What happens when Pixar– animation giant, champions of quality kids’ movies, purveyors of heartfelt entertainment– releases a sequel to a film other than Toy Story? Apparently, and depending on who you talk to, an outcry across the Internet. Virtual rioting. Armageddon. Ragnarok. Götterdämmerung. Forty years of darkness, the dead rising from the grave, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. You get the idea.
Of course I’m very much over-stating the reactionary backlash to the June release of Pixar’s annual offering, a follow-up to 2006’s Cars. But if I’m being melodramatic, then what would you call the countless articles bemoaning Pixar’s creative demise and turn to corporate slavery? Hyperbolic? Presumptive? Among the reactions to Pixar’s latest are a number of well-written and reasoned articles discussing the ramifications of the studio finally producing a film categorized as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, but these approach Cars 2, and the beloved studio itself, from a totally understandable angle of debate and discussion by latching onto something tangible rather than embracing the sort of anarchic lamentations framing the film as the spiritual death of Pixar*.
And so it goes; accusations range from wild to, well, outlandish. Among the doomsayers there’s a weird sort of consensus that Cars 2 represents Disney’s corporate takeover of Pixar and the latter company’s subsequent shift to favoring commercial success over quality and artistry. Maybe there’s some merit in that catastrophe of a conspiracy theory; the marketing push behind the new film is monstrous (click it here if you’re curious in surveying the full circumference of the ancillary campaigns launched leading up to and in the wake of Cars 2‘s release), after all, and the Cars franchise seems almost tailor-made for moving product a’la toys, video game tie-ins, bed sheets, and so on. But that’s about all the credit I can give to the kind of lunacy sprouting up over Pixar and their perceived fall from excellence.
Full disclosure: I haven’t seen Cars 2. I probably won’t. At the very least I won’t spend money to go see it in a theater. I legitimately hated Cars, not just as a Pixar film but rather on its own merits; it’s a really inferior piece of children’s fare, and would be coming from any studio. So you may, if it pleases you, take this essay well-salted as I have no authority from which to judge Cars 2 creatively or in terms of it substance. But that’s not really my message or my goal.
Inevitably, a studio like Pixar produces a clunker, a stinker, a really blemished movie seemingly beneath their level of prowess. Grant that I’m not saying that Cars 2, in my opinion, qualifies as any of these– remember, I haven’t seen it. But with a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes– which is itself not an objective barometer of quality but rather a collection of opinions– there’s really no arguing that Pixar has finally struck out and yielded a film that audiences haven’t embraced with near-universal affection and lavished with accolades.
Speaking again only to what’s factual, Cars 2 also represents the second sequel the studio has put out in a row, and one of the few sequels in their collected body of work. (Three out of twelve of their released films are sequels– that’s 25%. By my estimation that’s pretty reasonable.) So when concern is expressed over Pixar’s future as a company and over their artistic integrity, it seems to stem from these two simple points. Which is understandable enough. But if Cars 2 really is just a money grab (and I think even not having seen the film that I could successfully argue in the affirmative based on merchandising alone), then there remains one important question we have to ask before we start sitting shiva for Pixar: How is that strictly a bad thing?
Pixar’s a company. It’s a business. I think that when we get emotionally invested in the success and continued operation and existence of an entity like Pixar, seeing them make decisions that are inherently steeped in dollars and cents feels a bit jarring. I’m not going to lie and say that the initial announcement of Cars 2 didn’t fill me with something resembling dread, but while the frosted side of me rejected what it perceived as a cash-in the whole wheat side of me recognizes that even Pixar will end up making a movie just for profits every once in a while. I grant that Cars 2 has only been out for two weeks or so and has just broken even on its studio budget worldwide; we won’t be able to measure its success for some time yet, and even then we’ll be looking at ancillary sales and not just box office**.
The point to all of this of course is that Pixar making money is a good thing. The more they succeed commercially and satisfy parent company Disney, the easier a time they’ll have getting the kind of films that define Pixar’s artistic vision made. Is it a huge surprise that Cars 2 precedes Brave, a film which– you may remember– I’ve touched on before*** and which features Pixar’s first female protagonist? Frankly, it looks as though Pixar’s beginning a “one for us, one for them” policy; as Brave follows Cars 2, so too will another sequel (Monsters University) roll out after Brave. And if such exchanges are necessary to ensure that Pixar can crank out material of the same caliber as Up or Wall-E, then I consider them complete bargains****.
But what if money and commercialism aren’t the problems? Maybe, as others suggest, the greatest obstacle in the path of Pixar’s filmmaking process is expectation. I think every kind of audience member– from the casual moviegoer to the dedicated cineaste– assumes, in each release year, that the “Best Animated Picture” category at the Oscars has been permanently locked up by whatever John Lassester has green-lit for any given 365 span of time. At this point, many of us have come to view a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a universally celebratory reception as foregone conclusions– Pixar doesn’t make “bad” movies, after all, and I think that perception has led us to take for granted the fact that as a studio of artists, even Pixar is fallible.
Call the production and unleashing of Cars 2 a “sort-of” loss of innocence. The film marks the first time Pixar has made a movie that hasn’t connected critically. Arguably, it hasn’t connected as well with audiences, either, if the opening weekend take and general reaction across the blogosphere indicate anything. After releasing so many well-received, artistically successful movies for so many years straight, the response to Cars 2 comes as something of a shock since we’re accustomed to Pixar movies being lauded. Speaking for myself, it’s difficult to wrap my brain around the idea that this is the first year since 2006– the release year for the original Cars— that I haven’t gone to see a Pixar film in theaters within a week or two of its opening. How do you reconcile such a sudden disparity in quality?
On that note I can understand where the anxiety over Cars 2 comes from, even if I simultaneously find it to be unwarranted (at present, anyhow). Seeing Pixar stumble creatively after a release slate that includes Up and Ratatouille is akin to beating your old man at basketball for the first time; it’s a sign that they’re not quite the indomitable force they’ve been taken as, and proof that even a studio with Pixar’s resumé is capable of earning bad reviews. But consider where the Cars franchise fits into their collected body of work; they’re 10-2, a good record for any studio, even one that’s still as young as Pixar. Put succinctly, there’s no cause for worry of any sort– unless Cars 2 flops after all, but even then, that’s one movie out of a dozen that couldn’t turn a profit. Financially and commercially, the company’s in good standing; while Brave won’t come out for another year, preview footage and material looks gorgeous, bold, and bursting with inspiration, so I’m prepared to say that as artists they’ve still got their integrity intact. In short? Pixar may seem to have made a misstep, but trust that they know what they’re doing and accord them the same faith that they’ve so diligently earned over nearly two decades of making great films. No matter how Cars 2 turns out, it’s not the end of the world– or Pixar.
*I realize that this is pretty far out in the “extreme” deep end as a reaction, so you might say I’m shooting fish in a barrel.
**Note that a poor overall performance doesn’t change the reasons behind the film being approved and produced in the first place.
***Though back then it was titled The Bear and the Bow.
****Cruel irony in this statement: I’m placing expectation on the company for a film to be released next summer while suggesting that expecting too much of Pixar lead to the disappointment we’re feeling over Cars 2 being released. Silly Andy.