Arts and Entertainment

What’s Happening to Pixar?

Pixar’s increased reliance on sequels in recent years has become a major critique of the studio.

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By Felipe Marin Bautista

Pixar Animation Studios recently announced a sequel to Inside Out (2015), set to release in early summer 2024. Inside Out was a wildly successful movie, raking in $858.8 million at the box office, making it the second highest-grossing Pixar film of all time after Toy Story 3 (2010). Arguably one of Pixar’s strongest films, Inside Out is a perfect example of everything the animation studio initially stood for and strived to achieve: the marriage of innovative animation and thoughtful storytelling. Inside Out is a tour-de-force in animation with its fuzzy, nostalgic visuals, stellar voice acting, and an expertly crafted plot that manages to balance emotional connection and humor. Here’s the issue: Inside Out does not require a sequel and leaves practically no room for one. Inside Out is a genuine movie, and shoehorning in a sequel could ruin the sincerity that made it so endearing. Pixar’s increased reliance on sequels in recent years has become a major critique of the studio, similar to Disney and its unsuccessful live-action remakes. Both  serve the same lackluster purpose: to fill a content void.

Even without the scourge of sequels, Pixar’s newer movies, most notably Elemental (2023), have struggled to capture the studio’s former magical artistry and instead tainted Pixar’s celebrated history. In the era between Coco (2017) and Elemental, Pixar’s movies hovered at approximately the same level of mediocrity, but this was taken to the next level with Elemental. While Inside Out appeals to all ages, it’s unclear whom Elemental was intended for—a subplot of the movie is the main character’s struggles with the dynamics of her immigrant family, which introduces nuances that will surely be lost on anyone under the age of seven. It’s disappointing to see a story with the potential to encourage dialogue and increase representation fall flat in what seems to be a poor attempt at tokenism—Elemental doesn’t land where it should because Pixar has only given it a fraction of a parachute. 

While recent Pixar films like Soul (2020), Turning Red (2022), and of course, Elemental, strive for diversity by revolving around specific cultures, they are hindered by weak writing. The rich cultural backgrounds Pixar should be using to its advantage instead become a backdrop for half-baked stories—Turning Red is a cartoonish depiction of puberty and Soul spends too much time developing the lore of the afterlife that it forgets to develop a concrete plot. While Pixar has made a beneficial shift to representing historically underrepresented narratives, it fails to realize that representation and impact are not mutually exclusive. 

Another issue for Pixar is the rapid evolution of animation and its failure to stay ahead of the competition. In the 1990s, Pixar pioneered changes in animation by using groundbreaking technology like the Pixar Image Computer, a predecessor to advanced computer-generated animation. However, such technologies are now mainstream and easy to replicate; consequently, Pixar can no longer rely on computer-generated animation to elevate an unremarkable script to the level of a memorable children’s film. In the early days of Pixar, the initial draw was not the storytelling—Toy Story (1995) doesn’t have an especially good plot (frenemy toys are kidnapped by an unhinged neighborhood boy), and while A Bug’s Life (1998) (a quirky retelling of “The Ant and the Grasshopper”) is a sweet movie, it doesn’t achieve fantastic narrative success. Pixar was able to lean heavily on the crutch of animation while it gradually found its footing in storytelling. 

What Pixar’s directorial team can’t seem to accept is that in order to achieve success in contemporary cinema, they must now ace all the components of a movie—not just overcompensate for a few with animation techniques.

Pixar’s future might resemble the trajectory that Disney has followed. Disney was able to consistently put out solid and enjoyable movies from the late ‘30s to the early ‘60s, because they took most of their stories from preexisting material. After Walt Disney died in 1966, Disney entered a strange transition period during which the company’s direction was unclear and they turned to darker science fiction stories (for example, The Black Cauldron (1985), which was a true commercial failure). When former Broadway writers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman joined the animation studio in the late 1980s, Disney entered what came to be known as the “Disney Renaissance.” It’s not inconceivable that with new, multitalented directors, a “Pixar Renaissance” could be in store. 

Inside Out 2 is unlikely to kickstart Pixar’s golden age and will more plausibly be the latest addition to a growing line of commercial successes that  turn out to be critical flops. What Pixar needs to do is to stop making sequels, take a moment to reassess, and hire new talent to patch up their weak points. Pixar has the potential and resources to turn its ship around, so the question is: When will Pixar make its comeback?