Monday, June 20, 2016

Sea of Sequels: Effects 'Finding Dory' Could Have on Pixar

Finding Dory is a huge hit, obviously... Will that pave the way for even more Pixar sequels?

Let's backtrack.

Pixar and sequels is a heated, passionate topic. For many good reasons, too...

There was a time when Pixar had issues with The Walt Disney Company. Big issues. A contributor to those issues was... A sequel.

When Michael Eisner was CEO of Disney, their relationship was a stormy one that worsened over time. Toy Story 2 was a big puzzle piece to this dichotomy. Pixar's original picture deal with Disney stipulated that sequels would not count, this was a time when Disney made direct-to-video sequels to their animated classics instead of having Disney Feature Animation make full-blown, big budget theatrical follow-ups in-house. Toy Story 2 was commissioned as just that, a cheapo direct-to-video film. Pixar actually didn't have any intention to do a sequel at the time, Disney pushed it on them in 1996, not too long after Toy Story came out.

As development on the sequel progressed, Pixar wanted something of higher quality and not some throwaway direct-to-video piece of garbage, and it was ultimately decided that Toy Story 2 would be a full-blown, big budget theatrical release... and it was a smash hit.

Despite the film's major success, Eisner still felt that Toy Story 2 didn't count as part of the original contract, while Pixar - and especially Steve Jobs - were adamant that it did count. Jobs eventually conceded, but that wasn't the end of it. There were other things that made the rift between the Emeryville studio and the mouse. In the meantime, Pixar had a ton of originals lined up for production, since Toy Story 2 was only their third film.

A proposed new contract would stipulate that future sequels (such as a third Toy Story) still wouldn't count, something the late Mr. Jobs was not happy about. I think this passage from an old early 2004 article sheds some light...

"But because the movie was a sequel, it was not counted under the multipicture deal — a fact that Jobs accepted without making a ruckus. He was not so amenable when it came to plans to make Toy Story 3. This time, Jobs was adamant that the sequel be counted as one of the films Pixar owed under the Disney contract. Jobs' view was that Toy Story 2 was a giant 'freebie' for Disney and that Pixar should not be forced to provide another one. Despite a collaboration that unexpectedly enriched Disney, Eisner insisted on sticking to the letter of the contract. He refused to compromise and publicly bragged about the leverage he had over Pixar."

Things came to a head in mid-2004 when it was made public that Pixar was not going to renegotiate with Disney. In retaliation, Disney formed Circle 7 Animation, an outlet for making sequels to Pixar's films. Disney, had Pixar broken away from them in 2004, would still have all the rights to the films made from Toy Story to Cars. They could make sequels to those without Pixar's involvement, if they wanted to - and they were going to go. It was Eisner's sly way of getting Pixar to renegotiate.

That all thankfully went kaput in fall 2005, when Michael Eisner was finally ousted from the company. Bob Iger took his place, sought to repair all the damage, and within months you heard it everywhere: Disney was going to buy Pixar for $7.4 billion. Pixar retained creative control of their films, and were in full control of sequels. That was in early 2006.

Had Pixar not gone through any of that sequel-related drama with Eisner in the early-to-mid 2000s, I bet we would've seen a sequel to something sometime prior to 2010. In an alternate history, Eisner wouldn't have fussed about the contract and whether sequels counted or not, and Pixar would've made a Toy Story 3 or a Monsters, Inc. 2 that would've come out in 2006. Since Pixar couldn't really do sequels back then, they inadvertently created this assumption that people have about them... That they were "too good" for sequels.

I don't think they were ever "too good" for sequels, and I think this recent rush of sequels is proving this. It's not the other way around, where they didn't like making them, but now they have "sold out" and are sequel-crazy.

After the acquisition, all the Circle 7 Pixar-less sequels were scrapped, and Pixar began work on the Toy Story 3 they wanted to make. It was released in 2010, nearly 11 years after Toy Story 2's bow. It was a critical and commercial smash out the wazoo. This added to the belief that Pixar could really do no wrong. They not only made a sequel that equaled the high-quality original, but also made the rare threequel that sat alongside the first two... And took their time on it!

But then Cars 2 happened, a film that was definitely pushed for by Disney, and head honcho John Lasseter just couldn't resist revisiting the automobile world his pet project took place in. Cars 2 could've been good, great even, but it was such a troubled and messy production with lots of behind-the-scenes drama, the resulting film left a lot of people cold.

