Last week, this column pondered why, exactly, Disney and/or Pixar Animation Studios were holding back on a teaser trailer for their next film, The Good Dinosaur, which is slated to open in May of 2014. By the time the article was published early Tuesday afternoon, the rumor mill was in high churn about the film’s status. Was its director, Bob Peterson, being taken off the project? Would this explain why he wasn’t present at the Pixar presentation at last month’s D23 Expo? Did this explain his ever-changing Twitter biography? (If only that last question was a joke, but no, that’s something fans were left to ponder as Disney stayed silent.) On Friday, the rumor became news: Peterson had indeed been booted off The Good Dinosaur sometime “over the summer,” and presumably before the D23 Expo. The project is now reportedly in the hands of a mix of people, including the film’s co-director Peter Sohn (known equally well for his behind-the-scenes animation work as for voicing characters like Emile in Ratatouille), Lee Unkrich, and John Lasseter himself.
And, of course, because this is the Internet, discord, fear, and anger prevail. The facts, to be fair, seem to be stacked against the conventional wisdom of years past, that Pixar is a company built entirely on flourishing creativity among the ranks. Peterson joins an expanding group of people who have been taken off Pixar’s past films, relegated to co-director status at best: Ash Brannon with Toy Story 2, Jan Pinkava with Ratatouille, Brad Lewis with Cars 2, and Brenda Chapman with Brave. (Equally disquieting to many fans is that none of those men and women still work at Pixar, even though Pixar exec Jim Morris mentioned in the LA Times article last week that he hopes Peterson will stay at Pixar for the rest of “his natural life.”) We are, of course, just under 9 months away from The Good Dinosaur’s release date—presuming that it doesn’t get pushed back, which would be a legitimately surprising first—so by the time it opens, the final product may wind up being daring and impressive, production issues or not. This doesn’t mean that fan concerns are misplaced, but that, with so little tangible evidence of what the movie is or could be, it’s all too vague and enigmatic at this point.
What’s fascinating is how animation projects are treated compared with how live-action projects are treated. On the one hand, the basic headline—“Director of Highly Anticipated New Movie Replaced”—sounds bad. In some respect, we’ve become conditioned to presume that any kind of serious staff shake-up guarantees that the finished movie, no matter the medium or genre, will be a disaster of some sort. If anything, however, being the director of an animated project at its outset is pretty much the antithesis of a guarantee that same person will hold the job title when the project’s released in theaters. Think of Tangled or Frozen or those aforementioned Pixar movies; all of these are films whose original directors were not its final ones. Directors get replaced on animated films; on a not-terribly-rare basis, even if we may wish to believe otherwise. Sometimes, the replacement works, as many would say of Toy Story 2 (whose entire story had to be completely overhauled from top to bottom within a year of its November 1999 release), Ratatouille, and Tangled. Sometimes, the replacement is a flop, though one wonders if any version of Cars 2, say, would be palatable, let alone the existing film.
On the other hand. There is a point at which looking for the silver linings in bad news—and make no mistake, even if The Good Dinosaur is Pixar’s best film in years, and even if Bob Peterson stays at Pixar and ends up shepherding another project to completion successfully years from now, this isn’t good news, per se—becomes a bit exhausting. Pixar is no further from being on the outs of creative success now than they were last year—and that stands even if you didn’t walk away from Monsters University impressed. (But you should have, of course.) Most people who attended the D23 Expo left convinced that Inside Out, opening just under 2 years from now, will be, if nothing else, Pixar’s most ambitious film in a very long time. (One presumes that since Disney/Pixar was willing to show off a scene in mostly storyboard format, including the voices of lead actors like Amy Poehler, this film is not in any immediate danger of having a staff shakeup.) In some respects, it may not matter as much if Inside Out is actually emotionally satisfying or creatively triumphant; it will represent something different that hopefully arrives in theaters untarnished by director replacement. If Pete Docter manages to stick with the film until its completion, that may end up being somehow more impressive than returning to past stories and characters, as Pixar has done in the last few years.
