Opinions, Pixar

[OPINION] ‘Toy Story 3’ and ‘Toy Story 4’ Bookend Pixar’s Franchise-Driven Decade

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As Pixar charges toward the June 21 release of Toy Story 4, producer Mark Nielsen gave The Hollywood Reporter an insightful peek into the studio’s future.

Of newly minted Chief Creative Officer and longtime Pixar director Pete Docter, Nielsen said, “He’s really looking out for the new voices and really loading up the development pool,” going on to note, “It’s all original films after this one right now,” referring to Toy Story 4.

This is a revelatory statement pertaining to a controversial subject, not just for Pixar but for the movie business at large. In a market where sequels, reboots, and cinematic universes drive huge sales, original films not tied to any existing franchises are rarer, riskier bets. But there was a time when rare and risky was the Pixar signature. The studio’s first 10 films, released 1995-2009, received universal praise, profit, and accolades. They soared Pixar from no-name to superstardom, a studio that set the pulse of the animation industry with innovation after innovation, both from technical and storytelling standpoints.

Here’s a look at those first 10 features, along with their respective scores from Rotten Tomatoes (both critics and audience) and Metacritic.

Film Rotten Tomatoes (Critics) Rotten Tomatoes (Audience) Metacritic
Toy Story 100 92 95
A Bug’s Life 92 72 77
Toy Story 2 100 86 88
Monsters, Inc. 96 90 78
Finding Nemo 99 86 90
The Incredibles 97 75 90
Cars 74 79 73
Ratatouille 96 87 96
WALL-E 95 89 95
Up 98 90 88
Average 94.7 84.6 87

 

It’s an impressive slate, to say the least. Cars is the outlier, whose RT Critics score of 74 is the only item in the entire bunch to rate below 92, though in RT Audience and Metacritic it’s not much different from a few others on the list. The Academy Award category of Best Animated Feature wasn’t introduced until 2001, but once it was introduced, every Pixar film released after that time on this first list was nominated, with five winning. Up was even nominated for Best Picture, only the second animated film in history to do so, following 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.

Toy-Story-3-Poster

Once Pixar entered the 2010s, we see an interesting case study bookended by two sequels, Toy Story 3 (2010) and Toy Story 4 (2019). Out of Pixar’s first 10 films, only one was a sequel, Toy Story 2 (1999). Out of the studio’s next 11 films, all released during the 2010s decade, seven were sequels. That’s a huge difference, and a major change that many like to blame for a decline in quality in comparison to Pixar’s beginnings. Let’s see if the scores support that claim, though.

Film Rotten Tomatoes (Critics) Rotten Tomatoes (Audience) Metacritic
Toy Story 3 98 89 92
Cars 2 38 49 57
Brave 79 76 69
Monsters University 80 81 65
Inside Out 98 89 94
The Good Dinosaur 76 65 66
Finding Dory 94 84 77
Cars 3 70 69 59
Coco 97 94 81
Incredibles 2 94 85 80
Average 82.4 78.1 74

 

“Quality” is, of course, a subjective concept, but clearly, Pixar’s second 10 films are decidedly more mixed than its first 10. Out of these, only five were nominated for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, with four winning. Toy Story 3 likewise received a nomination for Best Picture.

The easy blanket statement is to say that the higher volume of sequels was the cause of a decline in quality, though that’s not so easily justified when really looking into things. When only assessing sequels, the scores are wildly inconsistent, with Toy Story 3 receiving explosive praise while Cars 2 lives in infamy as Pixar’s first true blunder. If one is to say sequels were what stripped Pixar of its glory in the 2010s, one would probably also conclude that its original films developed within this same decade were of superior quality, though that claim is inconsistent, as well. While Inside Out and Coco broke through the mold to become cultural phenomenons, Brave had mediocre reception while The Good Dinosaur is all but forgotten.

Toy-Story-4-Poster

Therefore, the situation isn’t as simple as we may want to make it. While Pixar did make more sequels over this past decade than it ever has and while the general consensus during that decade points to a decline in quality, it’s unfair to solely blame this decline on a slate populated by sequels.

What’s the root, then? From an outside perspective as a mere moviegoer, it’s perhaps pompous to declare a definitive answer, though a few major events begin a breadcrumb trail to give us a start. For one, there are frankly more animation studios in the game today than there once were, many of them pumping out creative and captivating films. Pixar was once the undisputed leader in computer animation. I’d argue that it still is, but it’s definitely among more company, and the range of who’s leading who is certainly a thinner gap than it used to be.

Another, more speculative cause is the string of changes in leadership Pixar experienced this decade. 2011 saw the death of co-founder Steve Jobs, a major force within the studio. Former Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter and former President Ed Catmull furthermore entered the decade with their time split between Pixar and Disney Animation, which they helmed together following the 2006 acquisition of Pixar by Disney. One could make a valid argument that as Lasseter and Catmull helped Disney Animation rise to its former glory, their divided attention between two huge studios meant Pixar suffered. What’s more, Lasseter exited both studios in 2018 following accusations of inappropriate workplace behavior, while Catmull recently retired at the conclusion of a distinguished career. Leading up to and among all of this transition, it doesn’t seem surprising that the output of a studio experiencing these kinds of events would be sub-par (if only in comparison to its own prior achievements).

Toy-Story-4

That being said, and bringing us back to the present, Pete Docter is now Chief Creative Officer of Pixar, and under his newly instated leadership, Toy Story 4 producer Mark Nielsen has promised us a slate of original films, not sequels, from Pixar, at least for the foreseeable future. This squarely places Toy Story 3 and Toy Story 4 as bookends of a unique decade marked by hills and valleys, a rollercoaster for a studio who could formerly do no wrong. As the first and arguably most iconic Pixar movie, Toy Story carries special significance that no other film in Pixar’s library can boast, and in a way it’s appropriate that the franchise be the one constant among vastly different seasons in the studio’s history and its continued legacy in the present.

Whether through familiar faces or new friends, there is undeniable flair to every Pixar production, an attention to detail and a care for storytelling no matter how it’s received by the public. With the time for catching up with old pals presumably finished for the time being, here’s hoping the next 10 years and 10 films continues to take us into stories we’d never dream were possible. And when the time comes to turn the page again, we might expect Woody and Buzz to be there to welcome us.

What do you hope to see in Pixar’s future?

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About Blake Taylor

Blake is a scriptwriter at Elevation Church, where he develops documentary shorts and creative elements as part of the film team. He graduated Appalachian State University studying Electronic Media Production and is an alumni of the Disney College Program. Blake’s favorite films are Mary Poppins, The Lion King, and Toy Story 3. You can find him on Twitter (@blake_242) and visit his blog at blakeonline.com.