Pixar's latest animated sequel Finding Dory is only in its second week of release, and it's already grossed over $400 million. Should we be surprised? This is Pixar! For more than 20 years the brand has been synonymous with cutting-edge animation and mature storytelling that's not afraid to take nice, long tugs at your heartstrings.
Meanwhile, it's no secret that much of Hollywood has a major sequel problem. Half of the movies in theaters nowadays are a sequel or spinoff or reboot, and big corporations are obviously more interested in how much money they can squeeze out of an idea rather than how good that idea might actually be. DreamWorks is guilty of this and Disney is notorious. So what's Pixar's secret to giving us not just great movies, but great sequels?
Let's start with its one failure in 21 years and 17 films — the infamous Cars 2. The movie had a lot going for it: top-notch animation, a more imaginative story than its predecessor, a lively voice cast, and John Lasseter at the helm. Yet Pixar disappointed us all for the first time, and Cars 2 currently holds 39 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and 57 out of 100 on Metacritic. So what went wrong?
The answer to that is Pixar's secret: emotional resonance. At the heart of every good movie (and so every good Pixar movie) are feelings we can all relate to. The main conflict revolves around those themes. But at the heart of Cars 2 was a minor squabble between best friends — something that should've been resolved in 10 minutes — that was as complex and engaging as an episode of Sofia the First. The film's emotional core was faulty and childish, and so the conflict fell apart.
Look at Toy Story. The trilogy was an epic saga of growing up told through the eyes of our childhood playthings. That was something nostalgic and evocative that everybody could relate to. Monsters University explored friendship, teamwork and personal growth, themes also found in Monsters, Inc. Now, Finding Dory is taking Nemo's themes of family and loss to new depths, whereas all Cars 2 ever did was take Mater to the wrong bathroom in Japan.
Pixar's best sequels focused on developing stories thematically, to maintain an emotional cohesiveness. Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, Monsters University and Finding Dory were all thematic extensions of their predecessors, advancing their motifs even more than a core plot. Pixar looks at a sequel almost like a second act, rather than a separate movie.
In conclusion, Pixar's secret is that it's better than everyone else. To point out the obvious.
So when I hear people worrying about the next three years of Pixar sequels, I just tell them that this is Pixar we're talking about, so have a little faith. On the one hand, yes, I have my doubts about Cars 3; I don't know what Pixar can build on the weak foundation the first two movies left for the franchise. But I do know one thing: Pixar knows how to make really good movies that sell. And I don't expect it to stop doing that anytime soon.
Why do you love Pixar? Answer in the comments section below.