In theaters June 17, Finding Dory is the latest in an ongoing string of sequels from a once-brilliant company that, at its peak, seemed never to look back
For 15 astonishing years, from 1995 to 2009, Pixar created a body of work — 10 films — so revolutionary and beyond mainstream Hollywood animation that it’s hard to quantify. Imagine if popular music were basically Frank Sinatra, the Bee Gees, and an anonymous girl group or two, and out of nowhere the Beatles burst on the scene.
In those days Pixar seemed flush with such constant, restless invention that sequels (the early Toy Story 2 aside) were redundant, if not unthinkable. Now, with the release of Finding Dory and The Incredibles 2 in the works, the only original Pixar film from that 15-year run that remains untapped for sequel potential is A Bug’s Life.
In recent years, however, Pixar has stumbled more often than not. Last year’s emotional powerhouse Inside Out was as brilliant as anything they’ve done, but it was followed by the much less magical The Good Dinosaur.
Perhaps the most melancholy thing about the parade of sequels is that Pixar has yet to produce a non-Toy Story sequel that lives up to its predecessor. Finding Dory could break that trend — though it could be a terrific film and still fall far short of the dazzling achievement of Finding Nemo, the best father-son story in Hollywood animation history.
For several years I’ve mentally grouped Pixar’s feature films, beginning with Toy Story in 1995, into three broad phases, following a theory proposed by my friend Peter Chattaway nearly seven years ago. The theory goes like this:
Phase 1: Disney partnership (Toy Story to Cars)
Pixar’s first seven films, from Toy Story in 1995 to Cars in 2006, were produced in partnership with Disney, which distributed them and reserved sequel rights. The best of these (the two Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles) were flat-out masterpieces, and even the slightest (A Bug’s Life, Cars) were solid entertainment. This is phase one of Pixar’s arc as a family entertainment giant: the Disney distribution phase.
Then, in 2004, wanting more ownership and control over its future films, Pixar broke off fractious negotiations with Disney for more films after Cars, announcing that they would be looking for a new distribution partner other than Disney. Disney, meanwhile, began to develop a third Toy Story film to be produced without Pixar’s involvement.
But this parting of ways was not to be: Two years later, in 2006, Disney announced that they had come to an agreement to buy Pixar outright, with Pixar chief John Lasseter taking the reins of Disney animation as a whole.
Phase 2: Looking beyond Disney (Ratatouille to Up)
Those two years between 2004 and 2006, when Pixar hoped to break with Disney and go in a new direction, turned out to be a crucial transitional period. In 2005 Brad Bird (The Incredibles) took over development on Ratatouille, and Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) began writing Up. Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), who had been developing Wall-E since 1994, worked on the project throughout this period.
These three films — Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up, released from 2007 to 2009 — were all vitally shaped during that transitional two-year period when people at Pixar were thinking about life after Disney. And it shows. There is a special quality to these films that makes them different from anything before and almost anything since — an audacious, outside-the-box, un-Disney-like quality that defies all expectations for a Hollywood family film.
That’s not to say that Toy Story or The Incredibles aren’t audacious in their own way. But there’s something counterintuitive or revolutionary about the very concept or premise of these three films that sets them apart.
Imagine sitting down with Disney executives and pitching the basic concept for Toy Story: a movie about the secret lives of toys and the jealousy of an old favorite when a new toy comes to town. Or Finding Nemo: a father fish separated from his son makes his way across the ocean to be reunited with him.
The concepts for these phase-one Pixar films fit comfortably into a mainstream family-film framework. What makes them exceptional films is what Pixar did with the material; conceptually, there’s nothing here to make a Hollywood suit blink or sweat.
Now imagine pitching Ratatouille: a talky movie about a rat — a French rat — who wants to be a chef and takes on a snobbish food critic. Or Wall-E: a largely dialogue-free tale about a Chaplinesque, trash-compactor robot wandering an abandoned, ruined Earth building amidst mountains of garbage and collecting curios. Or Up: an elderly widower flies his house to South America via helium balloons as a way of dealing with his grief. (Up is still the only Hollywood animated feature film ever made with a senior citizen for a protagonist. See what I mean?)
