Late last week, the Walt Disney Company decided to expand our knowledge of their inner workings just a little bit, specific to the future of their animation studios. Anyone who may have been concerned, for example, that Walt Disney Feature Animation would be going the way of the dodo (this writer is among them) could breathe a bit easier because of this news story. In some ways, the entire story is fairly random—why Disney chose to announce its animation slate through 2018 at the end of May 2013, we may never know—but it’s got plenty of information we can parse through. Specific to Pixar and this week’s column, the topic of concern is multiple films in one year.
Now, longtime Pixar fans know that we’ve heard this tune before. There have been promises in the past that we’d get two Pixar films in a calendar year, a first for them. But as of this writing, that still hasn’t actually come to fruition. Sometimes, it’s because a movie’s release date gets pushed back, or because a movie gets shelved entirely. (To the latter case, Newt is the best example.) With the Hollywood Reporter’s story, though, we’re getting that promise so often from Pixar that it’s probably true. In 2015, Pixar plans to release The Inside Out and Finding Dory; additionally, they apparently are going to release two films in 2017, with one new movie opening in 2016 and another new one opening in 2018. This is a big jump for Pixar, one that brings them a bit closer, in prospective financial terms, to their competition at DreamWorks Animation and Blue Sky Studios. Is it a good thing creatively, though?
Obviously, there’s only so many facts we have to work with at this early date. We can wonder if Pixar making two movies in a year will make them more similar to a company like DreamWorks Animation. DWA frequently releases two or three movies per year, yet has very few films people would deem as excellent or even very good. One could argue that, outside of Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon, they have no such films. And it’s absolutely possible that making more movies in less time will dilute the quality of what Pixar produces. But there’s another angle to this story, one that’s immensely exciting to consider: the idea that we’re going to get the same high quality, only more of it, and from the old as well as new generation of Pixar filmmakers and animators.
Of the 13 films Pixar has released to this point, only Brave wasn’t directed or co-directed by the usual suspects. (For the purposes of this column, the usual suspects are John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich, Pete Docter, and Andrew Stanton.) The upcoming Monsters University also has a fresh new face as director and co-writer, Dan Scanlon. Docter, who directed Monsters, Inc., likely remained away from this project outside of being in the Pixar braintrust due to his work on The Inside Out. And next year’s The Good Dinosaur comes from director Bob Peterson and co-director Peter Sohn. While both Peterson and Sohn are no strangers to Pixar features—Peterson co-directed Up, among others; and Sohn is as well-known for voicing Emil in Ratatouille as he is for directing the short Partly Cloudy—they’re new to being given this much power. And frankly, it’s about time that the wealth got spread even more at Pixar.
We can speculate about what these new Pixar films will be, outside of Unkrich’s Dia de Los Muertos-themed film, which is presumed to take that first slot in 2016. There have been rumors of a new movie written by Derek Connelly, who penned last year’s indie favorite Safety Not Guaranteed, possibly directed by Teddy Newton; as well as a new movie directed by Andrews. Maybe these will take the two 2017 slots, or maybe something else will. (And, as recently emphasized in this column, it sure would be nice for one of these future films to be directed by a woman, as it’s clear that Pixar offers upward mobility among its production staff.) Basically, what matters most here is the potential for future greatness. As documented in past columns, it’s become the norm for people to see news about Pixar’s upcoming projects and wrinkle their brows in concern or cynicism. That Pixar may have, over the last year or two, disappointed some of us does not mean they’ll disappoint all of us in the years to come.
One reason why this positive outlook feels apt is in breaking down the comparison people may make between Pixar making two films a year and DWA making two films a year. Pixar has, for nearly 20 years, furthered the notion of the auteur culture at their studios in Emeryville, California. Almost all Pixar fans know the names of their most recognizable directors, but so do most people who are in tune with modern pop culture. Part of this larger knowledge is due to Stanton and Bird breaking out into live-action (and Bird, for the time being, staying there). Pixar’s directors are not, perhaps, as well known as Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg, but their names can be a soothing balm to wary Pixar fans. Take Finding Dory, a sequel that may seem unnecessary at the outset. However, knowing that Andrew Stanton is back on board as the film’s director means, hopefully, his recognizable thematic and visual stamp will once again be present on a Pixar film.
With no offense intended, how many directors at DreamWorks Animation are as well-known, as well-received because of who they are? You could argue in favor of Chris Sanders, co-director of How to Train Your Dragon and this year’s The Croods, but he might be the only thing close to an auteur at DreamWorks. (And, of course, it’s still a shame that Disney sent him packing after they turned his American Dog into Bolt.) DWA not being a studio of auteurist filmmakers doesn’t inherently make their films bad or disappointing, but the image some people have is that DWA churns out movies like they’re working on an assembly line, sparing little thought to the creative impetus behind a third Madagascar sequel or a Shrek spin-off. All that matters, we may presume, to DreamWorks Animation is the almighty dollar.
And certainly, the fear some people have harbored recently about Pixar’s choice in continuing the Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. franchises is similar. The people who run Pixar have always told us that they’d never say no to a sequel, as long as there was a creative reason to do so, not a financial one. Perhaps Cars 2 convinced us they were lying, because where before we weren’t as doubtful about a second or third Toy Story film (or the follow-up shorts), after 2011, we became wary of sequels to movies we dearly loved when they first were released. And so, people may become equally wary of Pixar releasing so many movies in such a short amount of time. Sure, it may be manna from heaven to get two Pixar movies in a year. But what happens if those two movies end up being something of a letdown, potentially because the resources were spread so thin that not as much focus could be given to each project due to expedited deadlines?
We can only wonder now. But here’s what we know from past production stories: the people at Pixar work incredibly well under pressure. It’s kind of amazing to consider not only that Toy Story 2 was originally envisioned as a direct-to-DVD project, but that once the higher-ups at Disney chose to release the film in theaters, Pixar’s animators had to work around the clock to make that happen, and in under a year. Shouldn’t it stand to reason that given a few years to work on any project, let alone two, Pixar’s animators would rise to that challenge? (Also, it’s hard to imagine that there will be a ton of overlap for animators between these upcoming projects. Pixar’s grown a fair bit in the last few years.) More to the point, Pixar giving itself these deadlines (or Disney forcing them into this calendar, you never know) allows them to let more than just those usual suspects step up to the plate. It’s time that people other than Andrew Stanton or Lee Unkrich get to direct. This isn’t to besmirch their past work, mind you. But as the old guard gets older—and even if these men are barely approaching 50, they are the old guard—the upstarts need to show they can take the reins of leadership.
Is it a mistake for Pixar Animation Studios to make more than one movie per year? It may be easy to see the doom and gloom in the prospect of more Pixar movies in less time, but isn’t it just as much a dream finally achieved? How many of us, maybe when we were younger and more hopeful, would’ve thought, “Wait a second, you’re telling me the studio that made Toy Story and WALL-E and Up is going to make two movies a year? I don’t have to wait as long for stuff like that? Where do I line up for tickets?” How many of us still think like that, even if we may be a bit embarrassed to admit it? As this column has said in the past, it’s very easy to look at the dark side of any issue, if only because the world is a nasty, cynical place sometimes, to the point where being positive is essentially being in the minority. Maybe, in five years’ time, this column will seem excessively, outrageously, foolishly hopeful. Or maybe, in five years’ time, we’ll be wondering if Pixar actually ever will make two movies per year, instead of offering further empty promises and teases. If we take Pixar at face value, though, the better question (and feel free to expound upon it in the comments) is this: why wouldn’t you be excited to see more than one Pixar movie a year?