In two weeks, Pixar will release a film on Disney+ for the first time. It’s not what the animation studio giant had in mind this time last year. But it’s where we are right now.
I’ve seen “Soul”, which is nominated for the Best Animated Feature Critics Choice Award. And I’ll be surprised if Annie, Golden Globe, BAFTA and Oscar nominations don’t follow. It would be a stunner not only because of the film itself but because of the talent behind it. Pete Docter is a two-time Academy Award winner, for “Up” and “Inside Out”. He was also nominated for “Monsters, Inc.”, subsequent short film “Mike’s New Car”, and the screenplays of “Toy Story”, “WALL-E”, “Up” and “Inside Out”.
If “Soul” takes the Oscar on April 25th, Docter will become the first person to win the Animated Feature Academy Award three times. When I interviewed Docter over Zoom on October 1st, he immediately complemented me on my Zoom background (a movie theater auditorium of seats). “It’s nice to see you’re already in the theater. You’re ready to watch!”
At that time, “Soul” was still expected to open in theaters on November 20th, which is why Disney began the press junkets that far in advance. In fact, this interview was part of the second set of junkets. I spoke with some of the film’s story and animation team members a couple weeks earlier. (That Q&A is coming soon to Animation Scoop.)
I asked producer Dana Murray (who joined Docter and co-director Kemp Powers for our interview) about the release strategy meetings she was having with Disney. She told me, “The news seems to be changing daily. We ask a lot of questions, and they give us a lot of feedback with numbers and research. They’re the ones who have a lot of the information of theaters open and what the state regulations are. We’re having those conversations every week about what the world is looking like. And right now we’re feeling pretty good about November 20th. So we’re hoping things continue to head in the good direction.”
Exactly one week later, on October 8th, Disney announced that “Soul” was moving to Christmas Day with a direct debut on Disney+. No matter what, Disney and Pixar wanted to make sure this film was going to be released in the 2020 calendar year. And it is… by six days.
As of now, Pixar’s next film, “Luca” (from director Enrico Casarosa, of Oscar nominee “La Luna”) will be a pure theatrical release on June 18th. But The Mouse House has presented another possible option. Disney Animation’s “Raya and the Last Dragon” is now confirmed to premiere in theaters (that are open) and on Disney+ on the same day, March 5th. Like “Mulan”, families will have to pay a “premier access” amount of money to watch “Raya”. They won’t have to do that with “Soul”, which should be considered a generous Christmas present.
Maybe “Luca” will end-up in the similar boat. It takes place in Italy and is set in the summertime. “Luca” HAS to come out in Summer 2021, one way or another.
Ahead of the 2019 Oscars, I interviewed Domee Shi, the director of Pixar short “Bao” (which was shown in front of “Incredibles 2”). Shi already had an untitled feature confirmed for 2022. I asked her about it. She said: “…while we were wrapping up ‘Bao’, our President invited me to his office. And then he said, ‘We’d like you to start developing some ideas for feature films at Pixar. Do you want to do it?’ And I was like, ‘Yes!’ ‘Are you sure? Okay.’”
Shi continued: “We’re still in development right now. We’re still hammering out the story. There’s no real, solid release date right now. Even though I’m in development for it, I’m still super paranoid and superstitious. Anything can happen. I don’t even know if this will ever see the light of day. But I’m just happy that I’m able to get paid to work on cool stories that I come up with in my head – and work with awesome people that can make that happen.”
I told her that I think it will see the light of day and then asked her if she was ready to be up on stage in a couple weeks and accept an Academy Award. Shi told me she was nervous. And on Feb. 24, she accepted that Oscar, which probably helped make her feature a reality. “Turning Red”, Pixar movie No. 25, will (as of now) open March 11, 2022. It’s about “a teen girl named Mei who transforms into a giant red panda when excited”.
As for the 26th feature, currently slated for June 17, 2022, Pixar is taking us back to the beginning. Well… actually before the beginning. “Lightyear” is a Buzz Lightyear origin story. Chris Evans will voice the younger version of the iconic “Toy Story” character. (Tim Allen’s sitting out of this one.) “Lightyear” is directed by “Finding Dory” co-director Angus MacLane. He also directed the “Toy Story of Terror” special and “Small Fry” short and was an animator on “Toy Story 2” and “TS3”. So he’s pretty familiar with Buzz.
“Lightyear” is Pixar’s second prequel, after 2013’s “Monsters University”. It will be the first prequel or sequel from the studio since 2019’s “Toy Story 4”, which was the seventh prequel or sequel out of the 11 Pixar films released in the 2010s. Now with “Onward” (also a Critics Choice nominee), “Soul”, “Luca” and “Turning Red”, we’re getting four original Pixar films in a row. They, along with “Lightyear”, are all produced by women.
At the end of 2019, I interviewed Kathryn Hendrickson, the producer of “Kitbull”, a Pixar SparkShort that received an Animated Short Film Oscar nom. I asked her about how this SparkShorts program has impacted the studio – and what the future looks like. Her response:
“I think this program is going to discover amazing voices within the studio. It’s often the younger talent who wouldn’t be getting the chance to direct a feature in the next 5-10 years, but will get a chance to direct a short. And they have the life experience that’s very relevant and can reach a young audience, which is great for Disney+. And I think Disney is going to continue to leverage that and seek out future talent that they want to continue to invest in. And the folks who are directing SparkShorts are likely going to be your feature directors down the road.”
And in January 2019, “Incredibles 2” producer Nicole Paradis Grindle spoke to me about the future of the studio that revolutionized animation. Her thoughts are amplified today. “We have a long slate of great films with great new filmmakers coming up. So I think there’s a lot to look forward to. I’m excited. So I want everyone out there to stay excited, too.”