From ‘Monsters University’ To ‘Finding Dory,’ Should We Be Worried About Pixar’s Recent Focus On Sequels?

Over at The Atlantic, my friend Christopher Orr has some worries about Pixar’s sudden reliance on sequels, and points to something larger—the diffusion of Pixar’s creative team:

To what do we owe this sudden outbreak of sequel-itis? Well, Finding Nemo is the third-highest grossing animated film—and the best-selling DVD overall—of all time, which might have something to do with it.

If Pixar’s films seem to have been slipping back into the pack of excellent-but-not-transcendent animated features of late, it is in part because that pack has dramatically lifted its game.
Moreover, to at least some degree, the original Pixar team has been turning its attentions elsewhere. The studio’s first 10 features were all directed by one or another of the immensely talented quartet of John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, and Brad Bird. But of late Lasseter has Disney Animation to oversee in addition to Pixar, and Bird (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, the upcoming 2014 Tomorrowland) and Stanton (John Carter) have been trying their hands at live-action. Of the last three Pixar features—and the next two coming down the pipeline—just one has been (or will be) directed by a member of that original quartet.

I’m not inherently opposed to sequels, for the same reason I can enjoy open-ended television shows. There are some characters who are worth spending extended time with, or whose stories don’t fit neatly in two or three hours, but don’t ned to be stretched over twenty or a hundred either. I can easily see a sequel to The Incredibles that focuses not on the grown-up Parrs, whose arc is largely resolved, but on their children, who are growing up superpowered in a world where the use of their abilities is technically illegal. For all that I’m charmed by the idea of Monsters University, I don’t see the necessity of an origin story for Mike and Sulley, just as I don’t feel particularly drawn to spend more time with Dory, the cheerful, forgetful fish voiced by Ellen Degeneres in Finding Nemo. For sequels to be artistically necessary, there needs to be some sort of narrative or character-driven urgency to them.

Of course, sequels can also justify themselves by providing a reliable base of business that allows a company to take risks on new ideas, or on developing new people who will have brands that end up equivalent to John Lasseter’s and Andrew Stanton’s. This isn’t a model that’s made all movie studios particularly daring, thus the death of the $30 million picture. But if any company seems likely to use a large financial cushion, derived from projects that are not uninteresting but not disastrous either, to do interesting things, Pixar is it. Secret passageways and whining gates, if that’s in fact what it takes to foster outrageous creativity, don’t come cheap.