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Wreck-It Disney?

How the Animation Giant Stole Pixar's Mojo


In Wreck-It Ralph, the Disney film up for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the hero Ralph, voiced by a croaky John C. Reilly, opens by brooding about his fate. Shrek-chested, with arms so thick they rip his sleeves, Ralph was born to play the villain, programmed into a retro-chic arcade game where he has the Sisyphean task of pummeling a pixellated building. Each time a kid drops a quarter, Ralph is expected to Wreck. The result is that those who dwell in his game—residents of the threatened building, the angelic hero "Fix-It Felix"—despise him.

Ralph doesn't feel himself to be a villain. He would like to give up the oppressor's perch, to instead play the role of a heroic underdog.

In the film, such a transformation is possible: Villains can force themselves to change, can gain the title of a hero, can let go their bad reputations.

In Hollywood, it's tough.

Take Ralph as a parable of Walt Disney Animation, the studio that produced it (and which has never won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature). In recent years, the Burbank campus responsible for Chicken Little and Cinderella II has found itself cast as a lunk with a taste for walloping flat the risky and bold, a bully whose moves are as predictable as a programmed arcade. But Ralph—a clever, winky film many predict will win this weekend—reveals a studio that is shoving off its boorish image, nailing the blend of warm-hearted classic and brittle wit coined by its CGI-pioneering acquisition Pixar, which heretofore played underdog and hero.

Meanwhile Pixar, which Disney bought in 2006 in a $7.4 billion stock deal that shoved Pixar's creatives into Disney's top spots, appears to be flopping without its top talent. Last summer's Brave might as well have been titled Cowardly. And yet it was rewarded this winter with a Golden Globe for Best Feature, as if the critics were still programmed to love Pixar. Had they not noticed that Pixar had begun to fall?

The studio once known for fresh premises that defied easy marketing (a kitchen rat, a mute robot), much like the Disney of the 1990s, last year announced a spate of upcoming sequels: another Finding Nemo, another Monsters, Inc. Like the Disney that brought you Cinderella II, Pixar has begun to look like a factory watering down its product for the good of box-office gold. And the latest trailer for Monsters University doesn't bode well, selling viewers a premise that recalls a cliché college comedy and jokes so flat they're almost sad.1

"For years we could point to a Pixar film to show us the way, to show us what's next," said animation historian Jerry Beck, who runs the insider news site Cartoon Brew. "I can't tell you who that is right now, where that is right now. But I'm excited about what's going on in Disney animation."

Have the studios gone Freaky Friday and reversed roles? Is Disney now a quirky, artistic oasis while its pledge has come to suffer the conservatism brought on by success?

Zoom in closer and you'll see that, as in Ralph, the players have been miscast: The villain was never so bad, the underdog never so innocent. And if Ralph tops Brave at the Oscars, that may well be spelled out.

Early Disney was, like pre-merger Pixar, bold and innovative, the product of passionate animators who worked elbow-to-elbow in a cramped Silver Lake bungalow. In 1937, when Snow White debuted as Hollywood's first animated feature, Walt Disney had firmly established a reputation as a risk-taker. He had been the first to try animating in full-color and the first to record dialogue for a cartoon; Snow White charmed audiences of adults both thanks to those pioneering technologies. Among those who praised the film were abstract painter Piet Mondrian, who owned the soundtrack of whistling dwarves, and Adolf Hitler, who kept a copy in his collection.

But since Walt's death in 1966, the bold invention he had become known for faded. In his name, the studio cranked out lackluster imitations and rejected innovation. Disney animator John Lasseter, educated at Disney-funded CalArts by animators who had served under Walt himself, saw an early screener of 1982's special-effects-laden Tron and recognized it as a solution to what Walt Disney had been seeking: a way to bring more depth-of-field to cartoons. He developed a pitch for the studio's first computer-animated feature (The Brave Little Toaster) but Disney, under former CEO Michael Eisner, rejected it and fired Lasseter.

Ed Catmull, then head of the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic, recruited Lasseter—not to help turn the company into a feature-film studio, but in the hopes that an animator who understood storytelling could better showcase the company's graphic-rendering technology. (At conferences, the company pitched its software as a great tool for artists.) Catmull, who had joined ILM after Star Wars, understood firsthand what creative prestige could do for the company, notes David A. Price, author of The Pixar Touch. "Pixar throughout its history has been very mindful of the importance of status and prestige," says Price. "It's been very canny in where those things come from and how they come about."

Pixar didn't become Pixar, of course, until Steve Jobs bought ILM's computer graphics division for $5 million in 1986, shortly after he was forced out of Apple. As the company's mission shifted toward filmmaking, Catmull harnessed the commercial value of artistic prestige. Unlike the Disney animators who worked in cubicles, guarded by receptionists who signed off with "Have a magical day!," as though the 'toons appeared due to "magic," Pixar paraded its directors down the red carpet. When they spoke, they didn't comment on the commercial impulses that had prompted their films but of "inspiration" from their own lives. Audiences were told that Toy Story's lead characters were children's toys not only because early software had a tough time animating believable humans, but because Lasseter's kids had discovered a box of his old toys. And Finding Nemo was inspired by director Andrew Stanton's visit to an aquarium with his son.

Pixar was an auteur studio, an artsy underdog not unlike Jobs's other company, Apple (he was brought back as CEO in 1997). "John Lasseter and the others at Pixar saw themselves as working in the Disney tradition," says David A. Price. "But at the same time, they rejected what had become the conventions of Disney Animated Films." Just as Disney had once broken ground, they now were.

