Disney In Depth: Can Pixar Regain Its Glory?
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For 15 years, one computer-animation studio dominated Hollywood with 11 major hit films, earning awards a plenty and worldwide critical acclaim for its output. Then came Cars 2. And Brave. Lest we forget Monsters University (which I actually found entertaining) and an entire year (2014) with no feature films. Pixar was a powerhouse, but now its corporate owner (Disney) has an unbeatable animation studio of its own. The question we all continue to wonder is if Pixar can reclaim its title as an unstoppable force.

Disney In Depth previews the recent past and future of Pixar, hoping to determine if John Lasseter‘s computer-animation studio can finally be able to dismiss naysayers, once and for all, that its hit streak was a one-time experience.

Last year’s D23 Expo provided us with a glimmer of inspiration that Pixar has returned to its roots in crafting one-of-a-kind stories. June 2015’s Inside Out brings together the voice talents of Amy Poehler, Lewis Black, and Bill Hader, among others, for an introspective look into the mind of pre-teen Riley, who has recently moved to San Francisco. Though not necessarily a copy of TV series Herman’s Head or even Disney’s own extinct Cranium Command show at Epcot, Inside Out will explore not only Riley’s emotions, but also perhaps those of her parents, as evidenced by test footage at D23 Expo. A recent clip released by Disney Movies Anywhere exhibits some promising early animation involving the movements of these emotive characters.

Will the originality of Inside Out lead us to forget the string of disappointments that started with Cars 2, which seemed to run out of gas before the opening scene concluded? Likely not. Disney has kept Pixar’s newer characters ever-present, from the upcoming Merida figure in Disney Infinity 2.0 Edition to a handful of Cars Toons popping up over the past couple of years. Many moviegoers and Pixar supporters were disappointed with the delayed release of The Good Dinosaur. I, for one, think it was a smart choice to push it back to make appropriate story adjustments. Why put out a product on time if its quality is diminished and would only substantiate Pixar’s weakened reputation? Nice move, Pixar. Let’s hope Dinosaur proves to be a beast to be reckoned with when the movie premieres in November 2015.

But despite the storytelling complications in Brave that were at times more twisted than Merida’s curly hair, and the disappointment some experienced with Monsters University, Pixar’s shorts and specials department has seen consistency. Perhaps the closure of Pixar Canada would argue otherwise, but the generally A-level material found in the shorts and specials suggests Pixar has not lost its power. Many would only consider Pixar’s strength from the lens of full-length features, but Pixar’s sturdy roots can be found in these smaller entities.

The debut of the Toy Story Toons has made significant strides in extending public consciousness and love of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and friends. Since 2011, three of these short films have hit theaters. Hawaiian Vacation was laugh-out-loud thanks to Barbie and Ken’s delightfully awkward relationship; Small Fry possessed similar amusing elements akin to Wreck-It Ralph (released the following year); and Partysaurus Rex contained some ridiculously wonderful one-liners. “What’s up fishes?” is probably my favorite quote. Halloween special Toy Story Of TERROR! drew millions of viewers enchanted to find the Toy Story characters on television. I was one of those thrilled viewers. This December on ABC brings a holiday-themed special Toy Story That Time Forgot, featuring Trixie as the star.

Outside of the extension of the Toy Story brand and Cars behemoth in smaller form, Pixar has produced a few wonderful shorts. The Blue Umbrella – sadly not nominated for an Academy Award – may have reminded viewers a bit too much of Disney’s slightly better Paperman, but this evocative, night-set picture with inanimate objects and strikingly realistic visuals was terrific. La Luna tells a magical story set in the sea and space. But my favorite of the bunch of recent Pixar shorts may very well be the one the fewest amount of individuals have seen.

Party Central, the short based on Monsters University and theatrically released with Muppets Most Wanted, was first shown at the D23 Expo. Muppets saw a lower audience turnout than projected, meaning fewer people experienced Party Central‘s genius plot involving our favorite frightening friends staging their own campus bash. Hopefully the short will see a home release soon.

So it seems then that Pixar has not completely lost its momentum. Everyone has a different opinion, each of them likely possessing some merit. While Pixar’s short film department is a breeding ground of talent, fun ideas, and solid execution, its past three feature films have been more of a mixed bag than bad. Just as Disney animation released one showstopper after another in the 1990s, lost its groove during much of the first decade of the new millennium, and then came back with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, Pixar can do the same. In fact, Pixar’s “slip,” if you want to call it that with Cars 2, Brave, and, in some ways, Monsters University, is by no means as striking as when Disney churned out Home on the Range and Chicken Little.

Every studio — every company — has high points and low points. What made Pixar so distinct and treasured was that it saw 11 consecutive masterpieces from 1995-2010 — debate me if you want about the first Cars, but it was still a solid picture overall. No other film studio has ever experienced that level of success and public regard. I am confident that Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and even Finding Dory will bring Pixar back up to that pinnacle. What can I say? I am an optimist. Just as Walt Disney Animation Studios has rightfully earned its renewed approval by audiences worldwide, Pixar has that same opportunity. Furthermore, there’s no reason why both of these studios under the same company can share the glory.

Perhaps the title of this article is a bit misleading. “Can Pixar regain its glory?” That remains contingent on if you believe that the studio has entirely lost it. In some ways it has, but as I mentioned, not completely so. With a slew of great shorts and specials, a popular new Ratatouille attraction at Disneyland Paris, the holiday season World of Color Winter Dreams show at Disney California Adventure (featuring a Toy Story section), an array of appealing merchandise options, and a recently released clip of its next short film Lava (posted below), I would argue Pixar is in strong shape.

But all of this quality stems from Pixar’s core business in producing the best possible feature films. Don’t dismiss its future entries just yet. Like any movie, you cannot truly evaluate it until after you see it. Remember how we all questioned how the stories of a rat, a robot, and an elderly man would be successful? Now we laugh.

What do you think of Pixar’s recent productions? How do you envision the future direction of the studio? Share your thoughts.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, Thursdays on Geeks of Doom.

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