‘Onward’ Isn’t the First Pixar Movie That Disney Has Faced Legal Trouble For

As acclaimed as Pixar is, even what many regard as the premier animation studio runs into trouble. And the latest blight they’re dealing with is for a movie that isn’t even out yet. 

That would be Onward, the movie coming out March 6, with Tom Holland and Chris Pratt playing brothers who are elves looking to resurrect their late father. An artist has sued the studio claiming part of that movie copies from his work. This isn’t the first time the studio has faced such a lawsuit.

Pixar headquarters
Pixar headquarters | Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Why is Pixar being sued over ‘Onward?’

In the movie, Holland and Pratt’s characters travel in a van decked out with elaborate artwork in a style popular with the classic rock crowd in the 70s. According to The Hollywood Reporter, an artist who has a similar vehicle called “the vainicorn” alleges Pixar used her concepts without her permission. 

The complaint says that Pixar reached out to the artist, Sweet Cicely Daniher, about renting her vehicle for a private event, and the vehicle was only to be used as a visual prop. But when the artists saw the promo materials for Onward, she posted on Instagram, “WOW! Sooo, do y’all think Pixar Disney stole the Vanicorn for their movie #onward ????”

Daniher said the producer of Onward contacted her to apologize, and the producer supposedly admitted Pixar didn’t tell the artist what they were doing because the film didn’t have a title at the time, and without a title, they couldn’t have her sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Daniher didn’t buy it. Disney has not responded to the complaint, but the animation website Cartoon Brew said Daniher’s case is weak because her artwork is itself based on someone else’s concept. 

Other Pixar movies have had behind-the-scenes troubles

While Onward aims to be a new and different kind of story for Pixar, this kind of legal trouble is not new to the studio. Their highly acclaimed, Oscar-winning movie Inside Out, about the emotions Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger guiding a preteen girl, was sued twice by people who claim the film’s concept was based on their ideas, according to The Wrap. One of those claims was dismissed by the court. 

Pixar movies have run into other kinds of difficulties as well. Much was made of the fact that a movie called The Bear and the Bow was going to be directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman, but another director was assigned, and the picture was reworked into what became Brave. That movie won Oscars, but a disappointed Chapman left the company. 

Another movie, The Good Dinosaur, also ran into story problems and had its director replaced. Most of the time, a Pixar movie succeeds despite creative struggles, but that one grossed $123 million, putting it at the bottom of their box office pile.

‘Onward’ goes to a new time slot

Onward represents a departure for Pixar just by dint of its release date. Up to now, every Pixar movie had come out in the prime slots of either the holiday or summer movie seasons. Onward is the studio’s first movie to be released outside of those slots with its March release. That movie is directed by Dan Scanlon, who also directed Monsters University. 

Pixar is also doubling up this year, releasing a second film in June. That will be Soul, in which Jamie Foxx plays a jazz musician who apparently dies in an accident, and becomes a sort of spirit, not unlike the emotions in Inside Out. Like that movie, Soul is directed by Pete Docter, who is also the company’s creative chief. 

However, the studio says they’re not the same. They certainly don’t want to be caught copying their own ideas either. 

“We went in a completely different direction than any of the other films that Pete’s done,” co-director Kemp Powers told EW. “It’s hard to contain our enthusiasm over how much people are going to be surprised by what they see.”