By Raven10 13 Comments
Several people who commented on my last blog asked me to share my thoughts on Pixar's so called "perfect run" or the films the studio made from the release of Toy Story through the release of Toy Story 3. Consisting of 11 films it is arguably the longest perfect run of any movie production studio in history and at least the highest by an animation studio depending on your view of Isao Takahata's 90's Studio Ghibli movies Pom Poko and My Neighbors The Yamadas. Should you appreciate those two films then Studio Ghibli's "perfect run" probably extended from the 1986 release of Castle In the Sky (Unless you count Nausicaa as a Ghibli film) to the 2004 release of Howl's Moving Castle or 13 films. Honestly as an American I just can't appreciate Takahata's 90's efforts so the prize goes to Pixar. Comparatively Disney's perfect run ended at 5 films with the release of Bambi. Dreamworks never had a perfect run while Don Bluth's production house under its various names had a perfect run of four films from The Secret of NIMH to All Dogs Go to Heaven. Blue Sky Studios never had a perfect run, and Michel Ocelot's films are arguable too controversial to even mention.
So who cares about perfect runs? Well a lot of people. A studio that has a perfect track record can say to its audiences that regardless of the quality of the marketing or the subject of the film, there is no reason to not believe that their next film will be great. The longer the perfect run lasts the more certainty the studio can say this with. To make a video game comparison look at Blizzard. Ignoring the company's porting work, Blizzard has arguably had a perfect run from its release of Blackthorne till the present day. Some people like some of Blizzard's games more than others, but it is safe to say that Blizzard has gone 20 years without ever making a bad game. These days a new release by Blizzard is treated as one of the largest events in a gaming year. Until the studio releases a bad game there is no reason to believe they ever will. Especially considering the complexity of their ownerships and the staff turnover it is hard to imagine any bad game coming out of Blizzard.
Of course the thing about a perfect run is that it only takes one film or game to ruin a perfect run and no matter the amount of successful products you release before and arfterwards there is suddenly an uncertainty about quality that you simply cannot ever remove. Blizzard has been pressured by Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick to release games on a more regular schedule and this has arguably jeapordized their status as the premier PC game developer today. So what events lead to Pixar's perfect run and what events lead to its demise? Let us examine.
Pixar was founded by George Lucas in the early 1970's as a computer graphics company. It wasn't until the mid-80's that Pixar transitioned into making CG television shorts after the success of John Lasseter's CG Short films including the now iconic Luxo Jr. It was 10 years later that then owner Steve Jobs agreed to let Lasseter attempt to make a feature length CGI movie. The film was called Toy Story and it was distributed and marketed by Disney. From the 1995 release of Toy Story to the 2003 release of Finding Nemo, Pixar's movies were created by a dedicated internal team. At the head was John Lasseter. Acting as co-directors were Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Pete Doctor and Joe Ranft. Music for the films was done mostly by Randy Newman while audio was designed by arguably the greatest sound designer of all time, Gary Rydstrom. Stanton wrote the scripts with stories from himself, Lassetter, Ranft and Doctor, among others. This core creative team were the masters, the insiders responsible for almost every Pixar movie throughout the 90's and 00's. Following Steve Jobs' dedication to quality at any cost, the team worked to better themselves, always attempting to top themselves with each successive release.
In 2004 Pixar brought in its first outside director, The Iron Giant creator Brad Bird. His first film was The Incredibles and it brought with it a new age of quality in which Pixar made arguably its best films. The Incredibles was followed by Cars, Ratatoullie, Wall E, Up and Toy Story 3. Pixar, it seemed, could do no wrong. At least to outsiders. Inside the studio changes were afoot. Pixar was purchased by Disney moving Lasseter to a new position in charge of all Disney animation. Suddenly the head man was no longer making individual movies. At the same time Ranft died in a tragic car accident. With two of its top creatives gone pressure fell on Stanton, Doctor, and Unkrich to keep the float aloft and they did so admirably. The one, two, three punch of Wall E (Stanton), Up (Doctor), and Toy Story 3 (Unkrich) was an amazing cinematic achievement. But things were about to go sour. After Wall E Stanton took a break from Pixar to work on John Carter. Brad Bird, meanwhile, was working on the live action movie 1906, before transitioning to the latest Mission Impossible movie. Pixar's two top writers were out of commission and Pete Doctor and Lee Unkrich had several years before their next films would be ready.
Before its acquisition by Disney, Pixar would often take off a year if it didn't have a movie ready. But Disney demanded regular releases and with none of its regular team of directors and writers available, Pixar turned to fresh new faces to direct. Their first effort was Cars 2 directed by producer Brad Lewis. Meanwhile Gary Rydstrom began work on a film entitled Newt and Dreamworks director Brenda Chapman began work on The Bear and the Bow. Suffice to say things went poorly from the start. Within a year Newt was cancelled and Cars 2 was rumored to be unwatchably bad. The Bear and the Bow was renamed to Brave and pushed up to a 2012 release. Less than six months before the release of Cars 2, John Lasseter realized that the film needed more help than anyone but he could give. So he fired Brad Lewis and personally went in to retool the film. Time was short and the end result was reportedly a lot better than Brad Lewis' version, but there was no doubt that Cars 2 was simply a bad movie. With a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 34% it was more than 40 points below the first entry, the already barely 4 Star rated Cars. Pixar's perfect run was over.
This year Pixar attempted to get back on track with Brave. But, again, less than six months before release Brenda Chapman was removed from the director's chair and replaced by long time Pixar employee Mark Andrews. The result was a film vastly superior to Cars 2 but not as great as the Pixar films leading up to Cars 2. With Newt cancelled Pixar looked to its catalog for a new idea. Monster's University hits next summer directed by Dan Scanlon. Following that we have what should be a return to form for Pixar with films from Pete Doctor, Lee Unkrich and Up co-director Bob Peterson. Stanton also is due to return for a new film. Regardless of the quality of Pixar's films over the next five years, though, there is no doubt that the legendary perfect run ended last year with a disastrous cash grab that felt like something coming from the Dreamworks B team not the masters at Pixar.
In the end, though, if Pixar had to end its perfect run, it couldn't have chosen a better movie to go out on. With Toy Story 3 Pixar arguably ended an era. 15 years later the kids that watched the original Toy Story with their parents were now parents themselves and they were taking their kids to the movies. As I said in my last blog, Pixar's tales often involve letting go. Toy Story 3 is indeed a story about letting go, both physically with the toys themselves, and emotionally as Andy goes off to college. But for many Toy Story 3 also is about letting go of the dream studio that spent 15 years creating some of the greatest films in history. As I said at the start, perfect runs are abolished by only a single film and can never be earned back. Whether Pixar can return to form in the future or not, it will forever have that mark on its record. And that is truly a shame.