What happened to Pixar?

Through the ’90s, Disney reigned supreme as animation king. Then Pixar came along to give the behemoth a run for its money. The company’s dominating presence began with the 1995 release of “Toy Story,” the world’s first computer-animated film; Pixar continued its ascent with scores of critically acclaimed now-classics, among them “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) and “Finding Nemo” (2003). The animations — full of humor, heart and storylines clever enough to make children giggle and grown-ups weep on airplanes — struck an obvious chord with audiences. The films were also beautiful to look at, employing various “software breakthroughs that made animation feel more lifelike,” said Thomas Buckley for Bloomberg.  

But Pixar has not had a hit since 2019’s “Toy Story 4.” Recent releases, like the “Toy Story” spinoff “Lightyear,” “Turning Red” and “Luca,” have flopped at the box office. And a few weeks ago, the Walt Disney Co.-owned animation studio announced layoffs of 14% of its staff. This decision was made with a purpose: Pixar intends to cut back on the number of streaming series they are producing and focus on big-screen films again. With the release of “Inside Out 2” this month — “Inside Out” was a crowd-puller in 2015 — the studio hopes to recapture some of its former glory.

How Pixar lost its way

There is no single reason Pixar has faltered in recent years, but rather a combination of culprits. For one, the company lost a number of their major players. In 2018, John Lasseter was forced to resign following sexual misconduct allegations. The director of “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars” had “led much of the studio’s success as chief creative officer,” Buckley said to Bloomberg. Brad Bird, director of “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” left in 2019, as did “Coco” director Lee Unkrich. The pandemic caused an additional problem, as people grew accustomed to watching movies at home when theaters were closed. Pixar made 2020’s “Soul” and follow-ups “Luca” and “Turning Red” available to stream on Disney+ rather than holding them for theater release, and all three performed poorly. The decision “robbed the company of the prestige and pageantry that had accompanied its big-screen debuts,” said Buckley. Finally, Pixar came up against a glut of competition from fellow animation studios like Dreamworks (“Shrek”) and Illumination (“Despicable Me“). “There’s just so much out there, and it’s harder and harder to surprise people,” Pete Docter, the current chief creative officer at Pixar, said to Bloomberg. 

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The studio’s new strategy

Inside Out 2” hits theaters June 14, and will test the company’s new strategy. As Pixar President Jim Morris told Bloomberg, the studio now plans to focus on sequels and spin-offs with “mass appeal.” Spin-offs are not always successful — “Lightyear” was the first “Toy Story” movie to fail — but Morris and Pixar executives believe making movies that are less personal and more universal will coax audience members back into seats. Their revitalization plan includes “mentoring Pixar’s upcoming directors to focus less on autobiographical tales,” Docter said to Bloomberg. “‘Luca’ had been inspired by its director’s childhood in Italy; ‘Turning Red,’ by its director’s relationship with her mother; and ‘Elemental’ … by its director’s immigrant family,” said Buckley of Pixar’s recent failures. 

This strategy may not be foolproof. Many of Pixar’s past hits were, arguably, specific and personal, and yet viewers did not need to be single fathers to connect with “Finding Nemo” or sci-fi nerds to love the melancholic robot-mance of “Wall-E.” If the problem is autobiographical, why did Brad Bird describe his own struggle to balance work and family life as the inspiration behind “The Incredibles”? If the problem is cultural or ethnographic — “Turning Red,” for example, placed a lot of emphasis on the pressures of growing up in an Asian-American family — then why did 2017’s “Coco” succeed, when the latter film centered on a young boy’s Mexican heritage and traditions? Pixar has made the personal into the universal several times over. 

The next two films on Pixar’s slate are 2025’s “Elio,” an original story about a boy who is beamed into outer space by aliens, and “Toy Story 5” (yes, another one) in 2026. Only time will tell if the studio’s new approach has legs.

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