It seems crazy to think that some of the best films to come out of the past decade were about a rat pursuing his dream of being a cook, an old man flying around in his balloon-powered house, and a robot following his mechanical love through the recesses of space, yet Pixar made gold with all of them. The collection of Cal Arts graduates that formed a Disney offshoot made the first fully computer-animated film and then dominated anyone else who tried. That is, until they met an enemy that threatened to end their reign. And it wasn’t their long time opponent Dreamworks, nor small fries like Blue Sky Animation and Aardman; it was themselves.
From Monsters Inc to The Incredibles to WALL-E, Pixar built an almost unprecedented track record that, a certain automobile centric film aside, seemed perfect. Then, sequels began to pop up more frequently, like Toy Story 3, a film most saw leading up to its release as an unnecessary cash-grab. Once everyone saw it, they realized that their worrying was for naught; Pixar was still the king of animation. But only a year later, everyone’s worst fears were proven correct when Cars 2 zoomed in to theaters, once again reteaming the award-winning Pixar writers and animators with “comedian” Larry the Cable Guy. For the first time, Pixar received unanimous negative reviews.
Still, heartbroken fans didn’t burn down Pixar just yet. Their next film was the completely original Brave, which was Pixar’s first with a lead female character. The trailers weren’t promising, leading the film to be positioned as the make or break for Pixar, proving that either Cars 2 was a fluke, or a sign of what was to come. Upon its release, it was met with a lukewarm reception; not that the film was bad, but that it felt more like a Disney film than a Pixar one. Even the recently released Monsters University, while met with more positive reviews, couldn’t escape the consensus that it was slighter effort from Pixar. That leads to the central question – should Pixar films be able to stand alone, or should they be graded alongside the studio’s past work?
The catalyst for this article was something Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E) said on Twitter. Responding to a tweet that said, “It’s amazing (and deserved) that Pixar is essentially in its own weight class for film criticism,” Stanton added, “and annoying.” I was surprised to see this strike such a nerve with Stanton, but on further reflection, I found myself agreeing with him. The Pixar legacy haunting other films isn’t limited to the studio’s work; Stanton encountered it with his critically maligned John Carter, which wasn’t even produced by Pixar. Pixar has become so beloved and heralded that, while someone might say they enjoyed Monsters University, they can’t help but add that it’s slighter than some of their other work. Why do we have to add that?
We see it outside of Pixar – “Man of Steel is good, not as good as The Dark Knight, more like Batman Begins” – but never as fierce. In response, some people say it’s Pixar’s own fault for making films that are so great, when something merely good comes along it’s a disappointment. While I partly understand that train of thought – “why did Pixar think _____ was a film worth making when they’ve made _________?” – when did good become bad? I’m not saying we shouldn’t strive for Pixar to do better when we get something that’s only good, but we should spend more time praising that its good than complaining that it’s not when compared to something else.
Hopefully Pixar’s next film will be great, not because it would shut up the complainers – though, admittedly that would be nice – but because I want to see another great Pixar film. I don’t want another film that’s as heartbreaking as Up, or as energetic as The Incredibles, or as funny as Finding Nemo or as beautiful as Ratatouille. I want another great Pixar film, unshackled by any comparisons other than those intended. If it’s wonderful, I’ll be happy. If it isn’t, I’ll be sad. But not because the company that once made Toy Story made a film that pales in comparison. It’ll be because it wasn’t good.