The year is 2004. The long-brewing feud between at-the-time Pixar Studio head Steve Jobs and ex-Disney CEO Michael Eisner has just become explosive. Pixar is actively seeking a new partnership with another company while Disney establishes a new animation division called Circle 7 Animation, a division created with the purpose of making unnecessary sequels to some of Pixar’s most popular films. Fortunately Eisner was forced out by the board of directors as a result of this and a laundry list of other bad decisions, and in late-2005 Disney made a deal with Pixar to both acquire the company and restructure the upper levels of Disney management, granting Pixar personnel like Jobs, Ed Catmull, and John Lasseter executive positions in The Walt Disney Company. This would allow Pixar to retain their identity of originality and quality as well as being able to manage the roster of classic characters they created.
Fast forward to 2013, Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 have both been released, Monsters University comes out this June and today Disney and Pixar announced the title and release date of their next sequel: Finding Dory. I’m left here wondering how much different this slate of movies is from what Disney had planned with Circle 7.
Now to be fair there is the issue of quality. Circle 7 never produced a single film so there’s no fair way to say how good or bad their product would be, but I think we can all agree that Buzz, Woody, Mike, Sully, Marlin, and Dory are all in much safer hands at Pixar than they would have been at Disney under the Eisner regime. Also, to be fair Toy Story 3 was pretty great (though, in my opinion, not as good as Toy Story 2) and despite my initial bitterness towards the idea of a follow-up to Monsters, Inc. the decision to make it a prequel rather than sequel along with a solid marketing campaign have allowed to be optimistic about the new film.
On the other side of the coin, however, there’s the fact that Cars 2 was by far the weakest film Pixar has ever released, rivaling the forgettable, middle of the road quality that plagues other animation studios. In addition, last year’s Brave, which was worlds better than Cars 2, still struggled with an uneven narrative that couldn’t stand alongside Pixar’s best work.
All that brings us to Finding Dory. Even being a long-time fan of Pixar as well as someone who quite frankly fell in love with Finding Nemo there is nothing that appeals to me about the idea of Finding Dory. Finding Nemo tells a great and complete story that requires no follow-up; the conflict of all the principle characters are resolved in a satisfactory way and nothing else needs to be said. To be fair, the same can be said of the original Toy Story and we ended up getting not one, but two fantastic sequels, so why am I worried about Finding Dory? To explain that we’re going to look at another bit of history, this is more recent though, and something you’re all probably familiar with.
Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and WALL•E, most recently made his live action debut with the $250 million adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal science fiction novel A Princess of Mars. The film famously bombed, though not as badly as the viperous news outlets would lead you to believe,* and Stanton’s future working in live action was uncertain. Recently Disney announced that they were going to give Stanton another shot at it, but first he would be in development on a sequel to his first film. This raised all sorts of red flags for me. For one, Stanton has been very forthcoming in the past about his general disinterest in doing sequels (planning a trilogy of Barsoom movies was a self-admitted rarity for Stanton) and whenever the subject of Nemo 2 has come up he has typically dismissed it. The fact that he’s doing a sequel now, in conjunction with Disney giving him another shot at live action leads me to believe that he’s no more interested in it now than he ever was before, he simply views it as a necessary evil in order to get back into the game of live action filmmaking after the publicity albatross for Disney (justified or not) that was John Carter.
If this is true, it’s immensely depressing. I’ve always admired Stanton and think he’s a very talented filmmaker; even John Carter, I felt, was a good, though not great, movie that improves significantly with subsequent viewings. I want to see Stanton get to work on a project he’s passionate about, not a project he’s been vocally against for years as penance for a flop that has arguably more to do with the absolutely botched marketing done by Disney than it has to do with the actual quality of the film.
And ultimately, who really wants a sequel to Finding Nemo? I’m sure there are a lot of kids who are going to be excited when it comes out, but was anyone clamoring for this? Now that it’s announced how many people are saying to themselves, “yeah, I really can’t wait for that!” The fact that it’s going to be focussed primarily on Dory is also problematic for me on a few levels. First, traditionally, when a supporting character gets bumped up to a leading role they end up losing a large part of what made them work in the first place. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is probably the best example of this in recent memory, but Cars 2 being Mater-centric was also one of that film’s major issues. Dory works as a foil for Marlin, but I’m not sure making her do the heavy lifting of the story is going to be effective. There’s also the issue of potentially retroactively spoiling the way the character comes to us in the first movie. We don’t need to know why Dory was out there all alone, we don’t need to know what caused her memory issues. She comes to us in the first movie as a fully formed character and the movie is better for that, diving into Dory’s origin story just does not sound appealing to me at all.
In the end, as a Pixar fan, as a fan of Andrew Stanton’s work, and as a fan of Finding Nemo I just can’t get behind this movie. It seems like a movie that nobody wants to make except for the bean counters at Disney looking back at the $922 million gross of the first film and saying “another one of those, please.” The silver lining to this, I suppose, is that Stanton himself is going to do it. If there absolutely has to be a sequel to Nemo, Stanton should be the one at the helm, but the fact that he’s historically indicated no interest in making this movie makes it all the worse that he’s going to be stuck doing this for the next two years (assuming the schedule doesn’t get shuffled around). I would love to be absolutely wrong, I would love to find out that during the production of John Carter Stanton was suddenly seized by inspiration and found a new story with these characters that is worth telling, but to me that feels unrealistic. All signs point to this being a naked cash grab by Bob Iger and the lovely folks on the Disney board and to see this kind of thing happening at Pixar makes me more sad than I can describe.**
*John Carter ended up making back a box office gross totaling almost $283 million, and though the subject of movie finances is a shady game filled with lies and deception, the “official” numbers state that the movie only lost around $67 million. Certainly that’s a significant number, but when compared to other box office bombs including Disney’s own Treasure Planet ($70 million) and Mars Needs Moms (topping the list at a whopping $136 million) it’s clear that it’s far from “the biggest bomb of all time” as many news outlets made it out to be. Also, I’ll note that these numbers don’t factor in percentages taken out by exhibitors; trying to nail down those numbers is far more difficult and unreliable than I’m qualified for.
**Tangentially related musings: I wonder if the reason for Pixar’s recent shift in quality and focus on original storytelling isn’t a result of the changes that have been going on at Pixar. John Lasseter has been operating as Chief Creative Officer over Disney Animation, Disney Parks, and Pixar for the last several years meaning his time directly dedicated to Pixar and its projects has almost certainly been limited; Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton have both been off doing non-Pixar projects (though Stanton is obviously back now); and Steve Jobs recently passed away. If I had to guess I think that last one is possibly most significant. Jobs was a major player on the Disney board as well as Disney’s single largest shareholder so he had the authority to challenge Iger and champion originality at Pixar, a concept which is completely foreign and possibly offensive to Iger. Was Steve Jobs the Frank Wells to Iger’s Michael Eisner? Who knows, I guess time will tell.