Complacency Killed the Cat: Why the Pixar We Grew Up With Is Gone

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– By James Powers –

There was a tweet or something making the rounds a few years ago, after Pixar released Inside Out, that pithily summed up the story trajectory of the studio’s films. It went something like this: 

  • 1995: What if toys had feelings? (Toy Story)
  • 1998: What if bugs had feelings? (A Bug’s Life)
  • 2001: What if monsters had feelings? (Monsters, Inc.)
  • 2006: What if cars had feelings? (Cars)
  • 2008: What if robots had feelings? (Wall-E)
  • 2015: WHAT IF FEELINGS HAD FEELINGS?! (Inside Out) 

And so on. Not a bad assessment honestly. When I recently re-watched that last film, I definitely felt my feels feeling things as I watched feelings feel things. Now, it’s pretty easy for me to get misty-eyed during movies, so perhaps that isn’t saying much, but I know I wasn’t the only one to tear up at Inside Out…or Finding Nemo for that matter, or Monsters Inc. or of course Up. At the risk of saying the same thing that other critics have said eight bazillion times, Pixar is singularly skilled at combining original, imaginative concepts with gut-punch emotional resonance and, obviously, gorgeous animation. And their ability to exercise this dynamite creative formula without ever making it feel formulaic was, for a long time, nothing short of wizardry. For a long time, I legitimately thought divine inspiration was at work in the studio – actually I still think it was. 

But, as you can guess from my use of the past tense, everything ends someday. And I’ve been wondering for a long time when this would happen, when the Pixar magic would end. It’s been a gradual thing, but something clicked for me when I rewatched Inside Out the other day, and was confirmed when I went to see Toy Story 4 shortly thereafter.

We’ve all known for a while that things are changing at Pixar… but I can now say quite confidently that the Pixar I grew up with is gone. And, more significantly, I’m no longer holding out hope that it will come back. This isn’t to say that I think it has become a soulless corporate sellout or that we’re heretofore doomed to only getting Minions-esque derivative dreck from them. But times have changed, and I don’t think we’ll be getting another Monsters Inc. or Wall-E any time soon. 

First though, I need to acknowledge something – Toy Story 4 is currently rocking a 98% critics score and 94% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. Jeepers McGee. Makes me feel pretty bad for coming out here as the resident buzzkill. But here I am, and you’re welcome: I didn’t think Toy Story 4 was that good. Not that it was bad; it was beautiful to look at and entertaining and, yeah, emotionally mature by the standards of most American animated features. However, to everyone else’s bamboozled exclamations that Pixar has done it again and given us the sequel we didn’t know we needed, I have to say – eeh. We didn’t need this sequel, or at any rate, it isn’t a Toy Story movie in the same way the prior three films were Toy Story movies. It lacks the same vitality. 

This lack all boils down to a je ne sais quoi sort of thing that I’ve detected in Inside Out, as well as The Incredibles 2 and Coco. It ran rampant in Finding Dory and Monsters University, and appeared in more subdued, nascent hints with Brave and even Toy Story 3. Don’t ask me about the Cars sequels; I’ve seen neither of them and probably never will, but based on what I’ve heard both those films were stuffed with it up the ying. 

This “something” is, for lack of a better word, complacency; the sense that Pixar has long passed the point where they hit their creative groove, and are starting to wear that groove into a rut. For example, elements of Inside Out  – from its SNL voice cast to its almost self-consciously fantastical premise (“what if feelings had feelings?!”) – play as a little too on-point, a little too branded. Pixar is the place you go for laughs combined with feels combined with spectacular visuals, so of course they’ll put out a movie that personifies the emotions of a child and dives inside her subconscious, and that features the voice talents of such hot comedy commodities as Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, etc. 

Let me say again, though, that none of this makes Inside Out a bad movie by any stretch, or even a mediocre one. It’s a very good movie, but you can tell it’s from a studio that has reached the height of its powers and long ago became the establishment. Pixar is no longer the disruptor, and therefore is not subject to the same pressures that historically have driven it to make not just good films but excellent ones. Although to their credit, danged if they haven’t tried real hard to avoid complacency.

As early as Toy Story 2 they determinedly dodged the usual playbook for successful franchises, insisting on the massive headache of making the sequel a full-blown theatrical release rather than going the direct-to-video route that Disney was pushing for. And even after that sequel was a howling success, they refused to return to familiar territory until Toy Story 3 came almost a decade later. The sequel-ridden nine years since Toy Story 3 have, of course, been entirely different. In that time, I would say, the studio has gradually shifted focus: from deeply personal and original stories to ones that are, to a greater or lesser extent, crowd-pleasers. 

