Pixar

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run… but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. …

- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Pixar is a special company. That much we can all agree on, as audiences have over the last two decades, turning out to see their pictures in great numbers, netting their films over six billion dollars in revenue. Since the “Best Animated Feature” award was established, every film they’ve made eligible for a nomination has received one. Of their eleven films to this point, eight to ten qualify as masterpieces, competitive with the number of enduring films made in the first thirty years of Walt Disney Studios. They’ve transcended the marginalization of animation: since Toy Story‘s 1995 release, no single creative force has been responsible for more minutes of quality American cinema.

We know all this already, or sense it, which is to say that Pixar is a settled fact of the entertainment landscape. They are so consistent that they’ve surpassed the ability to doubt them. Since Finding Nemo, at the latest, the presumption is that once every year or two Pixar will deliver a beautifully executed, heartfelt, perfectly crafted movie that will appeal to children and adults alike. In every case, they’ve met that expectation, and in their past three pictures, the critical reverence for their work has approached incredible heights. It’s not misplaced, either; Pixar is the rare case of a popular and critical consensus that is, with some small shadings and misperceptions here or there, unimpeachable. The phenomenon of popular rage at reviews that robbed their last three classics of 100% Rotten Tomatoes scores is absurd, on the one hand, but it makes a certain sense: we should manage to be in unison in the face of such great work.

Most impressively, Pixar have delivered the goods working in the popular mainstream; one could argue that greats like Chomet or Miyazaki have delivered animated pictures of greater accomplishment during this time, but however lovely their creations, they have a niche audience. Largely thanks to Pixar, however, computer animation is participating in the conversation, able to provide a vigorous counterpoint to live-action tentpole blockbusters, offering the assurance that from time to time you can enjoy big-budget entertainment without silencing your better instincts.

I find myself repeating this history to myself when confronted with the trailer for Cars 2. There are, after all, many reasons to worry: a sequel to the studio’s weakest entry, one of the few to feel solely like excellent children’s entertainment and nothing more; marketed in the broadest possible fashion; trading on an inherently lazy idea, where the baseline joke is life but the people are cars; its best voice actor deceased; only their second, perhaps their first film made entirely since the Disney acquisition in 2006… from any other company, I’d write this off without a second thought. But with Pixar, you never know. They carry the banner for a reason.

And you never expect your heroes to let you down.

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explained, in retrospect, what really happened.

The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane has felt this fierce attachment to Pixar, and in a recent issue he profiles “The Fun Factory,” laying out what defines Pixar as a company and a creative team. Making sense of Pixar involves first understanding the relationship between its art and its commerce.

A good way to start is recognizing that, in culture and temperament, Pixar is a Bay Area tech company. They are geeky and insular, and they value preserving the financial and organizational independence to remain that way. That necessitates being protective of their interests and competing hard to maintain an unbeatable product, a process they’ve navigated with an underrated business sense. That oblique relationship to the pursuit of financial security—not for its own ends, but pursued tenaciously nonetheless—mirrors the early concerns of many a Silicon Valley company, and as Pixar has grown they’ve shown a similar commitment to reinvesting their gains to expand the depth of their original focus. In typical fashion for the area, they’ve resolved and reinforced these various concerns geographically through their Emeryville campus; within its confines, there’s a space for benevolent groupthink and an affable camaraderie, ultimately inseparable from the studio’s creative strengths. That’s partially the confidence that flows to those who are at the top of their game, but it’s also a distinctive characteristic of those in the tech world: an intensity of individual labor combined with a group commitment to playfulness.

All this is also, crucially, separate from any specific connection to creating art. They’ve made themselves perfectly at home in what they do, but as Lane notes, Pixar’s origins as a technical/industrial design laboratory could have gone in a very different direction: “with a tweak of history, the people who brought us ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Rataouille’ could have been scanning our brains instead, or mapping the airflow on the windshield of our cars.” Instead, by a twist of fate, their technicians work next to statues of Woody and Buzz.

