Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Why Pixar Should Reconsider a Second Studio, and Other Pixar "Issues"

Times have changed for Pixar...

The other day, I realized that when Coco comes out in November, Pixar will have been making animated features for 22 years. I divide Pixar into two eras right now, the years where they were that little house making pictures for the Mouse, and the current era where they are a cog in the Mouse machine. Everyone knows that The Walt Disney Company has owned Pixar for over a decade now…

Think about this. The Disney acquisition of the company was finalized sometime in the summer of 2006, when the studio’s seventh feature film Cars was released. The acquisition itself was announced in January of that year after then-new-to-the-throne Disney CEO Bob Iger smoothed the ruffled feathers that his predecessor was responsible for. Cars was already in full production, probably halfway done at that point. Finished animation for the film turned up as far back as September of 2005, when Toy Story returned to DVD for its 10th Anniversary.

I place Cars in the pre-acquisition era because it was also part of the Disney contract signed when Eisner was still top dog. If Pixar were to split from Disney in some alternate timeline, Cars would’ve been their final feature for the company. From Ratatouille onward, Pixar films could’ve been distributed by Universal or Warner Bros. or some other big distributor. Of course, Iger saw what the company was losing, and got the studio back into the fold without fuss.

Seven features in the span of 10 1/2 years… That means that the wait times between a few of these films were pretty long. Toy Story’s follow-up didn’t arrive till three years later in the form of A Bug's Life, and after getting your fill with Toy Story 2 in fall 1999, you had to wait nearly two years for Monsters, Inc. By the time the studio got to finishing Finding Nemo, the wait times got a wee bit shorter: A year and a half.

Nowadays, a new Pixar film is like an annual event. In 2015, the company unleashed two feature films in the same calendar for the first time, and they will do that a second time this year. They also have plans to release two new features in the year 2020. From 2006 to now, they have only sat one year out due to various issues concerning a troubled picture in the pipeline, and have released 12 feature-length films in that timespan.

That’s a lot… A real lot. For one studio and their teams, no less. It even took Pixar some time to finally release two features in a calendar year, and when it finally happened, one of the pictures - The Good Dinosaur - didn’t fare so well at the box office. Coco looks to reverse this if Cars 3 makes a profit, and so far the automobile picture is doing troubling business at best. We now live in a climate that wants movies with concrete release dates, and fast. Pixar wisely claims dates and then doesn’t say what movies are opening on those dates, and even if they do slip something early (Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur at the 2011 D23), a delay or two can still happen, cancellation if things really go south. (Newt)

But here's the rub... One a year could cause problems in the long run.

No longer does Pixar get the opportunity to take time between features to smooth them out. Nowadays, if one has to move, another one needs to be ramped up in order to take its place. When Pixar bowed out of 2014 altogether because of difficulties with The Good Dinosaur and no film being ready enough to take its original summer 2014 spot (or for that matter, a spot held by another Disney-distributed title, i.e. November 2014 and Disney Animation's Big Hero 6), some shareholders freaked. A year without a Pixar film? How could it be? It's as if corporate Disney is at the mercy of shareholders who want a new product from the same studio every single year. Rumor has it, Bob Iger commissioned Cars 3 and Toy Story 4 so that he could announce something to please shareholders... Plus they have a Toy Story theme park to plug. Unsurprisingly, Cars 3 and Toy Story 4 played a few rounds of musical chairs. Remember when Toy Story 4 was set for this summer while Cars 3 had no firm release date?

Seven years ago, Pixar founded Pixar Canada. A unit in Vancouver, they were set to make various shorts and specials (such as the Toy Story Toon pictured above, Small Fry), but the company swiftly shut it down. The reasoning? To keep everything happening under one Californian roof... But what if a smaller, out-of-the-way unit like Pixar Canada had flourished into something greater? Something similar to that of Disney Animation's defunct Orlando unit? Disney's Orlando animation unit - which was located near what is currently Disney's Hollywood Studios - had a similar beginning. Launched in 1989, they first made Roger Rabbit shorts, and then later they contributed to the mainline features, until completing their own full-length feature in 1998: Mulan. They continued until the executives pulled the plug on traditional animation in 2004, Brother Bear would be their last - and third - feature.

I think a Pixar Canada/Disney Orlando-esque unit for Pixar would serve them well, and could perhaps fill in gaps just in case Emeryville's folks need more time on a particular feature. I also think that they could function similarly to Disney's Orlando studio in other ways.

The Orlando studio hit its peak with Lilo & Stitch.

Produced for roughly $80 million and released in the summer of 2002, it didn't cost as much as some of the Burbank productions over on the West Coast did. Disney Feature Animation spent over $100 million on Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis, and Treasure Planet respectively. Back in the early aughts, these were huge numbers for animated films. Even Pixar wasn't spending as much on their films at the time. (Finding Nemo and The Incredibles respectively cost under $95 million to make.)

