Is Pixar Out of Ideas?

Last summer, Pixar Animation Studios President Ed Catmull had a message for fans of the studio, relayed via BuzzFeed: “moving forward, the animation studio plans to significantly scale back its production of sequels.” But apparently somebody forgot to get that memo to parent company Disney’s chief Bob Iger, who announced at a Tuesday shareholders meeting that the company is working on The Incredibles 2 and (ugh) Cars 3. The company quickly made it official on their Twitter page — where the background is an ad for their last film, the prequel Monsters University. Pixar, we’re going to have to talk about your sequel problem.

For the sake of that conversation, let’s take a look at the history. Between 1995 and 2009, Pixar released ten feature-length motion pictures: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up. Of those ten films, exactly one was a sequel. In the past four years and four films, that ratio has flipped: Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University — i.e., only one original film, accompanied by two sequels and a prequel.

Still image from Disney/Pixar's "Cars 2"

So in order to really dive into this, we’re going to have to fire up the DeLorean and head back to 2009 or so, back when Pixar occupied a blessed corner of Hollywood that could do no wrong (Cars aside). Every year’s Pixar release was a sacred event, eagerly anticipated by film lovers of every imaginable age, because they’d somehow figured out the magic elixir: they were heartfelt but commercial, sweet but not sticky, made for kids but delightful to adults. And their sheer scope and ambition seemed limitless — Pixar’s universe extended everywhere, from the furthest reaches of space to a Parisian kitchen to a child’s toy box. Now, that scope appears limited to where they’ve gone before.

But part of Pixar’s appeal, part of what made them so admirable, was that they weren’t just another Hollywood sequel factory and tentpole manufacturer. In fact, that’s what was so genius about that astonishing ten-picture run; they weren’t churning out the same movie over and over again, but Pixar was such a potent brand name, that it was like they were — once a year, you went to see the new Pixar picture, and that name above the title was more potent than a title before a numeral. It was a guarantee of quality, coupled with the knowledge that we were going to go to a wonderful new world and meet a bunch of terrific new characters.

In just four short years, that brand has been diluted and damaged, perhaps immeasurably. It’s easy to see how the company was fooled by the Toy Story series into believing that sequelizing was the way to go; it was, after all, a film trilogy where each successive entry both made more money and was a better movie than its predecessor. But that series is a double-unicorn — sequels that meet just one of those criteria are a rarity, and doing both is all but impossible. Cars 2, a sequel that nobody wanted, made a mint but gave Pixar its first true critical failure, and while Monsters University nearly outgrossed Monsters, Inc., its notices were markedly less enthusiastic. (And let’s not even get into Planes, Disney’s junior varsity Cars spin-off.) Meanwhile, good luck finding anybody over the age of 15 who was all that wild about Brave, their only original project since 2009. If this was the best new idea they had for us, is it possible that they’re just out of good ideas?

Still image from Disney/Pixar's "Finding Nemo"

Hopefully not. To be fair, Pixar’s next two films, Inside Out (slated for June of next year, from Monsters, Inc. and Up director Pete Docter) and The Good Dinosaur (out next November), are both original properties. And the script for The Incredibles 2 is coming from Brad Bird, who not only wrote and directed the original film and Ratatouille, but Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, which indicates he knows a thing or two about bringing fresh life to a series movie. But it’s become abundantly clear that Cars is a franchise motivated only by money and Pixar chief John Lasseter’s passion for car culture, and their 2016 release, the Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory, seemed such a stretch that its announcement prompted that “don’t worry you guys, we’re gonna make more original films” BuzzFeed interview last summer.

Yet the targets and outlets for those mixed messages are telling. Pixar’s president goes to fan-friendly BuzzFeed and assures their boosters that no, they’re not just another soulless sequel assembly line. But to the stockholders and suits, the people representing the commerce side of the art/commerce divide which the company straddled so successfully for so long, Disney has a markedly different memorandum: for the near future, Pixar will continue to play it very, very safe.

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Disney bought Pixar in 2006.  Typical production times on a Pixar movie are roughly 3-6 years from development through launch.  That puts you right around the 2009 cutoff time.  So essentially, Pixar movies launched 2009 or before were Pixar movies.  Movies produced after 2009 are Disney movies.  I remember being extremely excited for Brave when I first heard about it and saw the trailer.  When I saw it, I felt like I had just watched a Disney movie, not a Pixar movie.  That was the very first thought that went through my head as I walked out of that movie. 

I don't think Pixar has run out of ideas.  I think the problem here is Disney loving to milk every franchise they have until it's bone dry.  Pixar knew how to make movies that appealed to both kids and adults.  Disney is in the business of catering almost exclusively to kids.  So the post-Disney buy-out movies have been watered-down, saccharine, kid-friendly movies.  And sequels are easy to market to kids.  You have established characters that kids are familiar with, and guaranteed box office money because Disney knows kids will drag parents to see these movies and buy the toys.  This is why Disney/Pixar is all about the sequels now.  New material is risky. 

On a slightly related note, I hate the entire Cars series.  If you look at every Pixar movie on Rotten Tomatoes, Cars and Cars 2 are the lowest critically-rated Pixar films.  Cars is at 76% and Cars 2 is in the 30% range.  Even Brave scored a 78%!  So the Cars franchise is the obvious critical failure in their entire lineup.  And based on box office returns, Cars isn't even a big money maker.  Of all Pixar films released to date, Cars 2 had the lowest box office returns.  The original Cars is the 6th worst performing movie out of their entire 14 movie run.  Based on Wikipedia budget and box office returns data, the list of Pixar movies from best to worst performing is:

1.  Toy Story

2.  Finding Nemo

3.  The Incredibles

4.  Toy Story 2

5.  Toy Story 3

6.  Monsters, Inc.

7.  Up

8.  Ratatoille

9.  Cars

10.  Monsters University

11.  A Bug's Life

12.  Brave

13.  WALL-E

14.  Cars 2

So why are they making a Cars 3?  The only explanation for sequels is that Cars is the most merchandising-friendly Pixar movie.  When Hot Wheels produces 300 variants of Lightning McQueen (now with slightly more dirt!), I'm sure Pixar/Disney is cashing in. Based on an L.A. Times estimate, Cars merchandising alone is a $10,000,000,000+ business.  $10 billion.  That's more than Pixar has made on box office sales of every single movie they've ever made.  Obvious cash grab by Disney here.  I hate Disney.  They even ruined Marvel flicks for the most part, but that's a different rant.