Remember the Pixar films of yore? Those sweet, innocent, simple productions free of convoluted plots and overly elaborate settings? Those feel-good movies you could watch again and again and again? Those movies made first and foremost for kids and their imagination? The first two “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life,” “Monster’s Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” were all films released before Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who honestly dislikes any one of these films. However, Pixar movies produced after the acquisition do not share the same unanimous respect that the earlier movies inspire.
Few people will deny that the two “Cars” films are horrible. “Brave” was met with very mixed reviews. Many people love “Wall-E” and “Up,” although some, like myself, found the emotions in these films to be false and the storylines flat. My personal favorite Pixar movie is “Ratatouille,” but all too often when I tell this to people, they jeer and ramble about those snobbish French. The only recent movie that breaks this lackluster trend is “Toy Story 3.” I haven’t heard a single complaint lodged against it. Why did this happen? What happened to Pixar after Disney took control?
From 1991 to 2006, there was indeed a partnership between Disney and Pixar. Pixar was responsible for the creation and production of films while Disney handled marketing and distribution. This, in effect, kept all creative decisions safely in Pixar’s hands. Pixar was a small, independent and self-determining company, at times employing only 42 people. The company made movies with quality over profit in mind.
However, then things became “Disneyfied.” With the creation of Disney-Pixar in 2006, Disney took an active role in the production of Pixar films. Movie concepts were to be screened and approved by Disney. Because the budgets of Disney-Pixar movies were higher than they had been without Disney, only sure box-office hits were approved. The films became duller with higher budgets. They feel engineered rather than artistically crafted. The old movies were charming in their naivete and cheerful bliss; the new movies are frustrating in their overbearing settings, characters and plots.
Perhaps one contributing factor to Pixar’s decline is that beginning in 2006, Pixar has released a film every year. Before 2006, films were released two years apart on average. Pixar also suffered the loss of Steve Jobs in 2006. Jobs had been the CEO of Pixar for 11 years before 2006. After the transaction, Jobs abandoned his leading role at Pixar and became the single largest shareholder on Disney’s board of directors. In fact, upon his death, the majority of his estate’s worth was derived from Disney, not Apple.
I wish for a return to those good ol’ simple-minded Pixar masterpieces. Maybe I’m seeing through the lens of nostalgia — if I had spent my childhood years with “Wall-E” or “Up,” I might prefer them to “Finding Nemo” or “Monsters Inc.” Pixar seems to prefer its old movies, too — what else would explain all these recent sequels? (In addition to “Toy Story 3,” Pixar has slated upcoming releases for “Finding Nemo 2” and “Monster’s University,” a “Monster’s Inc.” prequel). Unfortunately, Pixar has lost originality in pursuit of easy money. The sequel is almost always worse than the original. Sequels exploit the novelty of yesteryear rather than surprising us with further creative originality. Ed Catmull, the current president of Pixar, can learn from his own advice: “We as executives have to resist our natural tendency to avoid or minimize risks, which, of course, is much easier said than done. In the movie business and plenty of others, this instinct leads executives to choose to copy successes rather than try to create something brand-new.” Nevertheless, “Monster’s University” may prove to be very exciting for the Dartmouth community — the university setting looks like it may even be modeled after our very own Baker Bell Tower and Webster Hall.
I hope Pixar will go on to hire fresh talent and pursue creativity without the necessity of hungering for the big bucks that come from the next predictably formulaic blockbuster. One intriguing prospect scheduled for release in the far future is Pixar’s first live-action film, “1906,” a historical disaster film based on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Directed by Brad Bird, the same man who wrote and directed “The Incredibles,” this movie is sure to reintroduce creative risk to Pixar.