As of the writing of this piece, the latest Pixar film, Incredibles 2, has made over $400m worldwide after less than a fortnight. In its opening weekend, it broke box office records for an animated film’s opening weekend and is already the 8th largest opening weekend of all time. The last sequel the studio released, Finding Dory, made $486.2m domestically, and it seems all but accepted that this sequel will soar past that.
This has been good news for a studio in flux. After the downfall of John Lasseter over accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct, many wondered if Disney would allow the former kingmaker back into the fold. That option became increasingly impossible over the passing months, and last week it was announced that Inside Out director Pete Docter will become the new chief creative officer of both Disney and Pixar Animation alongside Frozen director Jennifer Lee. Docter and Lee are both very popular within the company and animation community at large, and thanks to the successes of their respective films, they’ve made The Walt Disney Company more money than it knows what to do with. The question now is where does Pixar go?
Once upon a time, Pixar was infallible. The ground-breaking studio gave the American animation industry a much-needed shot in the arm and a change of pace from Disney’s usual fare of fairy-tales and the hero’s journey. What seemed so novel and unsustainable in 1995 - the experimentation of 3D animated features - has now become the norm across every studio in North America making cartoons. As instantly recognizable as Disney’s formula was, Pixar carved their own path with a mish-mash of road movie, buddy comedy and family-friendly romp. Their works were totally original, not based on other material or familiar tales read to children every night. Here was a studio that, unlike Disney, didn’t have to adhere to the moral traits that had defined their name for decades. This was a clean slate of sorts, and eventually, it started to make more money than the films Disney themselves were making.
Disney had a deal with Pixar for distribution that the latter were not happy about, but the wars didn’t last long before Disney did what they do best and bought their competition. The new deal stated that Pixar could make their weird little films that would usually never make it out of the planning stages at Disney - A mostly silent robot romance with an environmental message? A heartfelt exploration of ageing and loss with an octogenarian as the protagonist? Wait, the rat is a chef?! - but that they also really wanted some sequels. Originally, Toy Story 2 was going to be churned out quickly for a straight-to-video release. As profitable as those original films were - and even today, Pixar have very few quantifiable flops in their catalogue - Disney knew the big bucks lay in franchising. This was pre-Marvel and Star Wars, but around the time that Pirates of the Caribbean had become a major deal, so Disney needed to keep up with the competition. Their own animated efforts were floundering as they stepped away from their favoured formula, but Pixar were going from strength to strength.
It would be silly to claim that Pixar are in a downward slide right now, as I’ve seen some assert. Not every film is an unmitigated success like they used to be, but most of them are still making upwards of $700m worldwide. Over the past five years, Pixar have released seven films, and one of them made over $1bn. The problem is that, of thosr seven films, only two aren’t sequels or prequels: Inside Out and Coco, which were both huge hits, and The Good Dinosaur, which is their biggest flop ever (making $332m worldwide from a budget of around $200m). That’s not to say that sequels are guaranteed money makers: To the surprise of many, the former golden cash cow of Pixar, Cars, saw its third film barely scrape by $383m worldwide from a budget of $175m. Still, the pattern seems firmly in place for now: The sequels have become an increasing priority over the original tales that made Pixar so special in the first place.
Pixar films are very expensive to make. It’s a positive sign that they keep commanding those budgets, and the results are spectacular: As bad as The Good Dinosaur is, the photo-realistic settings and backdrops are worth the price of admission alone. Disney and Pixar seem to be the only major American studios actually putting money into their animation (although the industry remains horrifically exploitative when it comes to paying the animators themselves). Yet nowadays, the animated films making the biggest money are those that cost under $100m to produce. Despicable Me, anyone? It’s good business for Disney to keep pumping cash into Pixar - if only for the branding opportunities and corporate synergy - but with Disney’s own animated films back doing stellar business, is Pixar still a priority in that regard?
One of the things that defined Pixar as special was its lauded brain trust. The figures who banded together to make Pixar a reality were the ones with this utopian ideal for corporate creativity. Articles have been glowingly written and talks given on how the brain trust are paramount to Pixar’s success and stand as an inspiration to others in the industry. Great ideas can come from collective discussions and it clearly worked for a long time with Pixar, but that brain trust is also part of the studio’s problems. When you deify a bunch of white dudes in a room as the artistic ideal, it becomes harder for anyone else to get a seat at that table, much less if they’re a woman or person of colour. Brenda Chapman remains the only woman to have directed a Pixar film, and even then, she was removed from that position and replaced by a white man.
John Lasseter thrived in this environment. The jovial leader with the colourful shirts, a love of cars and the personality of everyone’s favourite uncle wasn’t like all those other CEOs. He wasn’t a penny pinching cynic like Michael Eisner, nor was he the calculating pragmatist like Jeffrey Katzenberg. The man was a Randy Newman song come to life, or at least a Randy Newman song written for a Disney movie. The accusations against him were probably the ones that stung the most to someone like me, partly because they seemed so unexpected. None of it was news if you worked in that field, as I later discovered. Lasseter didn’t just have incredible power at both Disney and Pixar: He created an immense shadow over animation and the industry of nostalgia. He was as much a product for Pixar to sell as the movies themselves. That persona is what we all want our CEOs to be, but the reality is far colder and nastier.
With Docter and Lee now sharing the top duties, it’s doubtful that such a role can ever exist as it once did. That’s for the best and will hopefully encourage greater diversity in a field that remains painfully white and male. The sequels will still come thick and fast, with Toy Story 4 set for a 2019 release. Outside of that, their slate is empty, but there are plenty of films still in early planning and pre-production stages. It seems foolish to bet against Pixar, especially since Disney are in an age of plenty. The scrappy young upstarts of the business are now the old pros, so let’s wait to see which rising voices they decide to elevate.
(Header photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)