Has Pixar Lost Its Spark?

The release of Monsters University shows Pixar putting more emphasis on commercialism and less in remarkable writing.
The release of Monsters University shows Pixar putting more emphasis on commercialism and less in remarkable writing.

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.

Vanity Fair saluted Pixar for its fifteen years of remarkable entertainment with this picture in its Oscar issue.
Vanity Fair saluted Pixar for its fifteen years of remarkable entertainment with this picture in its 2011 Oscar issue.

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.

2010 Oscars Best Picture Nominee: Toy Story 3

Hi. With every Academy Awards, I usually review all the Best Picture nominees and give my feedback on them. So begins it this year. This year, we again have ten nominees for Best Picture. They range from big budget blockbusters to arthouse or filmfest pictures. From live action to animation. From timepieces to movies in current settings. From Hollywood to England.  From summer hits to the usual end-of-year serious lineup. I really can’t complain about this year’s set. With that in mind, I will start off with probably the most popular nominee of the year, Toy Story 3.

The first Toy Story, released back in 1995,  has to rank as one of the best animated pictures ever. Before the first Toy Story, there was no real 3D animation feature that was created. As Toy Story was released, that all changed. It not only was a hit but made a name for the Disney/Pixar collaboration and paved the way for many more 3D animation movies to where now 3D is the cream of the animation crop. As Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs made film history as the first ever feature-length animated film, Toy Story made history as the first ever 3D animated feature. Toy Story 2 proved that the Toy Story fever can happen again and even compete with live action. Eleven years later, we have the third and final installment of the groundbreaking series, Toy Story 3.

SPOILER WARNING: This review will have some spoilers of the movie’s plot and even the ending but I don’t think it should matter; assuming most of you have seen it already anyways.

It starts as the toys act out Andy’s toy fantasy as he plays with them while still a kid. Fast forward to the present, we see Andy’s all grown up, college-bound and hasn’t played with Woody, Buzz and friends for years. The toys face an uncertain future, unsure if they’ll be given away to those in need or trashed. Andy keeps Woody to take to college while bagging the rest for Sunnyside Daycare. The mother mistakes the bag of toys as trash and puts them to the side of the road. They manage to escape thanks to Woody and find themselves at Sunnyside. They’re first introduced to the place by Lots-O’-Huggin’-Bear, or ‘Lotso’, and it seems fine until they’re played with by, or should I say abused by, two year-olds. To make matters worse, Lotso has the place run like a toy prison and convinces all they were thrown away.

Meanwhile Woody is picked up by a toddler named Bonnie and decides she’d be best for the gang. He also finds out what happened to his friends from a clown named Chuckles and of how Lotso became the sinister toy svengali he is. Woody helps plan an escape for all the toys until Lotso cuts the escape short. He takes Woody to the dump truck with him and the toys all follow Woody to the dump where they find themselves on an incinerator leading to the furnace. Lotso attempts to help, only to trick them all into saving himself and leading them all to the furnace. All are spared a fiery demise as the squeeze toys rescue them through the claw they were fascinated by. All escape and return to Andy’s house while Lotso is strapped to the grill of a garbage truck for life.

Upon returning to Andy’s house, the toys place themselves in a box and Woody posts a note to be given to Bonnie. Andy gives all the toys except for Woody to Bonnie, but Woody does get her attention. Reluctant since Woody is his most prized childhood toy, Andy eventually does hand it over to Bonnie where he spends his last time with Woody playing with Bonnie. In the end, Woody and the gang are played with again by Bonnie and the Sunnyside tots and things work for the better as Sunnyside is no longer a prison and become beloved by the kids.

Overall this movie was excellently written and succeeds in becoming a surprise tearjerker. In animated movies, a script has to be top notch in order for it to succeed on screen and it does just that. Just as important is having top notch animation. Pixar is known for having graphics in their movies perfect to the minutest detail and they keep up their excellent work with the graphics in Toy Story 3. The voices and characters retain their original charm and the new toys are given a charm of their own. We even see a unique twist in Buzz Lightyear as he’s often reverted to Spanish mode. Overall the movie is completely enjoyable and will please Toy Story fans all over again.

Hard to believe the first two Toy Story movies were out when there was no Best Animated Feature Oscar. The first Toy Story was nominated for the 1995 Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical and in three Oscar categories including Best Screenplay. Director John Lasseter was even awarded a special Oscar for creating the first ever computer animated feature. Toy Story 2 scored a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and won the 1999 Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical. The Academy only had the heart to give it a single Best Original Song nomination for ‘When She Loved Me’. The Best Animated Feature category was introduced at the 2001 Academy Awards, two years after Toy Story 2.  A win for Toy Story 3 in the Best Animated Feature category would not only be a win for the movie itself but an excellent ‘last hurrah’ for the groundbreaking series.  Not to mention the first Toy Story movie to win an Oscar. Toy Story 3 has already won the lion’s share of Best Animated Feature awards however it was dealt a shocker at the recent Annie Awards when it lost to How To Train Your Dragon. I doubt if there will be a shocker like that at the Oscars. Disney/Pixar movies have won five of the nine Best Animated Feature Oscars and it looks like Toy Story 3 will be #6. As for Best Picture, knowing the Academy, I don’t think Toy Story 3, or frankly any animated movie ever, will get Best Picture.

If you’re one of the many who saw Toy Story 3, consider yourselves satisfied to know you saw one of the best movies of 2010. A perfect ending to arguably the best animation series in film history.