Pixar: Is History Repeating Itself?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing Pixar’s new movie, Monsters University. In my past posts, I have made no secret my disappointment at recent Pixar films (Brave, Cars 2) but I’m happy to report that Monsters University is a step back into the spotlight for Pixar. Sure, it doesn’t have the heart that its predecessor, Monsters Inc., had but overall I would actually say that I had more fun with Monsters University. The prequel definitely had more memorable characters in it (Boo was missed but it was nice to actually get to know Mike and Sully). But anyway, I could go into more detail here but I’ll say see the movie for yourself and judge. I would like to talk about Pixar studios more as a whole today rather than focus on their most recent accomplishment.

A trip to Metacritic prompted this article. After seeing Monsters University I was interested to see the critical reaction. Monsters Inc. enjoys a 78 on the movie review website and I figured that its prequel would be around there. It’s not. I was actually really surprised to see that Monsters University currently only clocks in at a 64. What’s more surprising is that much of the criticism simply accuses the film of being a cash grab and condemns Pixar for their lack of originality. To be fair: nobody really ever asked for a Monsters Inc. prequel. However, simply because no one asked for it doesn’t mean it can’t be a good film. Also I would like to think I’m good at spotting cash grabs. Putting Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II for instance, that was a cash grab (the father of the best selling Star Wars toy ever made). Monsters University was not made simply to make Pixar more dollars and shame on any critic who thinks that. One can dislike the movie sure but there are other legitimate weaknesses to criticize.

If Pixar really just wanted more money, don't you think we'd get a sequel to this?
If Pixar really just wanted more money, don’t you think we’d get a sequel to this?

Amongst the reviews I read, I was shocked to discover an atmosphere of distrust toward Pixar. In general it seems that critics aren’t as warm to the animation company as they once were. I decided to take a look at where other animation studios ranked according to Metacritic’s review pool. Here is what I found:

Pixar Animation Studios – Overall ranking: 79 (Highest rated film: Ratatouille at 96)

Walt Disney Animation Studios – Overall ranking: 69 (Highest rated film: Winne the Pooh at 74)

– Special Note: This does not include the old Walt Disney Studios Animation company, merely the most recent one that            formed after Disney acquired Pixar.

Dreamworks Animation – Overall ranking: 63 (Highest rated film: Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit at 87)

Sony Pictures Animation – Overall ranking: 58 (Highest rated film: The Pirates! Band of Misfits at 73)

Blue Sky Studios – Overall ranking: 58 (Highest rated film: Horton Hears a Who! at 71)

Illumination Entertainment – Overall ranking: 53 (Highest rated film: Despicable Me at 72)

It’s clear who the current king of animation is. Pixar has eight films rated higher than the highest of their competitors. They are the equivalent of Renaissance painters in this day in age (making Illumination Entertainment finger-paint artists). Want to know something though, before the end of the “Pixar Golden Age” in 2010, their overall score would have been an 87. That includes Cars. Since that time, movies like John Carter (yes they did the animation in that film plus it was directed by Pixar vet. Andrew Stanton), Cars 2, Brave, and now Monsters University have lowered the score a full eight points. So recently Pixar has fallen off their pedestal. It is only their past triumphs that keep them above the clutter.

Toy Story 3 was the last Golden Age Pixar film. Released in 2010, the entry dramatically concluded the trilogy by showing that Pixar, like Andy, had grown up and was ready to tackle new things.... then we got Cars 2.
Toy Story 3 was the last “Golden Age” Pixar film. Released in 2010, the entry dramatically concluded the trilogy by showing that Pixar, like Andy, had grown up and was ready to tackle new things…. then we got Cars 2.

Okay, Cars 2 sucked. I’ve implied it, the critics have stated it (57 on Metacritic) and the public has generally already forgotten its existence. It’s just not a good movie. From start to finish, there is little in Cars 2 to compliment. Beyond that: who was asking for it? Cars was the black sheep of the “Pixar Golden Age”. It was the film that was released between The Incredibles at Ratatouille, two vastly superior films. Prior to the release of Cars 2, Cars was unquestionably the worst film that Pixar ever made… and it was still okay. Cars wasn’t horrible, it just wasn’t brilliant. That was the standard people were expecting from Pixar films.

Seriously compare reviews between animation companies. Here is the most common praise for other animation studios’ films: “they’re fun and pretty”. Here is the common praise for Pixar films: “moved me to tears”. Pretty big difference in reaction there.

In some ways I think it is the association with Disney that is causing people to distrust Pixar. Remember when Disney was king of animation and turned out classic after classic? That was before the dark times… before Michael Eisner and the relentless parade of unnecessary and unwanted sequels. Everyone loved Cinderella… did you know he turned that into the first part of a trilogy? It was no longer art for art’s sake, the films became a manufactured property designed to be marketed in every way possible (sequels, toys, cartoons). The result was a decline in quality. The Disney classic disappeared. That’s where Pixar came in.

In many ways, if anyone is ever curious as to how much Pixar and Disney (under Eisner) didn’t like each other, watch Ratatouille. Replace Remy the rat with Pixar, Chef Gusteau with Walt Disney and Chef Skinner with Michael Eisner. Incidently Pixar was going to leave Disney at one point and Ratatouille was originally envisioned as their first independent film: a film about an artist battling a greedy man obsessed with destroying an image… hmmmm.

The Pixar story (as of 2007).
The Pixar story (as of 2007).

But things changed and Pixar and Disney made up. Michael Eisner left and unnecessary sequels became a thing of the past… or did they? Unfortunately the common fear is that now Pixar has become the new corporation and are viewing their properties much in the same way that Disney used to view theirs. Even Toy Story 3, as great as that was: was that really necessary? Think of how Toy Story 2 ended:

A spectacular scene to end a series... until it was outdone in 2010.
A spectacular scene to end a series… until it was outdone in 2010.

Point is we forgave Pixar because Toy Story 3 was just that good. Imagine if that film had been only okay, the reaction to it would have been very negative. But now was Cars 2 and Monsters University, two other sequels/prequels no one was asking for, audiences are starting to get worried. Is Pixar out of ideas? Are they just going to make sequels or prequels to ever movie, regardless of how few people want it. This may be overreacting, I mean it’s not like they’re making another Finding Nemo

Ah shit. This is real by the way, coming in 2015.
Ah shit. This is real by the way, coming in 2015.

I loved Finding Nemo but that was not a movie that screamed sequel… or even whispered it. Maybe there is something to worry about. Three of the last four animated Pixar films have been off of existing properties. Maybe they are running out of new ideas. It is worth noting that their next film, The Good Dinosaur, is not a sequel or a prequel. So they are still making some new content… but will it be only as good as Brave?

Pixar was, at one point, the company to replace Disney in terms of quality animated films. They are now on the verge of replacing Disney in terms of unnecessary and unwanted sequels. For the record, I don’t think things are as bad as the Eisner days. As I stated at the beginning, Monsters University does not feel like a cash grab and Cars 2 was a mad passion pursuit by director John Lasseter. I do express some nervousness for the company’s future, however. The “Golden Age” is definitely over and there comes a day where every king falls to a successor.

Cash grabs also don't tend to introduce so many new characters. Also Nathan Fillion is a voice in this movie: go see it.
Cash grabs don’t tend to introduce so many new characters. Also Nathan Fillion is a voice in this movie: go see it.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of it or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

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