The gravitational pull of the endless Star Wars franchise is inescapable in modern cinema. Though there have only been six live-action films in the series, the vast ocean of toys, theme-park attractions, animated TV series, books, and more make it impossible to avoid, even before there were rumors of a new trilogy. After the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in the fall of 2012, the rumors became truth: within just a few years (now under 2 years), a new trilogy of Star Wars films would be unveiled, following up on the events of Return of the Jedi. Since that time, it’s been assumed that Disney wouldn’t just make new live-action films in that galaxy far, far away. Why not make more animated films, or spin-off series, and so on? For now, at least, these are rumors.
But last week, the rumor-mill black hole leeched onto Pixar Animation Studios and is pulling tight. The gossip is now that Pixar will be making a Star Wars movie, as per a story that originated at the Latino Review website. (To note: outside of the Latino Review story saying that they’ve “heard that Pixar has been given their own Star Wars movie,” there are no details or confirmation from any other site. That said, Latino Review has a fairly good track record of its unconfirmed scoops turning into fact.) Today’s column won’t spend all of its space debating whether or not Pixar making a Star Wars movie is a good thing. Instead, here’s a more pressing and fascinating issue: why do the same people who decry Pixar for making sequels express excitement at Pixar making, at best, a spin-off movie to a world in whose creation they had no part?
Even now, with Pixar not releasing a feature film this year, the conventional wisdom is that this is an animation studio in search of its prior creative power. Where once they stood apart from competition like DreamWorks Animation, focusing almost entirely on original films with unique characters and stories, Pixar now churns out sequel after sequel. (This is, of course, a wildly incorrect assertion. In the 13-month period when Cars 2 and Brave were released by Disney/Pixar, DreamWorks Animation released the following three films in consecutive order: Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. Yes, this is cherry-picking, but Pixar’s four sequels were nearly matched by DreamWorks in one year.) Pixar’s made just a few sequels in their history; however, three of those have been released since 2010, not to mention the in-production Finding Dory, so this recent proliferation has helped sour public opinion towards the company. And yet, for the most part, the reaction to the animation studio working with Lucasfilm—as some point to Pixar story supervisor Kelsey Mann expressing interest in working on a Han Solo-centric movie—has been positive.
What’s intriguing to consider here isn’t that people are once again excited at the prospect of a new Star Wars movie—many of us were beside ourselves with anticipation upon the announcement of the prequels in the late-1990s, only to have that eagerness dashed—but that combining Pixar’s past storytelling and technological prowess with the expanded Star Wars universe is inspiring such glee. It cannot simply be the possibility of revisiting a beloved world; when Finding Dory was announced, the reaction online was closer to something like dread. Finding Nemo remains one of Pixar’s most successful and well-liked films, but it arguably didn’t offer nearly as many follow-up possibilities as the infinite world of Star Wars. But what is it about the potential combination of John Lasseter and George Lucas that has people excited? Why are people excited, in short, about Pixar making an unoriginal film?
No doubt, if Pixar made, for example, an animated film featuring Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, it would probably not be directly connected to the events of the first or future Star Wars trilogies. That hypothetical film, or any other, would be unoriginal, though. Some of the reaction online, especially on Twitter, can be best summarized as, “Well, it’s inevitable that Disney will make a Star Wars animated film, so it might as well be Pixar at the reins.” While this may be understandable, in that Pixar has more consistently proven a high level of quality over the last two decades compared to Walt Disney Animation Studios in the same time, it’s still something of a backhanded compliment. What’s more, it robs Pixar of the one creative element that defined the studio for a very long time: its autonomy.
Pixar’s ability to make whatever films it wants has long defined the company more than any studio-mandated sequels. We can look at the two Toy Story sequels and see a group of animators and filmmakers choosing to expand the world of Sheriff Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and the rest, but that’s arguably not the case with Cars 2 and Monsters University. (Frankly, an autonomous choice wasn’t the only thing driving Pixar’s decision to greenlight Toy Story 3. Don’t forget that, in the period when it looked like Disney was going to sever its contract with Pixar in the mid-2000s, they began work on a third Toy Story of their own, as the House of Mouse owned the rights to make a sequel, with or without Pixar. It could be that Lee Unkrich and other animators began working on Toy Story 3 in part so no one else would, somewhere in the distant future, try to do so.) Even if three of their four sequels are at least enjoyable, Pixar’s most autonomous works are those where they are seemingly unconstrained by financial desires, such as when they tell stories about, say, an old man lifting his house to Venezuela; or a non-English-speaking robot 800 years in the future; or the various feelings in a girl’s brain come to life.
