Even if Pixar survives for 100 years and produces a library of films to rival Walt Disney's, the makers of Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo will never experience another weekend like the last one. Sure, they'll probably someday break the $70 million opening-weekend record that Nemo set for an animated film—in fact, next year's The Incredibles will more than likely do just that—but you can only cement yourself as a cultural phenomenon once.
Finding Nemo is Pixar's 500th home run, its 3,000th hit, its third consecutive championship: a triumph that's more important for its relationship to an entire body of work than for its solitary pleasures. It's also a moment that has led critics to evaluate and admire that body of work. After five consecutive hits—Pixar's other two movies are the inspired Toy Story 2 and the middling A Bug's Life—the animation studio must now be considered "the most reliable creative force in Hollywood," wrote Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. (Move to the back of the line, Spielberg.) "Perhaps not since Preston Sturges made seven classic comedies in a row between 1940 and 1944 has one name been such a consistent indicator of audience and critical pleasure." The "next Disney" comparisons that have long been lavished upon Pixar and its creative head, John Lasseter, have become more emphatic: Now Pixar and Lasseter are compared not just to Disney, but to Disney during its "golden age some 60 years ago," as the Los Angeles Daily News put it.
But in becoming the next Disney, can Pixar avoid becoming the next Disney? Being the Mouse, after all, involves more than simply delivering high-quality, family-friendly entertainment that lasts for the ages. There's a flip side to success on that scale: A certain minority will loathe you for your tyrannical omnipresence and your ravenous cultural imperialism. (Has anyone seen those Nemo Happy Meals?) "Disney is so good at being good that it manifests evil; so uniformly efficient and courteous, so dependably clean and conscientious, so unfailingly entertaining that it's unreal, and therefore is an agent of pure wickedness. Imagine promoting a universe in which raw Nature doesn't fit because it doesn't measure up," Carl Hiaasen wrote in Team Rodent: How Disneyland Devours the World. Critics like Hiaasen view Disney as the creators of a real-world Matrix, an inauthentic world that's dangerous because it's more seductive and appealing than the real one. "Disney has colonized our pleasures so thoroughly, we no longer recognize them as produced, manipulated, and constructed by Disney," Elizabeth Bell, a Florida communications professor, once told the Baltimore Sun.
So far, even though Disney distributes and markets Pixar's films, the New Disney has avoided being tarred as an agent of the Evil that is the Old Disney. Only the tiniest hint of a Pixar backlash has surfaced: The Los Angeles Times' Turan knocked the studio's "weakness for whiny characters," the New Yorker's Anthony Lane feared "oversophistication" in bits "designed to flit over the head of younger kids and keep their parents happy, regardless of whether it has any logical place in the movie," and a handful of critics detected a whiff of formula in Finding Nemo. But whatever formula put together Nemo and the rest of the Pixar movies, it's a welcome alternative to the one that assembled Herbie Goes Bananas. And if Pixar does employ a blueprint, it's one that's proven difficult to duplicate. If it were easy to package an entertaining blend of celebrity voices, pop-culture references, and an evil kid who threatens our lovable characters, all set to a Randy Newman song, Disney wouldn't be putting out garbage like Treasure Planet.
Disney's inability to replicate the Pixar magic, and its lackluster critical and box-office record since the overrated The Lion King, is why Disney chairman Michael Eisner predicted this week that the Pixar-Disney partnership will continue, despite rumors to the contrary. The two companies need each other. Disney needs Pixar's content: Of the great animated movies put out since The Lion King, not one has been an in-house Disney production. (The non-Pixar movies on the list would be DreamWorks' Shrek and Chicken Run, and Warner Bros.' The Iron Giant—and the director of that one, Brad Bird, now works for Pixar.)
And Pixar, despite what its fans might want to believe, needs Disney. For one thing, Disney owns the rights to derivative works made from the first seven Pixar movies (including the forthcoming The Incredibles and Cars). By remaining in a partnership with Disney, Pixar can control the legacy that it has created—Pixar creatives must shudder at the thought of hack straight-to-video Toy Story sequels, which Eisner has basically threatened to create if Pixar walks. More important, however, Pixar needs Disney because that's how it outsources its Evil: The partnership enables Pixar to reap the rewards of its great movies, while Disney gets blamed for the Stepford theme parks filled with Woodys and Buzzes, the merchandising tie-ins at McDonald's and elsewhere, and the rapacious defenses of their shared intellectual property. Sticking with Disney is the best way for Pixar to ensure that the Lamp won't become as scorned as the Mouse.