August 9, 2012

Pixar: The Trap of Great Expectations

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:17 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Two weeks ago, after too long a delay, I finally made it to see Brave, the latest from Pixar. I was unsurprised to find that it was a beautifully animated, engaging movie, and if it ranks somewhat low on my list of favorite Pixar flicks, that’s not because I had complaints about it but merely because there are others that I like even more. Pixar sets the bar pretty high, after all, which not only challenges other animated films to meet its standards, but also puts the studio in competition with its own reputation. Case in point: after opening on June 22 to a robust, first place weekend gross of $66 million, this article appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, stating that some financial analysts and Disney investors expressed concerns about the movie’s performance.

The piece quotes Doug Creutz, an entertainment and media analyst at the financial services firm Cowen & Company, saying, “While this was a fine performance in our view and assures Pixar of releasing another profitable film, we remain concerned that the creative direction of Pixar may be wobbling as Brave is now the second consecutive film to receive less-than-rave reviews.”

Upon reading that sentence, my thought was that this guy needs to pull his head out of his ass.

First off, take a minute to appreciate the amazing  – I have to think unprecedented – run Pixar has had, both creatively and financially. 13 films that so far have grossed a total of over $3 billion dollars. The lowest grossing of them, 1998’s A Bug’s Life, made nearly $163 million. Not too shabby. The most poorly reviewed of them, Cars 2, may have received only 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 57 on Metacritic, but still grossed $191 million (and frankly, wasn’t nearly as bad as its detractors would have you believe). Brave‘s Rotten Tomatoes score is 77%, its Metacritic score is 69 and so far it has taken in about $224 million at the domestic box office and has yet to fall out of the top ten highest grossing movies currently playing. (That will probably happen this weekend.)

True, these box office numbers and aggregate review scores may be on the low-end for Pixar, but what that should really illustrate is how superhuman a studio it is. The run of success they’ve enjoyed from the start is something to marvel at, not use as fodder for unwarranted concerns the minute numbers dip slightly. With the exception of maybe The Beatles, nobody can sustain so impressive a streak. Creutz is concerned because Brave received “less-than-rave reviews”? For a guy who’s supposed to be an expert at analyzing the field of entertainment, he doesn’t seem too aware of the industry’s realities. The rapturous reactions to previous Pixar movies have spoiled people like Creutz to the norms of the movie business, and the studio’s good fortune deceives people into thinking that Pixar’s creative team has some kind of crystal ball and that they just know what’s going to work. Such assumptions make snappy lines for movie critics who begin their reviews by saying, “The wizards at Pixar have done it again”, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. Come, lean in close, I don’t want to say it too loud.

They’re not actually wizards.

They’re only human. Extremely talented and gifted humans, but still prone to the same ups and downs as the rest of us normal schmucks. And that means that their efforts to tell the best stories they can in the best way they can are not always going to yield unanimously glorious reviews, record-breaking box office and a stash of awards. It means they might have to settle for mostly positive reviews, perfectly respectable box office and maybe just some award nominations. Perish the thought. Pixar being called into question by number crunching putzes like Doug Creutz is more offensive than the stench of Brave‘s pitiable 77% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating. Considering that the only creativity Creutz and his ilk probably ever practiced involves coming up with new ways to make money, they should keep their mouths shut when it comes to criticizing filmmakers who have displayed, time and time and time again, a gift for telling stories that resonate with audiences of all ages and across cultures. Though I don’t think Creutz and the other concerned investors and analysts were discussing Brave‘s performance together in the conference room at some Wall Street skyscraper, I’m reminded nevertheless of that superb, cutting quote from The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg is in a deposition responding to the opposing attorney. “The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” It’s that part about “doing things that nobody in this room is intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” That’s what I’d say to Creutz and his skeptical colleagues; that they have no clue what it takes to make a movie, let alone make one that works. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of luck, and even The Wizards at Pixar can only try their best and hope the end result connects with audiences.

Pixar was bound to stumble eventually, and with Cars 2, it finally happened. Brave may not be their biggest hit or their best reviewed movie, but it’s a fine piece of work that its crew can be proud of. Their upcoming slate – which includes a prequel to Monsters, Inc., three original projects and a follow-up to Finding Nemo – will likely perform perfectly well in terms of box office success, and will probably do okay critically too. And if not all of them hit the heights of Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, or Up – their current top three grossers, as well as Oscar winners with A+ Rotten Tomatoes scores – well maybe that doesn’t mean that the studio has fallen on hard times. If their next three movies all underperform commercially and critically, then we can talk. Until then, dipshits like Creutz should get back to their spreadsheets and leave the creative work to the people who have proven they know how to do it.

(All references to box office receipts are taken from Box Office Mojo.)

1 Comment »

  1. People like Creutz are the same type that say Michael Phelps “underperformed” cause he only won four golds.

    Comment by grantland — August 10, 2012 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

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