Editorial: Are We Seeing The Demise of Pixar? Is Disney’s Influence Good or Bad?

on June 10 | in Editorial, Featured | by | with 21 Comments


Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I watched Mary Poppins live in a sit-down movie theater upon its first release.1 I was a first-grader, and I was mesmerized. There were several indelible scenes for me: the pulling of the lamp out her purse, the animated penguins and the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the floating in the air at the uncle’s house, the rooftop chimney-sweep serenade of Mary, and most of all how sad I was at the end when Mary went away and left the children on their own. I thought it was horribly unfair.

But thirty years later, watching the movie with my wife and daughter, I discovered something startling — although all of the scenes were exactly as I remembered them, they were in a very different movie than I saw as a child. As a child, the movie was about Mary Poppins and wonder and whimsy. As an adult, I was shocked to find that the movie was not about Mary at all, but about parenting and the worth of children and how the time goes so swiftly with them that not a moment can be wasted. I discovered that Mary had to leave when she left, because her job was done, her charges (the parents, not the children) had learned what they needed to learn, and she needed to move on to the next set of parents.

The truth is, the movie is that most amazing of things: it is both movies at once, and it does them both so brilliantly that a six-year old and thirty-six year old can sit in the same theater at the same time and watch the same movie and both come away with a magical experience.

And that is all you really need to know about Disney in its heydey. It turned out movie after movie that was magical, and magical to almost everyone of every age. But after Walt Disney died, they lost their way. Their movies were no longer magical; they were barely watchable, in fact. It was twenty years before they recovered: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King captured some, but not all, of the missing magic.

But the year after The Lion King was released, we discovered there was a new Disney in town, and its name was Pixar. Toy Story had everything going for it that Mary Poppins did — it was magical for young and old alike, it had toys for young and old alike, and most of all it had a story for young and old alike. For the first time in maybe thirty years, a six-year old and thirty-six year old could sit in the same theater and watch the same movie and both could experience — magic!

Meanwhile, Disney lost the small path they’d found (it wasn’t big enough to call it a way). They began churning out cheap straight-to-DVD ripoffs of their successful movies, with cheap animation, cheap music, and cheap voice talent. They couldn’t compete with Pixar’s computer magic, so they threw in the towel and counted on the Disney name to carry them. It didn’t.

Pixar, on the other hand, proceeded to reel off one of the best ten-year periods for a studio in movie history. Not only were their movies all phenomenonally successful, they all had great, and in some cases brilliant, stories.2 They were all (say it with me) — magical.

And then came Cars 2, and suddenly the streak, and the magic, was over. Cars was easily the weakest movie of the streak, and it had the same level of magic as one of GOB’s shows3. Yes, I know four-year olds love it, obsessively even, but I know of no thirty-four year olds that do. Had it been the first Pixar movie, it would have been OK, but just as fast-food pizza isn’t too bad before you’ve had my wife’s homemade pizza but inedible after, so Cars suffered greatly in comparison to what had gone before it. Making a sequel of it was a decision of disastrous (dare I say Biblical?) proportions.

Something else happened to Disney while Pixar went on their tear — they turned into the Galactic Empire. They became more concerned with franchises than art. They decided they needed consistent characters to populate their theme parks. They began consuming studios like I consume chocolate. Marvel Comics — gone. Lucas Films — gone.

And in between, Pixar, gone. Cars 2 was a Disneyesque decision, because it was actually a Disney decision, because independent Pixar was no more, enveloped into the Empire in 2006. (The year Cars came out, in fact, although we don’t get to blame Disney for it, as much as I’d like to.)

I’m afraid the Disneyification of Pixar might be complete. This year saw the release of Brave, a derivative story if ever there was one, and a mediocre movie at best. Next up is a sequel to Monsters. A sequel to Finding Nemo has just been announced. A possible third sequel to Toy Story is rumored but not confirmed (this by itself would be the last nail in the coffin for me), as is a potential sequel to The Incredibles.

