Pixar In Danger

In 1977, George Lucas made one of the most influential and beloved films of all time, Star Wars, and it ruined any hope he had of ever becoming a great filmmaker.

It has happened countless times, from Lucas to Shyamalan, as success too early in a career seems to impede creative growth and promotes the perpetuation of cinematic flaws. Now, another cinematic powerhouse seems to be in danger of losing self-awareness, and it is not just one filmmaker but an entire group of them.

Pixar has enjoyed almost unparalleled success both critically and financially, it is no wonder it enjoys almost complete artistic freedom. They answer to no one but themselves, and this is when filmmakers like Lucas ran into problems. When you no longer have to answer to anyone, because of earlier success, the problems you have can be glossed over as you lose self-awareness.

Over the last 20 years, Pixar has delivered some of cinema’s best films. Its own unique brand of intelligent, whimsical, family films have set the bar almost impossibly high. Since their first film, Toy Story, the owners and filmmakers at Pixar have been fighting to create a home for complete creative freedom. And while they have successfully done so, Pixar’s recent disappointment, Cars 2, may be a sign of a larger problem than just a failed film.

The first Cars film, directed by John Lasseter, was seen as simply a mediocre film in an otherwise brilliant filmography. It was a major financial success for the already profitable studio, and it is no wonder why they decided to move forward with a sequel. Some believed that the sequel could be a redemption for the franchise, however Cars 2 turned out to be an even bigger disappointment. The basic concept of the films is inherently flawed, as the world is both creepy and clichéd. This is clearly reflected in the negative critical reception of the film.

The issue is not that Pixar made a mediocre film, but rather that they did not recognize and correct their mistakes. The first film did not work, it was an OK animated feature but certainly not at the level of quality that Pixar has set for themselves. It is worrying that they moved forward, and revisited the Cars universe without accepting its failure. More so, with Pixar dominating the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars virtually every year, it was a noticeable change of pace this year with Cars 2 not receiving a nomination. Several members of the Pixar team have spoken out, defending the film.

It should be noted that I am a huge fan of Pixar, and I believe they have one of the best track records of any studio around. That does not mean they are not in danger of losing self-awareness. In fact, it appears they may have already. They hold themselves at such a high standard with such a great catalogue of films, yet they do not seem to realize that the Cars films simply do not work. They may be acceptable for another studio, but Pixar should know better.

Maybe this is overreacting, or maybe it is just John Lasseter’s fault. He is the creative force behind the Cars films and he seems to genuinely love the universe he created. Pixar, as a whole, could still fall prey to the Lucas-syndrome. Pixar is in a situation that all filmmakers wish they could be. They answer to no one but themselves, and while in most cases this has allowed cinematic greatness, it also has allowed cinematic mediocrity.

Lucas had success too early, and because of that, became blind to his own faults. Pixar has done the impossible and pushed themselves to allow for the creative freedom they currently enjoy, let’s just hope they take advantage of that freedom and leave the Cars universe behind.

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3 Responses to Pixar In Danger

  1. Nathan says:

    Let’s just put this in context.

    You compare Pixar to Lucas and Shyamalan. There’s a problem from the start with this comparison. The main one being comparing a whole filmmaking studio to individual directors (more on that later). The other problem is that neither Shyamalan nor Lucas had the strings of success before “faltering” that has Pixar. After 12 feature-length movies, you name only two that you would consider “faults” in the Pixar filmography.

    Shyamalan had made two movies before The Sixth Sense. “Praying with Anger,” which has no reviews listed on Rotten Tomatoes, and “Wide Awake,” which has a middling 40%. If we’re going on initial critical reception, then one could say that “The Village” was Shyamalan’s first major misstep (despite people now loathing it, it got generally positive reviews from critics, and is still Shyamalan’s second-highest grossing movie behind “The Sixth Sense”). Out of the eight feature films he’s directed, only three have received generally positive reviews.

    As for Lucas? The comparison strikes me as patently unfair, given all of the information floating around about Lucas’s real goal after Star Wars being to profit off the franchise, not create new and original works. His filmography since then has pretty much proven that to be true as I see it.

    Pixar, by contrast, has 12 feature films, 11 of which have received generally positive to universally positive reviews. Cars 2 is the only movie in their entire filmography that sits at “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes. Regardless, even -that- has quite a few defenders (remember, some critics, most notably Roger Ebert, gave it a better review than they did the first one).

    But, as I said, the main point here concerns comparing Pixar the studio to individual directors. Being a studio, Pixar employs a large number of people. And some of those people don’t work just in house for Pixar. (Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton, as you well know, have branched out to do live action movies.) But aside from that, Pixar’s independence is mainly independence from Disney, which is a good thing, as they’re free to make and create whatever material they want. One must realize that in that process, some things are bound to be of middling quality. It happens. Back to my point, however: I think the main thing to regard is not Pixar the studio and the quality is produces necessarily, but the talent Pixar gets on individual movies. That’s the key. As I see it, as long as Pixar continues to find talented individuals to make their movies, why should we have anything to worry about?

    I think you’re partly correct when you say “maybe it is just John Lasseter’s fault.” Though I wouldn’t say “fault,” I would say that Lasseter, being the creative force behind the “Cars” movies, is the one we should be looking at, and not the studio as a whole. While I think something can be gained by looking at Pixar as a studio, and the creative direction in their work (many people find thematic similarities in a lot of their work), I’m not sure if it’s helpful to worry whether the studio will succumb to the same “curse,” so to speak, that has plagued certain individual directors over the years. It seems that in those cases, sometimes it’s simply the director’s problem, and that more creative freedom is a bad thing. In Pixar’s case, having more creative freedom hasn’t seemed to really hinder them much at all.

  2. Corey Atad says:

    Nathan already said all the important stuff, but I’ll add one more thing, which is the unfair expectations placed upon Pixar. Remember that Pixar is a studio. It’s bad enough that a single person can change over time and lose a strong artistic voice, but in the case of a collective of people that grows and changes that is even more pronounced.

    I ask, do you complain about Warner Bros’ poor consistency? Or Universal? Or even Fox Searchlight’s in-house productions?

    The heads of Pixar fostered an environment of amazing creativity and collaboration that resulted in an unprecedented strong of artistic and commercial success. Literally. No other studio or production company in history has had such consistency. Why not be thankful for that? Maybe now that some of the “Brain Trust” is moving on to other things and Lasseter is heading up more than just Pixar the Pixar environment just isn’t as great as it once was. That’s totally possible. It would be unfortunate, but I’m constantly bothered by people acting like Pixar owes them quality or “should know better.”

    Why should they “know better”? Why do they owe anybody anything. They’re a company that makes movies, and like any company that makes movies not every movie will be a masterpiece. It’s incredible that they managed to pump out as many masterpieces as they have, but I don’t expect them to do that every time out. Let them have a Cars 2. It’s okay. Maybe Brave will be great. Maybe not. I’ll gladly go see every Pixar movie for the foreseeable based purely on track record. I don’t mind if sometimes they miss a little.

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