In the 15 years following the debut of Pixar’s first feature film Toy Story in 1995, the beloved animation studio released a further 10 movies. With the exception of the excellent second and third entries in the Toy Story series, all of these were originals, and almost all of them were heaped with praise from audiences and critics alike.
Here was a batch of incredibly inventive adventures that worked for the whole family, transporting us to a range of new worlds and telling some of the most moving stories we’ve seen in the last quarter-century. The incredible four film stretch of Ratatouille/WALL-E/Up/Toy Story 3 was arguably the studio’s peak, with all four of those films scoring the Best Animated Feature Oscar in consecutive years as well as gaining a wealth of plaudits from viewers young and old.
The last 10 years, however, have seen rather a different story: while the studio has continued to regularly release new films, the original features haven’t been quite so plentiful. In total, 12 Pixar films have come and gone since Toy Story 3 first broke millions of hearts back in 2010, and of those 12, exactly half have been sequels.
Now, it’s understandable that the studio would choose to go down this route given the tremendous success it had with the Toy Story follow-ups, and it’s worth considering exactly why Pixar has opted to take this approach. There’s an argument to be made that kids love the chance to see their favourite characters on the big screen another time – even if this loses a bit of weight when we consider the time gaps between originals and sequels: 12 years passed between Monsters Inc and Monsters University, 13 years between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory and 14 years between The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2. If anything, this suggests these sequels are more targeted towards people of my generation, who were kids at the time of the originals.
More realistically it’s the box office figures which inform the studio’s choices: four Pixar films have taken over $1billion at the global box office and all four have been sequels (Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4) and so from that point of view it certainly makes sense then that the studio would look for more of the same. The original features aren’t exactly performing poorly though (Inside Out grossed $857million, Coco $807million), so why not balance those box office figures with the studio’s incredible ability to put out original new features?
After all, the problem with all the sequels isn’t that they’re downright bad, but rather that they come at the expense of more exciting and satisfying new films. Indeed, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that most of these sequels have, for all their profitability, been rather middling entries in the Pixar canon. Granted, you’ll find fans of Monsters University and Finding Dory, but you won’t see many people declaring them better than their originals, let alone claiming them as their number one Pixar film. Meanwhile Toy Story 4 might have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, but it’s just not quite at the same level as Woody’s three previous outings.
Thank goodness, then, that this year has seen the studio return to original features with a flourish. Earlier in 2020 (early enough that a theatrical release was possible) we saw Onward, a heartwarming coming of age tale set in a world inhabited by mythical creatures.
Now, just in time for Christmas we have Pixar’s real triumph of 2020: Soul. Telling the story of Joe Gardner, a New York jazz lover and middle school teacher who finds himself mentoring an unborn soul after an accident sends him to ‘The Great Before’, the film has all the features you’d look for in a Pixar movie. The sublime visual invention, A-list voice cast, and heady mixture of top notch slapstick and verbal humour (complete with lots of amusing references for parents) are all present in spades.
Like Pixar’s best, the film’s true success rests in its ability to broach difficult subjects with warmth and accessibility, teaching its audiences an interesting and life-affirming lesson while never being anything less than rip-roaringly entertaining. The result is something which is Pixar’s finest movie in a number of years, standing alongside Inside Out and Coco as the best the studio has released in the last decade.
Looking ahead at the studio’s upcoming slate, there’s good news and bad news for fans who want more original fare as opposed to another deluge of sequels. On the positive side, of the three new films confirmed at last week’s Disney Investor meeting, two are brand new – the Italian Riviera set coming-of-age tale Luca, and Turning Red, a tale about a teenage girl who transforms into a giant red panda when she gets too excited (from the director of acclaimed short Bao).
Perhaps not so promising is Lightyear! – another entry in the Toy Story franchise, though a spin-off rather than a sequel. (As star Chris Evans pointed out to a certain degree of ridicule on Twitter, this is an origin story for the real life Buzz, as opposed to the toy based on him.) Now, perhaps I’ll be proved wrong and Lightyear! will be a triumph, but despite being a huge fan of the Toy Story films it’s a prospect I find it hard to get all that excited about, and I fear it suggests sequels and spin-offs are going to continue to be a major part of the Pixar model.
My fear here is one exacerbated when coupled with the plans of Disney in general, who last week announced details for hundreds of new projects, hardly any of which were brand new ideas.
Now the palpable excitement amongst, for example, Star Wars and Marvel fanbases is understandable – there’s a reason these franchises are so beloved, and if their adoring fans can’t celebrate such a wealth of new projects in this of all years then when can they? But the concern of film and TV fans who aren’t quite so invested in those huge franchises is that Disney, which has such huge power over the entire entertainment industry, seems to have little interest in projects that aren’t tied to an existing IP.
It’s not unthinkable then, that Pixar – one of Disney’s big hitters – could eventually find itself going down a similar route, focusing mainly on the big money-making spin-offs and sequels while the original features become a rarity. I’m not saying that sequels should be cut out entirely – they can be brilliant when done right, as Toy Story 2 and 3 attest – but merely that the original features remain the priority.
Soul, like Coco and Inside Out before it, proves that the studio has always been at its best when it puts the original ideas first, and this should be the case going forward too.