What is the price of a decreasing amount of prestige? This is the question that may be worth asking most of all right now if you’re a fan of Pixar Animation Studios. As Samad pointed out on the Pixar Times home page, when the Golden Globe nominations were announced this past Thursday morning, Monsters University was not included among the nominees for Best Animated Feature. There is, to be sure, a necessary discussion to be had, not only about how seriously people do or should take the Golden Globes, as well as why, this year, they only nominated three films for Best Animated Feature. (On the latter point, Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, the exquisite and mature The Wind Rises, was nominated for Best Foreign-Language Film, but not Best Animated Feature, inexplicably. Also, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which hands out the Golden Globes, has a rule stating that if fewer than 12, but more than 7, animated features qualify in a given year, there can only be three Best Animated Feature nominees. As there were only 10 wide-release animated features this year, that must explain the small number of nominees, but just barely.)
And yet. Though awards pundits may argue, and not incorrectly, that the Golden Globes are and have always been something of a joke, most people presume they’re a solid predictor to the Oscars. Unlike almost every other awards ceremony, they’re televised on a broadcast network, something that, by itself, inflates the HFPA’s importance. So the question remains: does it matter if Pixar’s image of being both financially and critically beloved has been tarnished this year? And if so, how much? Certainly, the widespread success of Frozen has helped give voice to the idea that Walt Disney Animation Studios is jumping in front of its sister studio in Emeryville, but even before that film opened to near-universal applause, the year for Pixar looked oddly bleak. Odd, because as much as this column has parsed all of the troubles that have occurred at Pixar this year, Monsters University wasn’t exactly a failure. It stands now as the fourth-highest-grossing film from the studio domestically, and its third-highest-grossing film worldwide. (Those statistics do not include inflation, to be fair.) And critically, although Monsters University did not approach the same heights as something like Ratatouille or Up on either Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes, it was the second-highest-rated animated film in wide release this year…behind Frozen.
It would be incorrect to look at these facts and presume that all is well at Pixar, but at the same time, we can look at these numbers and wonder how they’re not correlating to nominations, if not awards, during this time of year. As of this writing (granted, well before the Oscar nominations are announced), Monsters University has only made an impressive showing at the Annies, which is slightly ironic considering how, only a few short years ago, the organization that gives out the Annies was being accused by Disney and Pixar of skewing the vote to favor DreamWorks Animation films. But times have changed, and now Monsters University has 10 nominations, including one for Best Animated Feature. Here, of course, it should be said that the chances of Monsters University winning a fair amount of awards, at the Annies or the Oscars, or elsewhere, is slim. At this point, it’s more logical to presume that Frozen or The Wind Rises will take as many awards as are available. (And arguably, to this writer’s mind, The Wind Rises, especially, vastly deserves to win them all over all other contenders.)
Here’s one more potentially distressing factoid: as of this writing, there’s only one other Pixar film with fewer than 25 nominations from all awards-giving bodies than Monsters University, and that’s Cars 2. For good or ill, it has become conventional wisdom that Monsters University was a forgettable effort from a company that has seen better days. This, in effect, is why a lack of awards or nominations may sting most of all for Pixar: it further robs them of their status as being the top dog in mainstream animation. Being part of the Walt Disney Company, Pixar does not want for profit, one assumes. But still, they lay people off. And they have production problems. And they close down a Canadian offshoot of their own brand. The problem for Pixar in 2013 is not just that they may not make a decent showing at the Oscars. (It seems all too likely that if Monsters University gets any nominations there—and don’t forget, The Blue Umbrella didn’t even make the Oscar shortlist for Best Animated Short—it will be just for Best Animated Feature, nothing more. It’s felt like a long time since Toy Story 3 got nominated for, among others, Best Picture.) The problem is that Pixar did not do what they have done so amazingly well in the past: surprise people the right way.
