Disney and Pixar revealed yesterday morning that "Finding Dory," a sequel to their acclaimed 2003 film "Finding Nemo," will be released in late 2015, and within minutes of the announcement the film world erupted into what passes online for impassioned debate. The common sentiment was dissent: many critics and pundits expressed disappointment at the prospect of repetition and stagnation from a studio known for innovation and originality, while others objected to the project as a gesture of apparent pandering, a thinly veiled cash-grab from legends in decline. But as Matt Singer correctly notes, Pixar has not only produced sequels to little backlash before—three to date, with a fourth arriving later this year—but has produced some of the most critically successful sequels ever made in the form of "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3," both of which sit firmly atop the RottenTomatoes list of all-time highest scores. As a sequel to one of the company’s most well-liked films, "Finding Dory" surely has every opportunity to flourish in a similar manner. So what exactly is the problem?
The answer is somewhat complicated. The overwhelming sense of objection online betrays, I think, an increasing dissatisfaction with Pixar’s recent creative output, one that’s come to resemble a certain mistrust. This might sound counterintuitive, but part of the issue here is that Pixar had earned a feeling of trust from their audience to begin with. Studios are typically perceived of (accurately) as little more than corporations, and even though they are responsible for the production of creative entertainments, it’s understood that their principal objective, as with any corporation, is to generate profit.
But in terms of perception, Pixar has always been a slightly different case. Though its parent company is Disney—hardly a bastion of artistic integrity—they remain creatively distinct, a coherent entity whose brand, so to speak, has long been associated with a purer kind of artistry. Pixar is housed in Emeryville, not Hollywood, which gives the impression that they lay beyond the purview of the system; their workplace is notoriously casual, inspiring confidence and happiness in their employees; their success is owed to Steve Jobs, whose fiercely independent spirit set the company apart. In almost every way, Pixar does not seem to function like an ordinary company, and so we tend not to think of it as one.
For fifteen years—from the release of the original "Toy Story" in 1995 straight through to "Toy Story 3" in 2010—Pixar benefited from an unprecedented reputation with critics and moviegoers, the warm glow of each new success further confirming the apparent infallibility of their creative process. But after 2010, around the time they were gearing up for "Cars 2," the Pixar narrative proved two Hollywood truisms simultaneously: success never lasts, and you’re only as good as your last hit. It was probably inevitable that Pixar would stumble eventually, but in the span of less than two years it seemed as if their reputation fell to rather unwarranted pieces; though their eleven certified classics of modern animation endured, the film world’s conception of their creative genius did not.
This all comes to down to three largely unrelated strikes against them, earned in quick succession: the first was "Cars 2," widely regarded as not only the worst of the studio’s thirteen films, but, more damningly, by far the least interesting, expanding a story nobody but small children and John Lasseter cared much about to begin with. (For many years Pixar refused to work on sequels altogether, and it was only after pressure from Disney that a planned direct-to-video Toy Story 2 was developed into a full theatrical release.) Though Pixar’s defenders maintain that the studio’s founder, a lifelong Nascar fan with a major personal investment in the first Cars film, lead the way on that sequel largely to satisfy his own interest in the material, it seemed fairly transparent at the time that the property was being rejuvenated strictly for financial reasons. "Cars," though a competent performer with audiences and critics, was far from the studio’s most acclaimed or lucrative hits, but its attendant merchandise made huge money for everyone involved; it doesn’t take a cynic to suspect that toy sales may have influenced the decision to green-light the sequel.
The second strike was the release of "Brave," a Pixar original that seemed stupefyingly old hat. Though better received overall than "Cars 2"—it went on to win Best Animated Film at the Oscars, in a bit of an upset over the more well-liked "Wreck-It Ralph"—it was nevertheless a far cry from the universally acclaimed masterworks they’d made their name on. Had "Brave" been a solitary misstep in an otherwise faultless filmography, it’s unlikely that anyone would much care; in terms of calibre, it’s about on the level of "A Bug’s Life," which few care about either way. But because it followed "Cars 2," Brave seemed less like a minor work than further proof of the once-great studio’s reckoning, a confirmation of their rapid decline.
