Thursday, September 5, 2013

Cracking Nuts

Honor Hunter over at Blue Sky Disney assures us that nothing is wrong, whether it's at Burbank or at Emeryville. But a lot of people are worried... Director changes and people leaving is the cause for alarm, from Bob Peterson being removed from The Good Dinosaur to John Kahrs' departure from Walt Disney Animation Studios... It's been a rather downer couple of weeks for animation, and ones that made us question John Lasseter and how things were being run as a whole. Even I, optimistic as I like to be, had my doubts...

Honor wrote this in his blog post...

"And speaking of the younger sibling, Pixar is not crumbling because of micomanaging involvement. The biggest concern for the Lamp, as well as the Hat, is story. It has to work no matter how much you like the guy directing it. If it's not working out, you have to find someone that can make it work. There are hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. Not to mention diminishing time. John Lasseter goes with how he sees a project is progressing. If it's not, after numerous attempts, something has to be done. If the project can be saved, you have to bring in people to do it. If the project can't be saved, then it will be canned or allowed to whither on the vine..."
Of course, Lasseter and Pixarians have stressed the importance of story over the years. "Story is king," Lasseter would say. But the recent events and the quality of certain films released in the last couple of years are making many doubt that Pixar cares about storytelling and creativity anymore, or more appropriately Mr. Lasseter. It's all for a dollar, they say. But Honor's post makes me think a bit...

The Good Dinosaur has been in some form of development for a while. The first concept art may have popped up in early 2009, but the film might've been in the works before that. Development could've started even before the merger. I'd believe that Peterson's film had problems but at the same time, it's hard to swallow that this happened to two directors in the last three years. One of those two directors is not quite happy with the studio's business model. "It's all John's show," this certain someone said two months ago...

One can argue that these films being the way they are, are a result of Lasseter's ego and micromanagement. But if that were the case... Why do people typically think highly of the recent Disney animated films? Personally, I think they're doing just fine - The Princess and the Frog and Wreck-It Ralph are great, Tangled is near-great and Winnie the Pooh was just plain charming despite the running time.

A lot of the recent Disney animated films have gone through director changes too. I don't hear too much about the evil Lasseter telling Glen Keane, Dean Wellins and Sam Levine to stop being creative and to obey his every command. Keane left Tangled due to health problems but still stayed on board the project itself, Wellins departed shortly after to focus on his own projects since the story wasn't entirely in fine shape. Replacement directors Nathan Greno and Byron Howard's results are just fine, as everything clicks. Who knows if Keane and Wellins' film was superior? It could've been worse. Hard to say, because Tangled's story is so tightly constructed it hasn't gotten much criticism. The same goes for Rich Moore and Wreck-It Ralph...

Cars 2 and Brave didn't click for many, and I saw problems in both. As for Disney Animation, I think Tangled has problems outside of the fine story, but I still think it's a film that should be celebrated. Tangled is on the third tier of my best-to-worst Disney animated features list; if Pixar films were counted, Brave would be down there too. I still think Pixar made a first-rate production with that film, director change or not. Cars 2 is definitely not good in my eyes, but enjoyable and packed with a few little surprises. At least it didn't rot my brain!

So there is one side that considers those two films and Monsters University (which didn't go through a director change midway through, though apparently Doug Sweetland was removed from the director's chair very, very early on) to be inferior to Pixar's past successes and indicative of a "decline". There's also a side that doesn't consider every Pixar film to be great or excellent, so they are okay with a few Brave-like films. Me? I think Pixar is just entering a new phase where not everything is utopia, heck, it's stunning that they even made eleven greats in a row. That's insane luck right there, and as I've said on my recent assessments of current Pixar, maybe things wouldn't be so uncertain if Pixar made a few not-so-phenomenal films in the past. Like for every WALL-E and Up, there would be something a little less great.

So... What to believe?