The central creative effect of this arrangement is Pixar’s self-assurance: its team members have a shared sense of what they’re doing, it’s enough for their purposes that it’s explicable to each other, and they have a well-earned confidence that the impact from the end product will sort itself out. This attitude informs their work, and also helps make sense of one peculiar aspect of their process: while Pixar has traditionally had a set of strong, distinct creative voices at the top, they rely on a collective set of resources and expertise. Authorial expression at Pixar is thus a function of the particular skew given to the same set of constituent elements of story, workflow, and computer-generated image; their process is, at root, a work of industrial engineering, and this is mostly for the better.

With that core identity in mind, Lane’s profile points to three other aspects that define the lay of the land for the company in 2011, and which remain the core features supporting its unbroken record of success.

First, Pixar has accrued an unmatched combination of human capital, computing power, and corporate funding. Their last three films have cost a minimum of $175 million, and required armies of animators, and they continue to add and recruit talent from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. All this occurs with the aim, and eventual certainty, of realizing any technological feat they find necessary. This clustering of creative talent and computing innovation has allowed for its unquestioned reputation as the leader in the technical aspects of feature-length, CGI animation, independent of the accolades directed to its storytelling and moviemaking.

Second, Pixar has organized the resources at its disposal into a radically divided workflow. Every single element of their films receives individual attention. Lane illustrates that best with the anecdote that Pixar has among its ranks an employee whose sole job for months was to craft the splashes of foam you see in the first seconds of that Cars 2 trailer. The upshot is that to do this, to do any of this, to make these films register in a way that you never, ever, dwell on a detail that they don’t want you to be dwelling on, Pixar has to, and does, have someone working on it.

Last, Pixar has weathered its formal transition into a Disney subsidiary with a continuity of leadership and organizational independence. This was the assurance when the company was purchased in 2006, but with the pace of animation production a full assurance on this point has remained in some doubt. Pixar’s most important figure, John Lasseter, has, as promised, used his position as head of both Disney and Pixar animation to end direct competition between the two animation divisions, fully re-committing Disney to 2-D animation. This leaves Pixar with a secure place within the corporate umbrella.

Pixar has, in this fashion, masterfully consolidated its strengths. They now have the ability to fine-tune and perfect to within an inch of its life everything they do, and the freedom to do so as they see fit, yet without having lost a shred of the ethos and vision which brought them to this point. This is, in many ways, miraculous. Creative integrity isn’t supposed to be able to swing this, let alone deal with the devil and keep their soul. But through accidents of history, and through no small amount of luck, Pixar has set itself up to do what it does best as best it can.

There’s also no reason to believe that these factors will fail to hold in the future; they are, after all, self-reinforcing. Pixar has the most money and talent, and the most proven box office track record, so its films will use the most money, so the details will gain a greater verisimilitude, so they need even more creative horsepower, and this will in turn allow for better and better execution of its tasks and an increase in its share of corporate resources, which, will set the whole cycle going again. Each successful film from Pixar, in short, better positions them to succeed further.

The only wrinkle in this process, of course, is that this isn’t a good way to drive down the cost of your films.

My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights—or very early mornings—when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket… booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change)… but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. …

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. …

Really, it would be almost obscene to worry about the problems of Pixar having too much money to work with, given the near-misses in its history, the constant impact of financial pressure and corporate competition on their ability to work effectively. An assurance of their own security is in many ways the furthest thing from a problem, after its decade-long battle with Disney for control of its own intellectual property.

For those unfamiliar, Pixar entered into a relationship with Disney where the company would develop and produce its features, and the Mouse would lend them its worldwide distribution and marketing. The revenues from this partnership would then be split between the two companies. While this was simple enough in theory, from the beginning the unequal financial resources of the companies, combined with Disney’s penchant for playing hardball with contractual obligations, left Pixar only a misstep away from complete subservience to Disney throughout the late 1990s and the first half of the 2000s.

