Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Is Pixar getting lazy?


Used to be that Pixar was pathologically committed to forging new, original material that never failed to be just the thing the zeitgeist needed. Like clockwork, Pixar would release one film per year that seemed to stretch our collective imaginations in one direction or another, toward things we had never seen before, and get five-star ratings from critics in the process.

Now? I'm concerned about the upcoming period of laurel-resting.

Granted, Pixar's latest, Toy Story 3, is the first sequel the company has made in 11 years (since the brilliant Toy Story 2), and by all standards continues Pixar's unblemished record of excellence. But we're about to enter into a period that might be telling in terms of how Pixar plans to settle down in the coming decade.

Namely, you're about to get a lot more sequels.

With the Toy Story movies, there was never a doubt about the company's direction. I know we're only talking about a small sample size with just one previous sequel, but I don't think anyone thought Toy Story 3 was a sign of encroaching laziness on Pixar's part. Toy Story 2 had set a precedent that sequels were acceptable for Buzz, Woody and pals -- and that these sequels had the chance to be nearly as good as, if not better than, the original.

Now, however, the rest of the Pixar catalogue is being opened up to potential franchising. No longer are the Toy Story movies the exception that proves the rule (I'm never sure if I'm using that notion correctly) -- the rule of forever breaking new ground.

Most of you have probably heard that Pixar's next movie is Cars 2, which is set to open on June 24, 2011. But did you know that the following year, Monsters Inc. 2 is being released as well? Wikipedia has it scheduled for released on November 16, 2012. (We'll already know if Barack Obama won reelection by then.) I'm sharing this now because I just found out myself -- yesterday, while checking Billy Crystal's filmography. (If you remember, I wondered in yesterday's post why he no longer acts.)

It'd actually be three sequels in a row for Pixar if not for the fairytale Brave, once titled The Bear and the Bow, which is scheduled to be released on June 15, 2012 -- marking the first time two Pixar films will be released in the same calendar year.

I don't have a problem with the movies they chose to franchise -- I'm a bigger Cars fan than almost anyone I know, and I also really dig Monsters Inc. It's just the quick run of sequels, three out of four films, that seems like a worrisome trend. (And for the record, Brave doesn't sound as promising as other original Pixar material -- it features knights and princesses and other areas that have been done to death by dozens of Pixar knockoffs.)

If these three sequels, why shouldn't we be expecting Finding Nemo Again? Further Up? The Even-More Incredibles? Why not Ratatouille 2, or perhaps, more appropriately, Rata-2-ee?

And then, when they're done with all that, maybe Cars 3 and Monsters Inc. 3? And don't forget Toy Story 4.

I'm not sure if "laziness" is really the correct term, but it seems logical that it's easier -- or at least a safer bet -- to write new adventures for tried-and-true characters, than to produce new characters who may not catch on in the same way (or may not have the same possibilities for merchandising). It's a lot easier if you don't have to reinvent the wheel every time you go to the drawing board. Reinventing the wheel has worked so far, but Pixar must wonder: For how long?

The years 2007 to 2009 may not have been my favorite years for Pixar movies, but there's no doubt that the triumvirate of Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up raised the profile of Pixar from mere purveyors of children's entertainment to the prestigious makers of dramatic art they are today. In some reviews of Toy Story 3, I even sensed the critic struggling with the dilemma of how to address the basic frivolity of a third Toy Story movie, relative to the weighty issues considered in the last three films. But Pixar has gained such a teflon image, there's no way a critic could question the studio, which benefits from an automatic presumption of greatness, a golden touch that never fails. Fortunately, most critics didn't really feel the need to question, because Toy Story 3 ended up being great. The sighs of relief were audible that this revered company had continued its winning streak.

That's why I'll be especially curious to see the reaction to Cars 2. The first Cars, although inordinately popular with small children (my friend watched it literally 30 times with his young son), didn't leave most adults searching for newer and greater accolades. In fact, it's fair to say that some even turned their noses up at it. I'm the exception -- I really loved the film. But there's no doubt that many people consider it Pixar's weakest or second weakest film (A Bug's Life being the other contender).

If people rhapsodize over the sequel to a movie that features cars with googly eyes, it'll serve as proof to me that either a) Pixar really can do no wrong, or b) the brainwash is complete. Part of the reason we love Pixar as much as we do is because we want to love Pixar that much -- we need to love Pixar that much. If critics wax philosophical about Cars 2, we'll know that Pixar's new phase of going back to the well has been accepted, even endorsed.

