July 30, 2014

The Pixar Perspective on Competing with Disney

Over the last year, a fast-growing and nearly deafening debate in the film world is that of Pixar Animation Studios vs. Walt Disney Animation Studios. For a long time, the two heavyweight fighters were Pixar and DreamWorks Animation, because Disney Animation was churning out titles such as Brother Bear and Chicken Little, not remotely close to representing serious competition. Since the success of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, though, people have once again sat up and paid attention to the studio that started it all, seeing in its new breed of animators a serious challenge to Pixar’s creative and financial dominance. Now that Pixar’s had two consecutive features creatively falter to varying degrees—Brave was better than people give it credit for, but it never reached the vertiginous heights of Up or the raw emotion of Toy Story 3—and because they have a couple sequels at different stages of production, the knives are out, thanks to a built-in yet outlandish level of impatience.

PixarPerspectiveLogo

"BRAVE"

Modern society is not only unwilling to wait; the 21st century has gifted us with awfully short attention spans, but no filter. As such, we get thinkpieces—there may be no word that more needs to be banished from the dictionary of the Internet—like this one, from Adriane Quinlan, published in The New Republic on February 21st. Ms. Quinlan posits that, solely because of Wreck-It Ralph, Disney is the top dog of animation again, leaving Pixar to crumble in the dust. (Why must there, as if we’re living in the Highlander universe, only be one? Is it so terrible for a person to appreciate and admire the work of multiple studios, as they do multiple directors or actors, without claiming one has to be better?) At no point in the article does she acknowledge Tangled, or the fact that it grossed more at the domestic and worldwide box office than Wreck-It Ralph, because that would reveal her points as being shaky at best. The article is also, sadly, riddled with vexing little errors, such as classifying Cinderella II as a Disney Animation product, when it came from DisneyToon Studios, a totally different outfit than that which created Chicken Little; as well as linking to an old Time article that floats the recently revived and totally false rumor that Toy Story 4 is coming sooner than you think. Ms. Quinlan takes this rumor as fact, even though that would require official confirmation or well-placed insider information, of which there are neither.

Wreck-It Ralph

Quinlan’s piece, though, spends most of its time comparing Ralph and Brave, the former of which she considers far more groundbreaking and impressively original than the other, more Pixar-like in its execution. (This, despite her willingness to point out exactly which Pixar films and shorts Wreck-It Ralph pays homage to, or rips off, depending on your mileage: “The film even included…one of Pixar’s odder storytelling devices—a quirky group therapy session…[a steal from the short Small Fry]…”) And certainly, among most people who grew up with Pixar, those who were children when the first Toy Story premiered in 1995, Wreck-It Ralph was seen as better than Brave, a story that spoke to them more directly and felt more impactful. Where Quinlan’s article, and many frustrating attacks on Pixar in recent memory, fails is in ignoring the larger truth to prove a faulty point: Pixar’s not shying away from the original any more than they did at the inception of their feature films.



As of this writing, Pixar’s released three sequels, and their fourth, Monsters University, opens in June. Their fifth, Finding Nemo 2, is slated to open in 2016. (Prepare to get a virtual sore throat from reminding people that Planes isn’t technically a Pixar film, Cars connection aside.)  All we can judge safely and surely is what already exists in terms of their unoriginal product: Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, and Cars 2. Two of those films are widely considered to be among the greatest sequels ever made, qualitative bars to clear not only for the animation industry, but for all of Hollywood. This isn’t to say there wasn’t a general level of wariness before the second and third Toy Story films opened, but almost everyone would agree that caution was for naught. In 2010, upon Toy Story 3’s release and subsequent, nearly unanimous popularity among critics and audiences, no one questioned Pixar’s status as a studio almost impossibly capable of consistent perfection. In 2011 and 2012, they dared to prove their humanity with lesser full-length efforts, especially the Cars follow-up, so people believe they deserve to be scorned in perpetuity. The cries online when Brave won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature were loud and aggravated, and will only be more so now that it’s received the Oscar. How dare Hollywood award Brave simply because it’s from Pixar? Surely it’s not because anyone—shudder—liked the film.

