Pixar Animation Studios is the exemplar of originality in Hollywood. This is what we remind ourselves when we get frustrated that they’ve announced a sequel to Finding Nemo or a prequel to Monsters, Inc. If those sequels turn out to be more like Toy Story 2 instead of Cars 2, then good for all of us. But when we think of Pixar, we think original. They may pay homage to animated and live-action films from across the globe, of course; however, what the animators and filmmakers in Emeryville, California do has always been based on original ideas. Today, after considering a recently unearthed report, it’s time to ponder the opposite: what if Pixar did traffic in adaptations of preexisting material?
Over the Memorial Day weekend, Twentieth Century Fox and Blue Sky Studios released a new computer-animated film, Epic, directed by Chris Wedge and based on a book by the author William Joyce. (Wedge directed the original Ice Age and Joyce wrote the book that inspired last year’s Rise of the Guardians.) Though this isn’t meant to represent any kind of review, Epic is a fairly derivative mix of familiar elements from many other family movies despite being well-animated. In short, there are far worse animated movies you or your children could see, but there are a lot better, too. What’s shocking about Epic is that, apparently, at one point, it may well have been animated by Pixar, not Blue Sky Studios. Based on this story from September of 2009 in Variety, it was close to happening. You could argue, not incorrectly, that Pixar never made an official deal on Epic, just attempted to and failed before Fox cut in front of them and kept Wedge at Blue Sky, of course.
But if we take this story at face value—never a guarantee with industry trade reports, to be fair—then one fact is immutable: Pixar has allowed itself to consider making adaptations. Or, for a period of time, it flirted with the notion of doing so. And some Pixar fans perked up their ears at the mention of Lee Unkrich’s upcoming Dia de Los Muertos-themed film, because it seems fairly similar to the beloved old LucasArts video game Grim Fandango. (The game’s creator has disavowed any connection with Pixar, but the comparison keeps getting rehashed whenever Unkrich’s film is discussed.) Yet, when this writer brought the Variety report up on Twitter, a common reaction arose: Pixar is an original intellectual property company. They should stay original, these people said. And yet, should they? Should Pixar stay original all the time? Is there no advantage to doing otherwise?
Last year, Pixar finally overcame an obstacle they may have felt was imposed upon them back in the mid-1990s: making their first princess-themed film, Brave, which was about as close to a fairy tale as they’ve ever made. When Pixar first came on the scene with Toy Story, they were defiantly antithetical to what Disney represented. The quintessential Disney movie was animated by hand; Toy Story was animated by computer. The quintessential Disney movie was a musical; while Toy Story does have a memorable score and a handful of songs composed by Randy Newman, none of the characters sing on screen. The quintessential Disney movie was a fairy tale, often something out of Grimm’s; Toy Story was wholly original, despite perhaps feeling similar to various mismatched buddy comedies of the 1980s. And although you can see inspiration inherent in Pixar’s other films—A Bug’s Life feels as if it owes more than a small debt to some of Aesop’s Fables—they’re all technically original, not based on something that existed already.
Perhaps it’s strange to advocate against originality, but one of Pixar’s best qualities is its diversity in storytelling. We know, or have grown to hope, that every Pixar film will be different, that they may share some voice actors, writers, animators, or filmmakers, but each new entry will be another precious cinematic snowflake. And yet, their diverse nature hits a wall when it comes to direct adaptations, a wall that may need to be torn down soon. More to the point, this is a wall that fans are going to have to acknowledge, if not instantly accept. Presuming that Pixar remains as powerful 10, 20, or even 50 years into the future as the company is now, both in the animation community and at Disney, we must realize that they’ll probably start making adaptations somewhere down the line. And that’s OK.
Why do we blanche at the notion of literary adaptations? Without question, the mainstream movie marketplace is overrun with a glut of unoriginality. The weekend before this column is published, the big new movies include a sixth film in a franchise, a third film in a franchise, a movie based on a book in 3D, a second (or, depending on how you look at it, twelfth) film in a franchise, and more of the same. (Almost exactly the same, as both Iron Man 3 and The Great Gatsby fit two of those descriptors, just like The Hangover Part III and Epic do.) We crave originality from Pixar because we so infrequently get it anywhere else in Hollywood. Independent film is far more commonly original, but those movies that we see in the multiplexes with a big crowd, those from a big-name studio, are rarely original anymore. And even though originality does not always equal high quality, Pixar, for a long time, has bucked this trend.
Would it bother people as much to hear of Pixar making an adaptation of some book—any book—as it did when Disney announced the official existence of Finding Dory? Adapting a book is, or used to be, something less dangerous or fraught with frustration as making a sequel, if only slightly. Oh, sure, there was an outcry when Warner Bros. announced it was making a Great Gatsby adaptation in 3D from the director of Moulin Rouge! But was there as loud an outcry when Epic came out, and Wedge all but admitted in the media that he changed the story’s details because he wanted to make a movie with a similar concept but on a bigger scale? Is there any preexisting text that is sacrosanct, so untouchable that an animation studio as well-known for its imaginative spirit as for its intelligence shouldn’t attempt to create a film out of it?
To presume that Pixar is above adaptation is to presume that they are above acknowledging that which inspires them. A Bug’s Life, for example—one of many films that, if you want to be charitable, you can see inspired the artistic design of Epic—is a story that clearly references Seven Samurai and Three Amigos in its various twists, characters, and concepts. People like John Lasseter have admitted that The Defiant Ones inspired the back-and-forth banter between Sheriff Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the original Toy Story. In WALL-E, you can see the product of minds influenced by seminal science-fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running. None of the homages are so deep that the filmmakers at Pixar had to credit them directly. But you don’t have to look hard to see that even at their most singular and distinctive, Pixar’s films are instantly tied to preexisting materials already.
How often do we read a story and wonder what it might look like were the characters and settings visualized? You could make a solid argument that even the best adaptations will let down the most passionate readers, because our imaginations can never be fully replicated by the cinema. While this may be true, aren’t we essentially walling ourselves off of whatever visual feasts Pixar’s animators might create? The experience you have of reading any book, one that inspired a movie or not, is exactly that: your experience. However you read that story, the person making the movie processes and imagines it in an entirely different way. Their vision for how a movie adaptation of that story should look will be separate from yours. It may be a bit heartbreaking to realize that our reading experiences can’t ever show up on screen the way we might want them. Maybe that’s partly why some people may not want Pixar to branch out from being strictly original, in fears that they will once again be disappointed by a studio that so often impressed them beyond their wildest dreams.
But it is precisely because of that potential disappointment that Pixar should consider more seriously the thought of doing a literary adaptation. (Going back to another wall Pixar has yet to climb, they should also consider making a musical. But that’s a discussion for another day.) As has been mentioned here in the past, one of the many aspects that make Pixar so special is their ability and willingness to be risky. And yes, it is risky to be original, to tell stories that do not have a prior basis in popular culture. By now, this is what typifies Pixar Animation Studios. If anything, their originality has become a bit old hat. They can impress us with striking-sounding concepts—a new movie set inside the human mind, or a story about humans coexisting with dinosaurs—but then, we expect them to. Pixar should not become so complacent as to confirm our presumptions about what they do. It was surprising to realize that Pixar would have, in an alternate universe, made Epic, instead of Blue Sky Studios. And it would be surprising for Pixar to make a literary adaptation in the future. But that’s the right kind of surprise.