It’s been just over a month since Pixar’s newest film, Monsters University, opened wide across North America. While the financial response has been solid—at this point, it seems safe to assume that Monsters University will end up as Pixar’s fourth-highest-grossing film domestically, just behind Up—the critical response was slightly more mild, though not outright negative or contentious. (The film has a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and 65 out of 100 on Metacritic; neither are bad numbers, of course, and this column has recently pointed out the shakiness of using these critic-aggregation websites as the foundation of an argument against Pixar’s perceived decline. But the rapturous response of some of the studio’s recent films is, by and large, not present for Monsters University, earned or not.) The attitude among some film lovers is either that Pixar’s golden days are permanently over, or that a lack of qualitative consistency is going to be the norm from now on.
Pixar’s salad days may have passed us by over the last few years, though such a fallow period likely means the media will deem them as having “come back” in various breathless editorials when they release their next critical success. What’s fascinating is how often Pixar is treated specifically in this critical fashion, as people apply a co-opted, twisted version of the cinematic auteur theory to define the entire studio, treating Pixar as if it was a single person. The auteur theory, first posited by the cinephiles writing for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, argues that the director’s personal creative vision is what spurs the films they make. In spite of the cast and crew, the director is truly the auteur, or author. Of course, one could argue, comfortably, that many auteurs work within Pixar’s studio, from Pete Docter to Brad Bird to Andrew Stanton. Many films from these directors have their own messages, but taken as a whole, it can be easy to treat Pixar itself as the auteur, as if the studio represents the various morals and messages on display, no matter who directed the respective films in its filmography.
Perhaps that can help explain the aura of impatience that has greeted Pixar’s last three films. Few people (certainly not this writer) would leap quickly and passionately to the defense of Cars 2; however, Brave and Monsters University have very recognizable themes and messages, and loud supporters. Some may be unmoved by either film to the point of outright disliking them, yet the general response is one of malaise from those who didn’t love or hate Brave or Monsters University, as if they’re saying, “Is that all there is?” The issue is less that the messages don’t work or that the emotions aren’t present, but that this perception of the studio-as-auteur has made Pixar’s films feel too much alike, too similar to each other. This claim was emphasized in a recent New York Times article by Brooks Barnes, predominantly focusing on DreamWorks Animation’s chief creative officer, Bill Damaschke. Damaschke, however, didn’t speak to Pixar’s potential flaws; instead, it was Brave’s original director (and eventual co-director) Brenda Chapman, who now works for DreamWorks. “I left in part because I felt like I was being asked to do the same story over and over,” she said, arguing that the opposite is now occurring at her new employer.
So has Pixar’s creative vision, considered singular and daring only a few years ago, been diluted to make each of their films just like the ones that came before? Granted, public knowledge of what Pixar’s got coming down the pike is always going to be minimal compared to that of the filmmakers working at the studio; for all we know, Chapman might have enough detailed knowledge of Pixar’s future projects that her current conclusion will sound prescient in a few years’ time. And certainly, critics could connect this comment to the sequels Pixar has made in the last few years—from 2010 to 2015, they’ll have made four sequels or prequels along with three original films—and presume the problem is that Pixar has embraced a literal repetition instead of championing the new. But frankly, this is all speculation, even from people with close knowledge of projects in gestation. (Anyone with more than a passing familiarity of Pixar’s history knows that rewriting and reshooting their films is the norm, not a rarity. Whatever they have now could turn into something very different when it’s a finished product.) More to the point, it’s doubtful (though, of course, not impossible) that originality was the subtext of Chapman’s comment, as DreamWorks is no stranger to sequels or adaptations, as with their ever-expanding, and widely beloved, How to Train Your Dragon series, first an adaptation and now at least a trilogy.
