The latest Pixar movie has been the animation studio’s best in a few years, says Patrick Cremona.
Friday 25th. December 2020, 6:00 a.m.
In the 15 years after Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story, debuted in 1995, the popular animation studio released another 10 films. With the exception of the excellent second and third entries in the Toy Story series, all of them were originals and almost all of them received praise from audiences and critics alike.
There has been a series of incredibly inventive adventures here that worked for the whole family, transported us into a host of new worlds, and told some of the most moving stories we’ve seen in the past quarter century. The incredible series with four films by Ratatouille / WALL-E / Up / Toy Story 3 was probably the highlight of the studio. All four films have won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for consecutive years and have garnered abundant praise from young and old audiences alike.
For the past 10 years, however, there has been a completely different story: while the studio continued to release new movies on a regular basis, the original features weren’t as numerous. A total of 12 Pixar films have come and gone since Toy Story 3 first broke millions of hearts in 2010, and of those 12, exactly half have been sequels.
Now it’s understandable that given the tremendous success it had with the Toy Story follow-ups, the studio would choose this route, and it’s worth pondering why Pixar chose this approach. There’s an argument that kids love the opportunity to see their favorite characters on the big screen another time – even if that loses some of its weight when you consider the time gaps between originals and sequels: Monsters Inc and Monsters passed 12 years University, 13 years between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory and 14 years between The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2. If anything, this suggests that these sequels are more aimed at people of my generation who were children at the time of the originals.
More realistically, it’s the box office numbers that influence the studio’s choice: four Pixar films grossed over $ 1 billion at the global box office, and all four were sequels (Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4). From this point of view, it makes perfect sense that the studio should look for more of it. The original features aren’t exactly bad though (Inside Out raised $ 857 million, Coco raised $ 807 million). So why not balance those box office numbers with the studio’s incredible ability to bring out new original features?
After all, the problem with all sequels isn’t that they are downright bad, but that they come at the expense of more exciting and satisfying new films. In fact, it’s hard to argue that most of these sequels, despite their profitability, have been rather mediocre entries in the Pixar canon. Granted, you will find fans of Monsters University and Finding Dory, but you won’t see many people better claiming them as their originals, let alone calling them their number one Pixar movie. Meanwhile, Toy Story 4 may have won an Oscar for best animated feature, but it’s not quite on the same level as Woody’s three previous games.
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Thank goodness the studio returned to its original features with an upturn this year. In early 2020 (early enough for a theatrical release) we saw Onward, a heartwarming coming-of-age story in a world inhabited by mythical creatures.
Just in time for Christmas, we have Pixar’s real triumph of 2020: Soul. The film tells the story of Joe Gardner, a New York jazz lover and middle school teacher who cared for an unborn soul after an accident and sent him to « The Great Before ». It has all the features you are looking for in a Pixar movie. The sublime visual invention, the A-list of voices, and the heady mix of top-notch slapstick and verbal humor (with plenty of amusing clues for parents) are all there in spades.
As with Pixar’s best, the movie’s true success comes from its ability to address difficult topics with warmth and accessibility, and to give the audience an interesting and life-affirming lesson without being less than entertaining. The result is Pixar’s best film in a few years, which, alongside Inside Out and Coco, is the best the studio has released in the past decade.
With the studio’s upcoming release in view, there is good news and bad news for fans who want more original fare than another flurry of sequels. On the upside, of the three new films that were confirmed at the Disney Investor meeting last week, two are brand new – the Italian Riviera plays the coming-of-age story Luca and Turning Red, a story about a young girl who turns into a giant red panda when too excited (from director of acclaimed short Bao).
Maybe Lightyear isn’t that promising! – Another entry in the Toy Story series, but more of a spin-off than a sequel. (As star Chris Evans pointed out a certain level of ridiculousness on Twitter, this is an origin story for the real buzz as opposed to the toy based on it. ) Well maybe I’ll prove myself wrong and Lightyear! is going to be a triumph, but while I’m a huge fan of the Toy Story films, I find it hard to get excited like that, and I fear sequels and spin-offs will continue to be an important part of the Pixar model.
My fear here is compounded in connection with the plans of Disney in general, which last week announced details for hundreds of new projects, few of which were brand new ideas.
Now the palpable excitement among Star Wars and Marvel fans is understandable – there’s a reason these franchises are so popular and when their avid fans can’t celebrate as many new projects this year when they can However, the concern of movie and TV fans who are not that heavily invested in these giant franchises is that Disney, which has such great power over the entire entertainment industry, appears to have little interest in projects that do not match an existing one intellectual property are bound.
So it’s not unthinkable that Pixar – one of Disney’s big hitters – will at some point take a similar path, focusing primarily on the big spin-offs and sequels while the original features become a rarity. I’m not saying that sequels should be cut out completely – they can be brilliant if done correctly, as Toy Story 2 and 3 attest – just that the original features still have priority.
Soul, like Coco and Inside Out before, proves that the studio has always been at its best when it comes to bringing original ideas to the fore, and it should continue to do so in the future.
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