Posted in: Review

Never Mind the Sequels, Pixar Is Not Out of Ideas

With Pixar’s official announcement of a release date for Finding Dory, the Finding Nemo sequel that was first mentioned last year, and with the release of Monsters University just a few months away, I suppose it’s time again to ask whether the once-revered Pixar is out of ideas. After all, the studio produced the mildly enjoyable but very kid-oriented Cars 2, and — get this — not every single person who saw Brave unequivocally loved it. And can you believe they’ve got Planes, a Cars-world spinoff that might well be called Insult to Injury, coming to theaters this August? And then this Finding Nemo stuff? Call it! Pixar as we know it is dead! Another victim of the Disney steamroller!

Oh, except one thing: that makes very little sense. Let’s go through the Pixar pipeline as we know it:

Monsters University comes out in June. It’s a prequel, which isn’t very promising, but at least won’t untie the lovely bow at the end of Monsters, Inc. Also, animated movies take a long time to make. This means Monsters University was given the go-ahead at least three years ago, around the time Pixar was basking in the magnificent success of Toy Story 3. It doesn’t really speak to what the company is doing right now.

Then in August there’s Planes, except there’s not, because Pixar is not producing Planes. John Lasseter is, because (a) Cars merchandise makes a ton of money and (b) Lasseter is really, really into the Cars universe. It’s weird, I know. Having this animation genius love the world of the weakest Pixar movies is sort of like if you found out Spielberg’s favorite movie from his filmography was Hook (which is to say: it would be kind of endearing, and not as bad as if his favorite was Always, but also seems objectively incorrect).

Then there’s Finding Dory, right? Actually, no: then there’s The Good Dinosaur, due out in May 2014. It’s about a world where dinosaurs never went extinct and coexist with humans. It’s directed by Bob Peterson, a longtime Pixar team member (he had a hand in both Up and Finding Nemo), and it’s not based on anything except the idea that dinosaurs are awesome, which they are, so… there’s that to look forward to.

After that, in summer 2015, there’s Inside Out, the new movie from Pete Docter, who directed Up and Monsters, Inc. It reportedly features Pixar’s second female protagonist, as the movie takes place within the mind of a little girl. It sounds audacious and a little bizarre on paper, like Wall-E or Ratatouille, and anything that makes me think of those movies is something I’m excited to see.

Finding Dory then arrives for Thanksgiving 2015 — or at least that’s the current plan. Pixar has never been shy about reshuffling release dates if certain movies need more time to get sorted out. It’s entirely possible Dory and Inside Out could switch places in 2015, or one could head out to 2016, which is currently earmarked for an untitled Day of the Dead-themed movie directed by Lee Unkrich. If the current schedule holds, though, Finding Dory (which, to be clear, I am less excited about than any upcoming movie mentioned in this article outside of the non-Pixar Planes) isn’t even taking the place of an original Pixar movie. Since Cars in 2006, Pixar has released one animated feature per year (they averaged slightly less than that beforehand). 2015 may see the release of two. Even if Finding Dory turns out to be the Cars 2 of cartoon fish, it doesn’t seem like it’s crowding out some other, more original idea. Per the current schedule, it will be preceded by two Pixar originals and followed up by a third.

Don’t get me wrong: the sequelizing does disappoint me. When John Lasseter officially boarded Disney, he put the kibosh on their embarrassing series of direct-to-DVD sequels (though the likes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame II inexplicably survive, packaged in several recent Blu-ray releases). I had hoped that this wasn’t in favor of higher-quality but still largely brand-diminishing theatrically released sequels. This goes for movies from Disney Feature Animation, too. I loved Wreck-It Ralph. I’m not particularly psyched about the idea of a follow-up. The Toy Story sequels blew everyone away because of how good they are. This perhaps hints at the usual difficulties in producing sequels in general, never mind to widely loved animated movies. I far prefer the short-film approach: sure, stick a new Monsters or Wall-E (or Wreck-It Ralph!) short in front of a new Disney movie, get the kids excited, and keep making fresh Pixar movies for us to love.

But the idea that the company is “out of ideas,” to use a stock phrase, is just plain dumb. Let’s run some numbers that actually favor the sequels: count Pixar movies scheduled for this decade, starting with Toy Story 3. There are eight in total; this includes all of their sequels except Toy Story 2, and no potential originals that might come out in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Four of them are sequels. I’d love if the percentage of sequels was lower than 50, definitely. But until that percentage is up to 100, the “out of ideas” thing is weird speculation that trades on willful ignorance of how the movie industry works (that is: the movie a company announces is not the only thing they are working on at any given time).

I think the newfound obsession with chinking Pixar’s armor (Brave was merely really good! It wasn’t as big a knockout as Up! The horror!) comes more from a weird obsession with perfect records. I mean, I’m as stunned by Pixar’s 1995-2010 run as anyone else. But 50 years from now, it’s not going to matter much that Pixar made a subpar movie in 2011. What matters is the number of great movies they’ve produced — which right now is enough to secure the company’s legacy, just as the pantheon of classic Disney movies makes misses like Home on the Range sting a lot less. And hell, even if Pixar makes ten bad movies, that doesn’t actually mean they’re out of ideas; it could also mean they’re not executing their ideas well, or that they’re rushing their process, or any number of things that cause a movie to go wrong.

But moreover: Call me when that’s happened more than once.

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