I've got some good news and some bad news for the Pixar Brain Trust. The bad news is that their latest movie, Cars 2, is sitting at an ugly 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, with by far the worst reviews Pixar has ever gotten and pretty brutal headlines summing them up: "Pixar Hits A Wall." "No Soul." "A dull ride."
The good news is that they're going to make a hunk of money off it anyway, from licensing and toys if not the box office, and that they've finally shaken off those pesky high expectations that have been following them around for the last 15 years. Even though they've turned in your first bona fide turkey, they've still got one of the most valuable brand names in the world, a logo that's synonymous with quality family entertainment, and a better batting average than any Hollywood studio in history. It was only a year ago that they released the Oscar-nominated, best-threequel-ever Toy Story 3, and we're not going to forget that after an entire movie full of Mater's fart jokes (though bringing us Cars 3 might be pushing it). We may no longer believe that Pixar is infallible, but we're still going to look forward to their new releases more than DreamWorks Animation's.
But come on, Pixar-- you still have to work for it. You know as well as anyone that the Pixar legacy only exists because a lot of very smart people put a lot of work into every single movie, and no matter what went horribly wrong with Cars 2, you've got to keep doing it. As other critics try to figure out exactly where Cars 2 fails, and what it means that Pixar has ended their decade-plus perfect batting average, I've got five suggestions for how they can move forward from here and keep the Pixar flame alive. It's what we--your fans, your audience, the people rooting for you the hardest-- need to see happen before hunkering down with our Hayao Miyazaki Blu-Rays and giving up entirely.
(Note: A lot of the ideas here were inspired by a conversation in this week's Operation Kino podcast, which you can listen to at the link).
Brave has got to be good. Lucky for Pixar, they already seem to have taken care of this-- the characters look original, the concept art striking, and the co-director is already hinting at the film's "darker elements"-- i.e., no more shiny plastic racecars. As the first original movie Pixar will release in nearly three years, though, we don't just need Brave to be up to their standard-- we need it to remind us how well they tell stories to begin with. No pressure or anything, but.. no, nevermind. The pressure's on.
Monsters University has got to be really good. It's pretty ballsy to studiously avoid sequels for years and years, then bust out three of them in a four-year span; it's even ballsier to create a sequel-- OK, OK, prequel-- that has one of the most perfect endings in cinema history. But it's downright dangerous to release another sequel/prequel so soon after one that was a huge disappointment, and especially if Brave turns out to be great, we're going to be even more skeptical about dealing with the launch of another franchise. If this one doesn't turn out well, we may start seeing Brave as more of an anomaly than Pixar's return to form.
If you're going for the money, don't dilute the brand while you're at it. Call this the "Disney Direct-to-DVD approach." The studio that now owns Pixar now has churned out crappy sequels to their wonderful films for decades now, and got away with it by sending them straight to home video, assuring the only people who paid any attention would be the desired kid audience and leaving us critics out of it entirely. I don't blame Pixar for wanting to keep the money flowing by making a Cars sequel, but couldn't a direct-to-DVD sequel done nearly as well without breaking so many hearts? Obviously it's too late to pull this tactic on Monsters University, but if they're mulling over a Cars 3 right now, I hope they'll consider sparing the Pixar banner another blow.
Keep defying our expectations. Yes, Cars is the safest movie Pixar has ever made, and the most financially successful so far (thanks to licensing, not box office). But it was a thrill for critics to get an early look at those crazy movies, the ones where they expected us to sympathize with a fish, or a robot, or an old man living alone, and then see them pull it off. They weren't exactly bad financial decisions either; Finding Nemo stood as the studio's biggest grossing film ever until Toy Story 3 came along, and all of them pulled off that tough combination of rave reviews and financial success. We look for surprise in our entertainment-- it's as simple a storytelling method as the game of peekaboo-- and have relished it when it came from Pixar.
Don't doubt yourselves. Yes, I just spent this entire piece giving you unsolicited advice. But the Pixar strategy of prioritizing story and hiring brilliant people from all over has worked on 11 out of 12 films, and as tough as Cars 2 is to swallow, it really does seem like an anomaly. The last thing that needs to happen now is an overhaul, an overcompensation for one bad film that results in a lot of talent and years of building up a strategy going away. Pixar, you guys know how to make good movies. Get back to doing it quickly, and we'll forget this little blip ever happened.