Nine months after this article kickstarted the Pixar Perspective column, it’s worth taking stock of the calendar year 2013. (With just three weeks left before we start 2014, it is, of course, possible that there may be more news on the horizon, but doubtful.) In that first editorial, the topic was the now-common choice among writers to pit Pixar Animation Studios against Walt Disney Animation Studios, only a few weeks after Brave won the Best Animated Feature Oscar over the apparent underdog, Wreck-It Ralph. A similar inter-company battle may occur once again, as Frozen and Monsters University are assumed to be among this year’s top challengers for the prize, along with another film being distributed under the Disney banner, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. And unlike even Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen has performed extremely well to this point; it’s too early to know for sure, but it could easily wind up as the highest-grossing feature in the Disney animated canon since The Lion King. Never mind, of course, that Monsters University, despite not being as widely embraced by critics, made nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars worldwide. For yet another year, Disney has “beaten” Pixar, in some people’s minds.
If you didn’t buy 2013 as being a year of total change for Pixar Animation Studios before, it would be extraordinarily difficult to deny it after the latest bit of bad news out of Emeryville. And, as is now typical, it all revolves around The Good Dinosaur, which holds the title as the most unfortunately beleaguered future release from any major film studio, all things considered. Was it only a few months ago when the film was unveiled at the D23 Expo, including some of its top-billed voice cast? Since early August, things have changed rapidly for The Good Dinosaur. First, its director, Bob Peterson, was shifted off the project. (As of this writing, no replacement has been announced; there’s a group of creatives working on the film’s production, but it’s closer to a brain trust.) Then, the release date was shifted from May of 2014 to November of 2015, making 2014 the first year in nearly a decade without a new Pixar film. Now, the company has laid off roughly 5% of its work force, in conjunction with that 18-month delay.
A fairly common trend over the last few years has been a growing frustration among some people at the idea that the Christmas season is beginning earlier and earlier. Holiday music starts playing well before Thanksgiving, decorations go up near the beginning of November, and so on. In the world of film, the closest parallel is that of awards season (or the ever-expanding length of the summer movie season). There was a time when the Oscars were presented near the end of March. These days, it seems more likely that the Oscars ceremony might soon come near the beginning of February or beforehand. That, of course, has a ripple effect: every other awards body announces its victors before the Oscars, with some organizations starting, this year, as early as two weeks from now. But even the Oscars are jumping the gun, at least in terms of announcing some features and shorts that have made it onto their shortlists and longlists. Those lists include potential nominees for Best Animated Feature and Best Animated Short. For Pixar, there’s good and bad news within those lists.
The unsubtle art of product placement has been present in film dating all the way back to the era of the silents. As of late, however, people have grown so tired of seeing real-life products or brand names being painfully evident that it becomes the first topic to discuss, as opposed to the plot or characters. (A recent example is Man of Steel, in which Ma Kent works at the local Sears, per her prominently displayed nametag, which she’s seen wearing at home.) Product placement by itself is not automatically a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s used subtly enough by a filmmaker to not be obnoxious; using a fake generic name for Google or a similar search engine, for example, can often be worse than seeing a character just go to Google. On the flip side, some filmmakers or actors are so blatant about the product placement that it becomes satire; you’d have to look to TV for the prominent examples, such as David Cross hawking Burger King on Arrested Development or Tina Fey on 30 Rock looking into the camera and asking for “our money” after bragging about her cool new cell phone. To take money from sponsors and using their products in your film is a delicate balance, in short; being too obvious may bother audiences.
Watching business decisions get handed down from on high is always maddening, with the context for such choices being obscured from public view; all that can result is rampant speculation. So it is with the surprising announcement a few weeks ago from the Walt Disney Company that it was shutting down Pixar’s Canadian studio, located in Vancouver, British Columbia. The studio, which employed over 100 animators, had worked primarily in shorts related to preexisting properties, such as the Toy Story shorts Small Fry and Partysaurus Rex, as well as some of the Cars shorts released straight to DVD and Blu-ray. As of now, one of the reasons being bandied about for why the shutdown occurred is that a number of the tax loopholes that existed in the past in Canada have been tightened, giving Disney less profit on this extension of one of their most financially fruitful branches.
