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Pixar Changed Hollywood, but Has the Studio Lost a Step?

‘Toy Story 4’ marks the seventh sequel in 11 films for a studio that was once defined as a beacon of originality. As reliance on established IP goes up and Oscar wins go down, we may be witnessing a rare slump.

Pixar/Ringer illustration

Despite finding the perfect coda for the Toy Story franchise in 2010’s excellent, Best Picture–nominated Toy Story 3, Pixar returns to the world of Woody and Buzz Lightyear with the release of Toy Story 4 on Friday. As always, the film carries some intense themes that’ll go over the head of most kids and make the adults in the theater overly emotional, as the toys reckon with the burdens of immortality and the creeping realization they’ll outlive all the humans who cherish them. Toy Story 4, then, is Classic Pixar: heavy yet lighthearted, emotionally resonant, and delivered through gorgeously rendered computer animation. But the film’s treatise on immortality works beyond its narrative structure; it’s also a reflection on the Toy Story franchise and Pixar as a whole.

Pixar is, especially for those fortunate enough to grow up around the time it started with 1995’s Toy Story, a rare company. From a technical perspective, the studio was the pioneer for computer-generated 3D animation; the original Toy Story was the first full-length, computer-animated feature film ever made, and every subsequent Pixar release has looked even better, reflecting the advancements in the field. On a storytelling level, the studio’s greatest films have elevated an entire genre, uniting fun children’s stories with mature reflections on things like grief (Up), friendship (Toy Story), marriage (The Incredibles), and the messy trials of growing up (Inside Out). Like Japan’s Studio Ghibli, Pixar has been lauded as more than just a producer of good children’s entertainment—it’s one of the most influential and revered studios on the planet. Pixar’s 15 Oscars for its feature films—nine of which have come in the Best Animated Feature category, first installed in 2002—and impressive box office record over the course of 20 films is further proof of that.

In America, at least, the stratification of animated film has been clear: Pixar on top, and then everybody else. While Disney’s run of animated hits continued into the late ’90s with movies like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Pixar was proving that the genre didn’t solely need to cater to kids, that it could instead treat kids with respect and intelligence and appeal to adults in the process. In 1998, A Bug’s Life eclipsed Mulan at the box office, and from there Pixar didn’t look back. And though the studio did lean on a sequel, Toy Story 2, for its biggest hit up to that point, even that movie’s development process was a testament to Pixar’s commitment to its own ideas: As studios like Disney made the straight-to-DVD sequel standard practice for animated movies, Pixar pushed for a theatrical release, a move that paid off. And on the back of that success, the studio then went on an unbelievable run: Between the release of Toy Story 2 in 1999 and Toy Story 3 in 2010, Pixar rattled off seven consecutive films based on original conceits, including all-timers like Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Up. Meanwhile, other animated studios were finding only sporadic success and, more pointedly, wringing as much as possible out of those successes. DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek, for instance, eventually yielded three sequels, two holiday specials, and a Puss in Boots spinoff; 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age yielded four sequels; Illumination’s Despicable Me yielded two sequels and a spinoff on a race of yellow helpers who can’t even speak English.

But the Pixar of the 2010s has been a different beast. The studio is still capable of producing exceptional films (Inside Out, Coco) and perhaps more importantly for its bottom line, stellar box office returns. But in the past decade, Pixar’s slate has been heavily composed of the thing it once avoided: sequels. Including Toy Story 4, seven of Pixar’s past 11 movies have been sequels, the others being Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters University, Finding Dory, Cars 3, and Incredibles 2. Not all of these sequels have been underwhelming—again, Toy Story 4 is quite good, and as of this writing, holds a 98 percent on Rotten Tomatoes—but more often than not, they haven’t lived up their source material. (The less said about Cars 2, the better.)

Serious issues within the company have also come to light during this period. In 2018, Pixar cofounder John Lasseter left the company after a report on his inappropriate behavior toward employees. And while Rashida Jones is a credited cowriter on Toy Story 4, in 2017 she left the production over concerns that women and people of color weren’t receiving “equal creative voice” at the studio. Indeed, Pixar’s initial brain trust—Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Joe Ranft, and Lee Unkrich, along with Lasseter—is entirely male and white. Overall, that speaks to what a Variety column in 2018 by a former female employee outlined: Pixar has long been a “boy’s club” that’s frequently prevented women from advancing to significant roles within the company.

While the recent spate of sequels have still produced impressive box office returns—2018’s Incredibles 2 and 2016’s Finding Dory are the first- and third-highest grossing Pixar movies ever, both exceeding $1 billion globally—they have come with a decline in the sort of accolades that used to be so familiar for the company. Pixar has won the Best Animated Feature Oscar just two times in the past six years, a slump that would’ve been unfathomable just a decade ago. (Even wilder: Finding Dory was completely shut out of the category in 2017.) There was a time when Pixar’s dominance among critics, audiences, and awards bodies felt like a given—a guarantee so long as they had something on the schedule. As the years have passed, though, it seems that Pixar’s early critical success was part of a golden age, a finite period defined by unparalleled brilliance and an admirable devotion to original ideas.

In the 2014 book about Pixar Creativity Inc., cofounder Ed Catmull decries sequels as “a sort of creative bankruptcy,” adding that Pixar aspires to have a ratio of two originals for every sequel. In reality, though, the inverse of that has happened in the 2010s. It’s a distressing circumstance that reflects Hollywood’s not-always-successful propensity to mine established IP via sequels, reboots, remakes, and adaptations of books, video games, viral tweets, and so on. Pixar’s early successes were tantalizing enough to pursue more (admittedly stellar) box office returns. But doing so has come at the expense of original ideas, and as the years have gone on, the balance has shifted, and Pixar has lost a bit of what made the studio so revolutionary in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Instead of functioning like an American version of Studio Ghibli—which has never in its history conjured up a sequel—Pixar has recently opted to mirror the animated efforts of Disney, the company that acquired it in 2006 for a reported $7.4 billion.

Going forward, there seems to be at least a shred of acknowledgement on Pixar’s behalf that it’s gone astray. Its franchises will continue to expand—plans are already set for a Monsters Inc. spinoff series and a bunch of short films centered on Forky, the sentient, disfigured spork who questions his own existence in Toy Story 4—but will do so on Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+. This may be the solution Pixar needs, as it ought to keep the studio flush while also allowing it to get back to what it does best on the big screen.

Elsewhere, Pixar has made small but encouraging steps to improve its products and its own culture. This year, the company hired its second-ever female director, Domee Shi, who did the adorable animated short Bao, which was also the first Pixar short directed by a woman (it only took 20 years). And in the near future, Pixar will reverse course on the feature film front with a renewed focus on original productions. After Toy Story 4, all its movies in development are based on new conceits. The first of these efforts will come in 2020 with Onward, a flick combining fantasy with suburbia that was teased in May.

Two minutes of footage isn’t much to glean from, but at the very least, the premise makes it sound like Classic Pixar may return once again. The return of the trophies—and adult tears—ought to be forthcoming.