Friday, June 24, 2011

Oh PIXAR, Say it Ain't So

I don't think I need to tell anyone that "Cars 2" opens today, and that anticipation for it has not been high among the over-twelve set. The reviews have come in and they're bad. They're not remarkably bad compared to some of the other animated stinkers we've seen over the years, but they're awful for a PIXAR movie. On the RottenTomatoes review aggregation site, "Cars 2" is currently at 37% positive reviews. Before this, PIXAR's lowest-rated showing was the first "Cars" movie, that pulled in 74% positive reviews five years ago. And it seems that everyone else in the media can't stop talking about it - after eleven massively successful, well-received animated films, PIXAR has its first dud.

Scoffers may point out that the dismal response may be due to reviewers holding PIXAR to a much higher standard than films from Dreamworks, Blue Sky, and the other CGI animation studios. Surely this isn't fair. There's no reason why a commercial studio like PIXAR shouldn't capitalize on its sterling brand name and churn out an occasional mediocre sequel for easy money, without incurring so much scorn. The trouble is, of course, that sterling brand name only exists because PIXAR has built its identity around its reputation for quality. We expect "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Puss in Boots" ("Shrek 5," let's be honest) from Dreamworks, which has always billed itself as more cynical and profit-driven. PIXAR is supposed to be special, the animation studio that holds itself to that much higher standard. They're supposed to aim for more Oscars, not bigger paydays.

Sadly, there's every indication that "Cars 2" exists primarily because the "Cars" franchise generates billions in merchandising profits, far outstripping many of the other recent PIXAR films like "Up" and "WALL-E." The original "Cars" is regarded as one of the studio's weaker films, a passion project of director John Lasseter's that appealed mostly to the younger crowd. Most critics gave it a pass because you could tell it was a well-intentioned film, even if it wasn't a masterpiece, but certainly few were clamoring for a sequel. Moreover, it's long been part of the PIXAR narrative that they don't make sequels unless they have a rock-solid story for one. It's another way they distinguish themselves from the competition. Before "Cars 2" the only PIXAR sequels were "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3," critical darlings that are often ranked among the best animated films ever made.

Now we have "Cars 2," and the narrative falls apart. I haven't seen the film myself, but I trust a lot of the reviewers who have come away from it disappointed, and I think it's safe to say that "Cars 2" isn't up to the usual PIXAR standard either in conception or execution. Even more worrying is what lies in the future for the studio. 2013 will bring a direct-to-video "Cars" universe spinoff called "Planes," being billed as something of a training project for a PIXAR satellite studio. Then comes a "Monsters Inc" prequel titled "Monsters University." There will be a new PIXAR original next summer, "Brave," which is already seeing some early marketing rollout. However, it's hard to ignore that PIXAR's output from 2010 to 2013 is going to end up being sequel, sequel, original movie, spinoff/sequel, and prequel. This may be a signal that the decisionmaking at PIXAR has taken a more finance-minded turn. Or to use the general parlance, they've sold out.

What happened? What is going on? PIXAR movies always do so well at the box office, surely they're not in any dire financial straits, are they? Well, the short answer is that the animation studio itself is fine. But there is the little matter of Disney, which acquired PIXAR back in 2006, which is why all the logos now say "Disney PIXAR" instead of just "PIXAR." Disney is a very different company from PIXAR, and financially they haven't been doing as well. I don't want to say that Disney is meddling with PIXAR, but the new partnership is probably a major reason why PIXAR has suddenly embraced franchises, which are less risky, easier to market, and present so many more opportunities for merchandising - where the bulk of the money for children's films usually comes from. PIXAR fans may have been perfectly happy with "Ratatouille," "WALL-E," and "Up," but Wall Street was aghast that the characters from these films were less kid-friendly, and thus couldn't be plastered on everything from soda bottles to underpants.

My hope is that PIXAR's current case of sequelitis is only temporary until John Lasseter can help get Disney's own animation divisions back on their feet, and they can start churning out the safer, more product-oriented properties, and PIXAR can go back to being the PIXAR we know and love. Sadly, it's awfully hard to put the genie back in the bottle, and all that easy merchandising money is going to be difficult to say no to. The more realistic outcome is that PIXAR is going to be much more sequel-friendly from this point out, like all the other studios, but it'll still hopefully be able to make its more artistically ambitious, less commercial films too. At worst, they'd become another Dreamworks, which wouldn't be such a bad thing. Dreamworks has made some wonderful films recently. If "Cars 2" turns out to be just an uncharacteristic bump in the road, there's no reason why the PIXAR brand couldn't still stand for first-rate, quality animation.

But I can't shake the sense that we've hit a turning point. I don't know if PIXAR - and the PIXAR name - are ever going to be quite the same again.

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