Lilo & Stitch was also the work of two first-time directors: Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois. Chris and Dean came up with a very oddball premise, that had hints of sci-fi but was mostly a brutally honest family drama that just happened to involve a fugitive alien. For some reason, Disney's executives kind of backed off of this one. During this time, these same executives were having way too much say over the films being made at the main studio, resulting in messy, compromised products. Many of which failed at the box office. For the most part, they backed off of Lilo & Stitch. It made its money back at the box office, and EXPLODED by the time it reached home video. Stitchmania...

You thought Frozen Fever was annoying? I lived through Stitchmania, and he was everywhere. In your face, even to the point where he was appearing with Mickey and the gang on merchandise in the parks. He got three direct-to-video movies in the span of three years, a TV series, and so much more. Yes, a traditionally animated movie from the early 2000s that was just as big as the CG heavies. Problem is, Disney ran that into the ground, and soon the quirky little alien was yesterday's news. A phenomenon like that is dime-a-dozen, and even if Lilo & Stitch didn't fare well at the box office in some darker alternate timeline, the film still could've exploded after its home video release. Kind of like how The Shawshank Redemption did throughout the 90s.

Of course, it's 2017, not 2002. Fifteen years makes a difference. Films don't seem to have those kinds of second lives on home video anymore. At best, a lower budget film can eventually grow a sizable fanbase after its out on home video (see Pacific Rim and The Book of Life), but it seems like nothing will ever be Lilo & Stitch or The Shawshank Redemption. Maybe Frozen comes close, but that film's hype took off when it was still in theaters.

Disney Feature Animation Orlando followed up Lilo & Stitch with Brother Bear in the autumn of 2003, which the executives had more control over. As a result it's a pale shadow of Lilo & Stitch and Mulan, and despite the film's gorgeous art direction and top-notch animation, it's widely agreed that it's a near-trainwreck. I have multiple issues with that film, and while it actually made its tiny budget back, Disney called it a flop in order to justify their bigger plans. (i.e. killing traditional animation) Still, Brother Bear's box office totals were pretty weak and doesn't seem to hold up with the general public, while Stitch still has some traction and has aged well for the most part.

Where am I going with this? Well, Lilo & Stitch was a more experimental movie than most of its contemporary Disney animated brethren. Again, a family drama with a touch of sci-fi, space, and aliens. No princesses, no fairy tale settings. An original story, not a "Disneyified" update of a literary classic like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or a centuries-old folk tale. No musical numbers! No, Stitch grooves to Elvis Presley! Now, the Burbank-made likes of The Emperor's New Groove (an irreverent buddy comedy with no musical numbers) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (a creature feature-type action-adventure) were similarly experimental. The Emperor's New Groove - unlike the middling Atlantis - turned out to be a good movie, but its box office fortunes were determined by its off-putting title (the marketing people, according to a production story by animator Nik Ranieri, were behind that one) and its unconvincing trailers. No one saw it on opening weekend, until word got out on how great it was... Except those strong legs at the box office still couldn't save it. It certainly lived a fruitful second life on home video as well.

Still, Lilo & Stitch was very unique. Since it wasn't a bigger budget production, something more offbeat was allowed. Before its rather conventional third act, Lilo & Stitch wears its weird with pride. Instead of feeling like a movie that wanted to go for different "target" audiences, it felt like its own beast, the work of a group of people who just wanted to make the movie they themselves wanted to see.

Some folks feel that Pixar isn't sporting a more experimental, oddball flair. For me, it can show up from time to time. Inside Out is not dissimilar to Pete Docter's previous feature, Up, it definitely has a uniqueness to it. The Good Dinosaur, which may seem like an unorthodox choice, is kind of weird in its own way while still seeming like a normal, rather conservative film on the surface. Finding Dory and Cars 3, being sequels, feel more comfortable. Not quite risk-averse, but not quite groundbreaking, either. Of course, I'm speaking of the directorial and editing choices, visual flair, and quirks. Finding Dory breaks some ground through its storyline, but not so much the presentation. Cars 3 wasn't quite innovative, just very straight-forward and fine-looking like a 1950s Disney animated film.

Some folks feel that Pixar needs to be more director-friendly and allow some auteur-ish movies to go through the pipeline. Something similar to a movie I just saw... Edgar Wright's Baby Driver! But really, in high-end feature animation, auteur-driven work is also dime-a-dozen. Then you may argue that they - the Pixar brain trust - should loosen their grip and be a little less harsh than they normally are with directors. In such instance, you might get Pixar's equivalent of Lilo & Stitch. Not quite the all-around auteur-driven movie, but something that has its own thing going and the stamp of its creators. I feel you do get that in the films by Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Brad Bird.