The best of Pixar’s first seven films expanded what a contemporary Hollywood family film could be expected to achieve; these three transitional films pushed the envelope of what was conceivable for a Hollywood family film to be. No other Hollywood animation studio could have made The Incredibles — they weren’t good enough — but even if they could have made Wall-E, they wouldn’t have dared.
Phase 3: The Disney acquisition (Toy Story 3 and beyond)
After Up, this transitional phase ended, and the third phase began: the Disney purchase phase. The story of phase-three Pixar clearly starts with Toy Story 3, which, had the companies gone their separate ways, would have gone forward as a non-Pixar Disney release.
When the purchase was announced, Lasseter’s first move as head of Disney animation was to pull the plug on Disney’s Toy Story 3 project — a promising sign, fans hoped, that Lasseter would continue to protect the Pixar brand and even raise the bar at Disney animation. Later, though, Lasseter decided that Toy Story 3 was worth saving — and ominously followed it up by announcing Cars 2.
Toy Story 3 proved a triumph, almost living up to its predecessors and bringing the story of Andy and Woody to an unexpectedly moving denouement. But Cars 2 — which was inspired less by the original Cars than by the breakout success of Larry the Cable Guy’s tow truck, Mater — was a noisy clunker that made the original Cars (itself far from top-of-the-line Pixar) look like a graceful, efficient machine by comparison. Monsters University wasn’t that bad, but it was still coasting on the success of Monsters, Inc.
Recent original films have also been hit or miss. Both Brave and The Good Dinosaur had troubled productions and were felt to be middling or mixed successes at best.
I remain more fond than most of Brave, Pixar’s first venture into fairy-tale princess territory, and their first film with a female protagonist (and a female creator, Brenda Chapman, behind the material, though the film was eventually completed by Mark Andrews). I might be harder than most on The Good Dinosaur, which created a dazzling world but never seemed to figure out what to do with it. (Another original project, Newt, never made it out of development.)
That leaves Inside Out from Pete Docter, the creative force behind Monsters, Inc. and Up. Inside Out isn’t just phase-three Pixar’s one great non-Toy Story film; it’s also flush with the audacity of Pixar’s transitional films, rethinking what family entertainment can be. (Among other things, it’s a rare major Hollywood cartoon with no villain or antagonist.)
The hallmarks of Pixar’s work at its best are on full display in Inside Out. For one thing, most cartoons about family life take the child’s point of view, not infrequently making the parent an antagonist (The Little Mermaid, Happy Feet, How to Train Your Dragon).
Pixar typically gives at least as much attention to an adult or parental point of view, whether literally (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Brave) or metaphorically (Woody and Buzz, like Joy and Sadness, often function as proxies for parental concerns and anxieties).
Likewise, the protagonist of a typical Hollywood animated film is usually fully vindicated by the ending, his or her longings and aspirations realized, and those who opposed the protagonist (not infrequently parents) have come around or been won over.
Pixar is unique in focusing on flawed protagonists who make mistakes and have to face up to them and accept the consequences, from Woody’s jealousy of Buzz to Inside Out’s Riley running away from home. (See my essay “What’s so special about Pixar’s flawed protagonists and their moral journeys” at DecentFilms.com for more.)
If not for Inside Out, I would be almost ready to declare Pixar more or less over. As it is, I can’t say the future appears bright. Looking beyond Finding Dory, Pixar’s slate of films in production is nearly all sequels: Cars 3, Toy Story 4, and the one sequel from which I dare to hope for greatness, The Incredibles 2. (The one original effort is a project named Coco set in Mexico with a Day of the Dead theme. Filming began in April.)
Although their reputation has taken some hits, it says something that a disappointing Pixar film is still in some ways a bigger deal than a disappointing Disney or DreamWorks film. Despite the setbacks of recent years, we can’t entirely help hoping against hope for so much more.