For a long time, the film and critical community has been waiting for Pixar to inevitably lose its magic. The wait hasn’t been an eager one; there is just a feeling that the studio’s excellence can’t last. Its string of damn-near perfect films lasted over a decade. Now, with the announcement of Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, it seems as though Pixar may be making a transition from an amazing and innovative studio to a more typical one. A studio that is still making great movies, but is more content to rest on its past successes and take fewer risks.
It’s important to note that when discussing how great Pixar’s movies are, there’s always an inherent “except for Cars,” clause. Granted, I haven’t seen Cars, but the general consensus is that Cars is, while not necessarily a bad movie, not up to Pixar’s standards. Pixar has done a lot of work in helping to dispel the idea of the “animation age ghetto,” which is the totally ignorant assumption that cartoons are inherently only for kids. Animation is a medium, not a genre. Pixar’s movies are beloved by adults, and in some cases, I would say there’s more in it for adults than there is for kids. Cars, a movie about talking cars starring Larry the Cable Guy, was not in the same league as, say, Wall-E.
But okay, Cars was sub-par, but the rest of their movies were amazingly creative. Cooking rats! An old guy with a balloon house! Retired superheroes! The last remaining robot trying to rebuild a planet destroyed by man’s increasing opulence and waste! (Wow, Wall-E was deep.) Each movie created its own amazing world and took the audience somewhere new. Now, they seem to be taking us back.
With the exception of Toy Story 2, Pixar did not make any sequels until it was fully bought by Disney in 2006. Disney is an empire and is very much franchised-based, as seen in their more recent acquisitions of Marvel Comics and Star Wars. It makes sense that they would want the critically acclaimed and popular Pixar movies to become Pixar franchises.
Pixar didn’t make sequels unless it could “come up with a story as good as the original.” They made Toy Story 2, and this way okay, because Toy Story was the first Pixar movie and really defined the studio. It deserved revisiting. Toy Story 3 was similarly okay by this logic, and it was also an incredible movie.
Then came Cars 2. The motivation for Cars 2 was pretty clear, but the general critical consensus was a somewhat worried pragmatism. Sure, Pixar had chosen to make one of its (at the time) rare sequels based off its least critically successful and most intellectually shallow film, but it payed the bills. Boy, did it ever pay the bills. Cars 2 wasn’t a successful film but Cars merchandise made Disney nearly $6 billion. The only merchandise franchise worth more is Star Wars (which Disney also owns now. Fancy that). Pixar had limited itself to making franchises out of its oldest property and its most profitable one. Fair enough. Sequels were exceptions, not the norm, and there wasn’t much cause for concern.
But now, we’ve got Monsters University, a prequel that people will be pleased to see, but that no one was really asking for. This past week’s announcement of Finding Dory means another. Pixar is in full-fledged franchise mode, which will probably help the studio financially, but is detrimental in a creative sense.
It’s hard to escape the law of diminishing returns on sequels. The Toy Stories escaped this because they stories really were as good as the original. But will Finding Dory be? I could very well be wrong (in fact, I hope I am), but it’s far more likely that it will merely be a pleasant romp through the ocean with old friends. Expect reviews to say it “wasn’t as good as the original.” More sequels also means less room for original films. Having fewer original movies puts more pressure on each one. As a result, when you get a film like Brave that’s good but somewhat underwhelming, it looks worse in comparison to the other original films because there was more pressure put on it. Pixar is a studio known for it’s ideas, and when it’s coming up with fewer new ideas, they better be amazing. Okay just won’t cut it.
I don’t doubt that these sequels are going to be good. Monsters University looks like fun, and I’m sure Finding Dory will be too. Pixar has released or plans to release seven films between 2010 and 2015. Three of those are original movies and the rest are sequels or prequels. I get it. Sequels are easy, they’ve already got a loyal audience, and it’s fun to revisit beloved characters. I would love to spend some more time with Nemo, Marlin and Dory. I like those guys they’re familiar. But I would rather Pixar give me another brand new movie like Up orWall-E, something that I never could have imagined, yet was everything I wanted.