As unlikely as it may have seemed a few years ago, or even a few months ago if you were stubbornly holding out against the truth, there will be a sequel to the 2003 Pixar classic Finding Nemo, opening in 2015. Of course, more than 30 months from its release, we know very little about Finding Dory, aside from that title, its release date, the involvement of Albert Brooks and—in a more pronounced fashion—Ellen DeGeneres, and little else. But that title can, if nothing else, allow us to assume we have a general notion of what the film will entail: instead of the harried, neurotic Marlin searching the ocean for his son Nemo, he’ll have to do so for the unlikely friend he picked up on that first journey, Dory. These are the facts—at least based on Disney’s recent press release—but those meager crumbs have inspired a great deal of worrisome Internet fervor in the last couple weeks.
One of the more frequent cries among the naysayers is that Finding Nemo, as opposed to something like The Incredibles, doesn’t require a sequel. The story is closed-ended, in that—spoiler alert—Marlin finds his son, alive and well, and their relationship is not only repaired, but improved, by the final shot. Where else does the story need to go? Where else could it go? This is the question everyone asks whenever the very notion of a Pixar sequel is brought up, because every time it’s discussed as if it’s a real possibility by Disney or Pixar, The Incredibles is always left out. Brad Bird, that film’s writer and director, has moved onto bigger things—not that working for Pixar isn’t impressive by itself—in the world of live-action. Bird could return to Pixar at some point in the future, but for the time being, he works in the land of the living. Andrew Stanton, on the other hand, is returning to animation after one notably unsuccessful attempt to break into live-action.
Finding Dory could be as good as, or better than, Toy Story 2 or Toy Story 3, movies whose basic concepts may have raised eyebrows when they were announced. Or it could be as beautifully, brightly animated yet uninteresting as Cars 2, giving too much screen time to a character who’s most enjoyable in smaller doses. What it represents at this nebulous stage is a subtle step back for Andrew Stanton. John Carter was a hubristic project, and had it succeeded, who knows what would’ve happened to Finding Dory? It likely still would’ve moved forward—again, Stanton’s involvement in the script as of now appears to be minimal if nonexistent—but with another director. Stanton may have had as meteoric a rise in the echelons of blockbuster directors, too.
Bird and Stanton, in many ways, are exceedingly similar directors. Bird may be the most auteurish of his fellow Pixar filmmakers, but Stanton’s films have clearly defined mission statements as much as The Incredibles or Ratatouille do. Both men are well-known for being fiercely confident of their vision, much more so than Pete Docter or Lee Unkrich; in particular, The New Yorker did a profile of Stanton a little while before John Carter opened that served to cement his status as being confident to the point of arrogance. Not that animation is some kind of punishment for either man, but where did Bird go right in changing mediums where Stanton did not? As strange as it may seem, Bird’s decision to break into live-action with a movie that wouldn’t bear, solely, his stamp as a director is the key.
After Ratatouille, Bird ended up dipping his feet in the waters of live-action not with an original script or vision, even though he tried to get his passion project 1906—based both on the famous 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a book documenting the event—off the ground. Instead, he entered into a project as, in a way, a director-for-hire, helming 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Essentially, he was able to shift the burden of responsibility off his shoulders partially, if not entirely. If Ghost Protocol wasn’t as entertaining as its predecessor, or felt flat, you could potentially blame Bird as a first-time live-action director. Or you could put the blame on the script, written by others, or the franchise it was part of, or Tom Cruise, or producer and the third installment’s director J.J. Abrams, or any number of other factors. Brad Bird decided to not make himself the most identifiable aspect of his next project, just a cog in the machine. Of course, it did help that Ghost Protocol is an enormously entertaining, exuberant action picture, and that Bird’s direction, especially in the standout Dubai sequence, was fresh, propulsive, and exhilarating. Critics and audiences widely embraced Ghost Protocol as being one of the best films in the Mission: Impossible franchise, and Bird got a good deal of the praise. He’s back at Disney for his new project, Tomorrowland, but has surrounded himself with enough big names, from star George Clooney to co-writer/Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, that should it fail, he probably won’t be thrown to the wolves.
