Disney's Oscar win for Big Hero 6 was a massive upset, and firmly resurrects the company's fabled animation studios to greatness. With a solid string of critical and commercial hits, including Wreck-It Ralph, Tangled, and Frozen, and now two Academy Awards in a row, it leaves an unsettling question lingering in the background: What is going to happen to Pixar? Does the studio have a future?
This sounds like an odd question, but hear me out. I think there are solid reasons for asking. Let's consider the recent accumulation of evidence:
1) Ever since Disney bought the Pixar studio, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull have thoroughly transformed Disney's own animation studios, changing the corporate structure to away from the older, every-project-for-itself ethos, and adopting Pixar's own "brain trust" model of cooperation and teamwork. Creativity is encouraged from all people, regardless of who works on which movie. The Pixar model is now fully transplanted at Disney.
2) The quality of Disney's feature animated films has skyrocketed since 2008. I think the success of these films speak for themselves: Tangled, Winnie the Pooh (2011), Wreck-It Ralph, Planes, Frozen, Big Hero 6. Some of these could easily pass for Pixar films. And Frozen became an all-time global blockbuster. With five Academy Awards in three years (two Feature Film, two Short Film, one Original Song), there can be no question that Disney Animation is back.
3) While Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) has surged, Pixar has struggled creatively. Yes, their movies are still highly successful with the global box office, and the studio's string of box-office hits has yet to be broken. But they're relying far too heavily on sequels - Toy Story 3, Monsters U, Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2, Cars 3...And another Toy Story directed by Lasseter-san himself (you didn't really believe TS3 was the last one, right?).
Meanwhile, Brave and The Good Dinosaur both struggled in production, resulting in delays and shakeups in the director's chairs. And, be honest: weren't you disappointed that Pixar's first original movie since the buyout was a princess fairy tale? Brave may be a good movie, but it just felt wrong, like somebody swapped it with Wreck-It Ralph by mistake. What happened to Pixar's "Rubber Soul" phase, the era that gave us Ratatouille, Wall-E, and the first act of Up?
Pete Docter's upcoming feature, Inside Out, promises to be a return to form, but this only highlights the length of the studio's current drought. Anyone can see that most of the creative energy has been invested in the Disney side of the aisle.
4) The Cars franchise has already made the jump from Pixar to Disney, with 2013's Planes and 2014's Planes: Fire & Rescue. The series is immensely popular with children, especially in regard to the toys. Every time I walk into the Disney Store at the Mall of America, the Cars & Planes toys are everywhere. It is not inconceivable that more movie franchises will see sequels or spin-offs appear on the Disney side.
5) The lines between Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios are blurring. Eventually, the lines may disappear completely. Both siblings feature the same bosses, the same brain trust, the same creative spirit, and more of the same franchises. Pixar has become effectively cloned. How much longer until the "Disney" and "Pixar" brands just become "Disney"? To the general public, the two are the same, and always have been ever since Toy Story back in 1995.
6) Pixar has suffered a brain drain. This is arguably the most troubling development. Founding "Pixar brain trust" member Joe Ranft was killed in a 2995 car crash, and fellow director Andrew Stanton left the studio to pursue live-action films. Same goes for Brad Bird, arguably Pixar's greatest director, and the closest thing we have to an American Takahata. Their loss leaves a void that has yet to be filled.
Again, notice how two Pixar directors, Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Bob Peterson (The Good Dinosaur), struggled with productions and were eventually replaced. And what's that? Stanton and Bird are coming back? Terrific, thank God that...Oh, wait. More sequels. Sigh.
These are the questions that are roaming freely in my mind. I'm a great fan of the Pixar movies, like most of you. I think Toy Story was a revelation, daring and fresh and wildly innovative, openly willing to ignore stale convention and cynical corporate meddling. It felt exciting, new. And that feeling was reinforced again and again. No more. That mojo lies in Pixar's hallowed halls. It lies in Disney's. And so, we must ask the questions again: What is going to happen to Pixar? Does the studio have a future?
My own personal hope (the one I championed in my "Rubber Soul" essay) would be that Pixar continued to push the boundaries of American animation, breaking with Disney conventions and commercial expectations to thoroughly as to create a new paradigm for the medium. Why couldn't Pixar create its answer to Hedgehog in the Fog, or The Man Who Planted Trees, or Heidi, Girl of the Alps, or Omohide Poro Poro, or Night on the Galactic Railroad? Today, sadly, that dream seems more impossible than ever. The most likely future for Pixar, in my humble opinion, is that they continue as a legacy/sequel factory in the short term, eventually becoming fully absorbed into the WDAS brand in the long run.