Oscars 2012: Is Pixar's animation winning streak over?
It’s hard to imagine anyone who has brought more verve and creativity to the animation field over the last dozen years than Pixar’s John Lasseter. But judging from a recent interview he gave to the New York Times, in which he called “Cars 2” a “great movie,” he’s in denial about just how badly Pixar stumbled with its last film.
“Cars 2” may have made $554 million in global box office, but that doesn’t mean Lasseter made a great movie. I mean, Michael Bay could be saying the same thing about “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” which made more than twice that amount globally but still wasn’t even close to being good, much less great.
In fact, the reviews for “Cars 2” were abysmal, with the film earning a lowly 38% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Just how lowly is a 38% rating? Put it this way: “Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Big Happy Family” and “Cowboys & Aliens” got higher Rotten Tomatoes scores. It didn’t stop lots of people from seeing the film, but it is bad news for Pixar’s chances of winning the Oscar for animated feature, a category Pixar has won four times in a row and six out of the last eight.
Critics may have little to say about how well an animated film does in the broader marketplace, but a critical consensus means everything at Oscar time. Since the animated feature category was launched in 2001, 10 films have taken home the trophy — none of them having earned less than a 74% Rotten Tomatoes score. And even that score, registered by “Happy Feet” in 2006, was something of an outlier. Since “Shrek” won the first statuette, no other film, other than “Happy Feet,” has won with a score lower than 96%.
That establishes a minimum critical quality requirement for any animated Oscar winner, which leaves “Cars 2” out in the cold, especially since 2011 is shaping up to be an especially strong year for animated films. Leading contenders include “Rango,” “The Adventures of Tintin,” “Puss in Boots,” “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Happy Feet Two.” The films already in release all topped the 75% mark at Rotten Tomatoes, with the upcoming “Happy Feet Two” and “Tintin” expected to be critical favorites as well.
In fact, there’s no guarantee that “Cars 2” will even end up being a nominee with such a crowded field. According to academy rules, if 13 animation films qualify in any given year, there can be a maximum of four nominees; if there are at least 16 films eligible for the award, there can be five nominees.
Eligibility is a big issue this year because of the presence of several films, notably “Tintin,” relying heavily on motion-capture technology. There’s already a heated debate in animation circles about including such “mo-cap” films, with traditionalists, including Lasseter, opposing their inclusion. I still think the academy’s animation committee will rule in “Tintin’s” favor, but it’s not a slam-dunk.
As for Lasseter, who told the New York Times that he doesn’t read his reviews, he should come to grips with the fact that he missed the mark with “Cars 2.” Pixar had, until now, an unequaled track record of making an amazing string of critical and commercial successes. The streak was bound to end sooner or later.
But Pixar won’t have as much luck starting a new streak if its fearless leader continues to be in denial about the fact that he whiffed this last time out, artistically speaking. What made Pixar great was its ability to be self-critical. Time and again, throughout the creative process, Pixar’s creative team would pick films apart, often sending them back to the drawing board when something in the story or the character development wasn’t making the grade.
But the system broke down with “Cars 2.” Was Lasseter too distracted running Pixar when he should have been focused on filmmaking? Did Disney’s corporate push to turn films into brands overwhelm Pixar’s quality control system? All I can say is that, with “Cars 2,” for the first time, Lasseter seemed out of touch with his muse.
Pixar’s greatest strength has always been its reservoir of fresh ideas. So if Lasseter is willing to listen to any advice, hear this: If you want to keep winning Oscars, let Pixar be Pixar, the company that always values originality.
-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: John Lasseter tosses confetti during a Nov. 1 celebration for his newly unveiled star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Credit: Fred Prouser / Reuters