Last Thursday, Pixar announced that they’ve begun production on Toy Story 4. The following day Disney released Big Hero 6 to positive reviews that helped it beat out Interstellar for the number one spot at the domestic box office this weekend. Both of these news stories beg the question many have already been asking for a couple years now: What’s going on at Pixar? While John Lasseter is now the Chief Creative Officer at both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, it’s no secret that Disney has been beating Pixar at their own game for a couple years now, and announcing the revival of a beloved franchise that already came to a perfectly satisfying conclusion has been met with some justifiable scepticism.
Toy Story 3 was released in 2010 – Pixar’s creative and artistic peak – and would mark the closing of the studio’s first golden era. It was their eleventh consecutive critical and financial hit from these underdog filmmakers who made the first fully computer animated feature ever (Toy Story in 1995) and had topped themselves with every successive film. Since the introduction of the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2001, Pixar features had taken the award six times, losing only twice (Shrek beat Monsters Inc in 2001, Happy Feet beat Cars in 2006). Their stories were all completely original, and they had separated themselves from the Disney brand (who still distributed their films) by not only pioneering the technology required for computer animation, but by avoiding fairy tale musicals with princesses and true love conquering all. During this period Disney was releasing forgettable offerings such as Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet and Home On The Range, which look like low art when viewed next to a Wall-E or Up.
At this point, Toy Story was the only Pixar film to have any sequels – an admirable claim considering the success of films like The Incredibles that would have most studios planning franchises after opening weekend. Unfortunately Pixar can no longer claim to be exempt from this Hollywood trend. In 2011, Pixar released a sequel to Cars, which was met with lukewarm reception and marked the first time they did not receive a nomination for Best Animated Feature for one of their releases. They bounced back a little in 2012 with Brave, which won the Oscar, but the story about a fiery princess beset by a pesky curse still felt more like a Disney or Dreamworks product than Pixar. Last year was the first time Pixar ventured into prequel territory with Monsters University. Not only did this not receive any Academy Award nominations, but this was the first time in the history of Pixar that one of their films was outgrossed by a Disney release the same year. Disney’s Frozen won the Oscar and replaced Toy Story 3 as the highest grossing computer animated film of all time. In addition to Toy Story 4, Pixar has also announced a sequel to Finding Nemo (Finding Dory due summer 2016) and are rumoured to be working on Cars 3.
While Pixar seems to have lost some of its steam, Disney has been making a quiet but steady comeback with quality computer animated stories like Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and now the not-so-quiet blockbusters like Frozen and Big Hero 6. 2014 is the first year since 2005 that Pixar did not release a film. Possibly to regroup or maybe to ensure that their two 2015 releases, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, live up that first golden era that so many of us long for. They certainly have the potential to do so. Inside Out is told from the perspective of the emotions inside the mind of a little girl, and The Good Dinosaur takes place in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct. Both are original concepts that seem perfectly suited to Pixar’s sensibilities.
Despite the stigma around sequels, they’re not inherently bad. Pixar has already demonstrated how well they can handle them with the Toy Story franchise, and Cars wasn’t that great to start with so we should give them the benefit of the doubt on that one (plus it plays extremely well to smaller kids). They waited 13 years to make the often requested sequel to Finding Nemo, and as much as Buzz and Woody may mean to your inner child, you can bet that they mean a lot more John Lasseter and the Pixar team who presumably would only revisit them for a worthwhile premise. Even a studio with all the integrity in the world is bound to falter at some point, but if Disney has taught Pixar anything, it’s that a studio can have multiple golden eras.