So now we arrive at Toy Story 4, a film whose early marketing leaned heavily on the addition of hit comedy duo Key and Peele as a pair of supporting characters who, while definitely funny, proved to be pretty inconsequential to the story overall. More significantly, it rewrites former damsel Bo Peep as a renegade heroine in the vein of Princess Mononoke or Imperator Furiosa, albeit in more kid-friendly form. This is definitely a welcome development from the historically male-centric studio, but as Steven Greydanus points out (and no I’ll probably never stop referencing him), the story doesn’t quite examine her transformation enough to a) make her a fully textured character, female or otherwise, and b) justify the enormous thematic upheaval she represents for the entire Toy Story saga. You can read more about that upheaval in Greydanus’s review – it’s almost worth a whole separate post, so I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say that Bo’s reinvention feels a little bit less like an organic development, and a little bit more like an appeal to the current zeitgeist about female representation in film. 

Anyway. There’s much more I could say about how Toy Story 4, though fun, is an unnecessary and even counterproductive sequel, but I’m starting to run out of space. So back to the big question: what happened to Pixar’s ethos to divert them from making excellent films to merely good or good-enough ones?

If you’re familiar with the studio’s history, you can probably guess where I’m going with this – Disney’s outright acquisition of Pixar in 2006. But the acquisition in and of itself wasn’t really the problem. Disney, savvy enough by now to recognize the power of Pixar’s vision and not mess with it, was careful to give its leaders (known as the “brain trust”) continued creative freedom after the merger. In fact, they went a huge step further and actually handed their creative reins over to Pixar execs Ed Catmull and, of course, John Lasseter. So in some ways this was the exact reverse of a typical acquisition, in that the larger company actually adapted itself to the smaller one rather than just absorbing it. Definitely not the sort of thing that should have weakened Pixar. 

But actually it was. In the years following the merger, the previously-struggling Disney underwent a “renaissance” that echoed their revival in the early ‘90s with films such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Except this time it was films like Tangled, Frozen, and Wreck-It Ralph. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, mainline Disney started turning out films that were original, beautiful to look at and emotionally affecting. But not in quite the same way as Pixar. These films were something decidedly their own: even though Lasseter and Catmull took on major leadership positions at Disney, they were careful to not so much take over the teams there as simply introduce them to a new working philosophy. One of the first Disney projects after the merger, Bolt, was having trouble meeting its deadlines, but Lasseter and Catmull buckled down on the Disney team to find their own solutions rather than having Pixar people come in and save it. As Catmull put it, “if it was felt that Pixar’s production team had bailed them out, it wouldn’t be Disney’s victory.” 

Disney’s victory it may have been, but it wouldn’t have happened without Pixar’s mentorship – none of Disney’s subsequent animated hits would have. And this essentially is both the cloud and the silver lining. Since the merger, Pixar’s leadership has just been spread too thin. The whole reason Disney bought Pixar for that whopping $7.4 billion was for their own rehabilitation, and so that’s where the priorities ultimately went for Lasseter and Catmull. And in the meantime, Pixar’s in-house films ended up coasting – some more than others, but coasting nonetheless. Disney’s bet paid off handsomely, and I don’t begrudge them for it. But the cost of a Disney gem like Wreck-It Ralph is now, apparently, a Pixar shrugger like Finding Dory. Disney’s Moana was wonderful – but Pixar’s Coco felt eerily similar. 

The dilution of Pixar across two studios, and its upending by controversy, has had bittersweet results overall. It’s led to a welcome improvement in the films of one and a sad, if perhaps inevitable, decline in the films of the other. There’s been a lot of soul-searching going on across both studios, and while I’m bummed to conclude, for example, that Toy Story 4 hardly lives up to the standard of its predecessors, I don’t mean to say that this is the end of the road for Pixar. 

But it’s definitely the end of an era, the era of luminaries like Finding Nemo and Wall-E and Up. Perhaps, to go back to Inside Out, it’s a little bit like adolescence. Things are a bit awkward and weird for the studio right now, but perhaps it’s merely a time of transition. I don’t expect Onward, for example, to live up to The Incredibles. But hopefully, in a few years here, we’ll start to see an entirely new sort of genius emerge from the new Pixar. I’ll be watching.


About the Author

James Powers is a staff writer for the Impacting Culture Blog, currently earning his MBA in Film Producing at JPCatholic as a member of the class of 2019.

For all articles by James, click here.

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