How Pixar got into a pickle: Has the studio lost its way?

Until recently, any film turned out by the animation studio was sure to be a masterpiece. But now, yet another director has left during a shoot

If there’s any piece of film-poster blurb that carries less weight than a rave review from a tweeter, it’s the declaration, “From the studio that brought you...”.

We all know that an organisation as faceless as a Hollywood studio can’t imprint its personality on each of its products. But for nearly 20 years, one company has been making that claim with some authority: Pixar. Until recently, if a film was the work of John Lasseter’s merry band of Hawaiian-shirted digital  animators, you could be pretty sure that it would be a life-enhancing, boundary-pushing masterpiece. You could even imagine the studio  itself, where no day at the open-plan office was complete without a scoot past the inflatable palm trees to the smoothie bar.

Nowadays, though, that mental  picture doesn’t have quite the same photorealistic, megapixel clarity it used to. Last week, the Los Angeles Times  reported that Bob Peterson, the director of next year’s Pixar film, The Good Dinosaur, had been removed from the project. Just nine months before the  release date – no time at all in animation terms – Peterson had been replaced by a team of three directors, each of whom will be in charge of a third of the film.  Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president, put a  typically groovy Californian spin on this ousting. “ Sometimes you just need a  different perspective to get the idea out,” he said. “Sometimes directors are  so deeply embedded in their ideas it  actually takes someone else to finish it up. I would go so far as to argue that a lot of live-action films would be better off with that same process.”

Hmm. Catmull seems to have  forgotten that directors are regularly booted off live-action films, officially or unofficially, and while the tactic sometimes bears fruit, it usually doesn’t   (eg the 1967 adaptation of Casino Royale). But you can see why he had to be bullish, considering that director-firing is getting to be a Pixar habit: Brave, Cars 2 and Ratatouille were all snatched from their creators during production. As Lady Bracknell might say, it’s starting to look like carelessness. And it hardly  enhances the studio’s image as a caring, sharing environment where individual artistic visions are fostered.

Still, it might be possible to defend Pixar’s decision to install trap doors beneath its directors’ chairs if its  output was as dazzlingly brilliant as ever. But even the most feverish fan – and I’m a contender – would  concede that the films peaked with Wall-E in 2008. Of the five cartoons released since then, there has been one undeniable classic, Toy Story 3 – but it was a sequel to a sequel. There has also been one underwhelming prequel, Monsters University, and one critically mauled sequel – Cars 2 – to a film which wasn’t very well-liked to begin with. The days when each new Pixar release was hailed as a mind-bending game-changer seem like a long time ago.

The other two cartoons of the post-Wall-E era are Brave and Up. Brave suffered a director-swap halfway through production, much to the dismay of the person who dreamt up the concept, Brenda Chapman. “This was a story that I created,” she told The New York Times, “ which came from a very personal place, as a woman and a mother. To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.” We’ll never know if Chapman’s version of the film would have been so terrible as to justify her displacement, but the version we did get to see certainly seems compromised: having laboriously set up a plot about a feisty princess being a mightier warrior than her three suitors, it then switches, at a weirdly late stage, to a plot about the princess’s mother turning into a bear.

Up – co-directed by Peterson – isn’t so unsure of its footing, but it definitely feels less like one complete story than two separate ones (the marriage/the jungle escapade) stitched together. The vaunted Pixar system of constantly revising its films, all the way through their gestation, now seems to be causing more problems than it’s solving.

All the same, there are still few cinematic sights more exciting than the bouncing desk lamp which tells us that a Pixar cartoon is underway. But when we compare its latest offerings with those of its competitors – the psychedelic strangeness of The Croods and Rango, the rambunctious comedy of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs – that excitement seems less justified. At this rate, the infamous “ From the studio that brought you ...” credit will soon mean as little when it’s referring to Pixar as it does when it refers to any other studio.

Watch trailers of some of Pixar's best animated films below:

Ratatouille

 

Toy Story 3

 

Monsters Inc

 

Wall-E

 

Finding Nemo

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