method they could always turn dross into silver so story and character could be shaped to model market modeling. But if they learn the right lessons and are humbled enough to go back to the drawing board and wait for inspiration, those methods and spirit may win the day again. Disney knows this. It's in their DNA. There would be no Pixar miracle without Disney but that didn't fit the meme.

  • Robert Butler | June 15, 2012 8:31 PMReply

    Bravo! You have the guts to spelled. the corporate influence from Disney is not in the cinematic quality but in the story. what a shame.

  • Josh | June 15, 2012 7:50 PMReply

    Thanks for all of those spoilers, you could have had a SPOILER warning.

  • jason | June 15, 2012 7:16 PMReply

    The Simpsons have had some great episodes within the last 15 years. They just haven't been consistent. They didn't lose ALL credibility, they're just unreliable. Same goes with Pixar, when the majority of their catalog is so revolutionary and grand, it's okay to be a little flaky.

  • Nary-a-miss | June 15, 2012 7:09 PMReply

    You're right Indie wire, only indie films can be good. Pixar's turned into a corporation. They've gone downhill since Luxo Jr. Never been the same.

    You guy's are protentious d-bags.

  • jol | June 15, 2012 7:41 PM

    spelled pre·ten·tious. Brave is por·ten·tous of more bad flicks coming our way!

  • KM | June 15, 2012 3:52 PMReply

    I'm not thrilled that Pixar is turning to franchises either, but it seems a little early to call this a decline on par with "The Simpsons." Batting 1.000 is ridiculous for anybody and "Cars 2" followed a surprisingly excellent film in "Toy Story 3." Even if "Brave" turns out to be that bad (and it has gotten some good reviews too), two duds isn't the equivalent of a 15-year drop-off in quality.

  • Justin | June 15, 2012 3:08 PMReply

    This article seems aimed to slam Pixar at every corner. Pixar, like any studio will have hits or misses and not every movie will have the emotional connection like "Toy Story" and "Up." I disagree that this is the end of Pixar and look forward to what they present in the future. They have a track record unlike many studios and I admit that "Cars" and its sequel didn't exactly inspire me, but I'll be happy to sit through it when it helps finance films like "Up," "Ratatouille," "The Incredibles" and a slew of others...

  • Time | June 15, 2012 4:55 PM

    Trust is something that takes time to build but only a moment to lose.

  • Justin | June 15, 2012 4:41 PM

    I can see where you're coming from. "Monsters Inc's" prequel isn't exactly inspired and Pixar has been known for some pretty incredible material. I'm just not willing to say that this is the end for them, especially not when some of the material they've put out in the past several years has been nothing short of amazing, including a sequel movie (not Cars 2).

  • Eric | June 15, 2012 3:48 PM

    Fair enough, Justin, but are you remotely excited about a prequel to "Monsters Inc."? The movies you cite are terrific, but the point of this piece is that Pixar seems to be headed away from its immaculate track record.