The Empire Strikes (Redux)

I wrote this four years ago for a friend's movie site. That site is no longer, so I'm re-posting this here, for reasons I'll get into at the end.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I watched Mary Poppins live in a sit-down movie theater upon its first release. I was a first-grader, and I was mesmerized. There were several indelible scenes for me: the pulling of the lamp out her purse, the animated penguins and the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, the floating in the air at the uncle's house, the rooftop chimney-sweep serenade of Mary, and most of all how sad I was at the end when Mary went away and left the children on their own. I thought it was horribly unfair.

But thirty years later, watching the movie with my wife and daughter, I discovered something startling — although all of the scenes were exactly as I remembered them, they were in a very different movie than I saw as a child. As a child, the movie was about Mary Poppins and wonder and whimsy. As an adult, I was shocked to find that the movie was not about Mary at all, but about parenting and the worth of children and how the time goes so swiftly with them that not a moment can be wasted. I discovered that Mary had to leave when she left, because her job was done, her charges (the parents, not the children) had learned what they needed to learn, and she needed to move on to the next set of parents.

The truth is, the movie is that most amazing of things: it is both movies at once, and it does them both so brilliantly that a six-year old and thirty-six year old can sit in the same theater at the same time and watch the same movie and both come away with a magical experience.

And that is all you really need to know about Disney in its heydey. It turned out movie after movie that was magical, and magical to almost everyone of every age. But after Walt Disney died, they lost their way. Their movies were no longer magical; they were barely watchable, in fact. It was twenty years before they recovered: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King captured some, but not all, of the missing magic.

But the year after The Lion King was released, we discovered there was a new Disney in town, and its name was Pixar. Toy Story had everything going for it that Mary Poppins did — it was magical for young and old alike, it had toys for young and old alike, and most of all it had a story for young and old alike. For the first time in maybe thirty years, a six-year old and thirty-six year old could sit in the same theater and watch the same movie and both could experience — magic!

Meanwhile, Disney lost the small path they'd found (it wasn't big enough to call it a way). They began churning out cheap straight-to-DVD ripoffs of their successful movies, with cheap animation, cheap music, and cheap voice talent. They couldn't compete with Pixar's computer magic, so they threw in the towel and counted on the Disney name to carry them. It didn't.

Pixar, on the other hand, proceeded to reel off one of the best ten-year periods for a studio in movie history. Not only were their movies all phenomenonally successful, they all had great, and in some cases brilliant, stories.1 They were all (say it with me) — magical.

And then came Cars 2, and suddenly the streak, and the magic, was over. Cars was easily the weakest movie of the streak, and it had the same level of magic as one of GOB's shows2. Yes, I know four-year olds love it, obsessively even, but I know of no thirty-four year olds that do. Had it been the first Pixar movie, it would have been OK, but just as fast-food pizza isn't too bad before you've had my wife's homemade pizza but inedible after, so Cars suffered greatly in comparison to what had gone before it. Making a sequel of it was a decision of disastrous (dare I say Biblical?) proportions.

Something else happened to Disney while Pixar went on their tear — they turned into the Galactic Empire. They became more concerned with franchises than art. They decided they needed consistent characters to populate their theme parks. They began consuming studios like I consume chocolate. Marvel Comics — gone. Lucas Films — gone.

And in between, Pixar, gone. Cars 2 was a Disneyesque decision, because it was actually a Disney decision, because independent Pixar was no more, enveloped into the Empire in 2006. (The year Cars came out, in fact, although we don't get to blame Disney for it, as much as I'd like to.)

I'm afraid the Disneyification of Pixar might be complete. This year saw the release of Brave, a derivative story if ever there was one, and a mediocre movie at best. Next up is a sequel to Monsters. A sequel to Finding Nemo has just been announced. A possible third sequel to Toy Story is rumored but not confirmed (this by itself would be the last nail in the coffin for me), as is a potential sequel to The Incredibles.

What do all of those things have in common? They're franchise-builders, cheap knockoffs intended to further the brand, not further the state of the art. They're more concerned with characters than character, with the familiar rather than the inventive. And they're the exact opposite of what we saw in Pixar's ten-year run.

I am not judging movies I haven't seen, I'm interpolating based on movies I have seen. It is possible the new sequels will be good movies, and stories, in their own right. But based on the last two, I doubt it. The Empire has consumed them, and all that's left is a bloated mess.

And not even a spoonful of sugar will help that medicine go down.

Update

It's been four years since I wrote this. In the intervening time, both Monsters University and Finding Dory have come out, and both were found wanting. (Not bad movies, just derivative movies.) Now Cars 3, Incredibles 2, and Toy Story 4 are waiting in the wings. It's a shame. It's a shame Disney lost their way so long ago and still haven't found it again, and it's a shame Pixar sold their soul and no longer care about magic or making great movies.

I'm re-posting this because The Atlantic has a story out on this very subject today. They're four years behind the times, but at least someone else noticed.


  1. Quick, name three movies with better stories than Monsters, Inc. I'll wait. 

  2. DuckDuckGo is your friend. 

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