Looking for the “How” in “How Pixar Lost Its Way”?

Christopher Orr chronicles the decline of Pixar in his article in the Atlantic titled “How Pixar Lost Its Way”. Ultimately, though, there’s very little “How” in the article. Mostly, Orr simply asserts that Pixar’s movies have gotten worse. You can get the same insight on Rotten Tomatoes in a quarter of the time you’d spend reading his article. And I’m left wondering how this kind of article ever gets published.

Thinking about the title of the article’s promise of ”How” in a discussion of Pixar “losing its way”, you might expect some behind-the-scenes insights into why Pixar’s “Golden Age” has ended. But the only “inside information” the author has are some quotes from Ed Catmull’s 2014 book Creativity, Inc..

Or you’d expect, maybe, some thoughtful critical evaluation of the movies themselves. But the analysis of the movies, past and recent, simply boils down to an observation that could be made by nearly anyone familiar with Pixar’s movies: Pixar’s past movies combine a novel viewpoint, with incredible technical advances in computer animation, with a sensibility that appeals to children and adults alike; whereas Pixar’s recent movies tend to miss those marks.

Well… thanks for the insight.

The article uses the sequel as a proxy for Pixar’s decline. The word “sequel” is associated with creative exhaustion and commercial exploitation. It is the fifth-most used word in the article, behind only “Pixar”, “Disney”, “Toy”, and “Story”.

But the point doesn’t hold water. The article admits that sometimes sequels are great, e.g., Toy Stories 2 and 3. And sometimes original movies, even from the “Golden Age of Pixar”, aren’t so good — e.g., Cars.

Straight to video sequels are bad too — a second-tier, “lucrative Disney sideline.” Unless they aren’t: Toy Story 2 was a straight-to-video movie that was moved into a cinematic release because of its high potential and promise.

The fundamental premise of the article rests primarily on the author’s persistent anti-commercial bias — an assertion that somehow the drive for commercial success has undermined the studio’s artistic integrality. Specifically, Pixar’s decline is correlated with the corrupting influence of Pixar’s relationship with Disney, with the Mouse’s association with “Toys”, “Merchandising”, “Entertainment Conglomerates”, and “Theme Parks”.

We are told that “subtle themes don’t easily translate into amusement-park rides.” It’s easy to make this statement and rely on, I suppose, the assumed anti-theme-park bias of The Atlantic’s readership. But how does this assertion square with the fact that the longest lines in the Disney parks are for Toy Story Mania — a ride based on the film that the article holds up as the paragon of Pixar filmmaking. (And the Ratatouille ride in DisneyLand Paris is also extremely popular… and extremely creative… and a ton of fun. So perhaps a decent theme park ride can be made out of a good movie, despite “subtle themes”.)

The article positions Disney’s purchase of Pixar as the beginning of the end.

But, as the article rightly notes, the Pixar acquisition — and Lasseter’s assumption of Disney’s creative helm — ushered in a revitalization of Disney’s own animation studio. Movies like Frozen and Tangled and Zootopia have inherited Pixar’s acumen — stories and characters that appeal to adults and children alike, with a meaningful core message. And, again as the article notes, Pixar’s success has led the way for other animation studios to do great work — like Laika, who have taken animation even further aesthetically upscale with films like Kubo and the Two Strings.

Further, the article’s persistent tying of commercialism with artistic decline simply isn’t borne out by reality. Pixar’s creative success has consistently translated into commercial success; its creative duds have often been commercial flops. Cars — positioned by the article as Pixar’s “first bad movie” — was out-grossed by Toy Story, Wall-E, Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Up, Toy Story 3, and Finding Nemo — all movies that are held up as examples of artistic superiority.

So… why should we care whether “Pixar Has Lost Its Way”?

The article’s central premise — that Pixar is not generating instant classic after instant classic — is undoubtedly true. Maybe Pixar’s string of success was just too much to sustain — how many great movies does one studio have to produce? What ratio of hits-to-flops do you need to generate to be “great”?

And what do we care if Pixar is not churning out hit-after-hit if “Pixar’s golden age” faded into a new golden age of animation? Why does it matter who makes the great animated movies, so long as someone is making them?

The article gives us assertions, and plays off of our assumed biases. But we learn nothing that we can apply to our own life. We learn nothing that enriches our understanding of filmmaking or creative works.