These silver linings are easy to spot. It’s not that finding positivity in a negative story like this is impossible. What would be nice, for a change, is for Pixar to seem less combustible than it appears to be lately. Three movies in four years have had their directors replaced now, and after a certain point, it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a pattern cropping up. Certainly, it’s easy to look at a wider picture of Pixar’s filmography, or at least of those movies they’ve made with director replacements, and feel like people are worrying too much over something potentially inconsequential. Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille are among Pixar’s best films; Ratatouille, in particular, feels so much like the product of Brad Bird’s mind that Jan Pinkava’s version would’ve been, had he stayed onboard, wholly different from what we saw in theaters. Pinkava’s version could’ve been entertaining, and may have been emotional and thoughtful like Bird’s. But it would’ve been different. Here is a case of, at least, a director replacement not portending doom.
In essence, though, a director leaves a project that’s been covered in the entertainment media, and everyone presumes–out loud or deep down–that it’s some kind of apocalyptic foul-up that will further tarnish a studio’s mark on modern cinema. If a live-action movie had to get a director replaced, people would begin watching its production with gleeful fervor. (A good, yet admittedly very rare, recent example is the ongoing production of Jane Got A Gun, which has gone through actors, like Bradley Cooper and Michael Fassbender, and directors like tissue paper.) Sometimes, it is more entertaining for people to set a movie up to be a colossal failure, whether or not the movie itself ends up being as bad as desired. Andrew Stanton’s live-action debut John Carter is a perfect example; the movie itself is imperfect, but still sincere, charming, and entertaining in an old-fashioned way. But the entertainment for many was in allowing someone who presented himself as being too arrogant and cocky, in profiles such as this one from The New Yorker, to fail. Many people who mocked John Carter before it opened (and afterwards) haven’t seen the film; the same thing happened with The Lone Ranger this summer—and for this writer, that’s a movie that, mostly, deserves to be mocked, though it’s best to do so after seeing the damn thing—and it’ll happen again soon enough, to be sure.
It’s exceedingly easy for any of us—all of us, really—to play Monday morning quarterback with the choices studios make. Somehow, the way that animation projects are treated, related to live-action projects, is baffling because some people concurrently deride animation studios for their decisions while relegating animation to a creative purgatory. Only a couple of weeks ago, the LA Times asked if Hollywood was making too many animated movies, a burning question that no one was asking nor needed to have answered. Such editorials are treating animated movies as if animation is a genre, not a medium. Are there too many live-action movies being released every year? This question sounds particularly inane, because, of course, it is inane. And yet, when people at such tony publications ask about animation, everyone does not immediately laugh at the question’s inherent silliness. For a medium that’s treated like the redheaded stepchild of the film world, then, it is especially maddening for cultural critics to hold it to a higher standard of quality only when they feel like it.
This extends to Pixar specifically; because they have, in the past, made a series of widely beloved movies, it is expected that they will, and they should, continue meeting and exceeding such qualitative peaks. Do we expect the same of a movie studio as a whole? How often will people cluck their tongues in disappointment over the state of Paramount Pictures’ yearly slate? Or Columbia’s? Outside of the industry, the answer is likely very low, but Pixar, a studio that’s made fewer feature films in its history than most movie studios release in a 12-month period, either has to be the best or they automatically become the worst. To be clear, the problem is not that most people are demanding high quality from Pixar. The problem is that most people do not appear to be demanding high quality from any other Hollywood studio. The irony, perhaps, is that if everyone demanded all mainstream movies to be excellent, Pixar’s films would not stand out as much as they do. But there is absolutely a double standard with how Pixar is treated critically; it makes sense that we want Pixar to be the best. But we should want every studio to be as good.
And there is just as much chance now as there was last week that Pixar’s next film will be a return to form. Many people do not know—and will not know—that The Good Dinosaur was originally directed by Bob Peterson. It may not be reflected in the final product, either. (Again, Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille had major staff changes that didn’t manifest in the movies themselves. Frankly, Brave is the only of Pixar’s director-replaced movies that feels even mildly lacking in a cohesive structure and plot that could be chalked up to changes at the top.) Bob Peterson being taken off the project should not immediately inspire fear in the future of The Good Dinosaur, though it’s enough to make someone wonder. It may, however, engender concern about the future of some employees at Pixar. It’s encouraging to see that longtime employees like Peter Sohn and Teddy Newton have been given bigger roles in upcoming projects. But seeing Peterson get shuttled off this new movie is a not-so-subtle reiteration that being at the top at Pixar is not a tenured position for everyone.