This forced major pressure on the studio, and while many wisely believe that scrappy, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, and practical limitations, can breed artistic success, they’re thinking primarily of debuts that have years of hunger and development work behind them already. That worked wonders for Toy Story, which Pixar threw everything it had into, but it was three years before they could get another film into theaters. Even in the wake of Toy Story‘s runaway success, the production for the follow-up A Bug’s Life and the early development of Monsters, Inc. played out in the middle of life-or-death acrimony with Disney over the rights to and creative control of Toy Story 2. Apart from that, Pixar’s necessary commitment to being on the cutting edge technologically meant real creative risks for realizing its visions: Monsters, Inc. was a visual marvel at the time, but if the animation hadn’t worked out its furry lead cast member would have been laughable; Finding Nemo, in turn, was a deeply ambitious commitment to their ability to render scale and fluid dynamics on a new level, and a risky bet on taking seriously dark themes to G-rated audiences.

Both of these moves paid off handsomely, but the fact that Pixar were able to pull off their high-wire act without a fall should not prejudice us against the very real drawbacks to that status quo. It took a full decade, half of its cinematic output, for Pixar to achieve a real assurance in its future independence; even then, it took a last series of unlikely events, including the failure of Disney’s first CGI feature in 2005, to put the company in a position of safety. The last part of this saga was perhaps the most perilous: Ratatouille, which in its final form bore the unmistakable voice of director Brad Bird, started off with another director entirely, was called Rats!, was rushed through production, and scared the living hell out of Disney marketing. Thankfully, it somehow made six hundred million dollars and won a Best Animated Feature Oscar.

As Lane puts it, “one has the sense, throughout the saga of Pixar of vertiginous near-misses—crevasses down which some of the films, or the entire company, could have tumbled.” Compared with the prospect of no direct-to-video sequels and premature company implosions, my sense is that money and security are a marked improvement.

The soul of Pixar, too—the heart and intelligence and ability to go to some very real, adult places with subtlety and realism and wisdom, were there from the start, evident even before Toy Story. One of the few never-was’s that’s tantalizing rather than haunting is the prospect of Brave Little Toaster being Pixar’s first feature. It wound up in low-budget traditional animation and not strictly a product of Pixar’s creative team, but the ethos and approach are all laid out there in that melancholy gem of a movie.

Yet while Pixar’s sense of what it could say might have been there from the start, it took years and years of work to get to what we think of as Pixar-quality entertainment—Brave Little Toaster is not lost Pixar, it’s an early draft, and the formula took time and repetition to explicate and develop. Concurrent with that process of improvement, the constraints Pixar worked under had a real impact on what came after, and the studio’s precarious independence productively refined the company’s identity and creative strengths.

For one, after Toy Story, given the enormous time commitment of animation production, Pixar had no choice but to develop a number of original projects simultaneously. Those came out in the end as A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo—supposedly all conceived at one lunch meeting—with Lasseter and other creators taking lead on the unexpected project of Toy Story 2. This gave the company a long-run commitment to developing a wide range of original projects, as well as providing a means to develop the voices of two of its four defining creators, Andrew Stanton (Bug’s, Nemo) & Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.). The company’s non-limitless reserves of investment capital and lack of a safety net beneath them also meant the company had to commit to these projects; after a certain amount of investment, not delivering the film wasn’t an option. In one sense, Pixar never failed because they never could.

This meant that, wittingly or not, Pixar had made four original pictures—with a detour for a fifth, well-executed sequel—before it had any feasible option to build long-term franchises. This could have been their path, except by that point, fortunately, the seeds were there for future projects; by 2004 Up was in the early stage of development, and WALL-E stretched back in conception to that same initial burst of post-Toy Story creativity. This was a self-propelling momentum, and one uniquely accessible to Pixar, which retained its capital of technological assets and investments, allowing for the resources and momentum to develop a new round of original projects. In time, this growing strength would allow for the stable, secure relationship it enjoyed with Disney; but this also meant that Pixar could, throughout the early, contentious phase of its relationship with the Mouse, realistically believe that it could strike out on its own. Pixar had cards that it alone could play, and that gave its creators to freedom to avoid safe paths.

