Everything in pop culture that we embrace goes through cycles. Something is introduced to the masses, who fall in love with it, and then, after a requisite amount of time, a backlash arises. This is different from a piece of art, whether it’s a film, TV show, or book, being analyzed and criticized from a subjective point of view. Instead, that which is initially beloved begins to wear thin on some members of its audiences even if they are the ones who changed, not the art itself. (Take, for instance, the current season of AMC’s Mad Men, which has received countless plaudits in the past but is now receiving more unfriendly reactions because it’s inherently the same show, unchanging in its sixth year.) Backlash can be vexing, but it is not uncommon. And so it makes sense that the last couple of years, for Pixar, have been full of such a negative turn.
Any fan of Pixar’s films and characters knows this backlash all too well. The critical reaction to Cars 2 was unpleasant, and the commercial reaction was muted at best. (Before you defenders shout, keep in mind that Cars 2 sold the fewest tickets of any Pixar film to date.) Brave did well at the box office, and won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, but many fans who grew up with Pixar’s earlier films were disappointed by it and stood behind Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph instead as their favorite animated feature of 2012. And news of impending sequels and prequels from the Emeryville, California studio only causes further detachment, as fans presume that whatever luster Pixar’s films once had is now gone and won’t return for a while.
Today, let’s leave those issues aside and consider, instead, three stories that may add to the general disillusionment people feel towards Pixar, but shouldn’t. Basically, it’s important to distinguish frustrations that should be directed at the Walt Disney Company as a whole, instead of Pixar as one of its many entities. In the last couple of weeks, for example, people have rightly slammed the Mouse House for its introduction of Merida to the Disney Princess line, as well as for its misbegotten attempt to trademark the phrase “Dia de Los Muertos” in advance of Lee Unkrich’s next film. And then there’s the ever-constant hand-wringing about the upcoming film Planes. All of these issues have everything and nothing to do with Pixar.
When Merida was introduced to the Disney Princess line, it should’ve been a major milestone for Pixar, a proud moment when they proved that they could create fairy-tale characters as well as the company that inspired them. Instead, Disney chose to redesign the character to look like the picture to the right, uncurling her hair, slimming her figure, widening her eyes; essentially, Disney Consumer Products turned Merida into a fashion model, someone she actively did not want to be in Brave. Remember the Merida who shoved out of an ultra-feminine dress with which to present herself to possible suitors? That Merida didn’t show her face at first on the Disney Princesses website, until an outcry occurred, spurred on by an online petition, a fiercely and appropriately negative reaction from Brave’s co-writer and co-director Brenda Chapman, as well as general Internet outrage. In the intervening days, Disney has reneged on its 2D redesign while defending it for applying only to limited merchandising. (Word to the wise, Disney: admit your mistake and move on.)
The outrage here was well-placed, even if some people vehemently refused to understand it, and lectured those of us who were aggravated at the choice to update Merida’s look to discuss “more important” topics. (This is a longer discussion to have on another day, but quickly: this is a microcosmic version of gender representation in modern society, which is absolutely an important topic. Also, when a person whose online presence is exemplified by their passion for animation, maybe telling the rest of us to move onto what’s important isn’t your best debating gambit.) Merida’s redesign was minor, but telling because it helped to further emphasize the wrong message to young women regarding beauty and identity. But it’s important to distinguish that Pixar had little control in this situation. Disney Consumer Products did with Merida what they’ve done with other Disney Princesses, such as Belle, Jasmine, and Snow White: they turned her into an animated model, taking a piece of art and airbrushing it into oblivion.
Even if this redesign had not inspired such a furor, what must it be like to create something and have it taken away from you? This, in essence, is an existential challenge Pixar animators—as well as Disney animators and those from any other film studio—must face on a yearly basis. The Merida of Brave is merely the template for the Merida of the Disney Princess merchandising line, the Merida of the Brave video game, the Merida of any other Disney products. Merida takes on infinite new forms, as does any character, once she’s presented to a wider audience. The spirit of the character should stay the same, however; that’s the most galling aspect of this controversy. Even though Disney Consumer Products went back to the original animated representation, that they ever tried to smooth out her edges—and that they’ve done so to the many other Disney Princesses—is maddening. But it’s not Pixar’s fault.
