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Are superheroes and sequels corrupting Pixar's soul?

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards were announced earlier this week, and among the various surprises and snubs a notable name was missing from the list of nominees for Best Animated Feature: Pixar’s Finding Dory. That’s a big deal even at first glance, given Pixar’s relatively unchecked dominance on the Animated Film category for the last decade or so. Adding insult to injury, while Pixar may be skipping the Oscars this year, its sister studio Walt Disney Animation will be there in force with two nominations for the critically acclaimed Zootopia and Moana, both of which — unlike Finding Dory — are wholly original properties.

The divide between Walt Disney Animation’s creative success and Pixar’s stagnant sequel stands out even more starkly when considering the push by their shared corporate parent to prioritize sequels in today’s Hollywood marketplace, where the multi-film franchise and connected universe reign supreme. Disney is making more sequels, and financially, it’s working out better than ever. But for Pixar that’s coming at the cost of quality, sacrificing the great and the unique for box office safety.

Since animated films received their own Oscars category in 2001, almost every single original Pixar film has been nominated for Best Animated Picture, and only failed to take home the award twice. Of the four Pixar films that weren’t nominated — Cars 2, Monsters University, The Good Dinosaur, and Finding Dory — three were sequels. Put aside The Good Dinosaur, and the pattern is clear: Pixar’s biggest failures when it comes to award season prestige are all prequels or sequels of existing franchises.

It’s easy to see this shift as the heart of the problem, but arguing that “original ideas good” and “sequels bad” is reductive. There are a huge amount of factors that go into pitching and greenlighting any film, and franchises are no exception. But this isn’t just a case of Pixar movies getting worse. Walt Disney Animation’s films have gotten dramatically better, and the key to understanding that shift in quality is John Lasseter, chief creative officer for both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Zootopia

Along with Ed Catmull — president of Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios — Lasseter is largely credited for the creative renaissance at Walt Disney Animation by bringing over Pixar’s creative process after Disney acquired the Emeryville, California-based studio in 2006. It’s that Pixar-ization that’s led to the studio’s recent focus on original storytelling and compelling characters, resulting in films like Frozen and Tangled. As Dave Hollis, Disney’s distribution chief, commented to Variety, “What [Lasseter and Catmull] have focused on in each of these films is having an original voice and an original story, all set in an original world.”

But while Walt Disney Animation began to thrive post-acquisition, Pixar ramped up production of sequels at an ever increasing rate. The current slate today — Cars 3, Coco, The Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4 — looks largely unoriginal. Combine the increased focus on sequels with the fact that Lasseter has had his attention divided between two studios (three if you count the direct-to-video DisneyToon Studios arm), and it’s been the perfect storm for Pixar’s recent drop in quality.

We’ve seen the pattern before. Disney-owned Marvel Studios has, for better or for worse, tended toward a nearly homogenous design to ensure each of its films neatly tie into one another and push along its ongoing cinematic universe. Star Wars is far newer to Disney, but already has an unending deluge of sequels and spinoffs on the way. And while neither franchise has ever warranted the critical acclaim that some of Pixar’s more poignant work has, the pattern of sequels has nevertheless proven tremendously successful at the box office. That’s true with Pixar’s sequels, as well: Finding Dory and Toy Story 3 are the two highest-grossing films in the studio’s history.

toy story

Just because Walt Disney Animation has been blessed with the freedom to pursue original projects for now, doesn’t mean it won’t eventually fall into the same creative malaise that’s struck its sister studio. Wreck It Ralph 2 is scheduled for 2018, a Frozen follow-up has entered production, and after the box office success of Zootopia there’s little doubt that somewhere a pitch for the continuing adventures of Judy Hopps is being hatched. Revitalizing a studio by breaking new creative ground is one thing, but in the movie industry, a sure bet on a sequel is even more appealing.

That said, not all sequels are a bad thing, even at Pixar. Finding Dory is a perfectly adequate film. Toy Story 2 and 3 are just as good, if not better, than the original Toy Story, and 2015’s The Good Dinosaur proved that an original Pixar film could be both a commercial and critical flop. With 2016 turning out to be a massive blockbuster year for Disney — centered around classic film remakes, superheros, and, of course, sequels — it’s hard to see why the House of Mouse would want to change course anyway.

But perhaps Pixar feels differently. The studio used to lead the industry when it came to animated films. When everyone else was making popcorn flicks to kill time with your kids at the mall, Pixar was crafting actual cinema, forging a path in an art form that previously hadn’t been taken very seriously. Now, with Walt Disney Animation, Illumination Entertainment, and DreamWorks all putting out quality films, there’s a bitter irony in Pixar finding itself stuck in a sequel cash-in loop, losing the very thing that made it stand out in the first place. Thankfully, last year Pixar president Jim Morris announced that the studio was putting a halt on new sequels, turning its attention back to original projects. The studio no doubt has the potential to return to its former creative glory, but despite its successes this week’s nominations will continue to serve as a reminder that some of Pixar’s spirit has been lost along the way.


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