Brave

In short, Pixar has not failed us. They, like  a star athlete who trips up after months or years of unmatched quality, proved only their ability to make mistakes, that the people working there are just like you and me. It may be disquieting to acknowledge that these men and women, creators of vast and exciting worlds filled with toys, bugs, monsters, superheroes, and more, would whiff every now and again. That doesn’t mean the correct response—common or not—is to mock them and bemoan Pixar’s fate from now until they go belly up. Ms. Quinlan is but one of many to do so, using Monsters University and Finding Nemo 2 as evidence that Pixar now is like Walt Disney Animation Studios was in the mid-2000s, floundering and attempting to grab a quick buck from unsuspecting audiences. Both of these movies, admittedly, might be unmitigated disasters or mere disappointments, the latter of which could be worse in the long run. The most aggravating aspect of this “Pixar is dead, long live the new animation king” argument is simple: it’s deliberately narrow-minded. If Ms. Quinlan were to discuss three of Pixar’s future, in-production projects, The Good Dinosaur, Inside Out, or Lee Unkrich’s Dia de los Muertos-themed movie, she’d open herself further as making a pointless and silly argument. Why acknowledge the original films Pixar’s working on when you want to decry them for doing the opposite, and only the opposite?

The reaction the growing crowd of Pixar concern trolls have when anyone reminds them of these high-concept projects—movies that could be as good or bad as the impending sequels, but aren’t based on something else, which is the sticking point—is, essentially, “Yeah, but Cars 2. Yeah, but Brave.” And so on. Can you be skeptical of Pixar after they announce a sequel to a film that ended so definitively as to make a follow-up sound impossible, such as Finding Nemo 2? Of course. Quizzically raising your eyebrows is vastly different than being so critical of what might happen in Pixar’s future that you presume the absolute worst instantly. How can we write off a collective of men and women who brought us the story of a positively human bunch of toys, or of how adults grapple with being responsible role models for their children while fighting evil, and on and on? Pixar’s past is as important as its future, yet arguments like Quinlan’s don’t acknowledge it because all that matters is The Now. In The Now, we hear rumors of Toy Story 4. In The Now, we see that Albert Brooks has signed on to voice Marlin again, reteaming with Ellen DeGeneres for Finding Nemo 2. In The Now, we watch a new preview for Monsters University and find it wanting, because when we hit play on the YouTube clip, we expect it to. The Good Dinosaur? What’s that? Inside Out? Never heard of it. All that matters is what is in front of us right now, not what lies on our DVD shelves or what presents itself as a production still.

The Good Dinosaur Concept Art

As such, it makes sense that people pit Pixar against Disney, Brave against Wreck-It Ralph, at least in terms of audience opinion. (This, because the former film grossed more at the box office than the latter, by a fair bit.) It will make an equal amount of sense in a couple years, should The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out vault Pixar back into the pantheon of the present, for people to rave about how the folks in Emeryville got their groove back. “What a comeback!”, the blogosphere will declare. And what happens if, this year, all the naysayers walk into Monsters University and the next Walt Disney Animation Studios project, Frozen, and exit to find that, hey, guess what? Turns out the story of a young Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan is more satisfying than a new take on the tale of the Snow Queen! Maybe the roles will be reversed, or maybe both films will let us down/blow us away. We don’t allow ourselves to hope for the future when such arguments are made—Quinlan focuses more in her piece on Pixar’s recent failings after years of success, and doesn’t once mention Frozen, even though it’s got a Wreck-It Ralph crew connection in writer and co-director Jennifer Lee and would actually help her entire point make a modicum of sense—because the pop-culture blinders we wear are so constricting that it’s easier to focus on the immediate.

Quinlan, as with many online gadflies, posits her piece as proof that Wreck-It Ralph has lifted Disney back into the stratosphere, and that Pixar is once again an insignificant speck facing off with an unstoppable monolith. However, neither her opinion, nor those of others, are about legitimate championing of a studio or a film; they’re about being first to fire the shots of smug, self-satisfied hyperintelligence. If Pixar truly is on an extended downhill slant, such writers can shout that they knew before the rest of us rubes. In our online culture, there is nothing more important than being first; after years of this mentality, it’s hard not to read a piece like Quinlan’s and almost see the glee throughout at spotting what other critics do not. (The way she conflates Brave’s Golden Globe win with some widespread critical praise proves, among other things, that she has no idea who constitutes the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and how calling them “critics” is generous at best, as well as how they don’t actually represent the Western world of film criticism. She later uses Rotten Tomatoes as proof…against Brave, further emphasizing the weightlessness of her piece.)