  • Honor is basically saying that Pixar is removing directors for the good of the films themselves, to ensure that they will be good... But that's implying that Brad Lewis, Brenda Chapman and Bob Peterson's visions weren't up to snuff. Three in a row. I find that a little hard to believe...
  • Others say that Lasseter just wants everything to go his way with the films produced at the Emeryville studio, and so directors will be removed because of that. I can't entirely believe this either...
  • Someone suggested in Cartoon Brew's comments section that there's a couple members of Lasseter's circle that are particularly scathing when it comes to the critiquing of the reels of upcoming films - maybe that's who Lewis, Chapman and Peterson went up against. Maybe Lasseter goes by what they say... But that's mere speculation, but the commenter may be on to something here. Maybe...
  • Lasseter is overprotective of his baby and is too afraid to take some major-league risks. He's a businessman now, and businessmen usually don't think like artists. Restraint is seen as essential to them. Lasseter the artist was far more okay with a crazy risk like Toy Story or The Incredibles or WALL-E. Today he seems a little worried about taking them, and maybe that's what it is.
  • Lasseter is nothing more than a patsy for Disney's executives, who are obtaining control over Pixar's films... Something unthinkable. It could explain Cars 2's existence. Cars 2 couldn't have been conjured up at Pixar. None of the Brain Trust even talked about it. Lee Unkrich only mentioned it twice. Ever since it came out, you barely heard anything about it from Pixar.

My top theory: The release schedule and the fact that projects are given release dates long before pre-production winds up.

I said this earlier, but maybe they shouldn't schedule them so soon and perhaps give them time to gel before actual production begins. Sometimes a good animated film has to take years - decades even - to come together. Look at Wreck-It Ralph. It went through countless versions, starting in the late 1980s as High Score only to become Joe Jump by the late 1990s... And that project sat and sat and sat until 2008, when Lasseter ultimately had to can the entire film that was then being handled by Sam Levine. Enter Rich Moore, who turned out a fine film and one of Disney's best in a decade. (And in my crazy opinion, it's superior to many of the post-Walt films including a lot of the Renaissance films.)

And in early 2008, you never knew what Wreck-It Ralph's release date was going to be. Back then, King of the Elves was penciled in for the holidays of 2012, and we all know that it's been put on the back burner and the directors were removed because the story problems were said to be so massive that they couldn't possibly meet the release date... Again, it's what happens if you schedule something that may take a little while to perfect. We'll probably see a completed King of the Elves until after 2018, which is saying a lot. We actually didn't get a date for Moore's film until early 2010, when it was called Reboot Ralph. The then-unorthodox March 2013 release date seemed to give Moore a lot of breathing room, but the story goes: Lasseter and the story trust loved how the film was progressing by early 2011, so it was moved up to fall 2012 since Disney Animation didn't have a film to release in that spot. They were confident that it would make it, since the story was pretty much to their liking by that time. Plus, by 2010, the story must've come a long way - so in hindsight, it's good that Disney didn't announce a 2011 or 2012 release date for this project back in April 2008. It gave Rich Moore and the crew a lot of time. Take a look at the film's deleted scenes - scenes like that could've been the problems that were plaguing Cars 2, Brave and The Good Dinosaur.

Walt Disney Animation Studios also wanted to adapt the Rapunzel tale as far back as the 1990s, ditto The Snow Queen. When Glen Keane was finally able to get his adaptation into production, it was at a time when a paranoid Michael Eisner wanted a princess film that would be similar to Shrek and deliberately un-Disney in every way possible, thus Rapunzel Unbraided was born. Thankfully, the merger saved Keane's film from being a terrible, dated, misguided mess. By then 2010 was still far away, so Keane and Dean Wellins worked hard and Lasseter did like where it was going for the next two years... But he felt that maybe Keane and Wellins couldn't make it work perfectly, so Nathan Greno and Byron Howard took Keane and Wellins' greatness and added that extra story polish. Tangled is a beloved film, and will be beloved for decades.

In these cases, sometimes a director removal is not a bad thing.