What do all of those things have in common? They’re franchise-builders, cheap knockoffs intended to further the brand, not further the state of the art. They’re more concerned with characters than character, with the familiar rather than the inventive. And they’re the exact opposite of what we saw in Pixar’s ten-year run.

I am not judging movies I haven’t seen, I’m interpolating based on movies I have seen. It is possible the new sequels will be good movies, and stories, in their own right. But based on the last two, I doubt it. The Empire has consumed them, and all that’s left is a bloated mess.

And not even a spoonful of sugar will help that medicine go down.

  1. Yes, that’s right, I’m not one of the thirty-somethings with spiked hair that normally frequent this particular space. Now get off my lawn.
  2. Quick, name three movies with better stories than Monsters, Inc. I’ll wait.
  3. Google is your friend.

Editor Update: Welcome our newest contributor Vince Rice! We here at Truth On Cinema are looking forward to all of the “wisdom” that we’re sure to get from him. That’s not because he’s old or anything. Check out more about him at our very cleverly titled “About Us” page.

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21 Responses to Editorial: Are We Seeing The Demise of Pixar? Is Disney’s Influence Good or Bad?

  1. Dustin says:

    Beg to differ on Cars. I absolutely loved it when it came out. It came out at a time when my wife and I were extremely homesick and feeling bereft of community. It reminded us that we were not created to do life alone, that we need people, even eccentric, strange, and imperfect people, to live a complete life on this earth. Cars reminded me of that, and gave me a taste of home in the process. I don’t think it was the colossal failure you paint.

    Agree that Disney is no longer the magic factory it once was. But I don’t agree that innovation is the sole key to wonder either. Sequels do more than just build a franchise. When done well, and Pixar does them better than most, sequels take us through the seasons of a character that a single movie can’t. Toy Story is a great example…we walk through many trials with Woody and Buzz on their journeys to discover their purpose in life, and we see a Giving-Tree-like loss in Andy’s growth. But things come full circle in the end, leaving us feel like “everything will be all right” in a way that a single movie cannot.

    I love your overall analysis and it is indeed difficult to watch the McDonaldization of the stories we love. Thanks for contributing, great topic!

    • Dan says:

      Dustin, I can get the emotional connection you had with Cars as being the catapult for your love of the film, but in context of the Pixar franchise and looking at the breadth of their offerings, it falls supremely short in terms of story and emotional depth. It felt/feels like a “throwaway” film that never connected with BOTH adults and kids like the previous films did.

      As far as sequels go, I think Pixar should be the ONE studio that just avoids it like the plague. They don’t NEED it. I totally believe that their films stand alone and satisfy my hunger for story, emotional connection, depth of character, and enjoyment in and of themselves. The ONLY film I ever thought I would like to see “where they are now” is The Incredibles. But, beyond that, I think Pixar is slowly going the way of the buffalo and might be shortcutting themselves for the love of the penny.

      • johnny thunders says:

        you’re crazy. toy story keeps getting better with every sequel. i don’t want to deny sequels when they’re good.

        • Vince Vince says:

          Dan *is* crazy, but his point is well-made. Tory Story did not get better with every sequel. It’s pretty amazing that the story didn’t *degrade* with every sequel, but it didn’t get better, either. There is no replacing the magic of the first viewing of TS. Or the tenth. TS2 and 3 were good stories in their own right, but they weren’t better than the original.

          His point is that with the ideas, imagination, and story shown in the other films of the streak, there’s no *reason* to make a sequel. In Hollywood, you make sequels when you run out of good ideas, and Pixar appeared to have ideas by the dozens.

          *Appeared*. Which is what brought me to write this post in the first place. 🙂

          • johnny thunders says:

            ok, first of all, completely disagree. each toy story gets better and the third one is by far the best.

            that said, the idea that a sequel is only made when you have no new ideas is absurd. as a writer, sometimes i have tons of ideas with the same characters and would love to write them more and more. the characters in toy story are so well crafted that you could tell dozens of stories with them without them getting old. yes, sometimes it’s done because you have no new ideas or you just want to cash in, but that’s far from the only reason.

