Is Pixar’s sequel strategy working?

From the groundbreaking Toy Story 2 to Finding Dory, Pixar has a long history of great sequels

Pixar like Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo have had great sequels over the years. (Pixar)
Pixar like Toy Story, The Incredibles and Finding Nemo have had great sequels over the years. (Pixar)

Since 1995 Pixar has become an important part in many people's childhoods, bringing unique, moving stories to audiences both young and old.

The studio's originality has been a draw for viewers for decades, starting from 1995's Toy Story and going on to titles like Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and recent titles like Turning Red. There have been so many great stories, that it's perhaps no wonder that the studio has chosen to return to them on occassion.

Toy Story 2 was the first example, but The Incredibles, Cars and many more have been revisited in recent years by Pixar. The latest world that the company is returning to is Inside Out, which is out now in cinemas, but has it been worth it for the studio to make sequels?

Sequels of any kind have a much higher bar set for them given the success of an original film. There's always a risk that a sequel will fail to recreate the magic of its predecessor, and it can even feel like a soulless cash-grab. This hasn't stopped some studios from making sequels, who can forget Disney's straight-to-video sequels like Mulan 2 or the second Lion King movie?

When it comes to animation, at least for Pixar, it has led to more thought going into a follow-up before it's explored. In some cases this has worked out well for them, and in others it hasn't.

Let's start with the studio's, the most obvious example being Toy Story 2. The heartfelt story proved what a sequel could be — something that adds to the legacy of a project but also in a way outdoes what came before.

Toy Story 2 (Disney/Pixar)
Toy Story 2 is the gold standard of sequels, proving that not only can a sequel be good it can even surpass its predecessor. (Disney/Pixar)

Woody's (Tom Hanks) existential crisis over being abandoned by Andy was something viewers could empathise with, and his quest to escape with other members of Woody's Roundup like Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) was thrilling to say the least. The film was originally intended to be a straight-to-video release for Disney, but the studio changed it to a theatrical release after realising its promise.

Director John Lasseter felt it could be even better, though, and reworked the plot over a weekend. The effort was well worth it because the film earned $497m at the box office compared to the $373m made by the first film.

Read more: When is Toy Story 5 being released?

Things have only continued to grow from there, with 2010's Toy Story 3 —another example of a great sequel— earned $1.06bn at the box office. The film's success felt like a fitting ending for Woody, Buzz and the gang, but nine years later the studio delivered a fourth movie in the franchise.

Though Toy Story 4 was not as critically-acclaimed as its predecessors, it still did incredibly well for the studio by earning $1.07bn. A fifth film is now in the works thanks to this success.

Monsters Inc. is a beloved Pixar film and it followed it up with Monsters University, which was a commercial success even if it didn't do as well with critics. (Pixar)

However it hasn't always been sunshine and roses for the franchise, because the pseudo-prequel spin-off Lightyear —whose tone and story felt like a complete misfire— tanked in 2022 after earning just $226m at the global box office. Granted, the film was one of the first to be released in cinemas post-Covid which no doubt had an impact on how many people went to see it, but it was still a miss for the studio.

Pixar followed up Toy Story with Monsters Inc. which earned an impressive $577m at the box office in the wake of Toy Story's success. The fun new story —directed by Up and Inside Out's Pete Docter— introduced viewers to a world where monsters venture into the human world to scare children and harvest their screams to power their world, but things go wrong when a young girl ends up on the wrong side of the door.

Like Toy Story before it, Monsters Inc. was celebrated by critics and earned a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In 2013 a sequel was made, Monsters Universty. In terms of box office the prequel did do better than the original, earning $743m at the box office, but the critic response was much lower with the film getting an 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

There are three other films that got sequels at Pixar, Finding Nemo, 2004's The Incredibles, and 2006 film Cars. The latter has had two sequels that were released in 2011 and 2017, respectively — Cars 2 did well at the box office by earning $562m compared to the original's $462m earnings, but did drastically worse in terms of critics score as it received just 39% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Cars 3 may have won critics over to get a 69% Rotten Tomatoes rating (still a far cry from Cars' 75% rating), but it ended up tanking at the box office by earning just $383m.

Pixar's beloved superhero caper The Incredibles earned $633m at the box office and was a sure fire hit with critics too as it has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. A sequel for the film didn't come until 2018 but the wait was clearly worth it because it is Pixar's highest earning follow-up to date with $1.24bn — and it also did well with critics by getting a 93% rating.

Incredibles 2 smashes box office records with £174 million opening
The Incredibles 2 smashed box office records with a £174 million opening and earning over $1bn at the globally. (Pixar)

Finding Nemo is the final example we will explore, as the 2003 original was followed up in 2016 with the movie Finding Dory.

The original movie was a huge success for Pixar, earning $940m at the time, and its sequel —which centred on the forgetful fish's quest to find her mother— did marginally better by earning $1.02bn at the box office. In terms of critic response, Finding Nemo has an almost perfect 99% rating whilst its sequel has a 94% rating — not bad.

Riley's emotions are joined by strange new friends in animated sequel Inside Out 2. (Pixar)
Pixar hopes to have a big success with sequel Inside Out 2, which is out in cinemas now. (Pixar)

So the question remains, has Pixar's decision to make sequels been worth it? In terms of box office results the answer seems to be a resounding yes (Lightyear and Cars 3 being the exceptions). What the studio has proved though is that it is possible to make sequels with great stories, with the Toy Story franchise being the gold standard for this.

Read more: Amy Poehler says Inside Out 2's approach to anxiety ‘so smart’

Inside Out 2 has been hailed by critics for continuing to embody what made the original so great, so it seems that it is primed to be a big win for the studio. After the lacklustre results of recent years, and the Covid pandemic leading to many of their films going straight to streaming, it'll be good to see the studio find its feet again and do what it does best — tell great stories.

Inside Out 2 is out in cinemas now.