Nine months after this article kickstarted the Pixar Perspective column, it’s worth taking stock of the calendar year 2013. (With just three weeks left before we start 2014, it is, of course, possible that there may be more news on the horizon, but doubtful.) In that first editorial, the topic was the now-common choice among writers to pit Pixar Animation Studios against Walt Disney Animation Studios, only a few weeks after Brave won the Best Animated Feature Oscar over the apparent underdog, Wreck-It Ralph. A similar inter-company battle may occur once again, as Frozen and Monsters University are assumed to be among this year’s top challengers for the prize, along with another film being distributed under the Disney banner, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. And unlike even Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen has performed extremely well to this point; it’s too early to know for sure, but it could easily wind up as the highest-grossing feature in the Disney animated canon since The Lion King. Never mind, of course, that Monsters University, despite not being as widely embraced by critics, made nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars worldwide. For yet another year, Disney has “beaten” Pixar, in some people’s minds.
As discussed here in the past, the modern attention span is notoriously short, especially regarding popular culture. (Note that a number of the most rapturous reviews of Frozen seem to ignore the very existence of Tangled, another computer-animated fairy tale with Broadway-style songs that was highly praised in 2010 but has since been forgotten, for some strange reason.) In the summer of 2010, Pixar was at a peak that it may never replicate: three consecutive original films that were both financially and creatively successful followed by Toy Story 3, the capper to a wholly brilliant trilogy that’s also the company’s highest-grossing film. Once Tangled opened that November, the tide began to turn. Now, with Frozen opening mere days after Pixar laid off a number of employees, it seems that Pixar has turned into the underdog once again. A recent piece at The Hollywood Reporter makes this explicit in the sub-headline: “Frozen’s success shows the house that Walt built can compete with a sibling rival that is enduring layoffs and criticism of its sequel strategy even as box office booms.” For nearly two decades, Pixar has dominated the world of animation; arguably, its influence on its competition remains highly visible, but for now, it seems that they’re no longer the leaders, but something closer to followers.
The operative phrase in that sentence, of course, is “for now.” 2014 is going to be, at best, a year of renewal for Pixar, the first year since 2005 with no feature from them. The company’s problems related to The Good Dinosaur have been well-documented—and let it be said here that the more time it takes for any updates to that film’s production, the more possible it is that the film is headed, sadly, to the scrap heap. In essence, we’re playing a new waiting game until Inside Out opens in the middle of 2015, different from the waiting game of wondering if Brave or Monsters University would replicate the same creative heights of Pixar’s past. The new waiting game is wondering if something else bad is going to happen to Pixar in 2014. One, of course, hopes that simply because they’ll have no new releases, next year can’t be nearly as bad as 2013 was, at least in terms of mounting negative press. The flip side is that 2014 could be Disney’s year. Yes, Frozen has performed very well, but it hasn’t reached the same universal acclaim that, say, Beauty and the Beast received in 1991. That film became the peak of the Disney Renaissance period, and Frozen could be the beginning of a new golden age for Disney. But that can only happen if they use 2014 to their advantage, running as far ahead of the pace as possible, leaving Pixar and the other animation studios in the dust.
So if Pixar is up against the wall, what does 2014 portend for them in terms of their competition? On one hand, there will be plenty of it next year: including the wide release of Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises in February, 12 new animated films will open domestically in the next 12 months. Though none of those come from Pixar, three of them do come from the Walt Disney Company: the aforementioned The Wind Rises via Touchstone, Planes: Fire and Rescue via DisneyToon Studios, and Big Hero 6 via Walt Disney Animation Studios and Marvel. However, at this point, it seems likely that the most highly anticipated animated release of next year doesn’t come from within the House of Mouse, but from DreamWorks Animation: How to Train Your Dragon 2. This sequel to the widely beloved 2010 film, which is often held up as both DreamWorks Animation’s best film and a very good movie indeed, now has a prime spot in the summer movie season since The Good Dinosaur shuffled off to November 2015. How to Train Your Dragon 2 isn’t the only animated sequel being unveiled next year, but if any animated movie, at this early outset, has a shot at stealing Pixar’s thunder next year, it’s probably this one. (Another potential early contender is, of all things, The Lego Movie, based more on its writers-directors, the same men who helmed Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.)
