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Thursday
May132010

Pixar cancels NEWT...is Pixar losing itself now that it's a part of Disney?

Newt, an original film, has gotten the axe in favor of a sequel flurry at Pixar. This is the first announced project that Pixar has cancelled. This news comes from Mike Bastoli of The Pixar Blog, who heard it from Disney archivist Dave Smith. Bastoli noticed that the film was no longer on an encyclopedia of Disney titles operated by Smith. Newt was announced in April 2008 at Disney/Pixar's Animation Presentation in New York City and was scheduled to be released in the summer of 2011.

At the presentation, Newt was described as follows:

Two newts, Newt and Brooke, live in a community college biology lab and don't care for each other, yet as the last remaining blue-footed newts on the planet, they are forced to mate and carry on the tradition.

Writer and director Gary Rydstrom explains, "Newt is smart but he's never had to think for himself and is pampered. Brooke on the other hand is streetwise and not to be messed with. It’s fair to say it’s about as bad as first dates can get!"

Sounds like a promising idea. Pixar has an extensive pre-screening process on movie ideas, so for Newt to get as far as it has, the film must have shown a lot of promise.

With Newt off the list, there is only 1 original title (Brave, formerly The Bear and the Bow) known to be in development at Pixar, a company that has built its reputation almost exclusively from creating original animated stories. Here's the current release schedule.

  • Toy Story 3 - June 18, 2010
  • Cars 2 02011-06-24 - June 24, 2011
  • Brave 02012-06-15 - June 15, 2012
  • Monsters, Inc. 2 02012-11-16 - November 16, 2012

Disney purchased Pixar in 2006. As part of the agreement, Disney is required to let Pixar retain its identity, and several Pixar employees including John Lasseter, the studio's creative director, now head up other aspects of the Disney corporation in addition their responsibilities at Pixar. A plan was also put in place to expand production and output two films a year--Pixar has traditionally released one film a year--and release sequels to some of its most successful brands.

Everything appears to be going according to plan. Pixar opened a new Vancouver, Canada studio in April 2010 and announced another sequel, Monsters Inc. 2, in the same month. But where are the original films? With Newt off the list, Up (2009) remains the only original film from Pixar until 2012. Three years of sequels. As fun as sequels can be, few are inspired, and even fewer live up to the power of their original film's story and message. Toy Story 2 is a great example. It is a good film, but would not have existed without Disney's insistance on a direct-to-video sequel to Toy Story (Pixar's sequel was so good, Disney decided it could be released theatrically). 

Cars 2 is being released because Disney's profits from Cars (2006) merchandise have finally peaked. The House of Mouse earned $2.5 billion in revenues from Cars merchandise in 2008. Cars has been regarded as one of Pixar's weakest films critically, but one of Disney's biggest cash cows. Young boys love Cars and parents love to buy kids Cars-branded items. Judging from the Mike Wazowski toy on my desk, I can imagine Monsters Inc. 2 is in development for similar reasons.

Wall Street and retailers complained about Up before its release last year. Retailers didn't believe it would sell enough toys and Wall Street didn't think an old man could usher in box office success. Disney chief executive, Robert A Iger,  responded by saying...

...the company was focused on delivering "great films," rather than adopting a blind adherence to commercial pressures. "If a great film gives birth to a franchise, we are the first company to leverage such success," he said. "A check-the-boxes approach to creativity is more likely to result in blandness and failure."

While merchandise sales haven't been announced, the film grossed $727.5 million in global box office receipts, making it the second most successful Pixar film. Finding Nemo remains the king with $866.6 million. Up is also the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards since the Academy created the Best Animated Feature category. Not bad for an unmarketable movie.

Up, Wall-E, and Ratatouille represent Pixar's most daring attempts at original filmmaking. All three pushed the boundaries of what hugely commercial animated films could be about. All were immensely successful. So why is the company focusing so heavily on sequels? 

I would like to raise my hands and flail them in worry. Pixar is the most critically acclaimed studio on the planet and is 10 for 10 so far. It has taken in $5.6 billion at the box office and countless billions more from DVD, TV, and merchandise. They have achieved this because their films are always fantastic. Even if a movie starring a rat or an old man looks strange, many see the Pixar logo and give it a shot anyway. It only takes one bad film to ruin Pixar's golden reputation. Just one bad film. 

If Newt was cancelled because it was turning into that one bad film, I applaud the studio. If it was cancelled to make way for Monsters Inc. 2 and the five years of merchandise sales that follow it, I have to wonder if that's a wise decision. Disney needs to remember that Pixar is successful because it puts creativity first. Audiences have shown that they like this approach. At most we should have 1 sequel and 1 original title a year.

Disney/Pixar, make sure your upcoming projects list is more original than recycled, please.

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