And, although we might want to blame them for this as well, Pixar should not be blamed for Disney’s recent tone-deaf trademark attempt. Not much is known about Lee Unkrich’s follow-up to Toy Story 3, except that it’s slated to open in 2016 and that it’s themed to the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos, which comes right after Halloween. Some have speculated (or indulged in a bit of wishful thinking, depending on how you look at it) that the film is an adaptation of or directly inspired by the LucasArts video game Grim Fandango; as of now, we can’t know if that’s wholly untrue or moderately accurate. After the Stitch Kingdom website mentioned that Disney was trying to trademark the phrase “Dia de Los Muertos,” speculation began anew, first of whether or not that phrase itself would be the title of Unkrich’s new film. Equally as quickly, people started to wonder, in short, where Disney got off with such corporate-minded silliness. Leave aside, for a quick second, the racial undertones of this decision, attempting to take away the cultural and spiritual value of the Dia de Los Muertos holiday. A major corporation literally tried to trademark…a holiday. Unending greed, thy name is Disney.
Of course, it’s hard to leave aside those undertones for more than a few seconds. It’s not just that Disney tried to trademark a holiday; they tried to claim ownership on an annual cultural event and subvert it to their own financial gain. No amount of PR backpedaling can eliminate the manner in which they shot themselves in the foot here. Likely, once the movie’s production picks up enough steam in public, this issue will get dredged up again, but keep in mind: Pixar’s in PR purgatory here. How much control does Pixar have over the marketing of its films? As evidenced by the Merida mishegas, the answer is, “Not nearly enough.” Is it possible that Lee Unkrich pushed for the phrase “Dia de Los Muertos” to get the all-purpose, ironclad Disney trademark? Yeah, but then, you might win the lottery if you buy a ticket. Possible, yes. Likely, no. Pixar is stuck in the crossfire, but they’re not firing the weapons themselves.
We, however, delve into a grayer area with the last topic, Pixar’s connection with the upcoming film Planes. Pixar is as connected to Planes as they are to the previous controversies. If it was not for their creations, these stories may not have happened. And if it was not for Cars and the success of the franchise, Planes would not exist. But—and the eagle-eyed among you will note that the following has been stated a number of times in this column—Planes is not a Pixar movie. (Say this sentence in the mirror three times, and Mater will be on the other side, ready to shout “Dadgum!” at you on repeat, so be careful.) Inspired, yes, but the film, opening August 9th, is not from Pixar, but DisneyToon Studios. The simple way to consider it is as follows: Planes is a direct-to-DVD sequel, none of which are created by the big boys. How many direct-to-DVD sequels have been a blight on Disney’s animated classics? (Too many.) In fact, Planes was originally intended as a direct-to-DVD film, until Disney reversed the decision and decided to release the film in theaters.
If you’re reading this, chances are you do not need to be reminded that Planes isn’t a proper Pixar film, but if you do need to be clued in, you should lay your confusion at Disney’s feet. Every time this fact gets tweeted out, or discussed on other social media networks, it stands to reason that someone will respond by saying, “I had no idea!” Disney, in short, is allowing people to presume Pixar is directly involved in the production and distribution of Planes, outside of John Lasseter’s executive-producing involvement. Why? Because Pixar represents top quality to many people, and DisneyToon Studios does not. You may not know, off the top of your head, the works of DisneyToon Studios, but everyone has a negative reaction to the idea of Disney direct-to-DVD sequels, even those with big names in the cast. Maybe Disney knows, and doesn’t care, that Planes arrives in theaters with a lot of negative baggage, from people who can’t stand the Cars movies and fear a further proliferation of the universe at large. (This, especially because Disney has threatened to make a trilogy of Planes movies.)
These stories are most vexing because they all share a common theme: throwing Pixar under the bus. Pixar’s characters and future films are, as expected, being exploited by their parent company. (Such exploitation, despite the connotations of the word, aren’t always negative, to be fair.) Merida should stand apart from stories of her physical features being shifted for more palatable merchandising consumption. Lee Unkrich’s next movie should be able to stand apart from the way in which it’s already being marketed. And Pixar’s hard-working animators should be able to stand away from a fellow animation studio within the same overarching company. Making the distinction between Pixar and Disney—not even comparing the output of the two animation studios—is becoming more important these days than in the past, but it’s one we have to make if we want to analyze Pixar fairly.