In the last couple weeks, Pixar Animation Studios has unveiled—or had Walt Disney Company CEO Robert Iger do so—a few hints as to the future of its continuing franchises. (This, of course, because even Pixar has proven unable, ever since Toy Story 2 opened in 1999, to end any of its stories definitively, from Toy Story to Finding Nemo and onward.) Earlier in the month, it was revealed that there would be a new short from the world of Cars featuring most of the original characters, including Lightning McQueen and Mater; last weekend, the newest Muppet movie, Muppets Most Wanted, had a Monsters University short attached to its release; and the biggest news of all came last: sometime in the near future, there will be a third Cars film and a second Incredibles film.
It is, of course, that last story that’s dominated the blogosphere for the last week. On one hand, we have a return to Radiator Springs that very few people have demanded; on the other, after a decade of clamoring, it appears that finally—finally, as some fans might think—Brad Bird has cracked the nut that is a second story featuring everyone’s favorite super-powered family unit. There is possibly no better definition, to a Pixar fan, of the phrase “mixed bag” than this one-two punch. There are, admittedly, some fans who actively don’t want an Incredibles sequel, precisely because of how much they love the 2004 original; however, the widespread reaction to this story was cautious positivity. (“Cautious,” because as of this writing, Brad Bird has, as with the now-much-more-likely 3D re-release of the 2004 film, not commented publicly on the story, even to clarify what involvement he has in the project.)
Over the last year, this column has covered Pixar’s relationship with sequels, so for the most part, there’s not much else to say about this news. (One interesting note: Iger didn’t mention even a rough estimate for when either of these follow-ups would arrive in theaters. It is entirely possible that, for example, Cars 3 will open in 2018, making it so the 6-year olds who saw Cars in its original release are now ready to go to college when its third installment opens. It’s doubtful that Cars 3 would traffic–pun not entirely intended–in the same type of nostalgia as Toy Story 3 did. Anyway.) There will be plenty of time for speculation—years, in truth—but there’s been plenty of that here before, so let’s instead focus on how Pixar extends the life of its franchises in short form, and how that can be a much more viable and less troubling brand extension.
First, the news about the Cars short, entitled The Radiator Springs 500 ½. Perhaps the most telling part of the report from Entertainment Weekly is that this short—which, relative to many of the other Pixar shorts, is coming out of nowhere—is premiering later this spring “exclusively on Disney Movies Anywhere.” The plot of the short isn’t terribly groundbreaking—per the report, “The gang is enjoying a Founders Day celebration to honor the late Stanley when a gang of Baja racers descend on the town and challenge Lightning to a race”—but the release strategy is clearly a calculated attempt to raise awareness of Disney’s new cloud-based movie service. Since its unveiling earlier this year, Disney’s aggressively tried marketing this service—offering The Incredibles as a free movie to anyone who signs up—but this may be the first serious test of its viability. (As a side note: until the company is able to get Disney Movies Anywhere to connect to other streaming sites aside from iTunes, it doesn’t matter what they offer: the service needs to expand its coverage first for those of us who don’t have Apple TVs, at the very least.)
Arguably, even to those of us who would prefer that the Cars franchise be fully relegated to the Disney theme parks (where the movies and their characters make serious merchandising money), The Radiator Springs 500 ½ is inoffensive, at least in its existence if not in terms of quality. The short was directed by one of the people behind the Mater’s Tall Tales shorts, which were released to Blu-ray and DVD without first being placed in front of a Disney film in theaters (except for Tokyo Mater, which played with Bolt). Though there have been a few Toy Story shorts in theaters, this might be the most advantageous way to extend the stories and worlds that Pixar has created throughout the past two decades: appealing specifically to the fans instead of appealing to everyone. It’s safe to assume that, unless you are the most dedicated of Pixar completists, only those people who love the Cars movies will seek out this short.