          • Ryan says:

            I guess it won’t let me reply directly under Johnny at this point.

            The idea about exploring new stories with the same characters sparked a thought…

            My son has a book, Toy Story Christmas or some such. Woody has promised the Toys that it will be a white Christmas, but there’s no snow in the forecast and he’s worried. They decorate the tree, read the Christmas poem and in the last page it snows…

            My point is this: animation lends itself to derivation. It’s why we see so many successful films becoming animated shows (Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda leap to mind immediately). As I’ve mentioned, I love the idea of exploring a world more deeply and delving into the (in-continuity) universe that has been created. I just think you have to have A) a strong vision who the characters are and where they are going, B) a strong leader in the business who is going to champion the characters and stories and not fall prey to the $.

            This has been “Ryan lives in a fantasy world.” Thanks for joining us.

          • Vince Vince says:

            Ryan, you got to be next to Johnny after all.

            Note my words — In Hollywood. Hollywood is not a place for people of vision. Lucas had the clearest vision of a story-arc of probably anyone in movies in the last fifty years (he was a lousy scriptwriter/director, but had the story down cold), and he formed his own company so he could do what he wanted (with the success of Star Wars let him fund it).

            This is the whole discussion being had elsewhere here on sequels: there are sequels made because there was a story to be told (what you’re talking about), and there are sequels made because there is (possible) money to be made (what I’m talking about, e.g. Cars 2). Hollywood specializes in the latter, not the former. You can name the former on one hand with fingers left over.

            I applaud sequels made from stories to be told. As I’ve already mentioned, I liked TS2/3, I just don’t think they were better than the original (sorry, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one). If all sequels were of the quality of TS2/3, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

            But they’re not. They’re mostly of the quality of Cars 2. And when a studio turns from making something as good as TS3 to making something as bad as Cars2, and when that transition comes after being gobbled up by the evil Empire, then that is a cause of great concern to me.

        • Dan says:

          I will amend what I said and say that maybe Toy Story has been the only sequel that PIXAR has done that I like. But, then again, I don’t totally think it was needed.

          • Dan says:

            Seeing it from a writer’s perspective I think is a helpful and new vantage point that I didn’t think about. As a novice and mostly observational writer myself, there are times when I feel like I can tell a much bigger story over multiple “parts” so in that sense, like with Star Wars being a much bigger story to unfold over multiple films, I see the benefit of sequels.

  2. johnny thunders says:

    i think cars is a fantastic movie and i’m more excited for monsters university than i have been for any pixar movie in years. i think it looks great. and you can’t say they only did sequels once disney was more involved, toy story proves that wrong.

    also, i’m not really sure you know much about disney’s history and what went wrong. the period in the 90s when everything went downhill and it became straight to dvd crap? that’s all michael eisner. he ran the company into the ground. yes, they’ve acquired a lot of properties in recent years but they’ve been really great with them. they bought the muppets quite a while back but waited until the right project came along to reintroduce them to people. and as a lifelong muppet fanboy, they did an amazing job doing that. yes pixar is owned by disney, technically, but the deal was that disney handed the reigns of their entire animation department over to pixar. the only reason they have cell animation anymore is because pixar came in and rebuilt that department that disney had scrapped. yes, one day we may end up with a michael eisner again to screw everything up, but right now that’s not the problem.

    also, i loved brave. i thought it was fantastic that they made a story with a princess that showed a strong and powerful woman and didn’t fall into the crazed disney princess culture with it. i really enjoyed it and so did the kid. and it gave her something to aspire to, rather than pretty dresses and jewels.

    • Dan says:

      I watched Brave on my flight to Cambodia so my emotional state notwithstanding, I, too, thoroughly enjoyed the different tonal quality Brave had. I haven’t really commented much on Brave as, again, I was in a very different place when I saw it, but I felt/feel that it is one of PIXAR’s most ambitious attempts at a story…and I applaud it. Though, I never really connected with it like I have in previous films and felt that the “villain” or antagonist wasn’t ever clearly defined, IMO.

  3. Vince Vince says:

    I’ll start with this: one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Talking about films is inherently subjective. I have a friend who thinks Casablanca is a boring, cliché-ridden, jingoistic waste of two-plus hours. He’s wrong, of course (“William, they’re clichés BECAUSE of Casablanca!”), but since it’s a subjective discussion, he’s perfectly entitled to his wrong opinion. 🙂

    That said, Cars is a demonstrably weak film compared to every other film in what I’m calling “the streak”. The rest of the films in the streak scored in the high 90’s on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic (impressive scores for a single movie, outrageously ridiculous scores for ten movies in a row). Cars scored in the low 70’s, a 20-25 point drop. Cars was also the weakest film at the box office other than the first two, and they were made eight and eleven years prior.

    But, more than anything, I found the story lacking in imagination. Again, I think the ideas, the imagination, on display in “Monsters, Inc.”, “Toy Story”, “WALL-E”, etc. is top-5 in any decade since the talkies arrived. Cars wouldn’t crack the top-50 of a single year, much less a decade. It’s just not a very interesting, enduring, story. I saw it once, and have never needed to see it again.

    But the point was “Cars 2,” not “Cars.” I completely agree on what a sequel SHOULD do, and I found “Cars 2” completely lacking in every area. In the rather lengthy comment thread on another post here at TruthOnCinema [(http://truthoncinema.com/news/seas-the-day-pirates-of-the-caribbean-5-wants-kon-tiki-directors-at-the-helm/%5D, I said that STORY was the key to a sequel, and “Cars 2” story was awful.

    “Brave” had many of the same issues as “Cars.” How many ways have problems between teenage girls and their mothers been told? A hundred? A thousand? It was, for me, an uninteresting story, uninterestingly told. Saw it once, never need to see it again. It was forgettable. It was the opposite of magic.

    I don’t believe I said innovation was the sole key to wonder; if I implied it I apologize (a good story, not innovation). Nor did I say Pixar only made sequels once Disney was involved. They just only made BAD ones. 🙂

    But, as an aside, Toy Story 3 was announced the month after the merger/takeover. For all intents and purposes, Disney had nothing to do with it. In fact, Eisner had started plans for a rogue TS3 if the deal fell thru, which should have everyone offering a prayer of thanksgiving that things didn’t go down that particular path.

    I’m fairly well-versed in Eisner’s virtual destruction of the Disney brand, but I’m not convinced today’s Disney differs all that much in intent (in character, perhaps). As I mentioned in the post, Disney today is interested in continuing characters that will feed their park attendance, so they will continue characters at all costs. (And you can bet a Star Wars park is coming to a neighborhood near you in the not too distant future.) This is not a studio interested in telling great stories. They are interested in making a lot of money.

    I believe there was a reason Steve Jobs bought Pixar — because their philosophies were so closely aligned. Make great things, and profits will come. But the emphasis has to be on the great things. The films of the streak were all great things. The last two, not so much.

    It may turn out that “Monsters, University” is a brilliant and well-executed story, and that Ellen makes “Finding Dory” another hilarious, heart-warming, and magical journey. That’s just not the way I’m betting.

    • johnny thunders says:

      well, it’s a good thing i think critics aren’t worth listening to and i think the higher the box office for a movie is generally determines how bad a movie is because i stand by cars. and i think cars 2 was definitely a weaker film, but i enjoyed it all the same.

      ““Brave” had many of the same issues as “Cars.” How many ways have problems between teenage girls and their mothers been told? A hundred? A thousand?”

      but how is that different than toy story? i’d seen the story of toy story before, but it was in how it was told. i think brave was a really well told story that did something new with an old idea. i don’t know how well it did at the box office or what it’s tomato score, but i don’t really care. i think it’s a fantastic movie.