The third and final strike was tangential but significant: Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar’s central creative figures and the director of both "WALL-E" and "Finding Nemo," made his live-action debut in 2012 with John Carter, which you may remember (or not) as the unqualified disaster that few people saw and even fewer liked, a massively expensive pipedream that nearly bankrupted Disney. An interesting New Yorker profile of Stanton, written during post-production on the film, suggested that the Pixar method—in which the studio would make a kind of “rough draft” of a film before deconstructing it as a team, reengineering elements of the story and practically starting again when they’d settled on overhauls—wasn’t suited to live productions, where reshoots were costly and sometimes infeasible and where creative input was needed well before production was underway. The story depicted an enterprising artist off-course and out of his depth, and it was as much an indictment of the film (which hardly needed the help) as it was of Pixar’s icarian rise and fall.
And that’s about all it took. Pixar has seven projects in production at the moment; the next in line is "Monsters University," a prequel to their early film Monsters Inc—which itself was recently re-released in 3D. If there’s a trend to notice here, it’s that the studio’s current efforts seem oriented not so much toward cash-grabs as toward sure bets, which to some is just as bad. Pixar’s reputation rests not only on the quality of their films, but on their apparent originality, on a spark of imagination that makes their stories worth telling. "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3" are good films, but their pleasures are secondary to the ideas which inspire the rest: a house floating through the air with balloons, a monster company which scares children for power, a damaged fish trying to find his lost son. 3D retrofitting and fan-baiting sequels don’t seem to fit into this conception of a studio defined by imagination and originality. As individual efforts they may be fine—Finding Dory may prove great—but as gestures made all at once, they are disconcerting. It’s not hard to get the sense, for instance, that Andrew Stanton and company were scared off by the disaster that was John Carter, and as a result they’ve decided to withdraw their audacity and produce something safer instead. A prequel seems safe. A 3D upgrade seems safe. A sequel to Finding Nemo is nothing if not safe, and that’s probably appealing right now.
Why this has become a problem for audiences and critics, I think, is that it forces us to confront an ugly truth about Pixar, and by extension every studio: making money is paramount. It’s comforting to us to express indignation at the prospect of “cash-grab” projects because we can exonerate films with more ostensibly noble intentions, and we can forget, at least temporarily, that every film is a cash-grab to some degree, at least in the significant sense that they are designed to generate a profit. I am certain that Pixar wants "Finding Dory" to make a lot of money. I am also certain that Pixar wanted "Finding Nemo" to make a lot of money, which it did, and incredibly it turned out okay as a creative endeavor too. Is it really surprising that a multi-million dollar project funded by a multi-billion dollar corporation is designed, at its core, to be profitable? That the only reason we are seeing films on such a scale is because they tend to generate enormous profits for studio executives and shareholders? It’s nice to think that Pixar, like the humblest artists, make these films exclusively as passion projects, and that their intentions are pure. But if you think that’s really the case even with “original” films, Disney’s got a bridge to sell you.
Our frustration at the thought of a sequel—it’s not an original idea and it must therefore be lesser, the thinking goes—speaks to our deeper frustration at the thought that every film, and especially every studio film, embodies a dual impulse to create and earn. The constant tension when watching a film is that it was both created by artists to be entertaining (or moving, or thought-provoking) and designed by executives to be lucrative. The latter does not invalidate the former—in fact the latter does not necessarily even weaken the former, as there can be harmony in the process. It’s good that people are wary of "Finding Dory;" we should always be skeptical when things are being sold to us. But you can be sure that, if tomorrow Pixar announces a new original film about an anthropomorphic crane who dreams of leaving the construction yard, it will also be for money and you should also be wary of it.