Ratatouille

Whatever creative status Pixar may have had after releasing Ratatouille, WALL-E, and the like is one we granted the studio; if one or two missteps allows them to fall off some societal pedestal, then maybe it’s time we stopped reacting so hyperbolically, so quickly. We are in a golden age of animation, a time unlike any other in cinema history. Once, we were lucky to see one animated full-length feature a year, and now, it’s common to get at least one a month, all from different companies. That we can even pit Pixar against Disney, or DreamWorks, or Sony Pictures Animation, or Laika is a true marvel. Ranking the best films each of these animation studios has offered is all well and good, but presuming the worst for one and the best for another, when using only the most recent example for each company, is ridiculous. What if Wreck-It Ralph was a fluke? What if the doubts people have about Monsters University are unfounded? The lesson from pieces like Quinlan’s is simple: ignoring the past and future of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios will only guarantee foolish, inappropriately narrow opinions about their present.

About Josh Spiegel

Josh isn't just a Disney buff, a film buff, or a TV buff. He's a pop-culture obsessive, through and through. His long journey began in Western New York and has taken him to the American Southwest, where he resides with his wife and six--count 'em, six--cats. Among his favorite overall films are Singin' In The Rain, There Will Be Blood, A Matter of Life and Death, and The Royal Tenenbaums. His favorite Disney movie (non-Pixar) is Beauty and the Beast, but his favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, and he thinks the latter is at least five times better than the former. Read more of Josh's work at Movie Mezzanine.

  • nick

    This was excellent! Great job! You are absolutely, 100% correct! :)

  • JayEllCee12

    Excellent work, as always, Josh. I think people pitting Disney and Pixar’s animated films against each other is completely futile, because Pixar films are still Disney films, and John Lasseter oversees both Pixar’s and Disney’s feature films. Yes, I liked Wreck-it Ralph more than Brave, but that doesn’t mean Pixar has gone down the tubes (is that the saying?); I’m actually quite intrigued by these future projects!

  • Randy Grossert

    I fully agree. Writing half-baked articles that represent a writer’s hunch or feeling is not good journalism. However, I believe articles like Quinlan’s are also important because – even in their inaccuracy – they convey a notion movie critics share: something must had happened in Pixar that ultimately resulted in Cars 2, a movie so not-up-to-the-previously-set-up-standards that it made even hardcore Pixar fans cringe. Cars 2 managed to embody the conventional wisdom of “this happens to a great company once Steve Jobs is gone”; it looks like it was made to sell toys rather than to present a great story or great characters. If people are doubtful of Monsters University, they are rightfully so, as it, too, offers huge merchandising possibilities. It is up to Pixar to prove them wrong.

    As for the quality of Brave, it is my deepest belief that it had been the cancellation of Newt amidst concerns of its similarity to Rio that disrupted the workflow at Pixar and lead to Brave being slightly rushed. After all, Merida and her mother are the only properly developed characters with virtually all other characters being delegated to slapstick-comedy-only roles, which is a shame, really. Despite that, we should still have in mind that Brave deserves its academy award – if not for the screenplay, then definitely for the imagery, music, sound and sheer quality of the animation.

    Pixar simply got lost in success. Their movies are still great, but they no longer feel “insanely great”, as Steve Jobs would say…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jaezander.kitinoja Jae Zander Kitinoja

    Exactly, competition is good to an extent, but at this point, its a bit too much to be healthy competition. People have percieved Disney and Pixar to be at each other’s throats for far too long and it is getting ridiculous. Art should never be judged in such harsh light, accusing steals so often and basing one’s opinion on the quality of a film by its box office score. There are plenty of amazing movies that just don’t get the attention they deserve in theatres, like Disney’s later hand drawn animated movies.

  • Mistyfeathers

    i for one say that disney is better, why? because they have more range and talent. My evidence? They are not relying on one medium of animation they use both 2d and 3d animations where are pixar uses only computer generation. I say more talent because of the same argument they have more range of different talents (there are more people needed for a traditional animation) disney is what is keeping my passion (traditional 2d animation) alive that is why i for one say that disney is better because i have my heart set of spending the rest of my life preserving this rare talent of traditional 2d animation where as pixar and dream works have given up on everything animation stands for. I do agree that computer generation can look better at times but there are some things which can not be accomplished even using the technology we have today where as with traditional animation you can draw/animate what ever your heart (or your boss) desires

  • Mexican

    gotta correct you, Chicken Little wasn’t DisneyToon but was in fact DAS

  • Hoài Mạnh Cao

    Disney vs. Pixar :3