      “I believe there was a reason Steve Jobs bought Pixar — because their philosophies were so closely aligned. Make great things, and profits will come. ”

      i always thought steve job’s philosophy was “steal ideas from someone else and then convince people they need something they don’t through brilliant marketing and hip design and make tons of money.”

      “I’m fairly well-versed in Eisner’s virtual destruction of the Disney brand, but I’m not convinced today’s Disney differs all that much in intent (in character, perhaps). As I mentioned in the post, Disney today is interested in continuing characters that will feed their park attendance, so they will continue characters at all costs. ”

      i’m not sure how you can see what they’re doing as this. look at the people they’re choosing for these franchises. like i mentioned before, they brought in jason segel, a lifelong muppet fan, to make the muppet movie. look at the people they’re bringing in for star wars. lawrence kasdan, the writer of the best previous movie. joss whedon, a comics writer and comic fan is doing the avengers franchise. they aren’t just handing them off to michael bay so that they can get a huge box office, they’re actually bringing in great creative types to make great movies. who cares if they’re also making money off of theme parks? i just care about good movies.

    • Vince Vince says:

      Regardless of what you, or I, think of them, it’s almost impossible to find a 90%+ score on RT or MetaCritic that isn’t a great (or at least very good) movie. I welcome evidence to the contrary. When that is coupled with a large box office, meaning the viewing public ALSO thought it was worth spending their $ on, that’s also an even stronger indication it was great, or at least very good. Again, I welcome evidence to the contrary.

      I started this comment thread by saying this whole subject is … subjective. You liked Cars, Cars 2, and Brave. I didn’t. You apparently feel there’s nothing wrong with Pixar. I think there might be. We’ll find out over the next two or three movies. (And, in case it wasn’t obvious, I would love to be wrong. I loved Pixar’s magic, and I want them to get it back.)

      • johnny thunders says:

        my issue came with you saying that there weren’t any adults who liked cars. that’s what you crossed the line from subjective. i don’t honestly think you have any evidence that pixar has a problem, it’s all conjecture.

      • Vince Vince says:

        You keep putting words in my mouth. I did not say there weren’t any adults who liked Cars. I said I didn’t know any who loved it.

        There is no line to cross to subjective — as I’ve said repeatedly, this whole subject is subjective. Any discussion of a film’s merit is inherently subjective. No matter how many people think Casablanca is a great film, there are still people like my friend who thinks it’s mediocre. No amount of “evidence,” and there is obviously plenty of evidence to the contrary, will change his mind.

        I’ve presented plenty of “evidence” that Pixar might have a problem, you just don’t like the evidence. Which is your prerogative. And, again, we’ll see after the next two or three movies.

  4. Ryan says:

    FYI – The Paperman short (Academy Award Winner 2013) was the best thing Disney has put out in years. Whimsical, concise, bringing back the heart of 2D in a digital world. It reminds me a lot of the characters from 101 Dalmations as well as Jim and Pam from The Office.

    by the way, what Disney does/did is not a bunch of “magic”…

    ILLUSIONS, Vince!

  5. Vince Vince says:

    Illusions aren’t real. Disney’s magic was. 🙂

    Yes, the Paperman short was good, and yes, it absolutely reminded me of the couple in 101 Dalmations as well. If you take the first five minutes of 101 and watch it side-by-side with Paperman, I think there would be a mother-daughter resemblance.

  6. Rafael says:

    I agree with some of what is said in the article, Cars 2 was really a low point for Pixar. But, I think Brave was a good movie and a needed change of style, era and story. And, about the old days, I believe Beauty and the Beast and Lion King have more magic than some of the Disney movies back in the WD days

  7. Dan says:

    Vince, when/if you see Monsters University, can we expect a review from you?

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