Toy Story 3, Monsters University, and Finding Dory are essentially "overwrites" of the Circle 7 versions that Disney got very, very close to making. Their Toy Story 3, their Monsters, Inc. 2, and their Finding Nemo 2 got to the script/treatment phase. Those three absolutely had to be made, but the good thing is, Pixar waited on those. Monsters University entered development in 2008, when they came up with a story they thought was worth telling. Unsurprisingly, Monsters University was met with far better reception than Cars 2. Though not an all-out acclaimed masterpiece, it was still a critical success. Finding Dory got even better reception, and that was started back in 2010 instead of right away...

Now, more Pixar sequels are on the horizon: Cars 3 comes next summer, Toy Story 4 is set for summer 2018 (eight years after its billion-dollar predecessor), and The Incredibles 2 (the original will be 14 1/2 years old when it comes out) will open summer 2019. Inbetween the cars and toys is Lee Unkrich's original tale Coco, and if all lines up, the next four pictures after The Incredibles 2 will be originals. There are two sides of the argument... Why is Pixar making these sequels? Is it because they're greedy Scrooge McDucks with no ounce of creativity in their bones? Or do they really, truly want to revisit some characters/worlds? I don't want to be naive, I don't want to be too cynical... My take? Disney certainly wants more sequels, I mean if you were a bean counter and you didn't want sequels to smash hits, everyone would think something's wrong with you. That being said, Pixar's attitude seems to be "We'll make them once we have a good idea."

Andrew Stanton once said in an interview that there's "polite inquiry" from Disney, and that Pixar will make sequels when they want to make them, not rush one to meet a deadline. If that wasn't the case, then we would've seen films like Monsters University and Finding Dory years and years ago. Heck, Pixar pushed Finding Dory back a good seven months to accommodate an original film that was having trouble and needed to be delayed. Big bad Disney was okay with that! Finding Dory has gotten very good critical reception and apparently it - to many - more than justifies its existence...

Slowly but surely, the narrative on Pixar sequels is changing a bit...

In the end, quality matters - regardless of why the film even happened in the first place. Perhaps Finding Dory went forward solely for monetary reasons, or maybe it's really true that Andrew Stanton got this good idea 5-6 years ago and decided "I need to tell this story!" But if the movie is damn good, who the heck cares at this point?

I have no idea how Cars 3, Toy Story 4, and The Incredibles 2 will turn out. I don't have a crystal ball or a time machine, I can't say for sure what they'll be like and if they'll be high quality films. Neither can you...

So now, the potential issue that Finding Dory's success might bring... 

Finding Dory has destroyed the opening weekend record for an animated film: An enormous $136 million. It is sure to cruise past $400 million domestically, and it has a shot at topping cousin studio's Frozen's $1.2 billion worldwide haul, while making loads of dough in merchandising. Obviously Disney's going to want more sequels from the Hopping Lamp, because no smart executive walks away from making sequels to big smash hits that take in over $800 million at the worldwide box office.

The big problem I think some people have with Pixar sequels in general is that the originals work so perfectly as standalone stories, Finding Nemo especially: Films with solid beginnings, middles, and ends. To me, no Pixar film ever ended on a note that explicitly set up a sequel. You might get an ending gag or two ("Wow! A puppy!"), but nothing that really hints at a part deux. Even The Incredibles, the film that the Internet argues deserves a sequel... No, The Incredibles' ending is a send-up of the cliffhanger endings of old serials and comics. Bird didn't think of even making a follow-up to this film for years and years and years...

Though I am not a fly on the wall at Pixar, I suspect that the studio feels that some of their films should remain sequel-less. There are some films of theirs that I personally think should not, absolutely not get sequels. You could probably guess which ones those are. Actually, I'd love to see stories set in the worlds they've created. Forget another Mike and Sulley adventure, I want to meet other characters and settings in the Monster World! How about another story set in the world of Cars instead of revisiting Radiator Springs? How about another mind movie set in someone else's head? And so on and so forth.

But Disney's going to hammer Pixar for sequels, no two ways about it... So how can they avoid making sequels to films that really don't need them while pleasing the suits? This is something I proposed back in November 2014, on the heels of Toy Story 4 being unveiled to the world...

Make an original movie that is the launchpad for a bigger storyline. The film would of course have a beginning, a middle, and an end, complete with character arcs and a well-rounded story... But its ending explicitly sets up a second film. Basically Pixar's equivalent of Star Wars, or a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter chapter. The past originals were conceived as standalone stories, ones that didn't intend to start trilogies or franchises, this film on the other hand could be just that.

If it's a hit, then Pixar goes ahead with the next few installments, and we get films like those instead of potentially risky sequels to perfectly fine standalone films. These would more than please Disney, so they wouldn't have to ask for, say an Up sequel or a Ratatouille sequel or an Inside Out sequel.

What say you?

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