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ReptilePatrol
Ah, John Lasseter - the other theory aside from scheduling & personnel issues is that Lasseter has sort of lost his creative mojo, especially with Cars 2 (he directed it, after all ... officially anyway) and his decision to make Planes and the allegations made by Chapman. He is also creatively responsible as Chief Creative Officer so if films underperform. it's on him. The only thing that would go against this is that Disney has been on such a great rebound and he's in charge there as well - so the alternative version of the "Lasseter lost his creative mojo" theory is that his decreased time at Pixar has produced consequences. I'm not sure what to think of this theory to be honest, but it's certainly a possibility (I mean, seriously, what in the world happened with Cars 2??) — what do you guys think?
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Bonnie
I've seen it suggested that the problem with Lasseter is that he's reached a point where he has enough company power that people are afraid to give him constructive criticism, and subsequently all his stupid ideas and whims pass through unchecked because no one's telling him "No, we do not need a movie in which Mater becomes a spy", or whatever needs to be said for his current plans.

I didn't really believe it until we got that story about the particle effects in Inside Out. It was expensive and complicated, and everyone was ready to drop it until Lasseter said keep it. After that, apparently there was no discussion or anything, it just automatically became set in stone because he said so. They describe the feeling in the room after he said that like everyone just internalized this a completely unshakable decree. It makes me think maybe the speculation's right and the dude's gotten way too much power.

That, and Toy Story 4. Didn't they say they promised each other they wouldn't do it, then it comes up and everyone A-OK with it? Really?

When did Lasseter effectively take over again? Was it around the time kicking directors to the curb became an annual event?


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ReptilePatrol
I think Lasseter's had a lot of company power since the beginning - or right after Toy Story anyway. The original Cars was a passion project of his (somebody correct me if I'm wrong) and when Brad Bird joined up (sometime in 1999 or 2000 I believe, right after The Iron Giant flopped), Lasseter basically told him to make the film he'd been dying to make (and then came The Incredibles). Finally, of course, we all know about the director switch with Ratatouille, one of the two that worked out fine.

It would be easy - natural, even - to blame Lasseter for Pixar's creative problems, especially since he is, after all, the Chief Creative Officer and is therefore the one responsible. The only thing is, he's also CCO of Disney animation, which has produced great films recently - not as great as WALL-E or Up, but better than MU and The Good Dinosaur. In fact, Zootopia, which is being called their best film yet by many, is, I believe, the first original film started and completed with Lasseter in charge right?

I haven't had a chance to look at director changes for recent WDAS films (aside from Bolt, I don't recall any off the top of my head), but maybe those are the key culprit behind Pixar's slump? I'll investigate a bit further later.

Do you know where you read the thing about Inside Out and the particle effects?
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Tazbanian Devill
This is all very interesting, and I have been completely aware of the decline in overall quality of Pixar films aside from Inside Out between 2011-2015. In my opinion the ending to Monster's University was fantastic but the first hour was quite boring and lacked that Pixar flair. With Cars 2 I was one of the people who actually didn't mind it and thought it was much better than the very boring first film, though I could still tell it lacked what made original Pixar films great. Now with Brave, At first I think I kind of liked it, but now there are parts of that movie that I can't believe were actually allowed to be in the final film. The Good Dinosaur while It had fantastic visuals, lacked an interesting story. Something was definitely up. 

But with the news of how Cars 3 will be an emotional story and have some very interesting plot points, I think that Pixar realizes that It has made its best films when there is a good amount of emotion and depth in the story. They realize what is now working like with Inside Out and Finding Dory, that having that emotional depth present throughout the entire film, you can tell an incredible story. Brave, Cars 2, MU, and The Good Dinosaur almost seemed like Pixar losing their grasp on what made its original films classics. But I can tell that slowly things are now looking much better for the studio and have high hopes for Cars 3 and Coco. Pixar is getting itself back on track, they see what is working and I am positive they will have a string of hits in no time! 

As a studio they have definitely been changing pretty drastically. But their short films are still incredible. I believe that as I said, with films like Inside Out and Finding Dory, Pixar is moving in a more emotional and sincere direction of story telling, while still having that Pixar charm and spunk.  
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Joshua O'Neill
Reading this thread, I realize how compelled I am to defend this era in Pixar. I think there's a lot of reasons why people didn't respond to these films as strongly, but I'd argue that it was a combination of external factors that led to the perception that these films weren't good. I'm going to start by saying that I think all four of the films in question are good films (and Rotten Tomatoes supports this notion in that all are in the 70's and 80's in freshness except Cars 2 (7 positive reviews out of 10 is good). I'd also argue that one of them is a great film, and we'll get to that. To begin, I really feel that Pixar was a victim of their own success. For 15 years, everything they delivered felt fresh and different. It was a new medium, and each entry was delivered with so much heart that you couldn't help but be wowed. This did two things. First it set unrealistic expectations. It made us believe that every movie experience was going to make us feel the same way we did when we watched Toy Story the first time. It did this while the core audience grew up and aged 15 years, and their values changed. The formula that was so fresh was now tried and true and familiar. Familiar became THE negative with modern era Pixar movies because we became so used to getting the unexpected.  We got so caught up on the familiar parts of Monsters U that we missed the true brilliance of that movie (which I now count amongst my favorites).

