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Filmism.net Dispatch March 3, 2022

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Apple and Pixar are inextricably linked. They were both pretty closely intertwined with LucasFilm too back in the day (they were actually an early digital filmmaking offshoot of George Lucas' empire), but Steve Jobs being a founder and early board member of Pixar when it was spun off as a separate company means the animation powerhouse has his creative DNA in it.

But here's another parallel I've noticed recently. For all the criticism Jobs (somewhat deservedly) got while he was at Apple, what with the reality distortion field, the fact that he didn't actually invent anything he's synonymous with and the infamous mistreatment of workers that was as bad as what he supposedly doled out to members of his own family, there's one thing you can't deny.

He was the original superstar CEO, and when he took to the stage with a new gadget, it upended the world every time. Not because the gizmo he was announcing was good (even if it mostly was), but because of whatever amorphous, King Midas-like quality made everything he touted a global event. We all wanted it because he'd touched it. Apple product launches became rock concerts, their products aspirational tools that soon flooded the world.

When he died and Tim Cook took over, I remember wondering whether the products/cultural salvos Apple transmitted across the media world would be the same. As history shows us in the 11 (!) years since Jobs' death, the company hasn't had quite the same zeitgeist-changing mojo.

Here's the thing about Cook; he's a good businessperson. One of his first changes was to compress the warehousing time Apple needed to keep products at distributors before being shipped to retailers, and with that act alone he booked the company more profit than the entire previous quarter of iPhone sales had done.

Shareholders loved it, but rabid Apple fans and the media didn't even notice. It wasn't as sexy or attention-grabbing as the stuff Apple was famous for that Jobs had done in years past.

How is Pixar the same? Names like Ed Catmull, Pete Docter, John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich were superstars in animation like Jobs had been in consumer technology. They took a struggling LucasFilm division and made it into the storytelling triumph Disney wanted so bad it paid $7.4bn for it in 2006. For context about how powerful Pixar was in Hollywood at the time, that's almost twice what Disney would pay for LucasFilm six years later. The name 'Pixar' simply was Hollywood animation.

It installed Lasseter as the creative steward of the entire Disney empire, and with the Toy Story movies, Ratatouille, Wall.E, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo and Up it seemed unable to put a foot wrong for the next decade.

But just like Jobs died, most of Pixar's founding brains trust all fell away (with the exception of Docter, who's still there as chief creative officer). Unkrich retired in 2019 to concentrate on 'other projects'. Catmull retired in 2018, but not before being implicated in an antitrust scandal where Silicon Valley tech companies colluded to not steal each others' staff, an act that cost parent company Disney $100m in lawsuit payouts.

Lasseter was caught up in the storms of MeToo, stories about him being overly familiar and touchy-feely with female staff coming out of the woodwork before he was quietly shunted out of Disney altogether. When it was later announced he'd be installed to head the animation division of production company Skydance, the outcry was deafening and his name hasn't appeared in the press since.

And since most of those big names have gone, Pixar has lost its mojo the same way Apple did after Jobs. Their films are still routinely beloved by those who see them, all commanding high scores on the review aggregate sites and prompting letters to film review shows about how their stories spoke directly to the viewer. By all accounts they still polish and rework their stories until they hum before a single frame is animated.

But I remember when every new Pixar movie was a real event on a global scale, like something from the Star Wars, Harry Potter or Marvel franchises. Even if I wasn't particularly interested in them (and if you know anything about me you know family films are one of my least favourite genres), I was aware of their imminent arrival throughout the film firmament.

Since their last big cinema blockbuster, Finding Dory, the company has released around four or five movies during the COVID19 era straight to Disney's streaming service, and I couldn't tell you what they were called, what they were about or what order they arrived in. I know there was one about a kid who visits his ancestors on the Mexican Day of the Dead, something about elves and fairies and something about an African American jazz musician.

Lest you think it's because (a) I'm not the target market or (b), there hasn't been a lot of press about forthcoming movies while the world's been in lockdown at all, I disagree. Throughout the last two years I've been just as aware of the films coming up/endlessly delayed as I ever was. Pixar's last few efforts just haven't made that big an impact on our culture.

With at least 10 years of billion-dollar hits under its belt, Pixar proved to be a lucrative and fast investment for Disney, and that's if we're only talking about theatrical box office. If we counted all the ancillary markets and merchandise Disney probably made its money back after about six weeks.

So I'm not for one minute suggesting Disney would be regretting the purchase. It's a moot point now anyway because everything the company does from Pixar to Marvel, Star Wars and back again is designed not to sell movie tickets but encourage Disney+ subscriptions.

But there's no denying it feels like the age of Pixar, like the age of Apple before it, is kind of over...

The last couple of months it's felt like we're back to blockbusters in movie theatres. Daniel Craig's final James Bond outing No Time To Die was overlong, confusing, took itself too seriously and tripped over its own ambitions and The Matrix Resurrections was badly conceived and even more badly executed, not having a clue what it was trying to be.

But it's been feeling very good to sit in a big screen and watch big movies again. Part of the reason behind my enthusiasm was because of Denis Villeneuve's transcendent Dune remake, a movie so good it's enough to make you forget how badly Lana Wachowski and Eon Productions dropped the ball.

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