Has Pixar Fallen from Grace?

Once, Pixar seemed infallible. The first production studio to master computer-generated animation for a full feature churned out critical and commercial darling after critical and commercial darling, but those days are apparently over. The track record isn’t spotless—Monsters University and Brave are certainly well-liked and rarely reviled, but Cars 2 is undoubtedly a black mark on that record. Cars was far from the studio’s best and the sequel was obviously motivated by a desire to sell toys rather than to uphold the studio’s golden rule that story should come before all else.

Now seems a particularly good time to discuss the studio’s fall from grace, given the two projects coming out in 2015, both original properties, a first for the studio since Brave in 2012—fear not, however, Toy Story 4 and Finding Dory are reportedly in the works for you sequel-lovers out there. Last year was the first year since 2005 to see no Pixar release, due to production troubles on the long-in-the-pipeline The Good Dinosaur.

Pixar’s Trailer For “Inside Out” Has All The Feels

It’s easy to cry, as I already have, that Pixar has lost its magic touch that allowed for so many instant classics—seriously, they had a string of eleven near-flawless films in a row, with the original Cars as the possible exception. The delayed release of The Good Dinosaur, now scheduled for November 25, may seem to confirm that Pixar has, definitively, fallen from grace. We can bemoan the difficulties of a once-flawless studio, or we can realize the good they’ve done for this relatively new cinematic art form, and simply hope for more good.

Take the case of the studio’s chief competitor, Dreamworks, or the animation studio of its parent company, Disney. Last year Dreamworks released How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Disney animation Big Hero 6. Compare those two films to some of their earlier efforts like, say, Shark Tale and Chicken Little. Lesser Pixar efforts like Brave might not look so remarkable next to such worthy competitors, but the competitors exist in such fine form at least in part because they’re up against a studio so consistent in its devotion to quality.

While Pixar has ostensibly fallen from grace, it shows no sign of crashing and burning. There is a decline in quality, but it’s nothing too severe as far as this reviewer can see. Instead, the fall resembles something like growing pains. It makes sense too, as the old studio heads branch out. Most notable is the relative absence of John Lasseter, who’s now spending much of his time with Disney’s animation studio. Even Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, has moved on to live action like the upcoming Tomorrowland. The risk is of course that the new studio heads at Pixar may not retain the same commitment to excellence and story that presumably allowed the originals to churn out films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. What if, without the leadership of the good Mr. Lasseter, the studio falls by the wayside and starts churning out clunker after clunker, instead of classic after classic?

“Toy Story 4″ Coming to Theaters in 2017

Here, the delayed release of The Good Dinosaur actually speaks to the studio’s continued devotion to excellence, as far as I’m concerned. Pixar was more concerned with perfecting the project than rushing it into theaters, and that’s reason for hope. Not that any reasonable person should need too much hope—despite a few rocky years, Pixar are still pushing boundaries with creative stories that make good use of animation. Although the trailers for Inside Out haven’t totally sold me, it’s hard to argue against the bold creativity of the premise.

So yes, Pixar is fallible like the rest of us, and for Pixar as for the rest of us, sometimes money comes before all else, as was the case for Cars 2. But this is the studio that brought animation into a new age, and the cinematic world is all the better for it. While other Hollywood genres are easy to fault, it’s hard to do the same with animation. There are of course a few stinkers (looking at you, Blue Sky Animation), but because of Pixar, big budget animated movies keep improving, in a general sense at least. We can complain that Pixar may not be what it once was—but come on, we’re all going to see The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out, aren’t we?