The bizarre Pixar backlash

Off the back of reviews of Brave, some are implying that Pixar may have peaked, and that its best days are gone. Has the world gone mad, wonders Simon?

Brave

I went on a training course once. I was sent there by the company I worked for at the time, and the lady who was running it told a story about her husband and son, and how they never used to get on. She illustrated this with an example. It has a vague relevance to what I want to talk about.

As she told it, her son came home from school with his report card one day. Said report card was a belter, too. The grades on it? He had eight straight As, and then one C in maths.

His father’s reaction? “How come you got a C?”

Pixar

Pixar, then. I read a piece at The Guardian this week, which is the latest in a small-but-growing number of articles that seems keen to suggest, or at least imply, that the Pixar bubble has burst. That, because the reviews of last year’s Cars 2, and this year’s Brave, haven’t bordered on outright ecsctacy, that Pixar is somehow over the hill. That its glory days are behind it. The Guardian piece is certainly not the harshest, but it’s the one that’s stuck in my mind.

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This particular piece ran under the headline “has Pixar finally lost the plot” (as if it’s an inevitability that it would), and in it, the arguments cover whether Pixar is blurring into DreamWorks, whether the 2006 Disney buy out of the firm has seen it prioritise sequels, and effectively, if the bubble has burst.

I find all this a bit of a head-scratcher. Since 1995, Pixar’s film releases have been something to genuinely look forward to. Time after time, the studio has delivered where pretty much everyone else – in live action or animation – hasn’t with such consistency. It’s done this by often taking hugely bold risks – Up, Wall-E – and even proved that sequels don’t have to all work on diminishing returns (Toy Story trilogy). I’ve not yet seen Brave personally (which seemed to be getting good reviews, not least from our own Mark Harrison), so I’ll go on the twelve films it’s released before then. Of those, there are only two I wouldn’t look forward to watching again. Those two are Cars, which I thought was fine, and Cars 2, which I think is Pixar’s only film that’s heavily underdelivered.

I can’t think of any other studio or company that’s basically made ten utterly rewatchable expensive movies out of 12. Not a single one on the planet. And so what do we do when a new release is seen as falling a little below the standards of the others? We knock them for it. We suggest that their day is done. That Pixar’s moment has gone.

How miserable is that?

Still, let’s look a bit deeper. The argument that the Pixar-Disney merger in 2006 was a turning point is an interesting one, to be fair, and warrants consideration. After all, at this stage, Up, Wall-E and Ratatouille were already well underway. Since 2006, Pixar pressed ahead with Toy Story 3 (after scrapping the planned Disney-only version), Cars 2, Brave and Monsters University (the superb trailer for which landed last week). That’s three franchise movies out of four, certainly, and it’s hardly Pixar’s most ambitious slate on paper. Furthermore, the decision to back away from Newt was a pity, an intriguing looking film that got cancelled. But then, don’t projects get put on the back burner in places like Pixar all the time? The difference here was it was a movie that the firm had talked about a little first. But surely it’s better to pull the plug than release a film the studio isn’t happy with? Else it’s a bit damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t.

Further ahead, Pixar’s announced movies are back in original territory. We know of The Good Dinosaur, set in a world where dinosaurs never became extinct. We know of an unnamed movie, which is set in the inside of a girl’s mind. And we know of a film based around the Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos. Crucially, we also know that amongst the directors of those films are Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Pete Docter (Up, Monsters Inc). Pixar has, after all, retained the bulk of its most talented film makers, as well as continually brought new talent through.

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To its credit, the firm refuses to increase its output beyond one film a year, it continues its commitment to short films before each of its features (which, in turn, allows it to give upcoming directors an opportunity), and continues to take chances, and move into different genres. Brave, interestingly, is being criticised for veering into Disney fairy tale territory. But then, why shouldn’t Pixar try it? It’s not tried it before, and it’s continually been willing to do things it hasn’t ventured towards in the past.

The other unsaid, of course, is what Pixar has given Disney since that 2006 merger. Again, there’s been some criticism of Walt Disney Animation Studio’s output since John Lasseter got involved, but I find that equally baffling. Meet The Robinson is underrated, Bolt is good fun, Tangled was a triumph, and the upcoming Wreck-It Ralph looks simply brilliant. Interestingly, three of those projects had changes of director involved, which suggests that behind the scenes might sometimes be quite a rocky place to be (many Pixar films have also changed directors – you can’t help but sense there’s a ruthlessness underneath the friendly exterior). But for the audience at the end of it all, the films that have come through have been strong. Factor in, too, the underappreciated Winnie The Pooh, and the fact that Disney has finally resurrected The Snow Queen in the shape of Frozen, due in 2013, and I’d gladly take this era of Disney over films such as Home On The Range and Chicken Little, when the studio was at a low ebb. That was, remember, less than ten years ago, too. Without Pixar, would all this have happened?

Granted, it’s not all perfect. Where Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar individually sit within the broader Disney empire isn’t exactly clear. It’s arguable that the former, certainly, hasn’t quite found an identity of its own yet in the new-ish regime. But it’s making good films, and it continues to support hand drawn animation. It might not always feel like Disney, but the films have been taking a signifcant upward turn.

Let’s not forget too that Pixar stood on the shoulders of Disney to scale its heights of the past decade. Now, others have got better, and are clambering on Pixar’s shoulders too. Which is how it should be. Has there ever been a period of time quite like the last five years for big animated movies? Where films like Rango and Coraline can exist and succeed in a market alongside The Princess And The Frog, How To Train Your Dragon, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs, Horton Hears A Who, The Pirates!, Arthur Christmas and Tangled. And look what’s coming: ParaNorman, Frankenweenie, Rise Of The Guardians and Wreck-It Ralph are all arriving in the next six months or so alone. Pixar paved the way for this, and still, year after year, is capable of delivering a film that attracts lots of attention, lots of discussion, and lots of happy moviegoers.

Isn’t that worth celebrating and encouraging? When Scorsese makes a film that doesn’t match up to his classics, his reviews generally read something along the lines of ‘even Scorsese off form is better than most at the top of their game’. Why doesn’t that apply here, too?

Instead of knocking Pixar, and looking for signs that the empire is crumbling, how about we just say thanks? I’d quite happily predict now that talk of its demise will be comfortably proven wrong. And heck, even if it shut down tomorrow, it’s made at least ten films that any other studio on the planet would have both loved to make, and ultimately, would have been unable to. Pixar isn’t perfect, granted. But it’s still something really rather special.

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