Where Have All the Good Men Gone?: PIXAR’s Empty Nest
This post originally began as “Why BRAVE doesn’t feel like a Pixar movie”, the second piece in my planned series of Brave articles and reviews. But I realized that this broader topic about the studio deserved its own article.
Until Toy Story 3, every Pixar movie you saw was helmed pretty exclusively by four men. Year after year, the Pixar movie that hit theatres was one of these guys’ personal projects that they’d been carrying with them for years, turning over in their minds and raising into fruition with a careful understanding of their own story. Even though these stories often changed dramatically from their initial concepts, every Pixar classic was “somebody’s” movie. Something they set out to make. In the picture above, we have five men, four of which are famously known as the Pixar Brain Trust.
On the left is Brad Bird, my favorite animation director. His first Pixar movie was The Incredibles in 2004 before reinventing Ratatouille in 2007 when director Jan Pinkava “left” the project. Before Pixar he directed The Iron Giant in 1999 and served as a creative consultant on The Simpsons during its best years. He recently left Pixar to direct Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.
To his right is Andrew Stanton, who’s been with Pixar since the beginning. His babies were Finding Nemo in 2003 and Wall-E in 2008, but he also helped write Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, and Toy Story 3. Stanton “took a break” from Pixar to direct John Carter this year, where he supposedly fell in love with the freedom of live-action.
Dead-center in the silly clothes is John Lasseter, often called the “new Walt Disney”. Lasseter has also been with Pixar since before it was Pixar. He is responsible for Toy Story and being the best businessman in the group. When Disney and Pixar merged in 2007, John Lasseter was appointed Head of Animation for the entire Disney company. Since then he’s helped along a number of Disney movies find success including Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, and Tangled. But while he knows how to market a movie, and although his passion for animation and dedication to the business is inspiring, John is not a creative champion like the rest. His greatest triumph, Toy Story, was a massive collaborative effort which no single person should be give credit. But you can personally thank John Lasseter for Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011).
Next in line is Pete Docter, the funniest looking of the bunch and the one nobody seems to be listening to on any of the Blu-ray supplements. Pete Docter gave us Monsters, Inc in 2002 and Up in 2009. Like Andrew Stanton, he has story and producer credits all over the Pixar map. Together, him and Stanton have been involved in every Pixar movie.
Last in line is Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3, which I consider to be the last great Pixar film. Unkrich has been there since Toy Story in 1995, where he served as co-director. He’s important because he’s the only one who has been groomed to take a seat in the New Pixar.
New Pixar, of course, being the studio without the Brain Trust.
What you’ll notice about most of the Brain Trust, the men who collectively gave us every Pixar movie for almost 15 years, is that they’ve all begun doing other things. Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton are dabbling in live-action. John Lasseter is running a company now and really wasn’t that great to begin with. Joe Ranft, another Pixar founder not discussed above, died in a car accident in 2005. All the minds that gave us some of the best animation ever made and literally reinvented the animated world have dissolved. The Pixar as we knew it, behind the scenes, is gone.
So what we’re left with is Pete Docter, who’s just started a new movie at Pixar we won’t see until 2015. Plus Lee Unkrich. That’s not much of a Brain Trust.
The first sign that things are falling apart was, of course, Cars 2.
It’s not uncommon for a Pixar movie to have a “troubled production”. Toy Story was famously canned for being terrible.
In fact, some of the most troubled Pixar productions have been for their best movies. Toy Story 2 was famously destroyed repeatedly (literally, in one case). Monsters, Inc went through so many story changes that original pitch sounds like a joke. But most importantly was Ratatouille in 2007. Jan Pinkava was to be the first director heading a Pixar movie that wasn’t a member of The Brain Trust. He pitched the story and developed the characters we saw in the final version of the film. But at the time, Disney and Pixar were having contractual disputes and the movie was being financed independently. Stakes were high – the whole movie was a gamble. The Brain Trust, not confident in Pinkava’s work, brought Brad Bird in to rewrite, reanimate, and completely reinvent the movie. It was a very expensive and risky move that payed off, further solidifying Brad Bird’s position at the studio and ultimately leading to Pinkava’s departure from the studio. The opportunity for new creative blood was crushed.
Cars 2 was shaping up to be a similar story, minus the fact that the movie was already guaranteed to make billions of dollars. The movie was initially being directed by Brad Lewis, a lead animator who’d been with the studio since The Incredibles. After months and months of problems getting the story and the movie to work, his crew voiced their own lack of confidence and John Lasseter came down to finish the movie on his own. At the time, this re-assured people the movie would turn out great. After all, it worked with Ratatouille. Plus this is John Lasseter! The living Walt!
Except Lasseter directed the movie on an iPad and then it turned out terrible. Brad Lewis left the studio. No new blood here, either.
Then came Brave. Poor, poor Brave…
Brave was pitched, developed, and lovingly crafted by a woman named Brenda Chapman.
It’s hard to say exactly what happened with Chapman and Brave. The movie was her own passion project, based on her own mother daughter experiences, and it was a big deal she was making the movie. Not just for her, but for the studio. Pixar had often been criticized (softly) for not creating female leads or giving female directors a chance to craft a story. Pixar was seen a boy’s club, and for a woman to finally direct a girl-led movie was a major and much touted first for the studio.
Then came the “creative differences”, whatever that means. Seriously – nobody but the crew knows exactly what it means. Pixar isn’t talking, Chapman isn’t talking, and all there is to know is gossip from the animators. Some say her crew felt she was misdirecting the movie. Others say she was pushing too hard for technology that wasn’t working. But in the end, what matters is that she was removed from the project. The movie was changed and Chapman left the studio. Brave was handed over to Mark Andrews, who insultingly gets listed as director before Chapman.
Brave, while great, is not Pixar’s best. It’s a success that feels like it barely made it. But most unfortunately, it’s a movie drenched in bad blood and broken bonds. If you’re not noticing the trend, every new Pixar director has ultimately been removed from their movies, for better or for worse. What we have now is a studio who’s talent, The Brain Trust, has no time for new projects and no faith in anybody else.
Pixar is different now, inside and out. The shine is off the apple and it seems that the pillars that held the studio up are slowly crumbling. I still remain hopeful that they’ll find new strength, learn from its mistakes, and continue to deliver the best American animation there is. But what happened to the studio that triumphed with an artists vision? The studio that pushed the boundaries of family-narrative and literally invented technology to tell their stories along the way? Brave, as I will continue to write, had a production that went against everything Pixar is supposed to stand for. Yes, Brave is a good movie. But, as you’ll hear over and over, it’s not “Pixar Good”.
And maybe it isn’t. You can find my positive review of Brave here.
Posted on June 25, 2012, in Animation, Discussion, Reviews, Uncategorized, Upcoming Films and tagged A Bug's Life, Andrew Stanton, Animation, Brad Bird, Brain Trust, Brave, Brenda Chapman, cars, Disney, Finding Nemo, John Lasseter, Lee Unkrich, Mark Andrews, Monsters Inc, Pete Docter, Pixar, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Toy Story, Up, Wall-E. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.