The same isn’t the case with Pixar’s most recent short-feature effort, Party Central, an offshoot of Monsters University. The short was, as aforementioned, attached to Muppets Most Wanted (which is, in itself, a purely delightful new film), and the set-up was simple enough: the sad-sack pledges of Oozma Kappa want to have a raging frat party to rival their competition, Roar Omega Roar, on campus, and manipulate their way into allowing ROR’s party to move into their pledge house. Much like Monsters University, Party Central is a fast-paced, frantic, and very funny piece of animation; writer-director Kelsey Mann and the animators came up with a crafty way to play with the image of monsters using doors to leave their own world to enter another here, in just 6 minutes of screen time. Here, they don’t tentatively walk through the gateway but jump through it giddily. The only major issue is one of continuity, which isn’t as clear as it should be; we are apparently meant to presume that Mike and Sulley have returned to the OK pledge house after being kicked out at the end of Monsters University. However, as the short moves so quickly, you could easily presume this is closer to a deleted sequence from the feature film refashioned for public consumption in a separate form.
But no matter. Party Central is still as witty and clever as Pixar’s earliest films and shorts, and a fine way to—for now—close out the world of Monstropolis and the characters within that world. (Also, presuming that Mike and Sulley are returning in this short after the events of the 2013 film, this at least makes a step toward showing them hanging out with their OK friends after being expelled; of course, the other OK pledges still don’t show up, even in the background, of Monsters, Inc., but for now, they’re all still fast friends.) There’s a different set of expectations, a different level of anticipation, that arises when a short is released versus a feature. Keeping the Toy Story franchise alive by making 6-minute shorts and television specials is, to many people, a far less egregious thing than making a fourth Toy Story feature. Toy Story of TERROR and shorts like Small Fry do not, in short, threaten to tarnish the series’ reputation with die-hard fans. It keeps Woody, Buzz, and the rest alive without putting the burden of feature-length storytelling on their plastic shoulders. The same applies to any of Pixar’s characters; putting them in shorts allows Pixar the freedom to craft a series of gags in a brief amount of time without being beholden to the severity and weight of a feature.
It would be ideal if this was how Pixar used its preexisting characters from now until the end of time (or the end of cinema, or whatever), but we do not live in an ideal world. As this column has pointed out in the past–when praising Pixar for continuing to make shorts of any kind at all–animated shorts, by and large, don’t make that much money. There is no way to quantify how many people paid to see Party Central instead of Muppets Most Wanted; this isn’t exactly the same as when people bought tickets to, funnily enough, A Bug’s Life simply so they could see the teaser trailer for Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Whatever money Muppets Most Wanted makes at the domestic box office goes to that production, not to Pixar for having made an accompanying short. They have certainly made money from the Blu-ray and DVD volumes of their collected shorts, as well as something like Mater’s Tall Tales, but consider this. A recent article at The Dissolve listed the 15 best-selling Blu-rays of all time. Avatar was number one, having grossed $152 million in home media sales. But the 15th film on that list—it’s worth noting that none of Pixar’s films are among the top 15—grossed $43 million. So it’s safe to assume that, whatever money there may be in releasing animated shorts on Blu-ray, there’s not so much money that it pays for the expenses.
So of course, it makes fiscal sense for Disney/Pixar to make sequels to Cars and The Incredibles, just as it makes sense to make a second Finding Nemo. We may fear these projects in the conceptual phases, but not all sequels are created equal. (Yes, even Cars 3, as low as our hopes may be.) Creatively, working these characters expressly into a shorter form may stem any frustration longtime fans have with Pixar’s growing reliance on expanding on their earlier stories instead of focusing solely on coming up with new ones; financially, as depressing as this may be, that’s not the best plan in the long run. (Granted, Disney owns roughly half of our collective childhoods, so it’s hard to imagine that Pixar’s not making them money somehow, with or without sequels. But that appears to be Bob Iger’s prerogative: give the people more of the old, not the new.)
But Pixar’s sequels are still, thankfuly, far off. As mentioned before, the Cars and Incredibles sequels have no announced or, at this point, rumored release dates; they will likely not be in theaters for at least 3 years, if not longer. There’s still over two years until Finding Dory; in the interim, we’ll get—hopefully—two original films that could offer totally fresh takes on familiar concepts. This year, Pixar has only shorter extensions of previous worlds, with the Toy Story Christmas special presumably heading to the small screen this holiday season. In a perfect universe, this is all we’d get from the Toy Story or Cars or Monsters, Inc. worlds: brief check-ins with beloved characters. That we still get these brief check-ins even in a universe besotted with the financial possibility of more and more sequels is a small blessing, at least.