Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Maturing Phase

Yesterday, the animation community was struck by a rather troubling rumor that may very well be true. It seemed that another Pixar production had to go through a director change, always a rocky thing in the world of feature animation. Pixar had done this twice in the last 3 years, to two films - Cars 2 and Brave. Many viewers and critics were indifferent to those two films, and if Brave got positive reception, the reviewers would still say it wasn't up to "Pixar standards". You immediately heard about Pixar's "decline" and people shouting from the rooftops that the "Golden Boy" of animation was no longer golden.

Of course, I reject the notion that Pixar is on the "decline". Instead, I think Pixar has succumbed to reality. A studio, animation or not, can't just make excellent films forever. Cars 2 and Brave more than proved that to me, and it should prove that to others. I've said many times that I'm fine with Pixar not making absolute greatness every year, but the amount of backlash they are getting is misguided in my eyes. The way I see it, people are acting as if Pixar was their parent or something... A parent who betrayed them.

No, I think Pixar is just an animation studio like everyone else. Their first eleven films, I think, are some of the finest animated films out there... But it's totally okay if they make a string of not-so-great films, it was only a matter of when, not if. It's impossible for a group of people to make perfection or greatness with every outing, it's just that their first eleven films (or ten, or nine, depending on who you ask) came as a shock to the world - that many hits in a row!

Walt Disney did the same during the Golden Age, a great streak that was fueled by Steamboat Willie and the Silly Symphonies, one that kicked off with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and ended with Bambi. Notice in the early 1940s, the studio was still relatively young and the people there were young, hungry for ambition and risk-taking. But, alls well didn't end well. World War II not only cut into Walt's ambitions, but Walt was also at odd ends with a lot of his animators as his studio grew. The Disney strike, anyone? "The Reluctant Disney"? Losing great talent like Art Babbitt and Bill Tytla?

Look at where a lot of that talent went: The UPA, a promising, up and coming studio that people started to praise for their innovations and taking animation in new directions. Some even went as far as saying that they were superior to Disney, and that they made true animation. I somewhat liken this to people who are bowing to DreamWorks now that Pixar has made a few arguably disappointing films coupled with nasty studio politics (i.e. the Brave/Brenda Chapman fiasco), taking little PR things like "DreamWorks allows artists to be more creative" and running with that, thinking that they are now the studio to turn to... As if one studio can be the "great studio" in American feature animation.

The whole strike debacle also showed that Walt himself wasn't perfect, and many accounts of the man vary - he was either a great man or a vile monster. John Lasseter is often called the modern-day Walt Disney, and this is probably why. With such power and success, he's bound to make some big mistakes and ruin relations with others. Brave director Brenda Chapman herself is very vocal about her situation, saying to The New York Times that Pixar is "all John's show", but at the same time she burns bridges by saying that they do the same thing over and over again. Pixar is now being accused of the "buddy movie" formula because of this, as statements like let the dissenting voices come into the limelight. This "formula" is something that barely anyone mentioned 5 years ago... And by 2008, Pixar had many "mismatched buddies" as the leads of their films: Woody and Buzz, Mike and Sulley, Marlin and Dory, Lightning McQueen and Mater, Remy and Linguini, WALL-E and EVE, and that following year - Carl and Russell.

But with Pixar showing weakness, it's the cool thing to engage in schadenfreude and start picking apart their earlier films while also making a joke out of the studio in general. In my eyes, that's bending over backwards. I see a lot of the angry and snarky reactions to recent Pixar news as foolish, fueled by emotion and disappointment rather than logical thinking. I get the sense that a lot of people counted on Pixar to do no wrong, and were perhaps a little too connected to them and their films. They act as if the studio was a best friend that spit in their face. Pixar is a studio first and foremost, and a business at that. They are part of a massive corporate empire and have been for 7 years. John Lasseter is also in a very high and corporate position. People also change, whether we like to accept that or not.

