July 28, 2014

The Pixar Perspective on Context and Pixar’s Originality

The Internet is rife with theories that have to deliberately skew or ignore certain facts, or else these arguments would knowingly fall apart. No topic is free from such needless conjecture, including the films from Pixar Animation Studios. The backlash borne from the last few films Pixar has made—up to and including their newest, Monsters University—has spawned a number of editorials and a few dreaded not-a-word “thinkpieces” trying to get to the bottom of the problem. The question at the root of the “problem,” of course, is one that can’t be answered on a grand scale, but must be given some texture: “Why are Pixar’s films not as amazing as they used to be?” Of course, this argument could be more accurately phrased as, “Why doesn’t Pixar make movies I, the writer of this editorial, like anymore?” And it’s important to be vigilant, watching for the flaws inherent in these articles.

The Pixar Perspective

Take this recent argument, for example, from The Los Angeles Times. Writer Steven Zeitchik posits that Pixar’s films typically perform better at the domestic box office if they’re rated highly by critics, but he does so with two important caveats. First, he cherry-picks from the inflation-adjusted domestic box-office grosses for Pixar’s films. (This, because if you look at the numbers as they were originally reported, his theory holds no water at all. The original Toy Story grossed just under $200 million in this circumstance, barely a few hundred thousand dollars more than Cars 2 did.) The other caveat is that Zeitchik refers only to the critical scores accrued over the years on Rotten Tomatoes. Rotten Tomatoes is, of course, one of the most well-known critical aggregators. If, however, Zeitchik had referred to Metacritic, which picks fewer critics but typically only those critics who are counted as the “Cream of the Crop” on Rotten Tomatoes, the story would be different.



For example, under his criteria, Zeitchik points out that the three Toy Story films and Finding Nemo are four of Pixar’s five most well-reviewed and financially successful films, and that Cars 2 and Brave, their least well-reviewed films, are their least successful at the box office, too. If you look at the Metacritic data (which many critics would argue is more reliable because it doesn’t aggregate every review), however, you’ll find that Pixar’s two most well-reviewed films are WALL-E and Ratatouille, and that Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo have ratings just below 90. But, let’s humor Zeitchik for a bit. Is he onto something? Does critical praise, which so rarely matters for other big-budget studio movies, count for something when it comes to Pixar?

Ratatouille

The short answer is no. The longer answer involves a bit more detail than the LA Times piece allows. Yes, the Toy Story trilogy are three of Pixar’s top five inflation-adjusted domestic grossers at the box office. And yes, all of them have either a 99% or 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. And yes, Cars 2 and Brave didn’t perform nearly as well as most Pixar films have with critics or audiences. What about the rest of Pixar’s filmography, though? The movies Zeitchik mentions only account for six of their fourteen features. The funniest line in the article is, in reference to his theory, “The pattern holds, with only tiny deviations, throughout the list.” To Zeitchick, a “tiny deviation” is that Cars and A Bug’s Life, the former with a lower Rotten Tomatoes rating than Brave or Monsters University, grossed more than either WALL-E or Ratatouille. Those are, of course, Pixar’s two highest-reviewed movies if you look at Metacritic. And on Rotten Tomatoes, both movies have a 96%. Clearly, audiences must have loathed these movies. Dubbing four of Pixar’s fourteen features as “tiny deviations,” when you consider their impact on film and the Disney theme parks, is hilarious indeed.

And the number is actually five, if you throw in Monsters University. What spurred on Zeitchik’s theory is that Monsters University has come along to throw a wrench into it. He acknowledges that the film, holding only a meager 77% on Rotten Tomatoes (sure, it’s Certified Fresh, but that can only serve to poke another hole in his postulation), now has the second-highest opening weekend for any Pixar film. Based on its box office performance so far, Monsters University may end up being Pixar’s fourth highest-grossing film to date; if it gets lucky, it might even cross $300 million. (And if you adjust for inflation, that still puts it right next to Up, and above Cars, WALL-E, and Ratatouille.) Zeitchik argues that marketing has helped the film; one presumes that he’s referring to the viral marketing campaign centered around the Monsters University website, though he doesn’t go very deep into what specific PR choices have vaunted the film higher than Pixar’s other critically unpopular films.

