What is Going to Happen to Pixar?

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.


nitrateglow said...

I've long had the same fears as you. How did Pixar go from making a film about an old man's acceptance of death and grief to more of the same, the usual American animated comedies that invade our cinemas yearly? I think their last great effort was Toy Story 3; their Golden Age is truly over. It's as jarring as comparing Disney's Bambi and Fantasia to their output in the 1950s, a definite decline.

We can only hope that, like Disney in the 1990s, they experience a creative renaissance and learn to push boundaries again.

Jonathan Walmsley said...

I'm not so sure, Pixar have 3 confirmed 'new I.P' films and 4 sequels with 2 more mystery movies that could be original or sequels coming up. Provided at least one of those mystery films is new as well, that's a fairly even balance. Besides, every study has misses or slumps, even Ghibli, but can always come back stronger than ever.

As for Disney Animation...I still don't think their recent movies compete with the best of Pixar, and though the last great Pixar movie was Toy Story 3 way back in 2010, the future still looks promising. As you said, Inside Out looks to be a return to form hopefully, though much like Studio Ghibli, Pixar may struggle when finding new talent to match the visions of its earliest directors.

Mike Blake illustration said...

Well wasn't that the goal of Disney? Back when Pixar was seeking a new partner (after their 7 movie contract was over), Disney threatened to create a new studio specifically geared to make sequels from their movies. Once they acquired Pixar, Disney disbanded their plans for that new studio.

Personally, as a brand I think Pixar will always exist. Disney knows their name-brand selling power and can't ignore that. I also think that as long as John Lasseter is at the helm of Disney, Pixar will continue to make original movies (in-between the sequels Disney expects). But to compare Disney movies to Pixar is highly flawed. Even Pixar's sequels are above and beyond in quality to Disney's feature length movies...let alone their pointless sequels.

Disney on the surface may have revitalized themselves, but it is only skin deep. Their recent movies are synthetic, formulaic packages that have no depth. Even tangled had an emptiness that was hard to get past...and don't get me started on Frozen. The plot was empty and the characters flat. The only thing that made it worth watching was the wonderful character design, beautiful animation/sfx and A good song.

And then to say that Disney has been successful at integrating some of Pixar's franchises, is over-exaggerated. Have you seen the movie planes? It was basically a rehash of cars, but with planes...and oh yah the plot was pointless. It was so predictable, the characters so flat, the animation sub-par...that my kids treated it like a speed bump. Pointless Saturday morning cartoons that you forget a couple days later. (Of course this comes from the kids that LOVE...I didn't pick it for them...Panda Ko panda, My neighbor Totoro, Sherlock Hound, etc.) If it seems they are successful, it is only because Disney is tooting their horn and trying to get more money and sell more toys.

Whew. Glad I got that out of my system. haha

nitrateglow said...

Mike Blake illustration, I feel the same as you about the so-called "revival" of Disney. This is in no way a second renaissance; there's no boundary-pushing, certainly no masterpieces being made. Aside from Wreck-It-Ralph, I have not been especially impressed by any of the newer Disney films. The popularity of Frozen in particular has baffled me since I first saw it in the theater.

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