Where have the golden years gone?
Pixar is dead. At least the Pixar that many of us grew up with and had fallen in love with over the best decade or so. The originality, the imagination, the writing, and the emotion were all some of the finest in cinema and always made for cinematic experiences akin to no other. I would die for that Pixar, but the days for films like "Up," "Wall-E," "Finding Nemo," "Ratatouille," and even "Inside Out" appear to be numbered. Their 'Golden Age' (as many refer to it) seems to be over and it clicked for me when two things occurred. The release of their smash-hit "Coco" and "Cars 3" as well as the announcement of "Incredibles 2" and "Toy Story 4."
Don't get me wrong, Coco is a great movie. I will not deny it or try to argue against the film's immense quality. It's gorgeously rendered and imagined, it has a lot of heart, it's well-written, and it's a lot of fun. But it doesn't feel like Pixar. "Coco" is more akin to Disney's latest forays into animation than the Pixar classics listed above. It doesn't have the tight story nor insanely different and creative world. Yes, The Land of the Dead is a gorgeous and fascinating place to visit. But it's not like the world's of "Up" or "Monster's Inc.," those worlds are completely original. Even in the case of "Up" where the film takes place in South America, every other part of the film is teeming with originality and things we haven't seen before (the birds and talking dogs especially). Pixar would use animation by pushing it to its very limits in what it could show and how it could transport us to places we've never even imagined. "Coco" is instead based Mexican tradition and draws inspiration from the many renditions of the fabled afterlife that we've seen in pop culture (The Book of Life, left) and pictures such as this one (right).
Another recent film also took a very similar approach to world-building and storytelling as "Coco." Disney's animated film "Moana" bears a striking resemblance in tone, story, and world-building to Pixar's latest and it caused me to think about what exactly was bugging me about "Coco." The truth was that "Coco" is an incredibly Disney-esque movie in almost every way. This was especially present in the main conceit of the film, music. A staple of Disney animation since its inception in 1923 has always been having the characters engage or interact with music. To this day, Disney animated films are more akin to musicals than anything else. "Coco" also has this embedded into its DNA, Miguel only wants to make and perform music. He spends much of the film proving the power and beauty of music to the world around him. Miguel's entire journey centers around trying to find how music factors into his family and traditions. The film even brought on songwriters from "Frozen" to write songs like "Remember Me" (which will most likely net an Oscar in a weeks time). "Coco's" Disneyfication is immensely worrying to me in regards to the future of Pixar. One of my friends put this the best when we were discussing the film, "That was Pixar?" Which says everything you need to know about this movie and why it's a problem.
It's not just the original films that have been affected by this practice though. Pixar has no engaged heavily in producing sequels to their beloved Golden Age projects. Of Pixar's last 4 projects 3 have or are going to be sequels (with the exception of Coco, but I've already talked about that). A few of those films are especially disconcerting as they are nowhere near the level of quality that Pixar usually holds themselves to. "Cars 3" and "Finding Dory" may be somewhat passable films on their own. But in the context of Pixar's legacy and rich history, these films are startlingly mediocre. They are retreads of what came before in almost every sense. "Cars 3" just plays out like the original "Cars" without as much charm or originality. "Cars" was already Pixar's worst franchise and their/Disney's pursuit to make it a trilogy shows their lack of commitment to bold and original storytelling that propelled the studio to the top during its early years.
In the same vein, Pixar's next two slated projects are "Incredibles 2" and "Toy Story 4." While these projects may have more prestige behind them; the sentiment is still the same. Disney is looking to cash in on the monetary gain from these films rather than focusing on the craft. While "Incredibles 2" at least has the immense talent of Brad Bird behind it and was primed for a sequel; "Toy Story 4" is almost the opposite situation. "Toy Story 3" was the perfect point to leave the characters that we had followed for 15 years. It was the perfect (and I mean absolutely perfect) end to an already masterful trilogy that had made a huge impact on pop culture. It brought the characters full circle and gave every single character a somewhat sad but mostly happy and emotional goodbye. You can't just give us the moment like the one in the incinerator or Andy giving his toys to the little girl while reminiscing on all the experiences he's had with them and expect us to just revisit these characters and this world.
We had closed the door on these characters to let them exist in their perfect trilogy of films. But now Disney and Pixar have decided that it is time to reopen their story for some reason? This truly shows that Disney has forced Pixar to sell out. They have opted to reopen a sandbox that was left in perfect condition because they can make more money this way. When an original movie like "The Good Dinosaur" is, for all intents and purposes, released and left to die while Pixar moves forward with sequel after sequel there is something deeply wrong.
Pixar used to be the pinnacle of creativity and originality in Hollywood. They consistently upped the game and made masterpiece after masterpiece without ever once dipping back into the same well unless it was completely called for. "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3" are necessary and completely different films from the first "Toy Story" and each other. Can the same be said for any of the "Cars" movies or "Finding Dory"? What's to stop us from thinking that these new sequels won't be more akin to what Pixar has been producing as of late? The answer is nothing.
The problem has become that Pixar has had to face reality in a way. Pixar used to be a lonesome bastion in terms of how it was run and how it made film. When Pixar was bought by Disney the immediate ramifications weren't felt in any way. We still got original classics like "Inside Out," but now the true nature of Disney's corporate is starting to rear its ugly head. They have been forced to make projects, not for creative purposes, but rather financial ones. In that way the Pixar we once knew is dead. This may sound very fire and brimstone, but the truth is that I only say this because I truly care about the studio. They have made some of my favorite movies ever and have long served as an example of how a studio should be run and movies should be made. I have loved them since I was a kid and still do love them. I just hope that they are able to return to the studio that was unabashedly all about originality and telling meaningful in ways nobody had even thought of before. So while this may seem like a condemnation, it's the exact opposite. I love Pixar and I really hope that they return to what made them so special in the first place.