MU got pushback for being a college movie...a formula we'd seen before. It got pushback for not being the sequel that fans wanted, and for being a prequel. I think prequel is a bad word because of Star Wars and The Hobbit and Dumb and Dumber and every other prequel that's been made to date that doesn't live up to its predecessor. I believe this is because you get backstory instead of growth and the characters don't evolve from the point at which you saw them last. You also know how it's going to end. Having said that, I think MU did something really cool. It used a fun, beautifully realized world to tackle a lesson we as Americans don't want to hear. It dove head first into the notion that you can't be anything you want...even if you work hard. Sometimes you fail, but failure is not the end. Whoa...heavy...truth. And in doing so, it built a really strong relationship for two characters you really cared about. You saw them grow, and you didn't see the ending coming. Sequels are hard because a lot of the surprise is already gone. You know the characters, and you know the world. Dory also suffers from that a little bit. I think TS2 would have if it had been made in this era instead of being Pixar's third film.  This movie still managed to surprise and deliver with brilliance and crazy heart...even if the college trope had been done before. Re-watch it. I don't think there's criticism that can be levied other than I didn't want it to be a college movie that played (cleverly) on college movie tropes. It's pretty flawless storytelling otherwise.

Secondly, I think people started pre-determining how they wanted Pixar to subvert their expectations. This is a weird thought, but go with me. When you first saw Brave, you wanted it to be the anti-princess movie with big scope and scale where merida takes down an evil bear and saves her kingdom. You wanted her to be a badass ginger Braveheart because that's how you subvert the princess genre by giving her the heroic warrior role usually reserved for men. It's what I expected the movie to be. Partly because Pixar starts small with bugs and toys and clownfish and rats and makes the world huge. That's what they do. That's how we expect them to do it because that's how they'd always done it. Brave is a much different movie though. At it's core it's not about a princess saving her kingdom. It's about a teenager coming into her own and doing so while pushing up against her mother. It's universal, and not what we expected. Totally subversive, totally real, totally heartfelt but not what we wanted. It wasn't until I saw this from the perspective of women I knew that struggled with their moms that I really understood this. Is the movie flawed? Sure, but it's a lot more powerful than I realized at first glance.

Finally, I think people started rooting for Pixar to fail or wondering when they would misstep, and in doing so started judging their films on whether they were brilliant instead of whether they were good and enjoyable. I could argue that Cars 2 falls into this category. It's fun, it's well-designed and well-thought out, but has zero depth. It's still fun and better than most family product out there. I'm going to choose to focus on The Good Dinosaur though. It's a simple, beautifully designed movie. I'd argue it doesn't bring a lot new to the table, and the asteroid premise is actually irrelevant. There was a lot more room to expound upon that setup, and if it hadn't been there, we'd still believe in this world. We believe fish could talk. However, what we got was heartfelt and well done. It was a Western and moved like it -methodically with nature as an antagonist. But that film has sooo much heart. All this to say that it wasn't as epic, and in this day in age with so many options, it has to be to get teh kind of attention most Pixar movies get. I believe there is room for smaller films too. We need them. Not every movie can do 200+million in this day and age. The Good Dinosaur was the 26th highest grossing movie of last year at $123million domestically (Worldwide it'd be higher) out of over 700. That is far from a flop by general cinema standards. Point being...I think this slump is overblown, and all of these films are worth another watch. 
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ReptilePatrol
Whether this era of Pixar is a massive, drastic change in their direction, or a minor blip in on a spotless record that seems big only because the record is spotless, can be argued for either way. But I think the important thing is that all these "second-tier" Pixar movies have been all so close together.

Before Toy Story 3, the only movies I think could be argued as "second-tier" Pixar movies (similar in status, to, say, TGD or Brave) are A Bug's Life and Cars. But those two films were both preceded and succeeded by films generally considered to be top-tier Pixar (Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and thus they can be more easily dismissed as minor fluctuations in an otherwise perfect record.

On the other hand, from Cars 2 in 2011 all the way through The Good Dinosaur last year, excluding Inside Out, was exclusively composed of second-tier Pixar movies. From 2011 to 2013, there were in fact 3 consecutive second-tier Pixar movies, with Cars 2, Brave and MU. This was a very drastic difference from how second-tier Pixar movies used to come out (sandwiched between two top tier ones) and with how TGD got bumped from 2014 and we went a whole year without a Pixar film, I think the circumstances definitely warrant concern among fans in regards to the direction of the studio.

I understand that A Bug's Life, Cars, Cars 2, Brave, MU and TGD all have their merits despite often being labeled second-tier Pixar films (personally, I loved TGD, and I agree, there was so much heart in that movie) but this can be said of every movie. The important thing to keep in mind though, is that Pixar isn't serving a niche audience. They're not GKIDS. They have massive marketing power in Disney, with extravagant product tie-ins and merchandising campaigns and whatnot — Pixar movies are blockbusters designed for the masses. And yes, The Good Dinosaur is a commercial flop — although $123 million is impressive by general cinema standards, that doesn't even cover the production and marketing costs (which were extravagant, since TGD was meant to be a blockbuster after all), meaning Disney lost money with the movie and is likely not pleased with that.

With the Rotten Tomatoes/IMDb ratings of Pixar's second-tier films, it's clear that they haven't resonated as well as their top tier films. Unrealistic expectations may definitely be playing a role, but with numbers this different from Pixar's Ratatouille/WALL-E/Up/TS3 streak, I don't think that can be the only factor. I think that it can be argued that Cars 2, Brave, MU and TGD are flawed films (or, to put it more accurately, films with many noticeable flaws in addition to their merits), and unrealistic expectations probably only exaggerated existing discontent.

Personally, I think the biggest flaw across these films was a lack of wonder. I don't think that "wow" that Toy Story packed was just because of the new medium combined with all the heart — I think it was by design, and this design is evident across Pixar's filmography, whether organic (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E) or artificial (Cars 2, MU, TGD). Andrew Stanton once said that the secret sauce to Pixar's films is wonder, and I couldn't agree more with that statement. All of Pixar's films (save for maybe Cars 2) pack great narrative depths — but what sets MU apart from Monsters Inc and Brave apart from WALL-E or Up is, I think, wonder. When there's wonder, that compels you to dig deeper — but when there isn't (when the film doesn't make you feel anything, emotionally, intellectually, mentally, aesthetically or otherwise) you don't. And trying to recreate the fresh feeling of wonder can definitely be a challenge with sequels (Stanton has clearly tried to tackle this with noticeable but nonetheless limited success in Finding Dory).

This is where the approval of the masses comes in. If Pixar is going after the masses, they need the masses to feel that wonder, and not just a niche, core group of fans. They did it quite recently with Inside Out, an amazing film which gives me a lot of hope still in the studio. But when you place Inside Out next to Cars 2, Brave, MU and TGD, I think it's clear that the latter four's muted reception cannot be solely attributed to audiences not reacting properly. The way audiences reacted to Inside Out, I think, speaks to how our expectations can still be met/exceeded, even if they are somewhat higher for Pixar (just because it's Pixar). Therefore in my opinion the way Cars 2/Brave/MU/TGD fell short definitely involved creative shortcomings too, which we can discuss in detail if you'd like (my main question in the original post was exploring ideas for why these creative shortcomings were occurring).

Excuse me for the ramblingness, but in conclusion, to address my original point, this "slump era" is a lot more apparent when these second-tier films are clumped so closely together. If they're spread out, the record is shinier; a clump like Cars 2/Brave/MU/TGD is much more noticeable. It makes you think whether there's going to be a trend or if there's a pattern going on. One second-tier film sandwiched between two great ones is no problem; the next time there's a second-tier film, you rest assured knowing the next one will be great. But when you get three second-tier films in a row and the fourth gets delayed, that signals a problem going on and makes you wonder if the next film will be just as disappointing as the last three.

Anyway, hopefully the second half of this decade will be better than the first (Brad Bird, for the love of God, please do not mess up on The Incredibles 2), and it looks like starting in 2020 Pixar is going back to original films, so the "slump era" will hopefully be coming to an end.
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Tazbanian Devill
Nicely said. Yeah I believe that Pixar movies as of late have been lacking that wonder, aside from Inside Out and Finding Dory. They have had very basic plots with little for the audience to go "WOW" about. Wonder is what made me fall in love with Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., Wall-e, and The Incredibles. I hope that Pixar keeps going with movies like Finding Dory and Inside Out because they are great films that remind me of the old Pixar. 
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