The release of Monsters University marks the Emeryville’s company’s first prequel. The film rolls the clock back to tell the story of how Mike and Sully, the stars of Monsters Inc., first met. It may well be their first prequel, but along with Cars 2 and Toy Story 3, it is the mark of the recent upturn in franchise building of their movies. In the last four years, Pixar’s only ‘original’ movie has been Brave, a quarter of their output over the period. What has happened to Pixar? Are they at risk of losing their biggest asset, that of originality?

Pixar‘s release schedule has been pretty consistent, with pretty much one movie being released per year since the very beginning. Of their first ten movies, only one was a sequel, Toy Story 2. The rest were all new, original properties, of their own devising. Where other animation companies have been devoted to creating series, or adapting fairy tales, Pixar have built up a reputation for powerful, moving, original stories. When Toy Story 2 was released, it was only Pixar’s third film. They hadn’t fully built an identity yet, and there was a demand for more Buzz and Woody.

Since then, however, they have resisted the temptation for what some might call an easy buck, and have continued creating great stories and wonderful new characters. Along the way, they’ve made us laugh, made us cry, and picked up several awards. Why, then, have they suddenly started making sequels? It can’t be for purely financial reasons. In theory, it should be easier and faster to make an animated movie with characters they have used before, as the animated models have been made, decisions over how they move have been made. You could argue, though, that it is harder to write a truly effective story for characters that have already completed character changing journeys. And aside from Toy Story 3, which reached a higher tier financially than any of their previous efforts, there is little evidence that Pixar’s sequels are more financially successful than their original properties. Toy Story 2 earned more than Toy Story and A Bug’s Life, which came before it, but less than Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo after it.  Cars 2’s worldwide gross was less than several of Pixar’s original films that had come before it

Has quality suffered? Are Pixar’s sequels inferior to the rest of their work? This is, obviously, more subjective, but by looking at aggregate review scores, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Their Toy Story sequels have consistently been on par with the original film’s review score, and the average scores for Pixar movies in general. Cars 2, though, is a different matter. It was Pixar’s first, and so far only, major failure, with terrible review scores. As for Monsters University, it hasn’t been received quite as well as most of Pixar’s output, but at 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is consistent with Brave, the movie which preceded it on Pixar’s schedule. It looks, then, that Pixar’s biggest mistake so far was choosing to make a sequel to Cars, their worst received picture until Cars 2 was released.

The trend isn’t looking like Pixar’s sequels are suffering greatly in quality in contrast to their original films, then. It is more that their recent output, their last three movies, seem to mark a general decline in quality. The perception, though, does seem to be that sequels are the problem. Last month, Buzzfeed reported that Pixar’s president Ed Catmull has stated that the company will begin to scale back their sequel output. The planned release program is for an original film per year, plus a sequel every other year. On the surface, this seems to be a good step, but it is not, in fact, an overall scaling back of sequel production. Up until now, Pixar’s count is 10 original films, and 4 sequels. This is a rate of 1 sequel every 3.5 films. The new plan is to make 1 sequel every 3 films. Rather than scaling back their overall sequel output, they are merely scaling back the output shown over the last five years.

What they are really doing is increasing their output to 1.5 films a year, up from the previous 1 film a year. Is this increase in production, rather than a reliance on sequels, more likely to harm Pixar? It is a 50% increase in their production rate, which is really quite substantial. Yes, you can make the argument that they can afford to hire more people, and that it doesn’t necessarily need to have any effect on quality. But whilst people are easy to find, highly talented people are a little harder to come by. Higher production volumes, in any industry, almost always result in lower quality control. Are Pixar at risk over overstretching themselves? Diluting their trademark quality? If you try to juggle too many balls, you’re bound to drop a few.

At a time when there are question marks slowly starting to appear over the apparent, slowly,  declining quality of their output, this is when a company would usually tighten things up, reign themselves in and work out what is going wrong. Pixar are taking the opposite approach.  Up until recently, their work has been as close to flawless as any film production company can claim. If they’ve made the decision that they can increase production, whilst also arresting any slippage in quality, we have to trust them. They’ve built up plenty of goodwill over the years, and have done little wrong so far.

There is, however, a little bit of cause for concern. With most film companies, it wouldn’t really be an issue that would come under the magnifying glass. It is only because of Pixar’s reputation for greatness that any films that come in slightly below par are highlighted. It is because of this reputation that it would be such a great shame if their work started going downhill.

Have sequels affected Pixar’s quality? So far, no. Their worst film HAS been a sequel, but you could argue that their best films have been too. Whilst I’m sure most people would prefer to have all original film concepts from Pixar, there are plenty who love the already established characters, and call out for sequels.