More importantly, this allowed for successive iterations of a “house style,” with core teams and expertise able to apply advances in technology and technique more quickly then they could develop new ideas. This meant that the underlying frame of these films, the details of how you get story beats right and animation details precise, how you match technology to creative expression, were both well-established and constantly improving. Thus one of Pixar’s most significant advantages: the ability to apply its ever-refined execution to regular installments of fresh, original material.

This cross-incubation of multiple long-term projects across a shared, ever-improving team and set of resources, playing out alongside the constant possibility of collapse, also allowed and encouraged Pixar to return again and again to one of its most substantial story innovations: situating the lives of its non-human protagonists within our larger, “real” world. For contrast, classic Disney pictures like Adventures of Robin Hood, or The Great Mouse Detective, or even Lion King—and don’t get me wrong, these are some of my favorite animated films—feature humans dressed up as animals; the lives of the animals aren’t taking place within our world, but a once-removed translation. In the Toy Story series, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Ratatouille, we’re treated to talented and beautiful individuals existing firmly within but at the margins of our own world; humans are immensely powerful, constantly affect the action, but are also typically unaware of or lacking empathy for these side-communities and their activities. The characters, and their friends, must accommodate themselves to that reality, and they personally run up, again and again, against their lack of control over their own fate. It’s impossible not to read that as Pixar’s self-narrative, and while others had this idea no one had ever given it such an inspired, personal voice.

And while that sense isn’t applicable to the human pictures, The Incredibles & Up—and there’s a good argument that those are Pixar’s best two films right there—this goes most of the way toward explaining the root problem with Cars, the closest thing to a misfire in Pixar’s work so far: the absence of that additional, thematically rich complexity. Cars, in this and other aspects, failed to connect fully with what the studio had made of its circumstances and limitations, what became, with all sincerity, both its working ethos and the moral at the heart of so many of its films: the ceaseless striving for individual achievement, and the painful acknowledgment of how one can and cannot affect the larger context for those efforts.

In the best tradition of tech companies, Pixar thus managed to turn the fundamental realities of their business model into a sincerely held company philosophy. Combined with their premium on original material, all the result of the long production cycles of animation, the studio was well-prepared as they moved forward to meet challenges from without and realize aspirations from within.

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fightingon our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. …

Through its structural and creative advantages, and admittedly by slim margins, Pixar had also positioned itself as the leader in CGI animated features. Other studios were cautious about competing with Pixar for a simple reason; the resources to develop quality CGI pictures were very hard to come by, whether you looked at the capital investments or the difficulty of securing creators up to the task. Dreamworks stepped up first, with Shrek, in 2001; in time, other studios would get in the game, so that by our current year at least a half-dozen companies are capable of delivering a quality computer-animated feature. Whether flooding the market or focusing, like Blue Sky, on delivering films at lesser expense, these studios have proven capable of meeting the basic standards for the family market. Unable to deliver the same assurance of critical and commercial success for their projects, however, these competing studios have relied to a much greater extent than Pixar on franchising and “playing it safe” through adapting existing properties. Whether Shrek‘s fifth installment, the fourth Ice Age, or the near-instant desire to make sequels for successful new properties, these companies waste no time in exploiting the efforts that prove successful. Given the time and money involved, the costs of doing otherwise would not be manageable.

For all the frenzied marketplace competition, however, there’s a broad agreement that no one has yet overtaken Pixar. That gap seems to go beyond quality to category: even the most well-received entries from outside the Pixar campus have earned a Cars-level acclaim for being beautifully executed children’s entertainment, no more, no less. And while the story of those companies, and the level of their success, is more rich and more deep than I will credit them with here, that perception is, itself, very important: whatever their level of actual success, no studio has earned anything like Pixar’s cachet.

