My requisite occasional hot take
I was surprised by the level of existential dread embodied by Forky in Toy Story 4. I haven't made the time to see Soul, Luca, Lightyear, or Elemental yet.
Your point about the Disney "renaissance" becoming overly formulaic is a bit overstated, if only because the actual number of movies we're talking about is so small, and several of them don't fit the formula you describe. The "We Saved Animation Renaissance" definitely kicks off with Beauty and the Beast (1991), and I'd say arguably ends with Tarzan (1999). The films in the 90s that clearly fit the more formulaic Princess bill are Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin (1993), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998). Just four films. And in the 90s Disney also released a bunch of animated movies that are big swings at other types of stories: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A Goofy Movie (1995), James and the Giant Peach (1996), and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) are decidedly not part of the formula (they tried to pretend in the marketing that Hunchback was a true mainline Disney musical... but it's not). Hercules (1997) and Tarzan are not Princess Movies, but it's up for debate if they are formulaic enough to qualify as part of the trend you're describing.
My point here is simply that throughout the 90s Disney complemented their more formulaic animated musicals with less formulaic animated features, and there were actually more of the latter released.
I agree that Pixar has lost a step (or three) in terms of creating iconic characters and surprising stories. What's most surprising to me, looking back, is the streak of great movies preceding their slide into boring. You've got a string nine films from Toy Story (1995) to WALL-E (2008) and every one is highly watchable today, has strong characters, moving (if manipulative in some cases...) stories, and real surprises. Even A Bug's life and Cars are very good—arguably great!—kid's movies upon recent rewatch. Making a great film, animated or not, is a lightning in a bottle thing, so to have nine in a row is insane. Plus each new release was pushing the technological boundaries of CG in thrilling ways... a prospect with very diminishing returns since the early 2010s. Some not small part of our surprise and delight in that early Pixar run was the sheer wonder at what they could make us see on a screen—feats of spectacular technology we fully understood no one could have conjured two years earlier.
In my opinion, the only comparable streak of extremely successful (creatively and commercially) pop movies from a single studio is Marvel from Iron Man (2008) to Civil War (2016)—the major difference being that that run has some notable stinkers. All the "twos" are middling with the exception of Winter Soldier. Kind of felt like Marvel picked up the mantle from Pixar, actually, in the way Pixar picked up the mantle from Disney. Or, as we now understand it, Disney > Disney > also Disney.
As far as The Last Wish—I think that's actually a "Spider-Verse inspired low-frame-rate approach." Since it was released in 2018, Into the Spider-Verse has strongly guided the tastes of young animators (who really, really love The Last Wish) and the look / aesthetic of motion of many CG films the big studios are releasing. See also: Mitchells vs The Machines, The Bad Guys, Klaus, TMNT: Mutant Mayhem, etc.
* One last note... sometimes even the creators don't understand the lightning in the bottle. I met Pete Docter recently, thanked him for those movies he directed that I first saw when I was younger and for the joy of watching those same movies now with my young kids. Most of all, I thanked him for Monsters, Inc, telling him it's such an amazing movie about climate change and energy crisis, such a good way to introduce my kids to a complicated and difficult reality.
Pete seemed genuinely confused that anyone would think of Monsters, Inc as a film about climate change.
I have a very HOT TAKE™ on Pixar. I honestly only liked Incredibles and WALL-E, the rest I never cared to see (Ratatouille, Finding Nemo, the last decade of films) or found them insufferably sentimental in a The Notebook kind of way (Up, Inside Out). I watched Toy Story again a couple of years back and it was fine, I guess.
But I'm also just an asshole, so...
How does Ratatouille "break the rules of storytelling"...?
There were two consecutive years when a Pixar movie topped my best-of list (2008 and 2009, the years of WALL-E and Up). And The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and Inside Out have also found places on my list. So, I'd consider myself a Pixar fan. But I'm also having trouble mustering enthusiasm, for many of the reasons you state.
Elemental is perfectly fine, but it's Pixar's greatest hits. It personifies non-living things, there are a lot of puns, and in the end everyone learns to just give the kids a chance. Its world-building also makes zero sense and it's built around a metaphor Disney already did with Zootopia (and it's much shakier here). Even so...it's fine. It's charming and kind of funny, and my daughter loved it. I also think that it has some of the most beautiful animation Pixar has created and really works in 3D.
But it's hard to get excited when Pixar just seems to be cranking out the formula it seemed to push against so early on. Especially when I can go just down the hall and watch "Across the Spider-verse" do something really fascinating and energetic. Or, as you said, when "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" manages to combine gorgeous animation with real humor and musings about mortality.
That said, I thought last year's "Turning Red" was a really funny Pixar movie that managed to feel bolder than anything Disney's done in awhile. You don't get many kids' movies that are metaphors for periods.
Who isn’t hot for a hot take?! I don’t have much of a pulse on animated films, but when you lay it all out there, I’m sad to agree that WALL-E is probably the last animation film that blew my mind. Coco was close? Was that even Pixar? I don’t know, but I could never deny how much I loved its music though.
I did recently make it most of the way through The Sea Beast. My dad still loves to say that children should be seen and not heard. That’s what comes to mind when a film’s dramatic exposition is delivered via a speech... from a child... who’s flat character is here to teach us and adults everywhere that... kids know best? I couldn’t believe how bad it was. The purple fish-dog was cute tho.