As long as the reason for these sequels has some artistic merit, I see no problem in their continued production. The only project that seems to fly against this is that pesky Cars 2. A sequel to their worst film, a story that certainly wasn’t calling out for a sequel. With plenty of new cars in the movie, and a plethora of merchandise released with the film, this may be one decision that could be branded a cash grab. I have no problem with Pixar turning to sequels if it means more money to plough into more original work, but it can be done in a way that isn’t as lazy as with Cars 2.

Originality is one of Pixar’s greatest strengths, but so is personal, emotional storytelling, and their Toy Story sequels have certainly had this. If, however, the extra work these sequels create in Pixar’s new release plan causes the overall quality of their work to decline, then I’ll have a problem with it. I think most people would agree that they’d choose quality over quantity. Whilst we all look forward to Pixar’s next film, we’re willing to wait a little longer if we can be sure it has received its due attention. For now, though, we have to trust in the company to do what they do best: make great movies.

  • Amuro

    There are so many factors that get ignored in this debate (and I’ve read at least 10 articles on it recently). Firstly, the troubles people say Pixar are experiencing are a lot more practical than people give them credit for. Firstly, Toy story 3, Brave and Monsters U were headed by creative teams that didn’t include the ‘masters’ of Pixar (Lasseter, Doctor, Bird, Stanton etc) and so were literally the ‘next generation’ of filmakers at the studio. They are a lot less seasoned and so to expect their first works to be masterpeices is stretching too far (personally, I believe it was only Doctor and Stanton’s second films – Wall E and Up – that managed to cement Pixar’s reputation. Factor into this also that Brave had behind the scenes issues that may have accounted for its narrative bumps (I still think over all it is a great film). I think judgements should be reserved until the next films by Doctor and Stanton come out to see if Pixar has lost its ability to make outstanding movies. Interestingly, Stanton’s next is Finding Dory and I really think we will get an outstanding sequel that quashes talk of sequel fatigue. As it stands, I think Pixar’s new filmakers have made some very solid first efforts.

    Secondly, Cars 2 has been held up too much as an example of the studio’s decline. Again, there is a story of troubled production here with Lasseter coming late into the game to fix the film. Also, its release was rushed due to the cancellation of Newt (an original film whose cancellation shows that the close release of sequels wasn’t originally intended). I also really enjoy this film, but admit that there are some narrative problems. But I really think the circumstances of its creation should be taken into account. Instead of Pixar’s decline, maybe we should be talking about Lasseter’s decline as a film maker following his ascension into the Disney ranks? Personally, I think his imput to the company has been as a visionary (technologically and in terms of storytelling philosophy).

    Finally, I really don’t think Pixar is getting enough credit, especially when concerned with other animation studios. Yes, in comparison to Studio Ghibli the reliance on sequels might be disappointing. But compared to the US animated film market, and the anxieties of US shareholders, their hesitance to fill their release schedule with sequels is admirable. Also, Studio Ghibli has two filmakers responsible for the majority of their classics (Miyazaki and Takahata). These men are now pretty old, but what is the future of Studio Ghibli? Personally, all films made by other directors from the studio pale in comparison and have only been allowed to develop in very recent years. At least Pixar is using its comfortable position to take risks on new creative teams, who have shown much more potential in my opinion. Finally, Pixar should be admired for working on original ideas – including their sequels. Look how many Dreamworks films are based on pre-existing books. Even Studio Ghibli has relied heavily on adaptations of literature (Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Servce, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arriety, Ponyo, Poppy Hill all being increasingly prominent examples). While many of these films are still outstanding works of art, shouldn’t Pixar be given more credit for not having one adaptation on its slate? Instead, they are dedicated to making characters and stories in house. This is a huge demand which Ghibli and Dreamworks don’t have to face on the same scale.

    I think its time to stop all this talk of decline and a dim future for Pixar and to stop and appreciate how lucky we are to have them. I am optimistic not only about their immediate future but, thanks to nurturing new talent, their ability to be making classics long into the future. If this process results in some hiccups, so be it. If the Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, Finding Dory and the Mexican Day of the Dead film all prove to be dissapointing (or even if just a handful do) maybe we will have more of a right to be worried.

  • This is one of my favourite comments of ever quite frankly. You know your stuff

  • Ed Gutteridge

    The criticism is getting silly as that great post from Amuro shows. Also, Toy Story 3 was outstanding and only 3 years ago. The original films in The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out will prove the test for Pixar’s new talent but the sequels thing isn’t too much of an issue, at the moment at least.

  • scorpio666666

    Toy Story 3 was good – but that’s because they wasted 12 years or so – so that the children who originally watched the first would now have kids of their own.

    Monsters University (Prequel) is just depressing as hell – especially seeing as the whole film is essentially the main character failing at his lifelong ambitions and ending up becoming friends with the person who picked on him his whole young life.

    As for films people want to see such as ‘Incredibles 2’ – the same tactic is being used here – waiting several years solely for a new generation to watch their films.