The Day Disney Animation Surpassed Pixar
Pixar is widely heralded as the gold standard for what animation should be: Adult themes told in kids movies set to gorgeous backdrops. Its body of work has touched on topics like growing old and dying, pollution, growing up, family dynamics, and more. For almost a decade, its movies have been crossover hits that parents enjoy just as much (if not more than) the children that dragged them to it in the first place. Lately though, there’s been a tectonic shift within Disney, the company that owns both Pixar and their own animation studio.
The success of Pixar’s animation empire began back in 1995, with the release of the very first Toy Story. Since then, their success peaked with Toy Story 3 back in 2011, followed by a steady decline across the board. Meanwhile, Walt Disney Animation Studios has upped the ante with offerings like Frozen, Wreck It Ralph, and Big Hero 6. So where and why did this disconnect come about?
Pixar is at its strongest when it’s telling good stories. They don’t need to be overly wrought or complicated, just fundamentally sound and structured around promoting a message that audiences can relate to. Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats even outlined that exact structure in a 22-point “rules of storytelling” Twitter lesson. But since the release of their most unnecessary sequel ever, Cars 2, that structure has been largely abandoned. Followed by a movie where the prevailing emotion was “well it wasn’t bad” in Brave, and then the scattered prequel Monsters University, all this led to the studio deciding not to release a movie at all in 2014, marking our first Pixar-less year since 1997.
Meanwhile, Disney Animation has been pumping out solid gold movie after solid gold movie, all of which are telling more nuanced and interesting stories than anything Pixar has put out in the last three years. Wreck It Ralph digs into the nostalgia of the age of arcade games, as our main character looks to overcome the nature of how he was made. Frozen explores the relationship of sisters and familial bonds, set to an addictive soundtrack. Big Hero 6 (spoilers ahead) shows us how a teenager copes with the death of his brother. Comparatively, they’ve been wiping the floor with Pixar and it hasn’t been close for some time now.
The upcoming Pixar slate gives us both hope and trepidation for the future of the studio. In 2015, two originals are on the docket with Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. Following that though, we have Finding Dory (a Finding Nemo spin-off) and Toy Story 4 (another sequel). Two more sequels are also in the works with The Incredibles 2 and Cars 3, doing little to inspire confidence in Pixar’s ability to create compelling original works — something they used to do almost effortlessly.
With Walt Disney Animation Studios not showing any signs of slowing down, Pixar will almost certainly have their work cut out for them in the coming days. The underlying factor left to consider is that John Lasseter, the former header of Pixar now crowned the king of all things Disney animation, has shifted his focus. Since directing Toy Story 2, the only project he’s been directly tied to has been the Cars franchise, arguably the weakest one of the bunch. Given that the central idea behind Cars 2 was “what if we included 50% more Larry the Cable Guy,” it sure doesn’t inspire confidence.