A couple of weeks ago we reported an interesting rumor: Pixar is possibly making a musical. The discussion that dominated the comments was about the differences between Disney and Pixar and how blurred the lines are becoming between both studios. Pixar making musicals? Disney releasing a movie like Wreck-It-Ralph? Will the day come when we can’t differentiate them? What exactly are the differences? Let’s dig in!
First of all, it’s necessary to note that Disney bought Pixar back in 2006 and appointed Ed Catmull and John Lasseter as president and chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios. They oversee three studios in total, since they never stopped working for Pixar and they also oversee DisneyToon Studios.
Since Catmull and Lasseter have been in charge of Disney, the studio has experienced a new golden age, which we recently analyzed in our Disney Revival Rundown series. It’s their influence that has reinvigorated Disney. It’s also Catmull and Lasseter that have caused a blurring of the lines between Disney and Pixar. Let’s see why.
Even though it’s been almost 10 years since Disney bought Pixar, the vast differences in style it had before are so important I must mention them. Most of what I will say is taken from two books I highly recommend, DisneyWar and Creativity, Inc. Both shed light on the management of both Disney and Pixar. Let’s start with the oldest of the two.
Disney was really struggling in the 80s. It hadn’t had a real hit in ages. Then came Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who gave the studio new life. Under them, animation came back with films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. That’s quite a list. But when the new millennium came, the energy started to wane and Eisner, clinging to the presidency, fomented a toxic atmosphere at the studios. No one could contradict him, departments were fighting, and movie viewers were punished with a string of underwhelming films.
Meanwhile, Pixar could do no wrong. With a core of creative and talented filmmakers living in an environment that was all about honesty, creativity, and collaboration the hopping lamp studio has given us an unprecedented string of commercial and critical hits that simply cannot be matched. Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3…I mean, COME ON! Even the films that came after those mentioned have been commercial hits (even if the critics haven’t praised them as much).
Ten years ago, Disney had just released Home on the Range and Pixar had given us The Incredibles. It’s not even a competition. Luckily for us, Eisner was ousted. Soon after, Catmull and Lasseter were running Disney Animation and encouraging people to speak freely and pursue creativity at all costs. The rewards are obvious: Tangled, Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen, and more. So, as far as management goes, both studios are really similar right now. If you read interviews and Art of… books, you’ll see people think that Pixar’s Brain Trust (the core group of filmmakers that give feedback and advice to all directors and screenwriters) is much more brutally honest and tough than the Story Trust, Disney’s version of the same thing. But, since the same men run both studios, it’s safe to say the lines are blurred in this aspect (in a good way). The differences arise somewhere else.
“Once Upon a Time” Vs. “What If?”
“There are differences between Pixar and Disney. If you reduced Pixar to a phrase it would be: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if?’ Like if a kid was looking at their toy: What if the toy could talk? All their films are like this.
If you reduced the Disney films it would be: ‘Once upon a time… ‘”- Glen Keane
Well, Glen Keane just made my job writing this article much easier. He puts it perfectly, condensing the styles of both studios into perfect phrases. Disney is all about taking fairytales, books and stories that already exist, and making new, magical versions of them. Even though some of the fairytales it’s adapted have existed for centuries, it’s Disney’s version most people think about when they hear Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. Disney is unbeatable at fairytales. And, its princess musical films are all huge parts of everyone’s childhood. You can’t watch the Disney Classics and not feel the magic that every frame holds.
Pixar, on the other hand, is in the business of making us see completely new worlds. What if toys were alive and moved around when we weren’t looking? It created this world and made one of the best trilogies cinema has ever seen. The sense of wonder you get from a Pixar movie is truly special. What if monsters did live inside our closets? What if a rat wanted to be a chef?
I think this is why Pixar is experiencing a bit of a slump. It’s been almost 6 years since they’ve given us something completely original. Toy Story 3 is literally my favorite movie of all time but it’s not as original as its predecessors, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up. Then came Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University. Another sequel, a fairytale princess movie, and a prequel. But, in just 100 days, we’re getting Inside Out, which seems to take a concept that’s already been explored in a completely new and exciting direction. So, hopefully, the ‘what if’s will be breathtaking again.
Also, it’s interesting to note that 2012 was a bizarre year. Pixar released a princess movie and Disney gave us Wreck-It-Ralph, an excellent ‘what if’ movie.
Villains and Antagonists
As this tumblr post made me realize, there is a key difference regarding how these studios use villains. If you watch James Bond movies, the basic plot is always pretty similar: James Bond has to stop the villain’s plan. If it weren’t for the villain, there would be no plot. This is classically what Disney has done. Without Scar’s machinations, Mufasa would still be alive, Simba would have never left Pride Rock, and we would all have one less childhood trauma. Aladdin would have never found the lamp without Jafar making him enter the Cave of Wonders. Rapunzel would have lived happily with her parents. Vanellope wouldn’t be a glitch. The villain is usually the one who puts the plot in motion and our hero has to overcome the villain’s interference.
Pixar, on the other hand, doesn’t have many villains. Its films have plenty of great antagonists, but few villains. Sid complicates things, but it’s Woody himself who knocks Buzz out that window. Marlin has to confront his fears and the entire ocean on his way to Nemo. Carl would still have to deal with Ellie’s death even if he never met Muntz. The main source of conflict in Pixar movies usually comes from the protagonist him (or her) self. They are their own biggest enemy. Even in The Incredibles, where Syndrome is the villain and the one who makes things happen, the biggest story in that movie is not The Incredibles versus Syndrome, but Bob versus himself. The one true exception is A Bug’s Life, where everything happens because of Hopper’s actions.
This use of villains illustrates a key difference in Disney and Pixar’s storytelling. Disney is much more classic in this aspect. It uses its villains to push its heroes out of their comfort zones and into confronting the reality of what they need. Pixar, instead, makes its own protagonists put themselves in danger, thus making sure the hero can’t escape his or her problems by making the bad guy fall off a castle or tower. Each protagonist has to learn something and grow as a character.
So, these are a few key differences I see between both studios. And, if Pixar does make a musical, I think they will do it the Pixar way. They can’t make a princess musical. Competing with Disney on this front is practically pointless.