Some people say Pixar is losing its magic. Since releasing one of its best films to date in 2010 (Toy Story 3), it has released three more movies that have been met with lackluster reviews. Cars 2 was the first movie produced by the studio that failed with the critics and Brave and Monsters University haven’t reached the level of praise the “old Pixar” achieved. But I have reasons to believe Pixar’s future is very bright.
The Golden Age
Starting in 1995 and up until 2010, Pixar released eleven movies. Nine of them were original ideas, the other two were sequels to Toy Story. They were all financial and critical hits. During this period, John Lasseter directed three movies before passing the torch to other young and promising directors (before he returned to direct Cars) like Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird. These three all directed two movies each during Pixar’s Golden Age. Lee Unkrich, who co-directed Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, then helmed the third Toy Story. And all of these movies were risky and new and fresh.
Monsters, Inc was told from the point of view of the monsters. The target audience of the movie– children–were scary to the film’s protagonists! They took the idea of monsters in the closet and gave it a fresh twist. The Incredibles was a family drama disguised as a superhero movie. And then something very interesting happened. For three consecutive years, Pixar released three extremely original movies that were its directors’ second feature. And they were all AMAZING.
Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up are some of the most original movies I’ve ever seen and they were certainly risky. A rat that cooks? A mostly silent movie for kids? A story of an old man and also there’s talking dogs? This is precisely why we all love Pixar. They take risks, unlike the rest of Hollywood. And having experienced directors and screenwriters at the helm only made these stories better.
The…Not So Golden Age?
Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked–Sorry, everything changed when Cars 2 was released. It felt uninspired and even though a genius like John Lasseter directed, the story was flat. Ben Queen was only the third writer to receive the screenwriting credit without any collaborators listed for a Pixar film (After two Screenwriting Gods: Brad Bird and Michael Ardnt) and it showed, sadly.
Brave followed with a lot of behind-the-scenes drama. It had two new directors and four new writers. And although it was an original movie, it wasn’t risky. We’ve seen millions of princess movies and The Hunger Games was huge so the archery thing felt unoriginal. It did win an Academy Award, though. But it wasn’t as brilliant as Pixar’s previous movies.
And now, Monsters University. New director and new screenwriters again. But it was a prequel. People like new stuff and Pixar supplied original material for 15 years. Their least successful movie in that period, Cars, was the most familiar concept. It wasn’t as fresh and exciting as the others.
That’s why people are feeling a bit disappointed even though the movies Pixar has released are not bad. They’re just not as exciting as their previous crop. The new directors weren’t taking risks and developing their styles. Brenda Chapman left halfway through the production of Brave because she couldn’t leave her mark on the movie. Neither could Mark Andrews, who got there in the middle of the process.
Dan Scalon had to pay homage to Monsters, Inc and had to work with existing characters. I feel Lee Unkrich did a better job of making an impression in Toy Story 3. Rewatching Finding Nemo, you can see which scenes he had a lot of influence in because they remind you of TS3. The whole Escape the Tank sequence is similar to the Escape from Sunnyside scenes, for example.
But the future is different. We know about four different movies scheduled. Three of them are original ideas that will bring back that freshness and sense of novelty the little Luxo Jr used to make us feel. The only sequel will be Andrew Stanton’s third movie, so his experience will help make it better. And Pete Docter will also be returning and not by himself, but side-by-side with screenwriting extraordinaire Michael Ardnt. Plus, we’ll get Lee Unkrich’s second movie.
So Pixar’s future looks bright because it’s going back to its roots: taking risks and surprising us. And let’s hope Pixar keeps giving opportunities to new directors, as it should. But let’s hope those directors can work with original material they can make their own. Like Bob Peterson’s The Good Dinosaur, which will be Pixar’s next film. It’s original. It’s something familiar with a twist. And he will be able to imprint his style on it. Pixar will go back to the very top, instead of hanging out at the “simply good” floor. And I’m so excited!