By Terry Lawson
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
Forget what’s going on with the Michael Jackson trial. Here’s the most important issue in entertainment news: the future of Buzz, Woody, Nemo and Sulley.
It was announced last week that the new prince of the Magic Kingdom, Robert Iger, would attempt to repair the Walt Disney Co.’s relationship with Pixar, the animation company that has pretty much kept it from sinking in the red ink of “Atlantis,” “Treasure Planet” and the other animated films Disney had been making in-house.
Pixar is the company that revolutionized animation with a string of smash hits for Disney, beginning in 1995 with the imaginative “Toy Story” and continuing through 2004’s “The Incredibles,” released last week on DVD.
For reasons that remain murky (but which seem to be as much about respect, partnership and intense dislike for former CEO Michael Eisner as about money), Pixar’s guiding light John Lasseter and chairman/CEO Steve Jobs earlier announced plans to take their business elsewhere after next year, when their contract with Disney is fulfilled with the release of “Cars.”
Last month at the Oscars, Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook and Jobs were seated next to each other in the audience when “The Incredibles” won the Oscar for best animated film. While Hollywood was buzzing last week with the idea that Pixar may reconsider in light of Eisner’s dethroning, Disney let it be known that an animation department dramatically scaled down after the studio’s cow comedy “Home on the Range” made a patty at the box office last year is developing “Toy Story 3.”
Lasseter has always been averse to sequels, preferring that Pixar concentrate on original projects. But Pixar’s Disney deal gives the Mouse rights to make sequels to the films Disney distributed – with Pixar sharing in the profits. “Toy Story 2” was originally intended for direct-to-video, but Pixar stepped in to upgrade it for a successful theatrical release in part to protect its brand.
If Pixar leaves, Disney has let it be known that sequels will likely be forthcoming even if original voice talent like Tim Allen, Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal or any of the original creative teams (meaning Pixar’s) are not involved.
One former Disney animator was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying the ploy was “flat-out commerce,” as if that was an unexpected development at a company that has churned out dozens of direct-to-video sequels to its own contemporary animation classics like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” What shareholder, however, would argue that Disney shouldn’t capitalize to the fullest on a deal the company entered into more than a decade ago, when no one imagined that computer animation could ever replace the hand-drawn variety?
What rankles, of course, is that it looks like blackmail: Stay with us, Disney seems to be saying, or we’ll make your creations do things you would have never imagined. The pen – or the contract – is mightier than the imagination.
Yet for the millions of kids and their parents who hold Pixar in the same regard a previous generation held Disney, it’s another reminder that the star we once wished upon has been extinguished.