A few weeks ago, this column discussed the concept of risk-taking at Pixar Animation Studios. Recently, one of the studio’s head honchos, Ed Catmull, admitted that the growing reliance on creating sequels as well as original films is in part because sequels were financially less risky. Perhaps, when considering the cost of marketing as well as how much certain movies or characters make in merchandising, that may be true. But simply looking at the box-office takes of Pixar films proves that Catmull’s statement is faulty: as daring as their stories may be, no Pixar film can be categorized as a flop. As much as we may presume that original storytelling is riskier than relying on sequels in financial terms, at Pixar, it’s almost as if they can tell whatever stories they want and people will pay no matter what.
In the past, this column has focused primarily on looking at the positive side of Pixar’s shorts, features, and filmmakers, which hasn’t been terribly difficult; when compared with its competition, Pixar’s films are frequently far and away the best examples of mainstream animation of the modern age, no matter the format. Pixar’s influence has been immense over the past two decades, to the point where their style has become a formula for its rivals to copy. On the flip side, however, we’ve mentioned the benefits of Pixar expanding its storytelling to cover more female characters (even though not all of their films are aggressively male-centric), as well as approaching the genre of musicals in an attempt to step away from their initial unwillingness to follow in the footsteps of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Today, it’s time again to focus on an aspect of Pixar’s character development and storytelling that is arguably lacking and has been since the beginning: the issue of race.
Note: This column will discuss some third-act plot twists and general spoilers for The LEGO Movie. If you haven’t seen the film yet, consider yourself warned. (And also, see The LEGO Movie.)
In the nearly 20 years since Toy Story opened and kickstarted a revolutionary new period in mainstream feature animation, most of Pixar Animation Studio’s competition–even at the Walt Disney Company–has taken away the wrong lesson from that 1995 film’s success. A solid majority, though not all, of the computer-animated films that would follow in the 2000s and beyond focus on a few elements present in Pixar’s early work: famous actors, stylized and cutting-edge animation, adult-centric pop-culture references, and fast pacing. By themselves, and together, these elements shouldn’t instantly inspire dread. (Arguably, Toy Story 2 has all of these elements, and is one of Pixar’s early highlights.) However, a great deal of films from DreamWorks Animation, Blue Sky Studios, and other rivals lean so heavily on the aforementioned aspects that they leave out what matters most, and what’s present in almost every Pixar film: a lively, all-around spirit. A few non-Pixar animated films have felt like more than just a handful of elements concocted by a group of soulless executives–How to Train Your Dragon, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and the recent Frozen come to mind. These films all feel as if they were made by people who took the right lessons from Pixar’s early success; now, we can add a new entry to this too-small pile: The LEGO Movie.
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.