Make no mistake, some people did not need to be surprised in 2013. Monsters University has plenty of fans (including this writer), and was the best animated film of the year until the holiday season rolled around. But since 2010, as this column has commented upon, the collective hackles of most of the Internet, at least, have been raised against Pixar. For a long time, they were able to pull off the impossible, to be nearly perfect qualitatively. Their films made a ton of money, but they also drew respect from within the community. And now, for the first time in a while, Pixar will likely go away mostly emptyhanded after the awards season. Sure, they can brag about their award for Best Animation at the Hollywood Film Awards, but it’s not a particularly prestigious honor to bestow, compared to an Academy Award. Again, this would place Monsters University alongside Cars 2, as one of the two films from Pixar to not receive any major awards. Though this doesn’t diminish the emotional heft and power of Monsters University, the company’s absence at the Golden Globes, even, is somewhat startling.
It’s easy enough to look at the various articles in industry magazines about this or that organization’s plaudits rolling in and say that awards don’t matter. In the grand scheme, they absolutely don’t matter to anyone reading this (unless you happen to work for Pixar). And even to the company, you could argue that awards don’t matter. It’s not as if Monsters University was some kind of flop that needed a Golden Globe nomination or two to inject it with new life and appreciation. Pixar’s animators and filmmakers continue to keep making movies, and it’s safe to presume, even with an extra year off, audiences will flock to their next films, because a movie from Pixar still has enough of a cultural cache to attract interest. On those levels, perhaps, awards don’t matter. But on a more primal level, of course, awards do matter. Pixar has earned a level of trust among audiences for a number of reasons, undoubtedly, but the many awards the company has amassed represents one of those reasons. It may be an after-the-fact contributing factor—most people, for example, probably saw Toy Story 3 before it got nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars—yet it lends weight and credence to the notion that Pixar is the best animation studio around. Their competition grows—once, they were up against just Disney, then Disney and DreamWorks, and now they face Sony, Blue Sky, Aardman, and more—but for a while, they were untouchable.
Now, they aren’t. Even if Frozen had been a misfire, Monsters University was not widely received. There was enough of a hullabaloo last year when Brave won the Best Animated Feature Oscar over Wreck-It Ralph, when the latter film had gained a groundswell of support partly because it seemed to fall much more in line with Pixar’s past storytelling sensibilities. Should Monsters University beat out Frozen and The Wind Rises at the Oscars, presuming all three get nominated, it will speak only to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences being a few years behind the times. More than likely, though, the Academy will, for at least this year, move on from awarding Pixar. The spotlight is no longer theirs. Though that may change in the next few years, as last week’s column discussed, this is still a wearisome thought to consider. Pixar has managed, well before they were making feature films, to deal with being the underdog. But as long as they’ve been a major part of popular culture, they’ve been dominant. The fear here may be best said as follows: they aren’t aging as well or as gracefully as they could be. This isn’t to suggest that they’ve lost their luster entirely, or cannot regain it in the future (again, as noted last week, the future of mainstream animation isn’t so set in stone that Pixar will lose its footing in the race for qualitative primacy wholly). However, right now, not even a golden statuette may be enough to lift the studio’s fortunes.
The future for Pixar is murky. Their films were once as close as you could get to a sure thing, yet now, with so much time before their next feature, all that’s left is rank speculation. The bright spot for 2014, if you can call it that, is the presumption or hope that, with no upcoming film on the calendar, the news can’t get much worse. Pixar’s past is something fond, something worth looking back on without needing to put on rose-colored glasses. Their present is particularly distressing, because they’ve become what they once rebelled against: the establishment. By bucking the trend of animation tropes in the 1990s, they ended up resetting what constituted a typical animated film. They overtook mainstream animation, in the form of a technological breakthrough. But the first golden age of computer animation has ended, leaving us with the pieces for a new era in the format. As evidenced by all the recent news surrounding their in-production films, and their layoffs, and now by possibly losing the prestige associated with getting countless awards and nominations, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine that Pixar will be leading that new era, just chasing their own shadow.