Is Pixar in creative trouble? It seems silly to ask, and three years ago such a question would have been unthinkable. Yet here we are, the studio having just delivered Monsters University, its fourth franchise continuation (after Cars 2 and the two Toy Story sequels), and its third film in a row that’s failed to elicit shrieks of elation from the critical masses (currently it stands at a 78% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes). It seems absurd to raise concern over a movie doesn’t score unanimous accolades – 78% is a respectable figure by RT standards – but when you’re talking about a studio with a history as cherished as Pixar’s, it feels like it’s worth at least considering whether it doesn’t point to a larger issue.
To be fair, I saw Monsters U last weekend, and it’s not a stinker by any means. 78% sounds about right. The first half is a bit of a slog, and the film strains to connect itself with Monsters Inc., but once it gets going the jokes land pretty consistently. The story is a hodgepodge of tributes to campus comedies past (Animal House being the most obvious) with the usual underlying Pixar message about the power of teamwork and friendship. And it’s great to hear Billy Crystal and John Goodman’s voices again as Mike and Sully, respectively, as both are terrific voice actors who slide comfortably back into their animated roles (also returning is Steve Buscemi as Ragdall Boggs, the villain of the first film). They’re joined, among others, by Parks & Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza and Helen Mirren, who’s wonderful as the university’s terrifying Dean (a dragon, of course). Monster’s University is mostly a pleasure, and quality-wise comes in just a shade below the original, which – let’s face it – was never one of Pixar’s finest, though it’s aged gracefully on repeat viewings.
The problem is that Monsters University is a kids’ movie, and it could be argued that their last film, Brave, was one as well. Cars 2 certainly was. That makes three straight, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with making kids’ movies, of course, it’s something the studio took pains to avoid for so long that it feels disappointing and even a little surprising. They used to aim so much higher. Up (2009), the last Pixar masterpiece, gracefully wove themes around love, loss and moving on amidst its beautifully crafted adventure story, a movie for all ages if ever there was one. And most of the original run of Pixar films dealt with similarly mature issues like single parenthood and attachment, (Finding Nemo) family dynamics and exceptionalism (The Incredibles) and even mortality (Toy Story 2) in ways that felt uniquely adult. Even Toy Story 3, a film I don’t hold in as high regard as some, managed to bring the threat of death and abandonment into very real focus. In this sense, the run of more kid-focused fare that’s come since feels disturbingly persistent. With each new film, those of us who cherish Pixar’s legacy keep waiting for a return to maturity that never seems to arrive.
So why the “slump” (and I use quotes because, as mentioned, the films have been far from clunkers)? Some have argued that the Disney acquisition in 2006 may be responsible, as the studio’s more corporate influence has turned the focus toward more easily merchandisable franchises and sequels. Though that’s possible, I have a difficult time believing that John Lasseter, who now wields so much power within the Disney walls (as head of Disney animation), would allow it to happen. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lasseter himself, in his new role, has less hands-on creative oversight of projects and that the standards for quality have lowered in his absence. Or maybe it’s the fact that much of the creative talent behind the original run of stone classics – including Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo and Wall-E) and Brad Bird (The Incredibles) – have moved on to other things, and that the new crop just isn’t up to their standards. There’s also the very real possibility that it’s all just a coincidence.
Whatever the reason, the future gives reason for hope, so I’m not yet ready to write off Pixar’s chances for a return to form. The next two planned releases, The Good Dinosaur (May 2014) and Inside Out (June 2015), are helmed by Bob Peterson and Pete Docter, co-directors of Up (each working with new co-directors this time around), and both are original concepts. In fact, the only sequel on the Pixar radar is Finding Dory (November 2015), one that brings back Andrew Stanton to the director’s chair after the poorly received foray into live action that was 2012’s John Carter. Last week, in a Buzzfeed interview, Pixar president Ed Catmull assured fans that the studio is well aware of its sequel issues, and is determined to pursue original projects in the years to come. One has to think that there’s at least one classic among them.
Personally, I hope that’s the case. This is a studio whose run of creative excellence from Toy Story in 1995 to Up in 2009 (or, if I’m being generous, Toy Story 3 in 2010) has rarely been equaled in film history. Their genius ranks with Preston Sturges’ 1940-1948 run (from The Great McGinty to Unfaithfully Yours) or, more recently, the Katzenberg reign over Disney animation from 1991 (The Little Mermaid) to 1995 (The Hunchback of Notre Dame). Problems with the more recent films aside, I’m not ready to write them off just yet.