It’s not wrong to say that Pixar’s films are typically well-liked by critics. It’s not wrong to say that Pixar’s films are all, to varying degrees, financially successful. Even Cars 2, the closest thing Pixar has had recently to a flop, grossed more than most animated films at rival studios like Blue Sky or DreamWorks Animation. The issue is that trying to create a connection between critical praise and box office only works if you ignore, as Zeitchik did, the examples that fall in between the extremes. Yes, Cars 2 is Pixar’s least successful and well-liked film. And yes, pretty much everyone loves the Toy Story movies. But that’s the point: everyone (for the most part) loves the trilogy. Would people have avoided seeing Toy Story 3 on its opening weekend if it didn’t get bathed in critical praise? No, though perhaps the film’s overall take would’ve been lower. Or maybe people would’ve seen it in droves either way. This is the vexing part about hypothetical arguments: we can wonder all we like, but we’ll never know for sure, and when your argument revolves around factual statistics, you need to be sure.

Making a connection between Pixar’s films and critics requires a level of nuance that’s too easy to push aside in favor of an easy, lazy, backlash-feeding argument. (If Zeitchik, for example, chose to also analyze opening-weekend numbers for Pixar films, he’d be on even shakier ground, as Up, WALL-E, Ratatouille and the original Toy Story all grossed less than Cars.) What’s most frustrating about a lot of the editorials and articles that crop up any time Pixar’s got a new movie in theaters is that they deliberately ignore the long-distance view in favor of immediacy without context. The same goes for a lot of the reactions inspired by this article from Buzzfeed, making the rounds over the weekend. In it, Pixar head honcho Ed Catmull says the studio intends on making one original film a year for the foreseeable future. Of course, this news is cause for celebration for the swaths of people who wrote Pixar off for daring to make three sequels over a four-year span. (And never mind that the first of those sequels is widely considered one of Pixar’s best films. Why, that opened 3 whole years ago! No one was alive then!)

So what’s the problem? This isn’t news, although many people are treating it as such. As the Buzzfeed article notes, the next sequel Pixar has on its slate (officially, mind you) is Finding Dory, currently slated to open in November of 2015. But outside of that, they haven’t confirmed any sequels to The Incredibles, Toy Story, or more. Catmull also explicitly doesn’t say they’re avoiding sequels from now on, going as far as saying Pixar may release a sequel every other year. (How the studio intends to do this is a bit mysterious and, if you think of the long-term ramifications, potentially troubling, but a discussion for another day when more facts are at hand.) But regarding the original films Pixar intends on making, writer Adam B. Vary mentions The Good Dinosaur, opening in May of 2014, and Inside Out, opening in the summer of 2015. The tone of the reactions to the piece, aside from relief—because, as we all know, Pixar’s four sequels/prequels are loathed by all—is that Pixar’s upcoming two original films are some kind of breaking news. So, instead of getting a backlash to the backlash (a frontlash, if you will), what we’ll see instead is people calming down and taking the long view a bit more.

The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out, as it happens, were announced in some form—not with those titles—at the D23 Expo in August of 2011. It is literally the opposite of breaking news to acknowledge their existence in June or July of 2013. If someone chooses to ignore the existence of Pixar’s upcoming slate of films, often made public for a couple of years before such films open, we should not share in their joy but wonder what took them so long to get a clue. Perhaps what’s most galling about this reaction—surprise that Pixar, so sequel-heavy in the last few years, has original films in the pipeline—is that it’s coming from people who have acted so personally aggrieved about Pixar’s creative slant recently. You would think that such people would be even more invested than the average fan in keeping tabs on what Pixar’s got planned for the future, to balance out any sequel-inspired frustration.

But then, if these people were more invested, they wouldn’t be able to act as if the sky was falling every time Pixar announces work on a sequel. It’s not convenient to admit that an argument that Pixar’s declining hopelessly and endlessly isn’t totally ironclad; the more context you give to such a complaint, the more it sounds like you’re wearing blinders. The most fascinating aspect of the sequel-based concerns people have been sharing for the last couple of years is how entitled it all sounds; do we fret as much about the work of any other filmmaker, actor, or studio as we do about Pixar? (This is a topic for another day, frankly, but it crops up inevitably when talking about how irrationally worried some get about Pixar’s current and future output.) It’s been four years since Pixar made a movie critics and audiences embraced wholeheartedly, and just barely a year since Brave. And yet writers feel the urge to explain to us exactly why Pixar’s films do well, or why they’d be correct to stick to original films instead of sequels.