Making a Star Wars movie would eliminate autonomy from Pixar’s repertoire. The Walt Disney Company, over the past few years, has spent a lot of time joining forces with some of the biggest forces in popular culture. Disney isn’t just Disney anymore, but a group of the heaviest hitters in the industry: Pixar, Lucasfilm, Marvel, and more. The overriding joke now is that, eventually, Disney will just own everything from your childhood and make it new again. Putting Pixar and Lucasfilm together may seem logical; a number of people have expected that Pixar would end up making a Marvel movie before long. As cool or awesome as that may sound in concept, in execution, the result may be free of the charm and wit we associate with Pixar films. Certainly, a Pixar/Marvel or Pixar/Lucasfilm project would look great, but let’s be honest, any Pixar film looks great. (Even Cars 2.) A Pixar Star Wars movie won’t just be a Pixar movie. It’ll be a Pixar movie, a Lucasfilm movie, and a Star Wars movie. To those who are excited, consider this: George Lucas has, despite handing over the director’s duties to J.J. Abrams, reportedly tried to offer plenty of advice or consultation on Star Wars Episode VII. While we may champion Lucas for coming up with the basics of the first Star Wars movie, would it really be a positive thing to have the same man who wrote the often (and fittingly) derided prequels working, even as a consultant, on a Pixar movie?
Even if Lucas’ storytelling capabilities weren’t suspect, Pixar’s films have worked so well in part because they are the product of as few voices as possible. As the company begins to approach the 20th anniversary of its first feature film, it’s true that most of their auteurish directors are a product of the old days, not the new ones: Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Brad Bird, and so on. Let’s assume that the Latino Review rumor is true, and that Pixar is working with Lucasfilm on a Star Wars film. (To be fair, we can probably assume that such a movie wouldn’t be deep in the production pipeline, but instead might not even be released until 2020.) It’s hard to imagine that Pixar would assign one of its veteran directors to this possible film, if only because George Lucas and other Lucasfilm creative executives—maybe even J.J. Abrams—would want to have their say in the final product. It’s more than a bit disappointing to consider, in this scenario, that one of the newer Pixar directors, such as Dan Scanlon, would be defined less as an auteur, and more as a hired hand. This, in effect, is the problem with a potential Pixar Star Wars movie: they’d be hired hands, not the driving creative minds.
Over the past year, as documented in this column, Pixar has fallen slightly out of favor with the general public. A decade ago, even though the Star Wars prequels were financially profitable, they weren’t nearly as championed or well received as the original films. With distance, we’ve forgotten if not forgiven those films for their trespasses. A combination of Pixar and the world of Star Wars is not instantly disastrous—again, there’s no question that a Pixar vision of Star Wars would likely be gorgeous to look at—but it’s not the right step forward. The studio needs to continue making original films; the upcoming Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur may or may not be creatively impressive, but it is important to recognize this much: better that they fail while sticking to an original vision instead of coasting on the familiar. We have perhaps rewarded Monsters University, if not Cars 2, with our dollars, but most people aren’t willing to let Pixar coast on sequels.
So if the same people who both had no patience for Monsters University and were fine with that film being shut out at the Oscars, they should arguably not be so intrigued in Pixar joining forces with Lucasfilm for a Star Wars film. (One last note: it’s possible that a Pixar Star Wars film wouldn’t feature a preexisting character as the lead, but Disney and Lucasfilm starting things off with a more obscure character or group taking center stage isn’t very likely.) The Star Wars universe has grown exponentially since 1977; there are plenty of new places, planets, and people to discover. And the Walt Disney Company didn’t buy Lucasfilm just to show off another jewel in their crown. So it may soon be true that Latino Review’s rumor becomes fact. But we should not be so thrilled at Pixar Animation Studios becoming beholden to the desires and mandates of another production company; they are best when they fly solo.