The concept of an infinite number of universes parallel to our own has some vague scientific backing behind it, but is mostly just fun to consider without presuming there’s any real logic involved. If you buy into the theory, then there’s a parallel universe where Dewey did defeat Truman in 1948, where the Buffalo Bills didn’t lose the Super Bowl in 1990 against the New York Giants due to a wide-right field goal, and so on. Thus, there might even be a parallel universe where every aspect of our current one is the same except for one thing: here, John Carter was a success at the box office, not an eternal punchline. It’s been over 2 years since John Carter was released in theaters after decades of development, and it left theaters almost as quickly. Although it was not the most painful flop in recent memory (any movie that grosses nearly $300 million worldwide deserves a tiny bit of credit), and although it has a dedicated subset of fans, John Carter is almost akin to a modern-day Ishtar: a movie known for its financial failure to a wide audience, even if that’s not equal to its creative quality.
A few weeks ago, this column discussed the concept of risk-taking at Pixar Animation Studios. Recently, one of the studio’s head honchos, Ed Catmull, admitted that the growing reliance on creating sequels as well as original films is in part because sequels were financially less risky. Perhaps, when considering the cost of marketing as well as how much certain movies or characters make in merchandising, that may be true. But simply looking at the box-office takes of Pixar films proves that Catmull’s statement is faulty: as daring as their stories may be, no Pixar film can be categorized as a flop. As much as we may presume that original storytelling is riskier than relying on sequels in financial terms, at Pixar, it’s almost as if they can tell whatever stories they want and people will pay no matter what.
The Internet is a wonderful tool that has changed the world in immeasurable fashion; its immense power is unparalleled, and yet it’s easy—so very, very easy—to get frustrated at how so many content creators online create clickbait items to lure in unsuspecting audiences to get pageviews and nothing more. (This article you’re reading, to be clear, will not be clickbait. Breathe easy.) Nowadays, one of the most common types of clickbait articles in the world of pop culture is specific to fan-created theorizing about various films or TV shows. Arguably, this first began when fans obsessed over genre shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, but theorizing about the various potential meanings of minor Easter eggs has reached a fever pitch in the last 5 years, what with shows like Lost, Breaking Bad, and even Mad Men.
What separates Pixar Animation Studios from the rest of mainstream animation companies, as this column has mentioned plenty of times before, is its willingness to take a risk. In many ways, they’ve been operating under a system of risk from the very beginning, before they were even an established name in the TV-commercial business. The first major risk they overcame was the very acceptance by the public of computer animation being utilized for a feature film; in the intervening time, the biggest risks they overcame were story-based, as they pinned their hopes on movies about robots who don’t speak a discernible human language, a rat who wants to cook, and more. But in recent years, the risks they’ve run up against are, in some respects, of their own doing. To wit: how risky is it for Pixar to invest more heavily in the future on sequels than on new original films? Does the studio stand to lose its respect among the public by reviving old characters instead of creating new ones?
In the past, this column has focused primarily on looking at the positive side of Pixar’s shorts, features, and filmmakers, which hasn’t been terribly difficult; when compared with its competition, Pixar’s films are frequently far and away the best examples of mainstream animation of the modern age, no matter the format. Pixar’s influence has been immense over the past two decades, to the point where their style has become a formula for its rivals to copy. On the flip side, however, we’ve mentioned the benefits of Pixar expanding its storytelling to cover more female characters (even though not all of their films are aggressively male-centric), as well as approaching the genre of musicals in an attempt to step away from their initial unwillingness to follow in the footsteps of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Today, it’s time again to focus on an aspect of Pixar’s character development and storytelling that is arguably lacking and has been since the beginning: the issue of race.
Of the various behind-the-scenes stories that have now become apocryphal to the Pixar legend, it’s hard to beat the one associated with Finding Nemo. In the final few years of his time at the top of the Walt Disney Company, Michael Eisner was convinced that Pixar’s winning streak both at the box office and with critics was about to end with this animated feature, the first led by director Andrew Stanton. Eisner couldn’t possibly fathom, he told shareholders, how this movie about a clownfish desperately scouring the ocean for his missing (and only) son with a forgetful blue Tang at his side could ever hit it big with audiences worldwide. When he made these comments in 2001, he did so based on a work-in-progress screening that was, in three respects, vastly different from the final product: Marlin was voiced by William H. Macy, instead of Albert Brooks; the angelfish Gill was, in spite of being the leader of the fish in P. Sherman’s aquarium, lying about his sordid past; and Stanton chose to dole out a series of flashbacks explaining what happened to Nemo’s mother, Coral, instead of beginning the film this way.
Although the series lives on in shorter form, the final 20 minutes of Toy Story 3 is something of an emotional trip through the wringer (that is, if the film works as intended to the audience). Much in the same way that the opening sequence of Up is called out as an example of Pixar working at its tear-jerking peak, almost nullifying the impact of the rest of the film, Toy Story 3 has a lengthy climax culminating in a curtain call, all of which is meant as a massive payoff to a 15-year trilogy, a firm period on a franchise that could easily be extended on the silver screen for years to come. (Rumors will, of course, abound about a potential fourth Toy Story film; let’s only hope that this never comes to fruition.)