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The Past Present and Future of Pixar

Pixar is one of the cornerstones in American animation. Spanning close to 30 years in film, the studio has several more movies in the pipeline. From creating sequels to introducing new IP; Pixar is hoping to drive more traction to their theatrical releases. In recent years, the company has certainly struggled with attaining consistently-positive feedback; financially and critically. We wanted to go through the last few years of the company and how they’re currently trying to shape their future. 

The (Recent) Past: 

Luca was the second film released in the Pandemic (following on from 2020's Soul), which made it an exclusive to Disney Plus. In Luca, two sea monsters make an attempt to land and explore daily life in a small Italian town. A young and curious sea monster named Luca has aspirations of traveling beyond the confines of his undersea home. They set off on a quest to learn about the wonders of human life with his new companion Alberto, keeping their true identity a secret from the locals. However, they risk having their identity as marine animals revealed when they compete in a triathlon. According to CBR, the film was the “highest streamed movie” of 2021 with more than 10.6 billion hours of home-viewing. Also, the movie was a hit with critics-- garnering numerous award nominations and a People's Choice Award for “Family Movie of 2021”. Some critics argue the film doesn’t have the staying power of the studio’s past which may also be due to the film’s release circumstances. Even so, Luca was seen as a homerun by most, giving the studio another success. 

Turning Red follows the tale of Mei Lee, a 13-year-old girl who transforms into a huge red panda whenever she gets over excited. The movie is set in Toronto and follows Mei as she deals with her unusual condition and navigates her teenage years. She gains the ability to accept her genuine self as well as the love and support of her family along the journey. Turning Red is also directed by Domee Shi, who has previously directed the award-winning short Bao. 

The 2022 film followed a similar release strategy, much to the dismay of many Pixar staff members. Despite Disney’s Encanto and Raya And The Last Dragon releasing in theaters just months prior, the film stayed exclusive on their streaming platform. Once again, the film was another success in viewership, with it being the second-highest streamed film of the year. The movie’s reception, however, was slightly more mixed. While praised for its culturally-expansive take on a teenage slice-of-life story, some fans felt the humor to be “uncomfortable” and “cringeworthy” (read our review here: ). Regardless, the film was still nominated for several awards, even more than Luca.

Also in 2022, Pixar released Lightyear as their first film to reach theaters since the Pandemic. Serving as a prequel/spin-off hybrid to the studio’s most recognizable franchise, Lightyear tells the origin story of Buzz Lightyear. The movie charts Buzz Lightyear's development from a young test pilot to the well-known space ranger. The film was seen by many as both a financial and critical disappointment. It was lauded, similar to most Pixar films, for its animation and special effects-- especially given the space environment. However, many fans of the Toy Story franchise thought this movie was unnecessary and hurt the reputation of the line of films. Many critics outside the fanbase saw the movie as incredibly “safe” and “conventional”. In the box office, the movie performed poorly for what is expected from the studio. In its first weekend, it was projected to gross around $80 million by most accounts, yet it would go on to debut with only $50 million. It also had the second-worst “sophomore drop", with a steep decline of gross revenue by 64% (above only 2020’s Onward).

The Present: 

Released just a few weeks ago in most territories, Elemental is a romance-filled drama that follows main characters Ember and Wade through “Element City”. This metropolis consists of water, earth, fire, and air citizens, which brings awareness to the xenophobic tendencies of several characters. The film is directed by animation veteran Peter Sohn which makes this his second directed feature film, following 2015’s The Good Dinosaur. The film, thus far, has performed poorly in the box office. In its debut weekend, it grossed just shy of $30 million, making the film have the worst three-day opening out of any Pixar film (adjusted for inflation). The reviews have been overall favorable, receiving a “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Several of the reviews praise the film for the whimsical yet mature take on the immigrant-centered story at-play. However, some critics see the film as “lazy” or feel like its world-building is “wobbly at best”. 

The Future: 

Elio is a comedy-adventure planned to release in March of 2024. A young kid is sent into outer space as the “chosen one”, representing Earth. The titular lead character of Elio finds himself in galaxy-altering circumstances, taking a “fake it till you make it” approach while bonding with other universe leaders. This film marks the solo-dictatorial debut of Adrian Molina who started work with the company in 2007 on Ratatouille, and worked with Lee Unkrich to co-direct Coco.

Inside Out 2 is the long-awaited sequel to the 2015 smash hit Inside Out. The film will feature a "new set of personified emotions” which follow a, now, teen Riley-- the protagonist of the first feature. As of right now, we know key cast member Amy Poehler will be back to perform for the character of Joy; at the same time cast members Mindy Kaling and Bill Hader reportedly will not be back to voice Disgust and Fear, respectively. It is projected to be released in the summer of 2024. 

Once again returning to the studio’s most well-known franchise, Toy Story 5 was recently announced to be in development. In a recent call to investors, Disney’s Bob Iger revealed the upcoming project for Pixar animation. While a plentiful amount of fans are excited at the prospect of a new mainline film, there is certainly a frustrated set of viewers. Following the praised and dramatic ending of Toy Story 3, fans were already skeptical of the fourth installment. Lightyear also doesn’t help the situation. Having been received as a mediocre and unnecessary film by many; these viewers don’t view the fifth movie as an exciting and needed entry, rather a cash-grab move from a company who hasn’t performed up to the high standards achieved years ago.

Overall: While, yes, Pixar has certainly seen better and brighter periods in its lifespan, there’s still a lot of excitement backing the studio. They’re currently in-production for the company’s first longform television show: Win or Lose .With the majority of their last several movies being new IP, as well as the expansion to television, there’s hope Pixar is trying to innovate within the animation space as much as possible.

Justin Wlosko is a Georgia-based Journalism and International Affairs student with an immense admiration for animation. Growing up on television, he appreciates every element of broadcasted production-- from the advertisements to the bumpers. He has a strong sense of optimism for the world of animation and feels like keeping up with the news surrounding the medium is intriguing and integral. Outside of that, he enjoys studying languages, watching sports, and exercising as much as possible. Find him on YouTube