The post-Toy Story 3 films are the ones that are regularly contested. Was Brenda Chapman's touch erased completely from Brave? Or is the movie an uneven hybrid of her style and what the brain trust wanted? I never saw Chapman's Brave, for it was never made, but I liked the movie a lot and felt it was different from what came before. Some may disagree and say it felt like design-by-committee piddle-paddle, or that it felt like a lost 90s Disney movie. Was Dan Scanlon trying to keep Monsters University in line with Pixar's previous films? Or was it its own unique thing? Somewhere in the middle, I believe. The cabin third act was something cool and new for a Pixar film, and I quite liked the movie's overall intimate, quieter tone. The Good Dinosaur felt like a frontier movie, unlike anything Pixar had done before, that was also a directorial debut - for one Pete Sohn.

But I know what those folks want... They want something Lilo & Stitch-esque. Not something that's low-key weird and unusual, no, they want to see a Pixar movie that basks in weirdness or a style that's very different. Something that's really different and really unlike anything they've made in the past 22 years. The Picasso to their Rembrandts. Lilo & Stitch mixes the Golden Age watercolor backgrounds with Sanders' aesthetic, it certainly was no Lion King! So, will we see a Pixar film that looks like... I dunno, this upcoming "experimental" short that they're currently working on?


Would a smaller, satellite studio be a home for those kinds of pictures? The smaller, more offbeat films as opposed to the big event ones made up in Emeryville?

I know it's been hard. They have been rather cautious with first-time Pixar directors. In the early 2000s, the edgier Brad Bird nestled in quite nicely with John, Pete, Andrew, and co... So what happened? Why no room for Chapman? I guess you could say Chapman's Brave was shaping up to be like Jan Pinkava's iteration of Ratatouille. Maybe not, but even long-timer Bob Peterson got booted from his dinosaur picture, but he's still at the studio unlike Chapman and Pinkava. Let's not forget about Cars 2's original director Brad Lewis, he did a stint at Warner Animation Group recently. It's troubling, yes, but given the reception of Cars 2, Brave, and The Good Dinosaur, maybe the time is right to just let a director go through with what they've got...

It would be the ultimate test: Will they finish up with a masterpiece and prove that Pixar's brain trust is too tough and restricting on free-thinking directors? Or will the movie be an outright disaster and show that the brain trust actually doesn't squash out creativity?

Who knows what's around the corner for Team Emeryville. Pretty soon, we will see what kind of director Dan Scanlon is when he completes his original film that's been in the works for a while. Mark Andrews has an original project brewing as well, so we'll see how he does as well. If both of these pictures are bold, acclaimed works, will we continue hearing about how Pixar is too tough on directors? Scanlon and Andrews are technically part of the brain trust, but they aren't Lasseter-Docter-Stanton. The argument is that they were "yes-men" on Brave and Monsters University respectively, so maybe with their own original films, we'll really see what they're made of. The same goes for Brian Fee, director of Cars 3. Good work, but it's a Cars movie, so he had to keep in line with the first movie. Will he get to do an original picture that shows his style?

If you've been here for a long while, you'll know that I don't think Pixar has been in any sort of a rut. Studios face these kinds of things, and Pixar turned 30 years old last year. 30 years old! (They're nearing 40 if you count their Graphics Group days!) 22 of those years? Spent making feature-length films! Of course, a couple of them were bound to not resonate with everyone. Of course, the Internet amplifies an annoying hive mind consensus that constantly shrieks about how they're declining and how "these [x] films are bad. FACT!" Leave that behind and swim into other channels, you'll see nuanced views. Some may say "Some Pixars I like, others I don't, like Finding Nemo." Others may say, "Cars 2 was fine, their worst is actually WALL-E, the second half kills it!" That kind of talk interests me more than, "Pixar was great! Until Cars 2, but Inside Out was great! But they suck now!"

I might be one of the few weirdoes who feels that The Good Dinosaur is a better overall film than Finding Dory. I'm also the same nut-basket who doesn't feel that Don Bluth's The Secret of NIMH is a masterpiece, that most of the Disney Renaissance films aren't amazing, that How To Train Your Dragon 2 was significantly better than the first movie, that Storks is one of the best animated comedies of the last 5 years, that Peter Pan is one of the weaker 50s Disney animated features, that Cars 2 is a fun little blockbuster romp, that Frozen has lots of issues, you get the picture? I like when folks make up their own minds, not when they subscribe to one popular view. Case in point, the view that states that Pixar had ceased making great movies - with the exception of Inside Out - seven years ago.

Pixar isn't declining to this guy, they're just maturing and evolving, but I feel the above issues do need to be addressed. The day Pixar makes a movie I don't care for, it's not like I'm going to need consolation. Walt Disney Feature Animation made the middle-finger-to-Walt movie Home on the Range, one of my favorite musical groups - The Beach Boys - released a terrifyingly bad album called Summer in Paradise, the Star Wars prequels exist, there's a string of bland Tom & Jerry shorts from the later MGM/Hanna-Barbera era, Sonic the Hedgehog 2006 is the nadir of the Sonic series, my state basketball team has lost plenty of times. I'll be fine.

Let's see how the folks in Emeryville move forward, as we slowly approach the new decade...

1 comment:

  1. The Internet really likes the popular opinion huh? I don't always agree with them anyway. How long have they been doing this?