Pixar has been the envy of Hollywood for a long time, and one of the reasons for that is Andrew Stanton. A head honcho and guiding light of the commercially and critically successful animation studio — along with John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and others — he co-wrote the first two “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life,” and “Monsters, Inc.” Even more impressive, he was the director of Oscar-winners “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo,” two of Pixar’s best films, in part because they’re among the company’s most emotionally sophisticated, brilliantly balancing sentiment and darkness to arrive at astoundingly poignant finales. All Pixar films are put together by a large creative team, but “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo” feel personal in a way that many of their other movies don’t. If anyone in the business has a Midas touch, it might be Stanton.
It’s not surprising, then, that the Pixar whiz kid would eventually turn his attention to live-action movies, making his debut with “John Carter.” Sure, I’d heard the bad buzz: lengthy reshoots, a title change, a reportedly ballooning budget. And, yes, I’d been turned off by the initial publicity stills and trailers, just like everyone else. But, still, it was Andrew Stanton, the Pixar golden child. It was gonna turn out fine, right?
Unfortunately, no. Though ambitious, “John Carter” is a big mess that resembles a lot of other garish, plodding big-budget blockbusters. Perhaps worse for Stanton and Disney, which released the film, it’s almost certainly going to be a box office disappointment. For the first time, one of Stanton’s films is going to fail — and probably fail spectacularly. Can there be some good in that?
It’s been clear for months that “John Carter” was having problems. When Tad Friend from The New Yorker visited the set a year ago, reshoots were happening and new scenes were being added to help the story. Stanton insisted it was all fine, though: “Reshoots should be mandatory,” he proclaimed. “Honestly, if we had the time and everyone was available, I’d do another reshoot after this one.” But this was a guy who had never made a live-action feature, and his very first one cost anywhere from $250 million to more than $300 million, depending on who you believe. And it didn’t help matters that Stanton seemed pretty arrogant about the whole thing:
“We came on this movie so intimidated: ‘Wow, we’re at the adult table!’ Three months in, I said to my producers, ‘Is it just me, or do we actually know how to do this better than live-action crews do?’ The crew were shocked that they couldn’t overwhelm me, but at Pixar I got used to having to think about everyone else’s problems months before all their pieces would come together, and I learned that I’m just better at communicating and distilling than other people.”
If you’re James Cameron and able to prove the disbelievers wrong — not once (“Titanic”), but twice (“Avatar”) — you can get away with saying stuff like that. But Stanton’s defensive posturing in the article only helped create an impression that he was a cocky kid way out of his depth. Consequently, rather than simply being a noble misfire, “John Carter” has been hit with a thunderstorm of schadenfreude, and the film seems destined to become one of those high-profile disasters that will be used as an example of what not to do in Hollywood.
You could say that Stanton’s own hubris brought this on himself. But the problems with “John Carter” also underline just how difficult it is to make great event movies. Part of why Pixar was so beloved was because it seemed like all they did was produce great films. But as Stanton pointed out in The New Yorker piece, those movies often took years of painstaking trial-and-error to get right. “We’re in this weird, hermetically sealed freakazoid place where everybody’s trying their best to do their best,” he recalled, “and the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them.”
Live-action blockbusters don’t have that luxury, of course: A lot of those have release dates before they have finished scripts. But the hope was that Stanton would take the lessons of Pixar and apply them. That didn’t happen.
While it’s impossible for me to know what specifically doomed the making of “John Carter,” it’s hard not to consider Stanton’s New Yorker profile as a cautionary tale about believing your own hype. All those Oscars, all that commercial success, all that acclaim — Stanton probably felt that as long as he put in the work, he could make anything terrific. After all, as Friend points out, celebrated Pixar movies like “Toy Story 2” and “Ratatouille” were in such bad shape at different stages that new directors had to come onboard to save them. But as Pixar learned recently with the critical drubbing “Cars 2” received, no formula is foolproof. And while another Pixar alum, Brad Bird (“Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles”), successfully transitioned to live-action with “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” that was no guarantee for Stanton doing the same thing.
Pete Doctor, who directed “Up” and “Monsters, Inc.,” once described the Pixar creative process like this: “Everyone holds hands and jumps out of the airplane with the promise that they’ll build a parachute before they hit the ground.” For Stanton, “John Carter” was the first time he wasn’t able to build the parachute in time. Everybody eventually fails — even the whiz kids. In a very high-profile way, the debacle of “John Carter” is a cruel reminder for him — and for us — that nobody in this business has the Midas touch. Next time Stanton gets ready to jump out of the airplane, hopefully he won’t be as cocky about it.