The question for the future, then, may be this: how long will people hold Cars 2 against Pixar, and how long will people hold up Frozen as being enough for Walt Disney Animation Studios? The former film has colored the perception a lot of people have about Pixar for the last 2 years and counting, and the latter film is currently being presented as the best possible example of what Disney animation should be in the years to come. Both in live action and animation, 2014 is a very important year for Disney because it’s a very important year for Marvel; specifically, the last few months of 2014 are key for Disney and Marvel. Early next year, we’ll get Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the sequel to Captain America: The Last Avenger. But then, for the first time in a while, we’ll be introduced to new Marvel superheroes, not the familiar favorites like Iron Man, Thor, or the Incredible Hulk. Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters in August of 2014, coming near the tail end of the second phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Big Hero 6, to be clear, isn’t part of the official phases of Marvel movies, but this film—with an as-yet-announced voice cast—along with Guardians of the Galaxy will be an interesting test for non-comic-book-reading audiences. Will characters like Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, Hiro Hamada, and GoGo Tamago be as eagerly accepted as Tony Stark and Steve Rogers?
Specific to this discussion, it’s perhaps more worth wondering if Big Hero 6 will feel of a piece with the rest of the films in the Disney animated canon. Granted, it’s not terribly surprising that there wasn’t a teaser for this new film attached to Frozen (the target audiences are arguably quite different), but that doesn’t help Big Hero 6 seem like anything more than a giant question mark for Walt Disney Animation Studios. This column has mentioned as much in the past, but it’s a bit surprising to see how much more nebulous the future of Disney animation is compared to Pixar Animation Studios. For better or worse, the Emeryville studio is more transparent—not much more, but a little bit more—in revealing its upcoming slate as well as explaining the shifts within it. (Strange though it is, it’s only been a few months since the lead cast for The Good Dinosaur was revealed at the D23 Expo.) What we know of Disney’s animation future is vague at best: after Big Hero 6, there are four animated projects on their slate in 2016 and 2018. There’s Zootopia, about anthropomorphized animals working and living in the big city; Giants, a fairy tale loosely based on Jack and the Beanstalk; Moana, a musical set in the Polynesian islands from the directors of The Little Mermaid; and something as yet untitled, potentially a teenage-focused space race movie. So, over the next 5 years, as of this writing, Walt Disney Animation Studios has five films in the pipeline; in contrast, Pixar Animation Studios has at least six films in production. (Lee Unkrich’s long-awaited Dia de los Muertos-themed film may be getting one of the previously announced release dates in 2017 or 2018, or there may be a seventh film getting one of those dates.)
What this shows, if anything, is that Disney may be holding onto the crown of quality in mainstream animation currently, but their ability to keep it for a long time is shaky at best. Some have compared Frozen to Beauty and the Beast, not just qualitatively, but because of how it points a new way forward for Disney’s animation studio, much as the 1991 film did as the apex of the Disney Renaissance. The problem, then, is that the future for Walt Disney Animation Studios is unclear. (The same is true of Pixar, even though we may know more of that future.) Worldwide box office aside, this was not Pixar’s year. Simply by keeping a lower profile, Walt Disney Animation Studios was able to make Frozen something of a knockout punch, following the wide acclaim for Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, and Wreck-It Ralph. They are on top for now, but the field of mainstream animation is much bigger now than it was in the early 1990s. The future for Pixar is murky at best right now; by the time they return to the big screen in 2015, they may well have multiple serious competition from DreamWorks Animation, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox. For now, they’ve lost the yearly so-called battle to their forebears at Walt Disney Animation Studios. At best, they can regroup and figure out their future strategy, now hazier than it should be. By the time they’re back in action, though, they may find that it’s harder to compete when there’s more on the horizon than just a new Disney fairy tale.