It's easier to just dog on them and humiliate the mighty, rather than mourn or be concerned about what's going on and hoping for the best. If this rumor about director Bob Peterson and producer John Walker being removed from The Good Dinosaur recently is true, I'll be very, very concerned. I'm not going to run around saying "That's it! It's the end! Pixar is dead!" or "John Lasseter is a horrible, horrible man!" I'm just going to be a little disheartened, and if the film turns out to be good, I won't be too upset. I'll only fret if it's truly bad, but in my eyes, Pixar has yet to make a truly bad film. The dreaded Cars 2, in my eyes, wasn't even mediocre.

Many are questioning Lasseter's decisions, and I will do the same if the removal actually happened. I understood why Brad Lewis and Brenda Chapman might've been removed from their projects, as I highly doubt that Lasseter would just soullessly kick them off just to make the films his way or to dumb them down. I still thought Brave was good, and Cars 2 was in big trouble before Lasseter ever got to finishing it - just watch the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray (yes, I own it on Blu-ray) and also consider that Lasseter took it over at the eleventh hour. If anything, he probably salvaged it like he did with Disney's Meet The Robinsons. Brad Lewis was working with a flawed script, and maybe Lasseter felt that he couldn't handle it. Or maybe since Cars is his baby, he felt the need to take it over. We don't know.

To say that Lasseter wants all the films to be retooled his way sounds a bit plausible, since he has a lot of power right now and that Steve Jobs is no longer there... But Steve Jobs was still alive when the director changes happened on Cars 2 and Brave. This leads me to believe that Lasseter and maybe the rest of the Brain Trust know something we don't know. We have no idea if Lewis' Cars 2 and Chapman's Brave were better or worse than the finished products, and I wish people didn't assume that both were better and that Lasseter/the Brain Trust bastardized them. We don't even know if The Good Dinosaur is/was shaping up to be below par, or if it's a masterpiece that won't be. Our answers will come on May 30, 2014... But there's more to it than just director changes.

Let's also not forget that Lasseter has replaced many directors at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and the results have been very good: Bolt, Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph went through similar phases. But the difference is, with Bolt and Ralph, the directors were removed and new stories were created instead. Chris Williams and Byron Howard's Bolt replaced Chris Sander's American Dog, Rich Moore's Wreck-It Ralph replaced Sam Levine's Joe JumpTangled was a different story, as Glen Keane stepped down for health reasons even though his project hadn't quite been perfected in the eyes of Lasseter. Wellins stepped down as well, but he's still there and he's working on a new film for the studio. Keane didn't just leave Disney, he retired. It couldn't have been a Brave situation where things seemed to end badly.

Back to Walt. Walt Disney's studio didn't hit rock bottom after 1942, but they had to scale back. The package features released between 1942 and 1949 certainly weren't Snow White or Pinocchio. A lot of them were a lot safer than the first five films, but with flashes of brilliance. The cartoon shorts were erratic, some of them were on the bland side while others were strange, as if Disney was trying to mimic another style rather than cook up something new. Disney was known for not being like the competition, whether it was Termite Terrace or the Fleischer studio or the MGM studio. For instance, many have the noted similarities between the 1945 Donald Duck short Duck Pimples and Tex Avery's cartoons. In his 1994 book Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, animation historian Charles Solomon wrote "Duck Pimples is one of the first Disney cartoons that clearly emulates another studio's style - something that would've been unthinkable ten years earlier."

Of course, Cinderella lifted the Disney studio out of their little lull of sorts. Cinderella was not a very risky or daring film, but one that had a strong story nonetheless and the elements that made his first five films so great. Had Cinderella went ahead and tried some grand new things for the medium, it would've easily been a top three contender on my list. By 1950, Disney had adopted a new house style and one that they stuck to for the remainder of the decade, a style that was used after Walt's death until the 1980s. With the success of that film behind him and the live action plans going full steam ahead with Treasure Island that same year, did Walt continue to take risks? Sometimes...

Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp, for all their polish and good storytelling, aren't huge daring feats like Pinocchio and Fantasia, but luckily they were still good films and ones that didn't try to recreate earlier successes. The Walt era gets a lot of praise for that and deservedly so, it's something I can't really say about the beloved "Disney Renaissance" era. Walt turned to television, live action and theme parks - he tackled a plethora of different things. But at the same time, Walt was possibly disillusioned with his failures, mainly Fantasia. From 1937 to 1942, Walt really tried to elevate the art form, and he succeeded... But he wanted to try even harder, and Fantasia sums it all up. Fantasia was not only a money-loser, but it was a very divisive film. Some critics praised it, but others ripped it to shreds. Classical music enthusiasts practically loathed it and felt it was an insult. Solomon singles out a particularly worrying review from the time, making one question what the reviewer was thinking and how ready the world was for something like this in the fall of 1940...

"Nazism is the abuse of power, the perverted betrayal of best instincts, the genius of a race turned into black magical destruction, and so is Fantasia."

Another critic also said that Walt was trying to be something he wasn't, which some believe was what brought him down. Walt's work afterwards was decidedly safer, though he took some last jabs at riskiness - The Three Caballeros, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty - only for them to blow up in his face both critically and commercially. Oddly enough, those three films and Fantasia have been more than vindicated by history. They were certainly ahead of their time. But it was his safer work that was successful, and he stuck with that. Walt only felt disheartened after Sleeping Beauty lost money, resulting in Xerography completely taking over. He had little-to-no involvement with the following features, until he was struck by The Sword in the Stone's quality... So he got heavily involved with his swan song - The Jungle Book.

But some suggest that Walt went the safe route for many of his animated films after Disney's own Golden Age because of the reaction to Fantasia, and how his post-Bambi risks backfired. What does this all have to do with John Lasseter and Pixar?

Lasseter got into big studio animation in 1980, when he first came to Walt Disney Productions. He was enthusiastic about computer animation and what can be done with it, after a viewing of TRON. Unfortunately, Disney at the time was very conservative but also indifferent towards computer animation, such as fears of computer replacing animators. Lasseter and Glen Keane put together a test that put hand-drawn characters in a fully three-dimensional moving set, for a film based on Where the Wild Things Are, a project that sadly never materialized at the studio...

Of course, Lasseter was going to direct an adaptation of The Brave Little Toaster and see what he can do with combining computer animation and hand-drawn animation. He had big plans, but his plans were too big for a studio that was stagnant. It was canceled due to concerns over the cost, plus executive Ed Hansen felt that computer animation should only be used to go the "faster and cheaper" route. Producer Thomas Wilhite founded Hyperion Pictures, and Jerry Rees would take over. That film, completely hand-drawn, quietly came out in 1987.

So what did Lasseter do? Well, there was a time when Walt was shot down. The story of producer Charles Mintz and how he took away Walt and Ub Iwerks' own creation? Mintz taking all of Walt's animators after the Oswald character proved to be successful? Walt and Ub turn around and create Mickey Mouse, and the Disney studio soars from there.

Lasseter was hit with a lot disappointment - he came to a studio that he dreamed of working at, only to enter at a time when said studio wasn't in a good state. He ended up leaving, but did he stop there? No he didn't: He had made friends with Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, and found himself in Lucasfilm's Graphics Group in no time. John and Ed did their own ambitious things, namely a little short film - I'm sure you know of it - The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. - and developing the Pixar Image Computer. Lucas spins Graphics Group off from Lucasfilm, they become Pixar, enter Steve Jobs... Rest is history.

This was all when John Lasseter was in his 20s, like Walt, he was young and hungry for ambition. His colleagues were too. You could say that Pixar's initial run of 11 films were similar to Walt Disney's first five features, an unparalleled run that was beyond impressive. The big difference was, Pixar gained from it financially while Disney suffered losing money. But of course, reality had caught up to Walt and his crew. Now it seems reality has caught up with Pixar...