Though it isn’t the first of Pixar’s films to inspire audiences to reach for as many tissues as possible, Up may be the most universally successful at getting grown men and women to do some good old-fashioned ugly crying. Up, released in May of 2009, was the first of Pixar’s films to be presented in both 2D and digital 3D; that latter format allowed many to use their 3D glasses as a shield, to make sure no one around them saw the tears streaming down their cheeks. However, just as it’s a predictable response that the majority of people who saw Up were viscerally impacted by the first 10 minutes, the reaction to the film as a whole has also become slightly stereotypical, summed up as follows: the so-called “Married Life” montage, in which we watch the lead character, Carl Fredricksen, and his wife, Ellie, as they live their lives over multiple decades, culminating in her death at an old age, is excellent. It’s amazing! It’s emotional! And the rest of the film can’t even begin to compete with its devastating, heartbreaking finality.
Nearly 20 years after their first feature film, Pixar Animation Studios finally crossed over from the big screen to the small one last week with their inaugural television special, Toy Story of TERROR! Most Pixar devotees, if not all, know that before there was Toy Story or even characters like Buzz Lightyear and Sheriff Woody being storyboarded, there was A Tin Toy Christmas. Pixar originally wanted to expand upon its Oscar-winning 1988 short film Tin Toy by situating the title character in a holiday setting, before they decided (partly thanks to Disney’s urging) to ditch the training wheels of television and jump right into making feature films. Now, after decades of critical and commercial success, they chose to move back into television for real, bringing along Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang in the process. [Read more…]
This column doesn’t often traffic in the oft-familiar conversational tack you’ll see online, amounting to someone saying, “Boy, this carton of milk really spoiled badly! Here, smell it, and take a swig, too!” Essentially, the Pixar Perspective doesn’t often wade into the world of hate-reading, which isn’t too far removed from hate-watching certain TV shows or movies, or even hate-following people on Twitter or Facebook. It can be easy, fun, and cynically enjoyable to read something so purely terrible or backwards-thinking, specifically knowing that said article or blog post or book is designed to push your buttons. Typically, it’s better to be above such a visceral pastime, even when the topic centers on a certain animation studio in Emeryville, California. Today is not a typical one, unfortunately.
Now that Pixar’s moved itself off the 2014 release calendar, it’s quickly becoming apparent how painful that absence will be. (Necessary, clearly, and hopefully beneficial. But it’s also very painful.) The best possible evidence is to look and see what other animated movies are getting unveiled in 2014. If you’ve gone to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 since it opened a couple weeks ago (and if you haven’t, you may want to stay home, even—or especially—if you’re a fan of the far wittier original), you may have seen a peek of the future of animation, with trailers for such films as Free Birds—opening in just a few weeks—and The Nut Job. (The former is a presumably wacky story about turkeys trying to save themselves from being Thanksgiving dinner, and the latter is about a squirrel breaking into a nut store, and why are neither of those jokes?) Though there’s plenty more coming in 2014, such as The Lego Movie and How to Train Your Dragon 2, what little has been displayed of what’s to come only serves to emphasize how impactful Pixar’s absence will be.
Inevitability is, sometimes, the worst of all feelings. It’s easy to deny something is going to happen, even if all logic and evidence points to it being the case. But allowing yourself to accept the inevitable can be more satisfying than if you remain stubborn and obstinate. If you consider a piece of pop culture like Breaking Bad (allow the indulgence, please), you’re looking at a story that had a very clear and inevitable ending for many of its characters. We can wish that some of them might have escaped whatever fates they arrived at, but when logic points to the grave as being where they’ll wind up, there’s not much of a point in hoping otherwise. Denying the inevitable is easier than acceptance, but as much as we may imagine other possibilities, the latter option is healthier.