Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Pixar Giveth, and Pixar Taketh Away: Get Ready for The Incredibles 2 and Cars 3

Pictured: Pixar, resigned to making more sequels
News broke today that Pixar, in addition to working on the previously announced Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory and the original features Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, have begun work on a sequel to Brad Bird's The Incredibles, which was released way back in the less superhero-clogged days of 2004, and a third film in the Cars series. The latter announcement wasn't that surprising since, even though neither of the previous Cars films were as warmly received as the films that preceded or followed them in the Pixar chronology - I myself likened Cars 2 to demented fanfiction, and said that giving Pixar a pass for how terrible it was would be akin to covering up for a loved one after they killed someone in a drunk driving accident - they were sizable hits, and between them grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide. (Not to mention that the franchise has been a huge cash cow for Disney/Pixar in terms of merchandising.)

The news that The Incredibles was getting a follow-up was a much greater surprise. In many ways, it shouldn't be since The Incredibles, with its world full superheroes - so many that they can be killed off by the handful to demonstrate why capes are a terrible idea - and family of well-defined characters seemed pretty much prime material for a franchise, certainly more so than Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc., both of which had pretty finite stories that didn't leave anything unresolved. And while [spoilers for a movie that's ten years old and which seemingly everyone has seen at this point] the death of Syndrome at the end of the first Incredibles pretty much wrapped up the story of the Parr family facing a single threat, coming to terms with their superhuman nature and reconciling it with their more human foibles, it also ended with a pretty exciting final scene in which a supervillain named The Underminer (voiced by Pixar staple John Ratzenberger) burst through the ground in a giant drill and the family members all suited up, ready to fight a new battle.

In short, The Incredibles left the audience with a sense that its characters lived in a big, strange world full of people with fantastical powers, or at the very least access to giant mining equipment, and that there was plenty more potential for adventure in future installments. Considering just how much material there is for Brad Bird (who is returning as screenwriter, and will probably direct) to explore not just from the classic comics that inspired the first film, but also from a whole decade of superhero cinema, he wouldn't want for inspiration. (He could even have fun with the fact that he was only the second person to cast Samuel L. Jackson in a superhero movie.) If he does what the Toy Story films did and pick up many years after the first film, or even just a few years later, Bird could also explore the changing dynamics within the family, and what the prospect of sending their little super-spawn out into the big wide world could mean for Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl.

Given all that promise and the many glimpses of Bird's retro-futurist world, it's hardly surprising that people have clamoured for a sequel pretty much since the first one debuted, and I can't say that I'm unhappy about the prospect. I love the first Incredibles movie tons - I saw it three times in the theatre and watched it pretty much on a loop when I got in on DVD. However, part of the appeal of the film for me was the fact that Pixar didn't seem all that interested in making a sequel to a film that had such huge potential to become a franchise, and that they treated it just like their other films; it was a single film with its own story, and they felt that they had more interesting stories to tell than to continue one that they had already told.

This all played into the mystique around Pixar, the idea that they were paragons of quality and were only interested in making smart, original movies. That Brad Bird said that he'd love to make a sequel but only if he came up with the right story, rather than Pixar just pushing through with one anyway, spoke volumes about the way the company regarded its properties; they were happy to make sequels - the third film they ever produced was a sequel, after all - but only if the story was interesting. That perception of Pixar as the gold standard of big-budget American filmmaking was pretty much unquestioned for the fifteen years between Toy Story and Toy Story 3, as they produced film after film that achieved huge critical and commercial success.

While I think their films in the years since 2010 have still been of a fairly high quality - Cars 2 was terrible, but both Brave and (especially) Monster University were more interesting than most of the films being put out by their competitors - there has certainly been a growing sense that the golden period of the company has ended. The commitment to more sequels - especially a second sequel to fucking Cars - only serves to add to the sense that the studio has lost something.

Now, it's bad form to pre-judge a film before you've seen it, and even worse form to pre-judge it before it has been made, but even if The Incredibles 2 turns out to be great, and there are plenty of reasons to think that it will turn out well, it still feels as if Pixar, as part of their slide away from what they once were (or at least what they appeared to be) have caved in. In a very good piece about the Veronica Mars film that, coincidentally, was published today, Scott Tobias of The Dissolve wrote about the problem of entitlement that appears when fans are invested (either financially or metaphorically) in a property, saying that, "There’s an old dramatic maxim[...] that it’s an artist’s job to give audiences what they need, not what they want." As much as I always thought that a sequel to The Incredibles would be cool, I always thought that the idea of Pixar never revisiting The Incredibles was even cooler, for what it said about Pixar's ethos, and the way that they seemed committed to giving the audience what they needed - new, exciting movies - and not what they wanted - a sequel to The Incredibles.

Ultimately, I'm fine with the idea of there being an Incredibles 2, just not as fine as I was with the idea of there never being an Incredibles 2.