The studio narrative of Pixar Animation is predicated on the company’s groundbreaking research and the development of computer-generated animation technology, and the notable commercial success and critical acclaim of its feature films. Pixar has been acknowledged with numerous awards both domestically and internationally, producing films that attract blockbuster and art house audiences, families, couples and cinephiles. The continued and growing success of the studio has been described as an anomaly and is held up as an exemplar for fledgling companies.
In 2006, The Walt Disney Company purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion, which saw Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter assume positions as President and Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios respectively. While this move is proving increasingly invaluable to the success of Disney’s animated feature films and to a renewed trust in the Disney brand, Pixar’s reputation as “infallible” has been disputed. Following the phenomenal success of Toy Story 3 in 2010, the studio has been unable to replicate the flawless “Pixar formula”. Furthermore, the delayed release of Inside Out (2015) and The Good Dinosaur (2015), and the announcement of further sequels to the Cars (2006 and 2011) franchise, the Toy Story (1995, 1999 and 2010) series, The Incredibles (2004) and Finding Nemo (2003) suggest that the acquisition has initially had a negative impact on Pixar’s brand identity and studio narrative.
Once upon a time in Emeryville California, a film studio like no other was established. This studio opposed Hollywood trends by hiring staff full-time, rather than from project-to-project; staff that were not required to sign employment contracts; a filmmaker-led studio where artists and executives live happily side-by-side, riding around the building on scooters and eating cereal three times a day. A place where animators work in tiki huts and garden sheds; where monsters, toys and superheroes roam freely. This studio ushered in a new golden age of animation. From 1995 to 2005, this is the common studio narrative of Pixar. And it is a narrative that is projected by the studio itself and supported by literature written about the company, and in general, in critical responses to the studio’s films.
Of course, running parallel with this narrative of Pixar as an “animator’s paradise” is the narrative of Pixar as the pioneers of computer-generated animation. For over 30 years, Pixar has been at the forefront of cutting edge digital animation, popularizing CG technologies in both animated and live action cinema. Not only has the technology developed by Pixar become an industry standard for filmmaking, but the studio’s aesthetic style epitomises contemporary mainstream American animation. Pixar’s long-standing tradition of short films now acts as a record of aesthetic and technological growth, particularly evident in the refinement of computer-generated organic objects.
The general opinion is that since the acquisition Pixar is unable to replicate its pre-Disney success. Yet, during this time the studio released Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009), all highly successful, original films. Although Pixar’s box office figures have dipped since Toy Story 3 (2010), one of the clear concerns appears to be that Pixar has “lost its touch”. Commended in the press for its originality, since 2006 Pixar has released three sequels, with more on the way. Furthermore, the delayed release of Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur resulted in no Pixar film in 2014, the first time since 2005. In his book, Catmull poses the question, ‘could Disney and Pixar Animation flourish independent of one another, separate but equal?’ (2014, 247).
The title of my post is taken from The Lego Movie (2014), a film that was a commercial and critical success, but “snubbed” at the 2015 Academy Awards. Why am I mentioning it here? I think there are parallels between this and the change in attitude towards Pixar. Articles written about Pixar (the hype surrounding the studio’s early success, the comparison to Disney animation, the release of sequels, the lacklustre response to some of Pixar’s latest films – see reviews of The Good Dinosaur) all point to an apparent disconnect between Disney, as the multimedia conglomerate, and Pixar, as the independent artist-centred studio. This is summed up simply during the premiere screening of Inside Out at Cannes: audible cheers as Pixar’s name appeared onscreen, and boos for Disney’s. This is further exemplified in the marketing of Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. The films have been praised for their artistry, but have been promoted via fast food chain Subway and Sky Broadband. And the merchandise for these films seem somewhat contrived; Toy Story toys make sense. Cars toy cars make sense. A full Apatosaurus costume?
Over twenty years Pixar has released 16 feature films, ten since the Disney-Pixar merge. Clearly, more in-depth research needs to be done, but with this sample we can start to draw some conclusions on the impact of the acquisition on Pixar Animation Studios.
Helen Haswell is PhD candidate in film studies at Queen’s University Belfast. Her primary research area focuses on Pixar Animation Studios in relation to film production, marketing and distribution, and the impact of the studio’s acquisition by The Walt Disney Company. Her article ‘To Infinity and Back Again: Hand-drawn Aesthetic and Affection for the Past in Pixar’s Pioneering Animation’ was published in Alphaville Journal of Film and Screen Media in January 2015.