Part of that is because Pixar created this space on its own; Lane quotes Steve Jobs at one point saying “It’s our job to know what people want before they do,” and he was on to something there as he helped sheperd Pixar’s early development. For six years Pixar was the only real player; it was their medium to define. Their particular relationship to the medium they work in retains the most interest, import, and meaning, and they’ve also put the most sustained effort into pushing the boundaries of the form.

You can sense very clearly that Pixar was itself aware of this by the early 2000s. Around the time that Disney was stumbling out of the gate, when the studio of their own heroes couldn’t even manage proper competition, Pixar must have known, at last, that they really and truly were safe in the lead. By the middle of the decade, its flanks assured, having co-opted the resources of its principal adversary, with growing reserves of capital and experience, Pixar was ready for new heights.

Concurrently, Pixar’s production schedule lined up for a run of second features from its four great creative voices, one after the other. This mature phase for Pixar, from 2007-2010, saw a creative team very much on the same page about where they wanted to go and how to get there.

Ratatouille, directed by Bird, the film that should have been a disaster but came off with a flourish, led the way with its climactic minutes: Anton Ego’s meal and subsequent review. This sublime scene, equally comfortable within straightforward or wider interpretations, provides a vigorous defense of both creation and criticism in making sense of the experience of a single, simple meal. The speech is beautiful, of course, but the wordless reaction of the wordsmith to his first bite, that incredible transition to a younger Anton; that does all the work. Ratatouille had its flashes of poetry elsewhere amid its Parisian settings, but this way of speaking is unique to this moment, compressing emotional impact into the animation in such a way that many layers of meaning come through vividly and simultaneously. That flash of something more ambitious aside, the film’s central accomplishment lay in being the most “Pixar”-esque film of any Pixar project to that point: seamless and beautifully executed, and in its themes and characters closer to the company’s core concerns than the most “flawless” Pixar entry, The Incredibles. That identity, so well-established ways through the company’s house style, meant Ratatouille couldn’t slip into such a mode for long; but the promise of that scene charted a path forward for the company’s creative efforts.

That effort to play in a different key, to let the melancholy beneath their films come a little further to the surface, defined the next three Pixar films, all of which had the luxury of proper development which Bird had lacked for Ratatouille. Alongside the expected technical improvements in their animation, Pixar’s trilogy of WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3 saw attempts to take the power of that kind of expression and more seamlessly integrate it with the structure and themes of the film, thereby becoming something more than a well-executed capstone.

Stanton’s WALL-E marked the most sustained experiment to this type of innovation. Its entire opening act is a short film in the tradition of Chaplin, using the wide expanse around WALL-E, and then WALL-E and EVE, to establish the film’s world, while so limiting its leads in their sounds and expressions that every action they take registers in an endearing and affecting style. (They remain my favorite minutes within the Pixar canon.) The film can’t entirely recapture the profound simplicity of its opening when the spaceship takes over as the setting, but the rest of its storytelling is good in the typical Pixar fashion, and its beginning so astoundingly good, that the entire film rises up a level from Pixar’s previous highs. The opening also, through its sustained commitment, establishes a tone that the film can call back to at crucial moments, such as WALL-E’s fire extinguisher-in-space routine, which immediately recaptures the delight of the film’s beginning. For all its vividness, however, this opening turned out to be merely an elaborate gloss: it helped you to understand why the little guy is so damn excited and determined for the rest of the film, but the connections to the story, which heads in a more moralistic direction, aren’t as well-developed.

Docter’s Up took this idea of an opening gloss, foreshortened it, and in doing so brought it much deeper into the emotional fabric of the story. Following a spry, energetic opening, the story of Carl and Ellie unfolds through a wordless sequence. While this accomplishes ripping your heart out in front of youfor some audiences, this unfolded in 3-D, which sounds like a recipe for lasting traumathe death of Carl’s wife goes beyond the expositional tragedy we see in Finding Nemo. Those few minutes sets up all of Up‘s themes going before any of the rest of the cast, or the show’s world, meets our eye. There are your plans and your commitments and your ambitions and your dreams, and it’s a lucky few of us who can make them all go well together. Up says all this without a word, and it pays off throughout the rest of the film, both in its reverberations within the story and in the numerous visual and musical callbacks to the scene’s mood.

Aware that this kind of storytelling can’t be sustained, however, Up largely transitions into more comfortable territory for Pixar, action-adventure; again, like WALL-E, establishing an emotional register that it can return to in a more abbreviated fashion later in the film, but still unable to directly unfold its narrative in that key.

All these moments were earned, and magnificent, and make for great memories; but while they aren’t interruptions, they don’t quite have the character of what we expect for the mature art, which would include the embedding of the film’s highest concerns within its principal mode of storytelling. Those best moments weren’t quite able to sit comfortably within the unfolding of Pixar’s bread and butter storytelling, the quick play of action and the steadily ramping tension that characterizes much of their work. (In this they followed Ratatouille‘s lead.)

Pixar had to be conscious of the fact that if they were ever going to pull this off, it was in Toy Story 3, directed by Lee Unkrich, co-director of Toy Story 2, and guided throughout by Lasseter. Some flourishes aside, however, for most of its running time Toy Story 3 sticks to being the most beautifully made Pixar film you could ever want, featuring all the studio’s technical skill and the unending, casual, inspiring confidence of its characters to make the best of their situation. It makes none of the highly noticeable steps seen in WALL-E or Up toward a different mode. Really, for most of its running time Toy Story 3 works fine as a straight-up action movie, setpieces and all. As it nears its close, however, the film heads to a level of intense fit for opera, where everything for twenty minutes in the climax is a climax within a climax, where the toys are operating at the absolute peak of winsome, relentless competence, where everything keeps going and going and then… well, suddenly, they’re back in the very predicament their earliest predecessors faced in Brave Little Toaster: heading toward their doom in the face of a machine.

It takes a while for the predicament to fully sink in, which is part of the genius of Toy Story 3‘s climax; like the characters, you expect that they’ll be able to find a way out of this. Except, it’s increasingly and terribly clear, there’s no way out. The group is there, and they’re gazing down at what looks like the lake of fire for a toy, or should, because as a person in the theater it sure looked like hell to me.

And the toys… they accept it. They’re not happy with it, but they’re okay. They’re so okay that for a brief, awful moment, you’re actually okay with it, too; sure, let the heroes be incinerated, what matters is they’re together. That is a dark fucking place to go with a children’s movie, but it’s also the most beautiful single statement Pixar’s ever made. And they pull it off because that’s all the company ever really had to tell us, that there are limits you must accept of where your own efforts can take you, that you can only get so much further with a good team, and that in the end, those people around you at any moment matter the most. So much of the company’s history, and vision, and innate goodness is there in that image of children’s toys facing down an apocalyptic brink. It’s the perfect culmination of the ramping intensity of effort and ambition in its mature films; and best of all, they get a last-minute reprieve, so you don’t need to think about those last moments, you can enjoy the film’s justifiably heralded coda, and trick yourself into thinking the film is about something else. But that junkyard sequence stands as the most organic fusion Pixar ever had between its sublime glosses and interludes and the seamless, flawless architecture underneath, telling the story they wanted to tell as perfectly as you could ever want. It felt, in short, like an amazing way to end things.

I suspect, sadly, that it was.

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Because that was it, you see.

We don’t know it yet, and can’t know for sure, but a full appreciation of how Pixar reached these heights, the peculiar alchemy of luck and drive that allowed us these films, and more importantly, the way these films felt to experience, points to an era that has quietly and without fanfare left us for good. Pixar’s decline will, appropriately, come about thanks to the very factors that have granted the studio its continued, and seemingly assured, success.

Of course, we may not be seeing the end to Pixar as a certain stamp of quality; however much Cars 2 will likely suffer at the hands of critics, Pixar has weathered a Cars-shaped bump before. Yet the glacial timelines of computer animation have already determined the shape of how Pixar will follow up the creative legacy of its last four, stunning pictures. And while the details don’t yet form a full picture, there are enough surface signs of trouble to suggest a much deeper shift in the company’s direction.