Toy Story

But therein lies the rub. “Pixar—stick to original films!” is not really the battle cry, it’s “Pixar—make movies I like!” Very few people complained about Toy Story 2—the fledgling company’s third movie, for goodness’ sakes—or got concerned about Toy Story 3 once it opened in June of 2010. Enough people were displeased with Cars 2 (though there are plenty of people happy to throw that film under the bus sight unseen, again choosing to ignore context) that it’s become common practice to assume that John Lasseter has sold out to Disney, and Pixar’s creativity was first on the chopping block. Once The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out are released, it will be interesting to watch the conversation potentially change from “Pixar’s declining!” to “Pixar’s making a comeback!” Both films are directed by Pixar stalwarts, Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, as opposed to a totally new director like Mark Andrews (who took over Brave from Brenda Chapman). If these movies end up paying off on their premises, suddenly, it’ll be as if Pixar turned out of a perceived skid.

Maybe there wasn’t a skid at all. Since Toy Story 3 opened in 2010, which is the Stone Age in Internet time, Pixar has released three films. The first, most agree, is a creative misstep; the second has seen wildly varied opinions online. The third has garnered uniformly positive reviews and bigger box office. Monsters University is not widely beloved by critics—the lack of appreciation for the film’s emotional resonance is bewildering—but it doesn’t fit so easily into the facile debate over why Pixar’s movies now are cinematic embarrassments. To discuss Pixar’s so-called downturn requires nuance and context, two elements which are absent from most conversations; including them would only serve to reveal that any such critiques of Pixar are flimsy at best.

About Josh Spiegel

Josh isn't just a Disney buff, a film buff, or a TV buff. He's a pop-culture obsessive, through and through. His long journey began in Western New York and has taken him to the American Southwest, where he resides with his wife and six--count 'em, six--cats. Among his favorite overall films are Singin' In The Rain, There Will Be Blood, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Royal Tenenbaums. His favorite Disney movie (non-Pixar) is Beauty and the Beast, but his favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, and he thinks the latter is at least five times better than the former. Read more of Josh's work at Movie Mezzanine.

  • mjs

    Thanks for the insight and great article. This might be simplifying things but… I think that since John Lassiter has more on his plate and is not on site at Pixar like he used to be, that is what is really missing in all of the new films. John is the lifeblood of Pixar and because he is stretched too thin, it is showing in the new releases. What ever happened to the importance of the story? Original or sequel… it’s all about the story. That’s what John used to say.

    • Gabe

      Lasseter directed Cars 2. I still think he’s a masterful film maker. But it’s not his absence that’s the problem. If there even is a problem besides bad timing.

    • Brady1138

      I think you just have to look at the directors and the production problems that Cars 2 and Brave went through. First, Cars 2 was originally going to have a different director, but Lasseter had to jump in in the previous director’s absence and I think this is where your theory is correct: he was just spread out too thin. As for Brave, the film was split between two competing visions: that of a former Dreamworks/Disney director/writer (Brenda Chapman) and an amateur Pixarian (Mark Andrews). I think Monsters University managed to be a better movie than the last two simply due to a much smoother production and a young director with plenty of potential. Dan Scanlon started at Pixar and you can definitively tell that their way of thinking has rubbed off on him better than Andrews or Chapman. I also think it’s just a coincidence that Pixar had two backstage problems in a row, but they’re back on the upswing with Monsters University and I think their grand return to form will come with The Good Dinosaur, which is being directed by Pixar veteran Bob Peterson.

  • Eric G

    Thanks for the article, although the author seems overly defensive. The point was not effective – in the end you’re still saying that recent movies haven’t had the combination of audience and critic appeal together. Of course the Toy Story sequels are amazing but that doesn’t mean that anytime anyone does a sequel to a movie that its not expected for (comic book movies, for example, are expected to have a sequel) can be worrying to a story-focused audience. And the worries are legitimate as Cars 2 was a terribly droll film made as a sequel to one of Pixar’s more mediocre hits. In the end I still think Zeitchik makes a great point and his argument holds up. Rotten Tomatoes scores and inflation-adjusted dollars are very common metrics. I haven’t seen Monster’s University yet and Zeitchik’s perspective is intriguing to me so I’m looking forward to it.