But with Pixar, it's happened three times in a row in a span of three years. With Disney Animation, there were three director changes in the span of four years, but not in a row: Chris Sanders with American Dog/Bolt in late 2006, Sam Levine with Joe Jump/Wreck-It Ralph sometime in 2008 and the Glen Keane-Dean Wellins duo with Rapunzel in 2008. Nothing happened with The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh, and a director was added to Frozen, the lead is still the lead. However, the first two director changes were followed by complete story overhauls.

Bolt and Wreck-It Ralph only have mere sheds of the films they replaced. Bolt is certainly nothing like what Sanders envisioned, it's an entirely new film. The same goes for Wreck-It Ralph, as it's said to be  radically different from Joe Jump.

Glen Keane stayed on board the Rapunzel/Tangled project until completion, and left the studio last year, nearly 2 years after Tangled was completed. Dean Wellins is still at Disney so obviously nothing too extreme happened there. It is true that Keane couldn't handle the project due to his own issues, and perhaps Wellins wasn't comfortable with carrying the weight - opting to go for his own projects instead (Tick Tock Tale and his space film that's in limbo right now). The timing was right too, as in October 2008, Byron Howard was fresh off of Bolt which would go on to get critical acclaim and signal Disney's new, better era that we're going through right now. Lasseter also wanted to give new-to-the-director's-chair Nathan Greno a shot. So it's still Keane's film at heart, just finished.

This is a far cry from Cars 2, Brave and The Good Dinosaur - which all entered production in their then-current forms with Lasseter and whoever replaced the original directors retooling what they felt didn't work. Brad Lewis stayed with Pixar until Cars 2 hit theaters, relegated to co-director status on that film... But Cars 2 is iffy because from what I've gathered, it was a mess to begin with and that Lasseter did what he could to save it. Brenda Chapman stayed too, but left and is quite vocal about her thoughts on Pixar and John Lasseter's micromanaging... But she's the only one who has badmouthed the studio out of all the replaced directors, which possibly speaks a bit negatively about her as well. Lewis left without saying much, and Bob Peterson seems to be taking it well unless that's all PR talk and he himself leaves Pixar next summer with not much to say.

We'll get news on The Good Dinosaur's new director soon, which is strange because when they announced that Lewis and Chapman were off of their respective films, the replacements were mentioned. All we know is that The Good Dinosaur's co-director is working with John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich and Mark Andrews to strengthen what they believe isn't up to snuff. How long have they been doing this? And if the film is in production, why is there no director? Is there one but they haven't announced it yet? Is co-director Pete Sohn currently seeing it through the production phase? So many questions.

But... That begs the question: Are Cars 2, Brave and The Good Dinosaur "salvaged" films? It's hard to believe that all three of these films needed salvaging to begin. I can believe that Cars 2 needed an eleventh hour fix up, even if it didn't do much. A lot of people assume that Brenda Chapman's Brave was deeper, more profound, had more of the magical elements and less comic relief. But Chapman herself said that Pixar "didn't ruin" her film whilst saying everything has to go John Lasseter's way... So how different is it, really? Was hers slightly better? Or did Pixar improve something that was almost good?

One thing, though... What will we be saying - and that goes for everyone who is convinced that Pixar is losing it (not talking about the trigger-happy schadenfreude-loving people you'll see popping up everywhere) - when The Good Dinosaur opens next summer and the reviews are not only great (think 95% or up on Rotten Tomatoes), but the film itself is phenomenal. Their best since Toy Story 3. What if?

If that ends up happening, what will everyone be saying? "A director change that worked!", "Pixar's back in business!", "Looks like they aren't on the decline after all!", "Lasseter knows something we don't know!"

I feel that we simply can't make heads or tails of the situation right now. If The Good Dinosaur isn't good, it won't be an indicator. I don't think it'll all make sense to us... Not until former Pixar directors and animators speak up about the studio and what the climate is...

1 comment:

  1. If World War 2 hadn't started, disney himself could've have several hits in a row. ........D: