Once a bouncing, bright lamp, Luxo Jr., the mascot for Pixar Animation Studio, has dimmed. The studio’s latest film, Elemental, released this month, had the lowest box-office opening weekend of any Pixar film: a $29 million return on a $200 million budget. It’s the latest blow to the company’s status as one of Hollywood’s premier studios, making the path forward no longer as luminous.
Perhaps it was an anomalously brilliant run the studio had, starting with Toy Story in 1995 and ending with Up in 2009. And now expectations for its films need to be adjusted. Perhaps there is currently not a healthy appetite for adult films in American cinemas, and Pixar’s children’s movies are too heady. Still, the studio’s first layoffs in a decade are a window into what has been its primary challenge: a deteriorating brand and ethos.
The Disney Corporation purchased Pixar in 2006. Success for both Disney and Pixar has been astronomical since. But right now Hollywood is struggling and the company is in upheaval. CEO Bob Iger’s stated goals for the company in 2023 are to eliminate thousands of jobs and cut billions of dollars in costs. Pixar’s recent layoffs included the departures of: Angus MacLane, a 26-year animator and member of the senior creative teams for Toy Story 4 and Coco, and 28-year veteran Galyn Susman, who was responsible for saving Toy Story 2 when she had an extra copy of the film after its data accidentally was deleted in studio.
Both were involved in last year’s box office dud, Lightyear, with Maclane directing and Susman producing. But that film was a product of the Disney imperative, which demands Pixar deliver films that earn a billion dollars and throw off theme parks, televisions shows, merchandise and more sequels. Their firings verged from Pixar’s founding principles, which made it the jewel of the industry: telling original, creative stories with innovative technologies and fostering community among its employees in an environment where they could trial and err with confidence.
The artistic vision of a progressive production company like Pixar, and the commercial goals of a media giant like Disney, were always going to grind at one another. While both want to reach audiences, one hopes that people leave in conversation, while the other wants to sell out concessions. Their partnership has been successful according to every metric that matters. However, consider that since 2010, Pixar has released seven sequels to eight originals. Of those originals, only Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017) have been major box-office successes comparable in ROI to those sequels and in quality to earlier originals.
Pixar’s creative work has clearly suffered these last 13 years. It’s fair to wonder if the company can ever recapture its storied past.
Unless Disney and Iger prioritize film over finance, the original Pixar brand and process will continue to erode. By paring down operations to save on expenses, while simultaneously continuing to pursue scalable, lucrative features and TV, Disney has set a nearly impossible standard for all of its creative studios to accomplish.
For this fan, the best path forward would be for Disney to recalibrate its relationship with Pixar to what it was immediately post-acquisition, when Disney supported Pixar with its resources and reach, but Pixar retained its creative autonomy.
The three year stretch of Ratatouille (2007), Walle-E (2008) and Up (2009) was remarkable and represents the high watermark point in the company’s relationship: delivering huge box-office returns, award recognition and cultural resonance. All the while, the films also broke new ground in animated storytelling and felt incredibly fresh. There have been exceptions and successes since, but the can’t-miss quality and reputation of Pixar has consistently slipped.
If Disney continues to push Pixar this same direction to remain competitive, fans won’t ever say goodbye to Woody but will to what made the studio special.