If not, it could tell us that our love affair with Pixar is contingent on them continuing to expand our minds -- continuing to present us with rats who want to be gourmet chefs, with trash compactors who want to love, and with old men who tether their homes to hot-air balloons.

I guess we have almost a year before we'll find out.

9 comments:

Mike Lippert said...

Maybe John Lassater isn't paying as much attention now that he is in charge of all of Dinsey's animation.

I don't know, I liked Toy Story 3, but thought it was too heavy on the action to be a great movie. But still it fits nicely in with Cars and Monster's Inc as enjoyable but minor Pixar. Not sure how I feel about these remakes but again, there was nothing wrong with the originals per se so why not? I guess, as you said, we'll see.

Daddy Geek Boy said...

The cynical business approach says this:

Cars has earned $2 billion dollars in merchandise every year since it's release.

Toy Story 3 will make $2.4 billion dollars in merchandise this year alone.

Pixar may be autonomous, but they are still a part of that Disney machine.

That said, they stand for quality in everything they do, even sequels. So I'm excited to see what they do with Cars 2 (especially since I'm the guy who's seen it over 30 times with my obsessed son) if for no other reason than to finally have something new to see.

I've also heard that Monsters Inc. 2 may not be a straight sequel, but something utilizing the world and/or a few of the characters from Monsters, Inc.

Mike...Curious that you think TS3 had too much action to be a great movie. Why does that detract in your opinion?

Mike Lippert said...

Daddy- I'll answer that with a quote from my own review:

"The long middle section at the daycare is essentially one complete action sequence. The toys are trapped, Buzz is reprogrammed, and Woody returns to rescue them in a sequence that plays more like Escape From Alcatraz than the cute adventures of past films, until it finally ends in a junk yard before the fires of hell in which the heroes become less like toys and more like your standard action hero."

Vancetastic said...

Daddy, it's true -- I guess we didn't see a lot of people buying Ed Asner or Remy the Rat action figures, did we?

And speaking of Disney's animation, Mike, I hear that the Reese Witherspoon-voiced character in Brave will "officially" (whatever that means) be joining Disney's slate of famous princesses. I think I feel a shudder coming on ...

Daddy Geek Boy said...

I would argue that there has always been a strong action component to each of the movies. TS1 the end scene getting on to the truck. TS2 breaking into the toy store and the climax at the airport.

I think TS3 works because the action is motivated because of character. I didn't see anything wrong with having an extended prison break sequence and thought it was done toy style (the Potato Head gag for example).

FilmFather said...

On paper, it does seem that Pixar is going down the "sequelitis" path that Michael Eisner was badgering them to do a while back, insisting they cash in with cheap, direct-to-video sequels of Pixar's critical and box office smashes.

However, sequels or not, quality control and great storytelling seem to be mandates in Emeryville, so I have faith and won't pass judgment on any Pixar sequel until I actually see it.

But yeah, more original stories like the kinds that made Pixar famous would be nice.

Vancetastic said...

FF,

Thanks for the comment!

I think there should and will be a balance. I'm okay with some sequels, for sure. As Daddy points out, it's a business, and you have to make fiscally smart business decisions.

The problem is that Pixar has gotten itself into a bit of a bind precisely BECAUSE so many of their original creations were successful. If only every other Pixar movie were good, then only every other would even be considered logical to franchise.

My guess is that after the current spate of announced sequels, we'll see at least a couple movies of original content ... though The Incredibles in particular seems to cry out for a sequel.

Dexter said...

I generally don't mind sequels that much (as opposed to remakes or reboots for example), if they have something fresh to tell. I liked "Toy Story 2" very much and I absolutely LOVED "Toy Story 3" (I cried so much at the end, that I was grateful for the existence of those 3d glasses in front of my eyes). Having said that, I think that Pixar can produce brilliant sequels. "Cars" was enjoyable and I think that it has a world that can carry many new adventures, which is exactly the opposite if what I think about the world of "Monsters Inc". About the rest, I would love to see "Incredibles 2" (and Brad Bird seems to like the idea too, though if his live actions films succeed I doubt he will return to work with Pixar), but I don't think any of the rest could produce a decent sequel. I hope that it doesn't become a trend and that Pixar will continue to give as fresh material to love.

Vancetastic said...

Dexter,

Good observation on the sequel potential of Cars vs. the sequel potential of Monsters Inc. I think you've got a good point there. And I agree that the others don't make good candidates for sequels -- I was including them more as a humorous bit. (The possibility of a Ratatouille 2, for example, seems particularly absurd to me.) If they make a Bug's Life 2, that's when I will give up ...