Originality aside, it’s difficult to look at Pixar’s current films and see a troubling sameness to them. One could easily look at each of their films and spot the influences, all the way back to Toy Story. Movies as diverse as The Defiant Ones, Seven Samurai, and The Great Escape inspired the plots of these movies, and in Monsters University, you can spot clear references to National Lampoon’s Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds. That these movies are often directly paying homage to what came before isn’t particularly shocking. And yes, as of late, it’s become almost expected that a new Pixar film will contain at least one or two scenes of shocking, cutting emotion in the third act, a form of catharsis after an action-packed climax. In a way, just as DreamWorks Animation caters to adults with pop-culture references, Pixar caters to adults with pathos. Maybe the concern that Chapman had, or that others have, is that Pixar’s once-surprising originality has boiled itself down into a formula.
Or maybe it’s just that aforementioned impatience people focus towards Pixar. This is a studio that has released one film consecutively for the last 8 years; they only made six films between 1995 and 2004. As has been parsed here before, Pixar’s not stopping any time soon, to the point where they’ll release two films in 2015, the first year in their existence when this has happened. Considering how Disney is often seen as a company, grabbing at all available entities so they can make even more money, it’s kind of shocking that it will take at least 20 years for Pixar to cross that threshold, whereas DreamWorks Animation will start releasing three films per year very soon. On the one hand, only the most doubtful wouldn’t be intrigued by two Pixar films coming out every other calendar year. (Again, this is another example of Pixar getting to exert a slight amount of creative control, as Disney would likely push them to make two films each year, every year, if they could.) But on the other hand, this will only encourage us to become more impatient with Pixar.
We have been forever spoiled by what they released between 2007 and 2010. From Ratatouille to Toy Story 3, this is a quartet of films that Pixar hasn’t yet matched since. (Some might argue this four-year run was unmatched beforehand too.) Four straight years, four classic films. It does not matter if the circumstances under which those movies were created weren’t ideal—Brad Bird jumped onto Ratatouille well after the production had started, and WALL-E’s initial vision of the human race was far more grotesque. All that matters is that Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 are widely considered as some of the most precious jewels in Pixar’s crown. We have come not just to expect perfection from Pixar, but we demand it, and we look at the company as a singular entity, not as a studio at which various directors can thrive. When Inside Out opens in 2015, it will have been 6 years since Pete Docter directed a film. When Finding Dory opens later that same year, it’ll have been 7 years since Andrew Stanton directed an animated film, and over 3 years since he directed any feature. These gaps in time are all too common to fans of various filmmakers, from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese to Joel & Ethan Coen to Paul Thomas Anderson. The waits can get frustrating, but the presumption is that these filmmakers rushing into a new movie might doom its quality, whereas a director taking his or her time is the best possible way to create something truly brilliant.
So why are people unable to give the filmmakers working within Pixar the benefit of the doubt? Or, failing that, why don’t they take the time to separate the studio from the director? No one doubts after a flop or two that Warner Bros. or Paramount is falling on hard times, creatively speaking; of course, that’s because no film studio ever has such good fortune with their movies, because they’ll often release ten or more in a year, and it’s rare for all ten to be winners. So look at DreamWorks Animation or Blue Sky Studios, Pixar’s main competition. Do these studios get held to the same qualitative standard that Pixar does? Will people cluck their tongues at DreamWorks because they didn’t love The Croods or Turbo, or because at least one of those movies didn’t perform as well as expected at the box office? Will anyone even remember that Epic opened earlier this year, let alone wonder what its mild financial success portends for Blue Sky’s future?
It’s not wrong to want Pixar to keep making the best possible animated movies, and it’s not wrong to want them to keep setting trends in animation or filmmaking as a whole. However, too many people spend time treating Pixar differently than everyone else, to their detriment. You can walk out of a new Pixar film and be disappointed, and you can wish that what was good or very good could’ve been excellent. But there’s a point at which holding Pixar to a different standard than everyone else is patently unfair, hypocritical and misleading. They employ multiple auteurs, but Pixar is treated as a singular entity too frequently. Holding Pixar to a high standard of quality isn’t bad by itself; wanting them to avoid similarity makes sense, too. But if we only hold one studio to that standard, and excuse others for being less interested in the creative than in the financial, we’re in trouble. Pixar should keep trying to make great films that happen to be animated; so should DreamWorks and Blue Sky and the rest. Pixar is not the unicorn of the film world, so let’s start treating its competition equally.