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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson

Posted April 7, 2009 | 01:51 AM (EST)

NYT libels Ratatouille and Wall-E to paint a grim picture for Up (apparently The New York Times can't do the math either).


In this new article by Brook Barnes, the New York Times again bemoans whether an artistically ambitious Pixar picture, Up, can overcome its alleged commercial limitations and be a solid box office smash. We've have this debate for the last two summers and the answer was yes both times. Ratatouille was one of Pixar's best films and it crossed $200 million and made an absolute killing overseas. Wall-E received serious Best Picture talk and again crossed $200 million in the US. My favorite line comes down the first page...

"Pixar's last two films, "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille," have been the studio's two worst performers, delivering sales of $224 million and $216 million respectively, according to Box Office Mojo, a tracking service."

False, false, blatantly false. In the first place, Ratatouille grossed $206 million in the US... the number above is adjusted for inflation for no particular reason. Pixar's two worst domestic and global performers were Toy Story ($192 million/$363 million) and A Bug's Life ($163 million/$363 million). Wall E did $224 million in the US and $535 million total. While alleged flop Ratatouille made $206 in the states and a whopping $621 million total. Ratatouille was and is Pixar's number 2 performer overseas and it is Pixar's #3 top grosser ever, only $10 million behind The Incredibles.

David Poland covered the numbers over at The Hot Blog (my thanks for him saving me a trip to Box Office Mojo to verify), but it besrs repeating as it's a major pet peeve of mine: 'don't check the actual box office numbers, just run with your narrative!'. I wrote last year about a review of Lakeview Terrace in Variety that basically said that the film would have 'so so box office like Changing Lanes, instead of boffo numbers like Crash'. Both films had nearly identical domestic and international grosses. They just don't check the numbers or they just pick and choose the numbers because it otherwise wouldn't fit into their narrative of choice. Like how Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull was somehow an under performer while Iron Man was a smash... even though they made almost identical domestic numbers while Indy crushed Tony Stark overseas.

But there are undertones in the article that are worth mentioning aside from the libelous box office pronouncements. So why no carping about Cars, which was their third worst total performer after Toy Story and A Bug's Life? Because it wouldn't fit into their narrative. Cars was a conventional, talking vehicles cartoon with movie star casting and a formulaic plot. The crux of the article is that Pixar should be prevented from making overly arty and imagative cartoons because the stock holders would prefer pop-culture references and formulaic pictures like Monsters Vs. Aliens (never mind that MvA will probably not cross $200 million domestic on a budget of $175 million... the same cost as Up). The article later exclaims, with apparent joy, that Pixar's next pictures are more safely commercial, with at least two sequels (Toy Story 3 and Cars 2) and possible a third (Monsters Inc 2).

The article is up in arms not because the movie may not be good (they make a point to mention, almost in passing, that it's supposed to be wonderful), but because Wall Street analysts are nervous (because they are definitely batting 1000 these days) and because Wal Mart and Target won't be stocking much merchandise because their manufacturers do not see the potential. Apparently Thinkaway Toys, who made products from the first Toy Story, won't be making a single item. Funny story, as Thinkaway Toys are possibly the same geniuses that severely underestimated the toy demand for the first Toy Story back in Christmas 1995 and ended up having to scramble like mad to make a plethora of Buzz, Woody, and Ham merchandise for the film's young audience (I was surprised that Christmas that they didn't offer 'IOU' toy boxes, like the oversold Star Wars line in 1977).

Making movies without a thought to commerciality and/or merchandising seems to have worked for Pixar thus far. Bad art comes about when it's created to appease some unknown marketplace ('we know those jokes aren't funny, but the kids will love it'), rather than making something that you, the artist, can be proud of. Like that starving novelist JK Rowling, John Lassiter and his Pixar crew "make these films for ourselves." We seem to have this debate every time Pixar releases a movie (but The Incredibles is about humans... and it's violent... it will flop for sure!) and John Lassiter and the gang prove them wrong every time. As the article halfheartedly states, I think it's long past time that we gave Pixar the benefit of the doubt.

Scott Mendelson