This post might be a little longer, but if anyone out there is as big of a Pixar fan as I am you might be interested enough to read through it. Since this is an issue which I feel very strongly about I’d love to hear your take on it in the comments below. The issue, as you may have guessed, is what lies in store for the fallen champion of animation.
Ever since Disney bought out Pixar Animation Studios about six years ago, fans like myself have been apprehensive about what sort of effect the acquisition would have on the studio’s sterling reputation. Several years went by in which we were given some of the best animated films ever made, each enjoying a great amount of critical and financial success culminating in the the studio’s highest grossing and arguably most popular production; Toy Story 3. Unfortunately, the bigger they are the harder they fall, and after Toy Story 3 came the first true production of a unified Pixar and Disney. When Cars 2 was announced as Pixar’s next project, I was confused and disappointed. So far, Pixar had mostly avoided sequels in favor of original material, and the only reason Toy Story 2 was such a success was that its predecessor was so universally loved by the film makers and audiences alike. Cars 2, on the other hand, was a sequel to what many at the time considered Pixar’s weakest film. Even at the box office Cars was not a strong contender, ranking among the lowest grossing titles on Pixar’s resume. In any other situation a review would have been out of the question, but it just so happens that Cars had become a gold mine in the merchandising sector and Disney wanted to return to the cash cow for another milking. The result was a film that hardly felt like it was made by Pixar at all, failing to measure up to even the most modest expectations.
If I were to have any one issue with Cars 2 it’s that it felt completely devoid of heart. Every other Pixar movie up to that point had felt like a labor of love, drawing the audience into the story more fully than even most live action movies are capable of. With Cars 2, it felt like the studio was just going through the motions to put out a movie that didn’t really need to be made. The characters were more caricatures than anything and the humor tended to skew towards clunky puns and overblown international stereotypes. All in all, in the aftermath of Cars 2 it felt like Pixar was still in there but was being held on a leash by its new master. Now that Brave has been released, it still feels as though that is the case and with Monsters University on the horizon it may continue to be so.
My review of Brave can be found here http://rorschachreviews.com/2012/06/25/brave-review/ and in it I cover some of the smaller scale aspects of the film, but I wanted to save my
big picture analysis for this post. As Pixar’s first film featuring a female lead, many expected Brave to a return to the boldness and creativity which had set Pixar apart since it’s beginning. However, while the movie did end up notably improving on it’s predecessor it ended up having the most unoriginal set-up of any Pixar movie to date. Disney has covered the Princess-with-attitude premise from almost every possibly angle, and while recent takes on the trope have been more than enjoyable (Mulan, Princess and the Frog, Tangled, The Little Mermaid, shall I go on?) none of them really feel like anything more than just another Disney movie. At this point Disney has more or less found its formula for making popular family entertainment and it’s undeniable that it is a good one, but no matter how well they do it every movie made with that formula feels, well, formulaic. It’s always been Disney’s style to go with broadly appealing source material which usually calls back to their past successful projects in some way or another, but that’s just not the way the Pixar has gone about things in the past. Pixar was always known for taking risky subject matter and turning into something even more broadly appealing than most of Disney’s repertoire. That boldness began to pay off time after time until there was almost no such thing as a risky concept for Pixar. It didn’t matter how unusual the premise was, audiences would show up in droves based often on little else besides the Pixar name being attached to the movie. After the past few years though, the public’s trust in the Pixar brand has been shaken and it will soon no longer be enough for a Pixar movie to be successful simply for the reason that it’s produced by them.
What I’m really going for is that i’m very confused as to why Disney is trying to fix something that didn’t need fixing when it comes to Pixar. By choosing safe Disney style set-ups for their productions they are losing the aspects of Pixar which made us all fall in love with its work in the first place. I do understand why established premises and sequel material are attractive to the financial officers at Disney, and with any other studio it would be true that audiences tend to be more accepting of things they are familiar with. In this case however, the audience has come to expect the opposite out of their movie going experience, and the past two movies have shown that it is starting to have an effect on more than just their movies’ Rotten Tomatoes scores. Cars 2 broke a long streak of Pixar movies with domestic grosses of over $200 million, and while Brave seems to be handling itself a little bit better it is still going to be a challenge for it to reach even that much. In my opinion unless the next couple movies manage to represent a true return to Pixar’s glory days, the studio will soon lose most of it’s individual appeal and become yet another victim of the Walt Disney Company media steamroller. For now though, all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that Monster’s University follows in the footsteps of the Toy Story franchise and not Cars 2.