Friday, January 17, 2014

The Slow Fall of Pixar

In 2006, Pixar released Cars.  After an impressive run of 6 movies with near perfect critic’s reviews and box office receipts, Cars had mixed to positive reviews [1].  While still a worthy addition, was this the end of the incredible run of Pixar hits?  Then another bombshell: the director of the upcoming Ratatouille, Jan Pinkava, was replaced by Brad Bird [2].  Anticipation was met with relief when Ratatouille was another critical success and had an incredible box office run worldwide [2].  Then Pixar enjoyed another run of hits: Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3.  

Then in 2011, the unthinkable happened: Cars 2 was released, and only 39% of critics gave a positive review [3].  For the first time, Pixar had created a “bad” movie.  Not that it mattered in terms of box office.  By the time the sequel to Cars was released, the franchise of Cars had been firmly established and a huge success for Disney.  Despite its weak critic’s label, it was another box office success.  The next two movies, Brave and Monsters University, both had about the same critic appreciation as the original Cars, that is, about 78% [4], [5].  While every film was a box office success, Despicable Me 2 (the same year as Monsters University) made more money and was more popular than Pixar’s prequel, showing that other studios like Dreamworks were finally turning the tide toward equilibrium [6].  No longer was Pixar the single critic’s darling coupled with box office success, other studios could make just as popular animated movies too.  But the most troubling of all, the new movie The Good Dinosaur’s director Bob Peterson was removed from the film and then the whole film was pushed back to 2015, leaving no Pixar film for the year for the first time since 2005 [7].  What happened? 

Well, several factors are in play, and I might be missing some, but these are my observations.  First of all, not one but three directors have been removed on the most recent Pixar movies: Jan Panikava with Ratatouille, Brenda Chapman with Brave (replaced with Mark Andrews) [8] and finally Bob Peterson with The Good Dinosaur.  Why were all these directors, when initially given the chance to director their own Pixar project removed from the movies they helped start.  Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, offered this explanation: "All directors get really deep in their films," Catmull said this week. "Sometimes you just need a different perspective to get the idea out. Sometimes directors ... are so deeply embedded in their ideas it actually takes someone else to finish it up.” [7]. Maybe the leaders of Pixar were right.  Perhaps, but the idea that three promising directors were not given the chance work out their story’s problems is troubling.  The fact that new directors were not trusted with the story they were initially placed in charge of does not bode well for future projects…as we have seen already with The Good Dinosaur. 

We have also seen the many of the original members of the core creative team of Pixar move away to other projects.  John Lasseter famously became the Chief Creative Officer in 2006 of the Walt Disney Company after Disney bought Pixar [9].  Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, moved on to direct John Carter of Mars, a live-action film [10].  Even Brad Bird, who was John Lasseter brought in to “shake things up” at Pixar, moved on to direct Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol [11].  These amazing minds, which any of them could easily be making the best Pixar movies, are not focusing on the company they had a major part in, and it shows.  John Lasseter directed Cars 2 (2011) while also juggling his new CCO responsibilities, and it shows.  The story isn’t as sharp as his first movies Toy Story 1 & 2 and A Bug’s Life, or even Cars for that matter.  Andrew Stanton, without the collaboration of the Pixar team, stumbled with John Carter of Mars, which was a box office bomb [12]. That’s not to say that new directors and the new core creative team can’t do the job (I think they can), but I wonder if the glory days of Pixar are over.  If Pixar doesn’t have faith it can produce great stories anymore, it can’t buckle down and work through the problems to create a magnificent work of art.  I hope it can, but I still worry about Pixar’s future. 

That’s it for now.  Check back Friday for another blog, and Wednesday for another tidbit about Romance is for Other People!

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