This is why I'm not fretting over the studio's future. Pixar was never going to be an almighty god amongst animation studios or live action studios, period. Such a long streak of great films may have obscured that for some, which is - I believe - why people are reacting the way they are. I am unhappy as many about the whole direction they seem to be going in right now, but it's reality. Something like this was bound to happen, if not something worse. Like I've said many times before, it makes me wish that for every excellent film they made in the last 10 years, there was a not-so-great one. Maybe people would be used to Pixar changing and possibly making a string of not-so-great films.

Pixar has simply matured. The young upstarts who made their mark in the 1980s and 1990s have grown up, and they've been through a lot. Failure, success, trials, tribulations... Success can possibly change these folks, and if it's true that Lasseter is really fire-happy and that the staff find him to be a stifling force to their creativity, then it's just a result of what happens in life. Lasseter is arguably on top of the world, being the chief creative officer of two acclaimed animation houses - one of which revolutionized the art form in so many ways for nearly a century. Becoming mad with power wouldn't seem implausible, especially when you have that much power and success.

But maybe it's an not egomaniacal thing at all. Maybe Lasseter is just very worried and paranoid, and he's actually afraid of a big failure. Pixar is, after all, his baby. Maybe he's removing directors because he's convinced his vision will work out in the end. Maybe.

Maybe he is being stifled by the suits. Executive interference isn't something that's a stranger to animation, even Disney and Pixar. After all, Pixar films make a lot of money and Disney sees the potential profits from sequels as vital. When the acquisition occurred, it seemed like the suits wouldn't have much say in Disney Animation and Pixar's future films. They'd just let them do their magic and that's the end of that. But what if that's all just rosy PR talk? What if the suits do want to control what Disney Animation and Pixar are doing? Or better yet, just Pixar? Disney plugs the Emeryville studio heavily, whilst somewhat giving Disney Animation the short end of the stick, which is very wrong. Maybe Lasseter is now their pawn, and he has to do what they say.

It's not set in stone, and we don't know what Lasseter's true motivations are. Is he afraid? Is he just power hungry (pictures Ratcliffe singing "Mine, Mine, Mine!")? Or is he being controlled? Who knows! But something like this was bound to happen. Pixar just can't be great forever, they are going to have ups and downs. Like human beings. I personally feel that it is better to realize all of this beforehand. Pixar may be an animation studio, but they are also a business. Moviemaking is both an art and a business, and sometimes, things may not always go as planned. Like they all say, that's business...

Of course, this is all one thing... Reality. Monsters University's ending more than resonates right now...


  1. Wow, wow, wow. Yet another fantastic article, Kyle. I cannot give you enough praise and accolades for your writing and prose.

    I loved the comparison you made between John Lasseter and Walt Disney, specifically bringing to mind the trials and tribulations Walt experienced in his early days and his attempts at making groundbreaking films. The parallels between the two studios, in the way you positioned them, seem uncanny. It makes me even more excited for what Pixar has to offer in this next decade and beyond!

  2. Definitely fantastic piece.

    I can understand the worrying. I am mostly concerned and also sad about Bob Peterson's removal. I'm imagining "the dark side of Pixar" to emerge in a couple more years, where people have all the exclusive information about what a tyrant John Lasseter is. And it is hard to believe he might be power hungry, but we just don't know. It's uncomfortable to think about, especially considering the removal of directors from Disney features. All in all, the comparisons to Walt make a lot of sense. We have no idea where Pixar is headed, but to draw further comparisons between them and Disney, they will go through tough spots. If this means that the golden boy studio has let people down, well I just don't know what to say to that. I think people are concerned because of the 11 straight hits, and now that they're falling a little from glory (depends on who you're asking), people are deriding them. It's very interesting and frustrating.