Look, I know that today's piece isn't going to make me all that popular with the people at Pixar Animation Studios. Particularly given that it's been just over six months since Joe Ranft was tragically killed in that car accident and his loss is still so keenly felt by all the folks up in Emeryville.
But -- that said -- Mr. Ranft was that studio's Head of Story. And given that the one thing that Pixar supposedly does better than every other animation studio out there is story ... Let me be the first to say out loud what a lot of people in the industry have already been whispering for weeks now: Will Pixar's future films suffer because Joe now isn't on hand to help shore up that studio's stories?
Okay. I know. A lot of people out there might consider this to be a pretty ridiculous (not to mention highly inappropriate) question. I mean, can the loss of a single man really have all that much impact on a studio's output?
Well, if not ... Then how do you explain what happened to Disney Feature Animation after Howard Ashman passed away in March of 1991?
For those of you who don't remember ... Ashman was the creative genius behind what many consider to be the very best films that WDFA churned out during its second golden age (I.E. "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and Aladdin"). Howard had a real gift when it came to story. He could take the most improbable plot and find a way for audiences to connect with that material. Take the most unsympathetic character and then make moviegoers really care for them.
But after Ashman was gone ... Well, as Disney's new CEO Bob Iger put it last Monday during his appearance at this year's Bear Stearns & Co. media conference:
" ... we had ... ten years of real failure."
Meaning that it had been a decade since Walt Disney Feature Animation last produced a motion picture that audiences really embraced. That featured characters that moviegoers actually took to heart.
Mind you, WDFA still had a lot of great artists, directors and animators on hand when these particular pictures were being produced. But what it lacked was someone like Howard Ashman. A guy who could zero right in on story problems and find clever ways around them.
And Joe Ranft ... He had the very same gift that Howard Ashman did. I mean, how many other people on this planet could actually figure out a way to make "The Corpse Bride" work? Tim Burton had tried for more than a decade to turn this Jewish folktale into a feature film. But only Joe instinctively knew how to take a gruesome creature like Emily (I.E. The undead title character of this Mike Johnson movie) and not only make her sympathetic, but downright lovable.
Alright. I know. Pixar has a lot of very talented story people. Many of whom were actually trained by Joe. And -- at the same time -- this animation studio also has its so-called "Sacred Seven." Pixar's core group of creatives: "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird, story artist Brenda Chapman, "Monsters, Inc." director Peter Docter, writer/director Bob Peterson, sound designer Gary Rydstrom, "Finding Nemo" director Andrew Stanton and editor Lee Unkrich.
So -- in theory -- these folks (along with the rest of the artists & technicians up in Emeryville) will be able to step in & pick up the slack. Do whatever it is that Ranft used to do.
Of course, that's what the folks at Disney Feature Animation thought back in 1991. That -- while it was really sad that Howard had died -- the studio still had Ashman's collaborator, Alan Menken, under contract. As well as "The Little Mermaid" 's directing team Ron Clements & John Musker and "Beauty & the Beast" 's directing team Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale. Not to mention great story people like Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff and Brenda Chapman (Yes, that Brenda Chapman. Then -- as now -- Brenda's still one of the very best story people working in the industry today) and veteran producer Don Hahn.
So even though Howard was gone ... With all that talent on board at the studio, it just didn't seem possible that that Disney Feature Animation could ever go off track.
And yet here we are -- some 15 years later -- with Disney's own CEO admitting that WDFA has just been through " ... ten years of real failure."
So don't think that the loss of a single man can't have a huge impact on a creative organization like an animation studio. Because Disney Feature Animation never quite recovered from the loss of Howard Ashman. Which is why many folks in the industry are now wondering ... Will we eventually see the same sort of thing happening to Pixar Animation Studios now that Joe Ranft is gone?
I mean, what with John Lasseter now coming on board as WDFA's new Chief Creative Officer as well as WDI's Principal Creative Advisor, Andrew Stanton supposedly picking up the slack at Pixar while Lasseter's down in Burbank & Glendale and Pete Docter allegedly about to become John's eyes & ears at Walt Disney Imagineering ... It's easy to see how the people at Pixar could get distracted right about now. Take their eyes off the prize, so to speak.
Look, I know that animated features are like ocean liners. Meaning that these films take several years to build and launch. And given that -- at the time of his unfortunate death -- Mr. Ranft was already heavily involved in the preparation of Pixar's next few pictures ... There may be no immediate indication that this studio might actually be in trouble. After all, that's what happened at the Mouse House. To explain: Howard Ashman passed away in March of 1991. But it wasn't until June of 1995 with the release of "Pocahontas" (I.E. The first project that WDFA released after Howard's death that Ashman had little or no impact on) that there were the first indications that Disney Feature Animation was losing its way.Again, I bring this story up NOT because I'm deliberately looking to upset any of the folks up in Emeryville. But -- rather -- more as a cautionary tale. I'm sure that "Cars" (I.E. The film that's dedicated to Joe) and "Ratatouille" will be fine. It's the movies after that that I and other entertainment industry watchers are kind of concerned about
Anyway ... What do you folks think? Given that Joe Ranft has often been called the very " ... heart of Pixar" (Just as Howard Ashman was once hailed for giving " ... a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul"), will Pixar ever be able to recover from his loss?