Where is Pixar heading next?

As Toy Story 3 becomes the biggest grossing animated movie of all time, where can Pixar go next? And what's it got coming up?

It can’t have been just me that was delighted to see the news that Toy Story 3 had displaced Shrek 2 to become the highest grossing animated movie of all time at the worldwide box office. I say that as someone who quite enjoyed Shrek 2, and also as someone who doesn’t think that Toy Story 3 is the best of its own franchise, let alone the best big budget animated movie ever. But it’s nonetheless a terrific film, and one that very much deserves its success.

Currently, Toy Story 3 has broken the $400m barrier at the US box office, and it’s also brought in nearly $540m outside of the US. It’ll comfortably break through the $1bn box office barrier by the time its theatrical run is done, only the seventh film in history to do so (and the second for Disney this year, after Alice In Wonderland). It’s still not the top grossing animated movie at the US box office, a record that Shrek 2 holds with a take of $441m. But it may yet be able to add that to its haul, too.

And who could begrudge Pixar its success? For the parallels with, and differences from, the Shrek franchise are hard to miss. This year saw the release of the generally quite well received Shrek Forever After, but it was still the muted fourth entry in a family movie franchise that’s been plundered rather than nurtured. Shrek movies have had to live on the tri-annual production cycle, whereas Pixar has been very, very guarded with its Toy Story sequels. It’s taken 15 years to complete the trilogy, and the pay-off is in the numbers that Pixar is watching fall in right now. And that’s before you even begin to factor in how many toys and discs will be sold.

However, not for the first time, it does see the firm at a bit of a turning point. Not a dramatic one, but there are some interesting choices and movies ahead. For Toy Story 3 is the first in a run of three sequels from Pixar, whereas, up until the release of Up last year, only one of its then ten movies had been follow-ups.

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Next year, then, we get Cars 2, a follow-up to easily Pixar’s least accomplished movie. Cars isn’t a bad film, but it’s a bit like Scorsese directing something like Gangs Of New York. It’s a good film, and Scorsese in his weaker movies is still more interesting than the vast majority of people. But it’s still not the man on tip-top form.

Cars 2 has also been hit by troubles in production, with Disney/Pixar boss John Lasseter coming on as co-director for the project. However, I’m not too inclined to read too much into those. As any animator on a feature will tell you, in the three or four years it takes to bring a major animated feature to the screen, there are going to be dark days. Given the microscope that Pixar is under, it’s perhaps inevitable that these are amplified.

However, it’s still hard to lose the feeling that Cars 2 is the first Pixar movie that’s been made very much with the bank balance in mind. Not that the box office gross of Cars was mesmeric, although it certainly brought in a lot of cash ($461m worldwide). But the merchandising and toys? That’s another story. Cars has easily become one of the most lucrative movies of all time, by nature of the fact that it’s currently rumoured to have totted up over $5bn of business. How could you not make a sequel to something like that in the modern movie world?

That’s not to say that a Cars 2 is an unsavoury thought. It’s just I can’t see people looking forward to it with anything like the fervour reserved for Toy Story 3.

In 2011, meanwhile, Pixar is releasing two films in a year for the first time. The sequel amongst them is Monsters Inc 2, which is scheduled in for November 2012. Again, this isn’t a movie that ever struck me as crying out for a sequel, although the strength of the characters does mean I’m interested in seeing it.

Of greater interest is Brave, which is pencilled in for June of 2012.

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This is the film previously known as The Bear and the Bow, and it marks the second directorial outing for Brenda Chapman. The first was co-directing DreamWorks’ maiden animated feature, The Prince Of Egypt, a film I’ve always thought of in high regard. And I’m keen to see what Chapman can do with Brave, which will be Pixar’s first stab at a fairy tale, complete with its first princess, too.

However, what lies beyond then? That’s the big question here, arguably. Pixar has abandoned its planned production of Newt, which was being directed by Gary Rydstrom. And while it’s inevitably keeping to its policy of not announcing projects until it’s ready to, the slate of films that we know of is arguably the least interesting from the firm for some time.

Granted, I come back to the point that Pixar has a habit of turning the less-interesting into the quite-brilliant, but I’m yearning for the kind of thinking that gives us the first hour of Wall-E, and the quite stunning moments of Up. Those are films that will be talked about for years and years to come. I’d be happily surprised to be saying the same thing about Cars 2.

What is known beyond 2012 for Pixar is that Pete Docter, the co-director of Up, is working on a new project, one that may be ready for 2013. Naturally, the identity of said project is under wraps for the time being. And the excellent Pixar Blog also reports that Newt helmer Gary Rydstrom is working on a new project that may or may not be a new movie for the firm.

I’ve every confidence that, whichever road Pixar takes in the years ahead, it’ll continue to make interesting, often brilliant films, and there’s no film company in the business that can match its record. It’s eleven movies down, and it’s yet to have a commercial or critical dud to its name. And appreciating what I’ve said about Cars 2, I’d be shocked if it broke that record.

The inevitable problem the company faces is that it continues to set itself the kind of standards that 99.9% of filmmakers have little to no chance of getting anywhere near in their lifetimes. And as one of those who sat blubbing behind my 3D glasses come the last act of Toy Story 3, I’m delighted that it’s had such rewards for its efforts too.

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But it does inevitably raise levels of expectations, sooner or later to utterly unreasonable levels. After all, Pixar spaces out its sequels, it does take massive risks, and it is making the kind of films that others aren’t touching. And as an audience, we’ve been spoiled by that.

Still, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s going to be an interesting couple of years for Pixar’s many followers, of which I’m happy to be classed as one.

And it’s arguably up against one of its biggest challenges to date: can it make its next three films as compelling, delightful and downright brilliant as its last three? Because Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3 are, to differing degrees, quite brilliant at their best.

Cars 2, Brave and Monsters, Inc 2? They have some pedigree to live up to. Here’s hoping they can. And let’s face it, it’d be a fool who wrote any of them off…