Let’s look at the flip side: John Carter. (And for context: this writer enjoyed John Carter quite a bit.) Stanton was not the first filmmaker who wanted to bring this Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp character to the big screen; he followed in the footsteps of names as wide and varied as Jon Favreau, Robert Rodriguez, and Ain’t It Cool News’ Harry Knowles. Seeing as how Burroughs’ writing is an inspiration on many film franchises, all the way up to Star Wars, it’s easy to see why a studio would want to capitalize on its influence. But it’s also easy to see where the pitfalls lay; Star Wars, in particular, owed enough of a debt to Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars that audiences who weren’t familiar with both universes would presume that the Stanton film ripped off those adventures set in a galaxy far, far away.
John Carter is not a perfect film, though its first act isn’t nearly as problematic as some people would say (outside of the flash-forward framing device). Among Stanton’s other movies, it ranks last, but that’s what happens when you’ve made Finding Nemo and WALL-E. That New Yorker piece, along with other press coverage delighting in the reshoots Stanton had to do—even though such concepts are commonplace and expected at Pixar—and in how over budget the film went, felt as if they were building up Stanton’s meteoric fall to Earth, his Icarus-like pride punished with a healthy dose of humility. Disney spent a lot of money on the film (excluding the muddled, misguided marketing campaign), so when it failed to make any serious cash, Stanton’s chances to evolve as a live-action director got squelched. Stanton may not have felt as in control of his film as Bird did; it’s partly because Stanton decided he didn’t need a safety net but Bird was wise enough to allow himself such leeway.
Since John Carter failed, Stanton, who’d been using Twitter as frequently as possible, started slowly removing himself from the service. Then came his last tweet for over six months: when he famously encouraged people desperate for hope that a Finding Nemo sequel wouldn’t happen that they shouldn’t believe what they read; the flip side is that the immensely vague tweet is meant to assure readers he wasn’t being forced into computer animation so that he could one day return to live-action. (Further proof that, as said in The Social Network, the Internet is written in ink, not pencil. Some people won’t ever let Stanton forget this weird, misguided attempt at obfuscation.) Stanton is one of the Pixar stalwarts, there since before Toy Story was released. Finding Nemo and WALL-E are creative and artistic triumphs, intelligent examinations of self and society that adults can enjoy as much, if not more so, than children. He reached a bit too far with John Carter, and so now it’s easy—if somewhat inaccurate or reductive—to assume that his punishment for his failed ambition is to be relegated to a sequel. He’s said as much, acknowledging that people will make this leap even if it’s not accurate in more than just a happy coincidence of timing. (Again, that’s how he’s said it, but those people who never forget that fateful tweet from July of 2012 likely may not take him at his word for a while.)
It’s still slightly bittersweet to see him return to the familiar world of Marlin, Dory, and Nemo, even more so knowing that he isn’t the writer of this new film. (Stanton may well end up having a hand in the script, but as of right now, Victoria Strouse is the only credited screenwriter.) What’s more, it’s a bit troubling to consider that Finding Dory may be to Finding Nemo what Cars 2 is to Cars, going all in on the lovable sidekick character, thrusting them into an unnecessary position as the lead. Mater got the spotlight in Cars 2, where he was a goofier side character in Cars. Based on Ellen DeGeneres’ early comments, you have to wonder if she might end up being the lead, or if the idea that we’ll finally meet her family—was anyone waiting for this?—means she’ll become more important than Marlin, Nemo, or the Tank Gang.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Finding Dory is that it may never feel like it was Stanton’s project as opposed to a movie he’s decided to direct. Ironically, the same way that Brad Bird broke into live-action, as a director-for-hire, feels like less of a success when the title is placed upon a director working with Pixar Animation Studios. A director-for-hire, a safety net: these phrases may be strange to see used in any article about Pixar Animation Studios, a place known and respected for its daring, fearless, original films. A safety net implies that someone needs help, that the vision for any movie can’t be harnessed by one person. Sometimes, it can. But even at Pixar, the auteur theory only goes so far. Yes, The Incredibles and Ratatouille feel as if they came straight from the head of Brad Bird, but he’s not the only one who worked on the film. Even Pixar has a safety net; all that changes is how high up the net is placed. For Andrew Stanton’s return to Pixar as a director, it feels as if the net is as high as it can possibly go, sadly. Both Stanton and Bird took chances as live-action directors, but only one was shrewd enough to make sure he wouldn’t be the first one tossed in front of the firing squad should this initial effort fizzle at the box office.