Has Pixar Lost Its Spark?
Remember how for many years Pixar animated movies would be some of the best made of the year? Monsters University showed signs of Pixar heading in a more commercial direction with more emphasis on profit than on script quality. The question is will Pixar return to the greatness it had for many years?
Pixar started off as a small animation studio that made computer animated shorts. Actually shorts was as far computer animation got as far back as 20 years ago. That all changed when they received a phone call from Disney. There they teamed up to make the first ever animated feature. The end result, Toy Story, was history in the making. Released in the fall of 1995, it won over the critics and was a big hit at the box office. Director John Lasseter even received a special honorary Oscar for his achievement.
Eventually over the years the success of Toy Story would pave the way for successes of other 3D animated features over the years. Much of which was done by Pixar itself with the successes and critical renown of A Bug’s Life in 1998 and Toy Story 2 in 1999. In fact in teaming up with Disney/Buena Vista, it became clear that 3D would be the next big thing in animation as it would even fare better with the critics and outgross 2D animated movies from Disney like Mulan in 1998 and Tarzan in 1999.
However it would soon be clear that Pixar would soon get some rivalry in terms of 3D pictures. DreamWorks animation would release Antz just weeks before A Bug’s Life. Then they’d release Shrek in 2001 which did even better critically and financially than Pixar’s Monster’s Inc. that year. The rivalry would eventually lead to the eventual domination of 3D animation in shelling out animated features.
Pixar teamed up with Disney would have continued success and critical renown with other pictures like Finding Nemo in 2003 and The Incredibles in 2004. The movies were not your typical Disney movies in terms of marketing characters in toys but they did continue to score well with the public with both grossing over $250 million and score excellently with the critics. However 2006 gave a sign that Pixar was leaning into commercial directions with Cars. The movie scored 74% on Rotten Tomatoes—the lowest for a Pixar feature at the time—but the movie succeeded in toy merchandise. Its gross was also an impressive $244 million.
2007 to 2010 saw continued success and critical renown with Pixar’s features like Ratatouille in 2007, Wall-E in 2008 and Up in 2009. The big bang came in 2010 with the release of Toy Story 3, the finale to the Toy Story series. Like most of Pixar’s previous movies, it scored excellently with the critics. Its box office result was also excellent as it grossed $415 million: the most ever for a Pixar feature.
I still remember right after Toy Story 3 came there was countless mention of the success Pixar has made both financially and critically over the years. Entertainment webpages around that time made note of the successes they gave over the years. Rotten Tomatoes even pointed out that except for Cars, each Pixar movie up to then scored 90% or higher on its Tomatometer. Even Vanity Fair had a picture during the time of the Oscars of all the characters of Pixar movies. It was almost like around that Oscar time there was a big salute to Pixar for the 15 years of entertainment they gave. 15 years of excellent quality entertainment. 15 years of entertaining families and charming critics. A total of almost $3 billion gross. Forty-one Oscar nominations and eleven Oscar wins including seven wins in the Best Animated Feature category. In fact you could give credit for movies like Toy Story or Toy Story 2 for why the Best Animated Feature category was added by the Academy back in 2001.
Then it seems like right after Toy Story 3 and the glory that followed, things went downhill for Pixar. First came Cars 2 in 2011 with a lot of hype and merchandise. The film grossed a humble $191 million at the box office. However it was the Rotten Tomatoes result that was the big shocker. 39%: the first Pixar feature ever to be certified a Rotten Tomato. It even became the first Pixar feature to fail to receive a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination ever since the category’s inception. As for the merchandise…
2012 gave a bit of hope that Pixar would be back into the swing of things with Brave. Brave was also a milestone as this would be the first Pixar feature with a female protagonist and would include two female co-writers and a female co-director. Unfortunately Brave received 78% at Rotten Tomatoes: falling short of Pixar’s finest efforts. The film did gross $237 million at the box office but still something was missing.
2013 seemed like another year where Pixar was aiming for quantity instead of quality. Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters Inc., was the only Pixar feature released in 2013. That hit a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes but still grossed an impressive $260 million. In terms of merchandise…
This weekend came Planes, a movie that was going along the same line as the Cars movies. It’s not necessarily a Pixar movie but it did have John Lasseter create the story for it. It scored only 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and opened the weekend with a paltry $22.2 million. That could be bad news about Lasseter’s creative juices.
It’s a question to what happened to Pixar as they always aimed for quality not just in terms of animation but also in the story and script. In fact seven of Pixar’s features have also been nominated in the screenplay categories and it’s those that have stood out as Pixar’s finest achievements. However as seen in the past, the desire to go more commercial does make the quality take a backseat. The animation is still top-of-the-line however the lack of inventiveness in its writing is making itself more evident.
It’s not to say that this is the end of Pixar’s legacy. 2014 will have The Good Dinosaur coming out. This was made from a concept of John Lasseter and will introduce a new scriptwriter to Pixar’s dream team. 2015 also shows Pixar keeping its creativity active with The Inside Out and also giving another commercial try with Finding Dory. How these movies will do both commercially and critically is something only time will tell.
Pixar has left a legacy of animated movies over the past twenty years. However it has been right after the release of Toy Story 3 that they appeared to be taking their legacy for granted. Their upcoming releases should send the message if they’ll return to it or not.