These next years will be without Brad Bird or Andrew Stanton, for one, who have detoured to live action. John Lasseter, too, will be largely out of the picture after Cars 2, turning his attention ever more fully to the Disney side of animation. Pete Docter will be working on an original project, which in one sense is heartening, but also lowers the odds that 2013′s Monsters University, a thoroughly unexciting prequel concept, will be up to standards. Rather than leading the pack in story ideas, Pixar has also found itself behind the curve, leading to the cancellation of Newt, once a partner tentpole to 2012′s Brave in the post-Toy Story 3 slate. And, most distressingly of all, the company is now pursuing direct-to-video spin-offs—again from its least promising property—which couldn’t be farther from the company that risked its entire existence to fight off a direct-to-video Toy Story 2. While Docter or Lee Unkich may yet pull off a miracle, collectives traditionally don’t profit from the divided focus of its core talents, and without a critical mass of authorial voices the same essential well of themes and techniques risks deteriorating into incoherence.

Worst of all are the resources devoted to two franchising opportunities, rather than original properties. In a sense there’s no way out of this anymore; the general trend toward sequels and franchises is inescapable economics. One might expect Pixar to find a way to transition into this reality with grace. Yet even the best defense of the practice of franchising, that it secures the financing for original stories, promises the end of the most beautiful aspect of the many years filing into the theater to take in Pixar’s latest delight: the knowing assurance that this represented their utmost sincerity and finest effort, that this or that animated feature was special. These are events for a reason, and while the test of time may not care, the feeling of heading into the theater with an ironclad promise you would be delighted was invaluable. The compromises, the cheats, the knowledge that what we see is about revenue first and foremost, that will be in there with the theaters with us from now on with many of these properties, and no amount of technical accomplishment can disguise it.

There’s no reason to be confident that Pixar will feel like Pixar in 2014, after we will have seen three sequels out of its last four films, even if Brave will likely be excellent. Worst of all, absent most of its leadership, its focus diluted, there’s no telling what the next years will do to the company’s confidence: the untold ripples of the sure-to-be-knives-out reaction to Cars 2, the inevitable over-analysis and political distraction of the company’s first princess story in Brave, the shellacking Monsters University will take if it can’t live up to the standards of the films that have landed since its predecessor. Pixar is a confident company, but this will have an impact, whether leading to a more insular faith in its past legacy—inevitably fueling a recycling of characters or creative approaches—or pushing them toward priviledging technology, what will remain their unimpeachable selling point, over story—or running the risk for the first time of a truly schizophrenic or over-tweaked Pixar film of conflicting creative aspirations, the realization of the potential for fiasco that Brad Bird saved in the nick of time with Ratatouille, perhaps only because they had no time to overthink it.

The best hope remains that Pixar has more of a handle on this franchise thing than others, given the runaway creative success of the Toy Story films; perhaps it will find ways to reach the same heights working within the imperfect fit of its older properties. Yet there’s no reason to believe this. It’s a constraint upon sequels that you must play up recognizable aspects of character, yet Pixar’s precision means that its characters, in their traits and designs, are designed to fit a particular stretch of thematic space. Remy or WALL-E or Carl work flawlessly within their particular contexts, but due to Pixar’s unmatched efficiency they exhaust themselves of any further necessity to spend time with them; we know them already at their most richly realized and personally glorious. Toy Story is in this case an exception largely because Pixar’s own self-identification with Woody, Buzz and their friends gave them much more depth, the richness of the company’s own story, and that their original iterations were also saved from being too precisely realized or overdetermined in the manner of their successors, owing to Toy Story being the studio’s debut feature. No other set of characters will ever mean so much to Pixar, and having perfected its craft, no other characters will ever allow the same room for reinterpretation and reorientation. The quality of Toy Story 3 can therefore coexist with a belief that Pixar has no special ability to fight the diminishing returns that plague franchising as a creative, if not a financial, process.

