While this editorial may seem like a contradiction to my previous one - where I condemned how critics seem to give a passing grade to every animated film whether they're good or bad, and how we need to demand better films from animation studios instead of being content with "fun" stuff - when it comes to Pixar, critics (and, in parts the audience too) have been particularly harsh towards as of late. Not that I think Pixar needs any defence, since they can do that themselves, or that we, as an audience, or film critics need to cut them some slack because they're Pixar and we need to take their side no matter what, but I want to share with you why some of this criticism is unfounded and, in many instances, malicious.
We can clearly divide Pixar's film history in two periods: Before Toy Story 3 and after Toy Story 3. Before and up to Toy Story 3, Pixar was synonymous with perfection. Up to that point, they had delivered 11 consecutive masterpieces (some may argue that Cars is an exception, but I love that film and consider it yet another triumph) and was easily recognized as the best animation studio in the world; they delivered wonderful emotional stories with gorgeous animation and great humour. In a decade that saw the rapid expansion of animation, Pixar was constantly at the top of the game and always left their competition in the dust. Then 2011 arrived, and with that the sequel nobody was asking for: Cars 2. Cars 2 marked the "end of an era" for Pixar. The movie was scorned by critics, becoming the first one to earn a 'rotten' score on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were also divided between people that liked it and people that hated it. People started asserting that Pixar had become "sequel-crazy", saying they wanted more original films like in the years previous. Then 2012 arrived and Brave, an original idea and Pixar's first fairy tale, was released. And while Brave was better received than its predecessor, the general consensus was that it was a good film but not "Pixar good". Around this time a lot of talk began to be heard saying Pixar had lost its creative edge and was going downhill, claiming they'd "sold out" and that now they were only interested in doing sequels. We are now in 2013, and Monsters University, Pixar's first prequel has been released to great acclaim from audiences, while critics have again been harder to convince, saying that it's a "fine effort but not as good as previous Pixar productions".
All this talk about Pixar going downhill, becoming sequel crazy and only caring about the money is something that I find utterly preposterous, stemming from people who either do not know anything about the studio or just want to pass malicious judgement. If nothing else, Pixar has proven time and time again that they deeply care about their films and their characters; they always deliver thoughtful films for audiences of all ages. They're not content with releasing mediocre efforts; they always want audiences to immensely enjoy the films and have an excellent time at the theatre. Perhaps, what Pixar is experiencing right now is some sort of "decline" but that's far removed from going "downhill".
Let me explain: When Disney Animation released The Little Mermaid in 1989, they ushered in an era known as the "Disney Renaissance". The films that followed - Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King - made Disney Animation the king of animation once again and they seemed to be able to do no wrong. Each film brought raving reviews, lots of awards and huge stacks of money. When The Lion King smashed the box office in 1994, Disney Animation had reached its peak. There were nowhere to go but down. That didn't meant they were going "downhill", but that they simply had to experience a "decline". When Pocahontas arrived in 1995, it was met with a more lukewarm reception and less box office revenue than its immensely successful predecessor. The following films - The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan - continued that trend, but were still successful and remain warmly regarded by audiences. Disney Animation did go more drastically downhill shortly after, but that was after the Renaissance and is another story.
What I'm trying to say is that, in my opinion, Toy Story 3 is Pixar's Lion King; they reached their peak, both critically and financially, in 2010. Now, there was no way Cars 2 would've surpassed TS3, so the decline was inevitable. Now, I'm the first to acknowledge that Cars 2 is a flawed film and that it has many issues, but I also think that it didn't deserve the kind of bad reception and bad reputation that it earned. After all, we've seen far worse animated films that have received passing grades. True, Pixar had "spoiled" us with fantastic storytelling and taught us to expect nothing but perfection from them. Maybe that's why, when they don't deliver exceptional films, we are particularly harsh with them. Both Brave and Monsters University delivered solid entertainment that's a cut above the rest of the studios (perhaps not WDAS, but still solid). Critics and some parts of the audience have scorned Pixar for "playing it safe" and not being as daring as they were in the past. I beg to differ. Brave was Pixar's first fairy tale and one that focused on a mother-daughter relationship instead of a princess-prince one. In this film, the story is not about the princess finding true love but instead finding a way to communicate and strengthen the bond with her mother. I think that's a pretty unique story, but people said the studio were becoming "too Disney". Monsters University has been scorned because it reflects "Pixar's lack of ambition", but I think that doing a prequel is a pretty ambitious and daring move. They've could have easily made a sequel recycling the story of the original film, but instead they created a whole new universe with characters we already love, and the result was a spectacularly animated film filled with warmth and excellent humour. How many good prequels can you name? Not many, right? And still, the fact that Pixar did a prequel (even if it is an excellent one) is used as an argument against them.
Perhaps Pixar has not delivered instant classics like Up or Ratatouille in recent years but to say they are going "downhill" or that they lost their "magic" is something completely ridiculous. Yes, maybe they're going through a slight "decline" in their current output but I'm completely confident that they'll never go completely down (they haven't done something like Chicken Little now, have they?) and very soon everybody will be saying "Pixar is back" (something I'll find hilarious when it happens). As for the "sequel problem", The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out are coming in 2014 and 2015 respectively and Ed Catmull has recently said that they are scaling down on sequels. So there you go, folks, nothing to worry about. Perhaps Pixar is not at the very top right now, but even in "decline"-mode, they still are far better than any other studio in the market. Because, ladies and gents, unlike most animation studios, Pixar do care about us, the audience.