This is all a symptom, however, not the underlying reason; and that is simply that the company’s strengths, so well captured by Lane, have become a source of inevitable decline. Their capital and resources necessitate further and further creative conservatism, in order to maintain the success to fund their ever-growing costs. Their leadership, especially Lasseter, understandably also tilts toward what they’ve devised previously, whether characters the creators have affection for or the same basic methods of storytelling and development; they can also exercise this influence without direct creative control, as we already see in the approval of a Docter-less Monsters University. That only reinforces Pixar’s core set of strengths, which can capably adjust themselves to a subtle reeling-in of their vision while disguising that these methods have set limitations already stretched to their utmost.

What this all comes down to, in the end, is money, even if it’s not about money; Pixar is trapped within the economic arrangements it has developed and secured for itself. The costs of these films are simply too high anymore to go down this path and come back out; once Pixar gives up its commitment to original content, which it had lucked into, the economic incentives, and an unavoidable creative inertia, will ensure too much momentum to recapture what they had. While it’s unclear whether Pixar will fall into the specific trap of self-mythologizing, which has led to Disney’s sterilization and commodification of its own history, their rightful pride in their methods and worldview will make that a real danger. At any rate, I suspect there’s no turning back from this road. The monetary incentives and failure to create new material from the back-bench becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, until this will all become simply execution of what was, but this time, better, shinier, with more pixels, somehow no worse but also, fatally, no better.

This would all be a bit much, this worrying, if it weren’t for what lies at the heart of audience loyalty and the sense of connection that so many have found to Pixar’s films: while we aren’t direct participants in the creative flourishing they’ve realized over these past fifteen years, they have been and remain our only ambassadors within the medium. For the field of CGI animation is now, with rare and overmatched exceptions, a battleground for massive media companies; and while this was inevitable, by our immense good fortune the greatest achievements in innovation, technological prowess and storytelling all coincided with the first entrant into the field, who had the luck and privilege to go their own way. We owe Pixar a great deal for believing that this medium could ever be something greater than and apart from the realities that control live-action films of similar budgets, the world of Michael Bay and endless superhero films. And this impending disappointment wouldn’t matter so much if Pixar hadn’t shown us the potential that was here, if Jobs hadn’t captured the entire company’s meaning in “It’s our job to know what people want before they do.”

Again, however, this remains a movie studio, and there will be other films. There just won’t be other films like this, not ever, because it’s the sad reality that the heights set by these films aren’t possible for anyone but Pixar to reproduce. Lane writes that “Everything that you see, when you view a Pixar movie… was born and cradled in the mind of a computer, and there it lived and grew.” There’s a tone of magic and slight disdain for such an enterprise, but as Pixar has so gloriously proven, there’s nothing inherently wrong about the medium they’ve defined. Except for, when they let us down, as they will, we can’t pick up the slack for them. No aspiring filmmakers can go out and make Toy Story 4 in their backyard, or even on their desktop; that grammar remains Pixar’s alone.

And now the particular thread they had pursued, the push to the limits of their house style, to overcome once and for all what these films were, has probably come to a close. This won’t be the death of creative animation—there are indications of some great things on the way, from the promise of more deliberately using motion as a thematic element to the few studios with a continued commitment to idiosyncrasy, and Pixar itself may have created a lifeboat for its legacy of innovation through its short films division. Yet the particular, thrilling chase of the past years, Pixar succeeding as best it can on its own particular terms, will never go further than it has already. That energy cannot sustain itself through the upcoming lean years, not without becoming something else; they will first be unable to afford to move forward, and then, finally, unable at all.

The dream of Pixar’s defining statement was a fancy we were lucky to be able to entertain. They came very, very close, and in the process they’ve earned their fair share of scenes in any two-hour reel of American film. Even if they never quite got there, it was a beautiful trip. But so it goes: you only have so long to catch a wave that’s receding before there’s a new one coming your way. We were lucky this one lasted so long.

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