It was as easy to imagine urban cinephiles downloading Wall-E as it was to imagine Piet Mondrian picking up an LP of the Snow White soundtrack. And the company furthered its artsy reputation with a smorgasbord of press about the $88 million campus it opened in 2001. While it featured Silicon Valley staples like pool tables and tiki torches, the campus was also designed to avoid the mistakes Disney made in leaving its cramped start-up studio for its swanky Burbank digs in 1939, a move one retired Disney animator had pegged to the stultification of the studio.2 Lasseter, then vice president, and Jobs decided to house the animators in a single building, where they would rub up against each other, even going so far as to locate bathrooms in a central area so that animators from different projects would be forced to cross paths and share ideas.

Now its Disney and Pixar who are crossing paths, sharing ideas. And as the first two CGI films developed entirely after the Disney-Pixar merger in 2006, Brave and Ralph are our initial glimpses of what to expect from this relationship.

When Lasseter became chief creative officer at Disney Animation Studios in 2006, he inherited a studio with a slate of CGI films already in the pipeline, including what would become Bolt andTangled. At Pixar, where he also served as chief creative officer, the critically lauded films UpWall-E, and Ratatouille had been in development for years, with Wall-E's roots extending as far back as 1994.

After the merger, Disney CEO Robert Iger addressed fears about the slate of Pixar projects already in development, promising to stay out of Pixar projects that were already underway. He also agreed to an extensive list of Pixar's stipulations, including maintaining a separate creative campus and not forcing employees to switch over to Disney e-mail addresses.

Iger's goal in the purchase seemed, from the outside, not to eke more profit out of Pixar, but rather to infuse Disney's flailing animation department with Pixar's magic. Iger knew that Pixar's value lay not in its technology or its film rights (for Disney already had distribution rights to Pixar's back catalog), but in the top talent it had recruited. In the final shakedown, Iger installed Lasseter as chief creative officer and Catmull as president of both Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. While Pixar saw no staff changes, Disney saw 300 staff laid off or reassigned under Lasseter, who also considered reinvigorating Disney's slate of upcoming films—reshaping storylines, canceling projects.

Meanwhile, over at Pixar, the first projects to begin development entirely after the merger were box-office-safe sequels to Toy Story and Cars. Cars 2 would become Pixar's greatest critical failure, a film that felt crushed to death by the weight of too many executives—a fate it would seemingly never have suffered had Pixar remained independent.

Then came Brave. Advertised as a feminist comeuppance as springy as its protagonist's red curls, it did its heroine a disservice by stuffing her into a kilt-happy, fairy-infested cliché of Scotland, in which it would not have been shocking to witness Groundskeeper Willie raising a fist. What was groundbreaking about Brave shouldn't have been: It was Pixar's first project with a female protagonist and its first directed by a woman. And this was supposedly a quirky, 21st-century studio? 

Brave's production was plagued by what its initial director, Brenda Chapman, called "creative differences." Chapman, who had made her name as a story artist for Disney and a director at DreamWorks Animation, had based Brave's story and character summaries on her relationship with her own daughter. That was in 2004, before the purchase by Disney, and in 2011 she was replaced by Mark Andrews, writer of 2012's smash failure John Carter. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Chapman claimed that since the company's sale, new executives had expressed boredom with her original storyline.

While Pixar had replaced directors before—on Ratatouille, for instance—Chapman went public in an op-ed for The New York Times, describing her removal as "devastating," adding, "Sometimes women express an idea and are shot down, only to have a man express essentially the same idea and have it broadly embraced." (She wasn't more specific, perhaps because she was on a leave of absence from her employer. She is now a consultant at Lucasfilm.)

Pixar had once prided itself on its ability to nurture top talent, and now seemed both a place that shut down creativity and was unwilling to nurture voices outside of its boys' club.

At Disney, Lasseter had overseen the redesign of Tinkerbell: Her skimpy dress was made more practical with a pair of leggings, a cap, and mountain-climbing boots for 2009's Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure. At Pixar, meanwhile, animators designed Brave's Merida with "strong, athletic legs," reported The New York Times, "but in the final film they are rarely seen, as Merida usually wears a long dress." It was almost too obvious a metaphor: Every "brave" choice in the film had been smothered. Disney was giving boots to fairies, and Pixar couldn't even edit out the long dress.

Brave opened to a 78 percent critical rating from Rotten Tomatoes—especially unimpressive when compared to fellow Pixar releases Toy Story (100%), Toy Story 2 (100%), and Toy Story 3 (99%).

While Brave suffered a critical comparison to Disney flops, Ralph enjoyed a critical call-back to Pixar's early years. As in Toy Story, peopled with retro Speak-n-Says and Potato Heads, Ralph pays homage to the fanboy childhoods of its creators with a cameo from Q*bert and other light touches. And as in Finding Nemo and A Bug's Life, the film zoomed viewers into a curious new world that animators could invent from scratch. The film even included what had become one of Pixar's odder storytelling devices—a quirky group therapy session of villainized misfits (a steal from the short Small Fry) and an immense factory that churns out fiction (a la Monsters, Inc.). In a Q&A on the Web forum Reddit, a fan asked director Rich Moore, "How annoyed are you with everyone calling this a Pixar movie?" Moore laughed it off. "Hey, it's better than calling it a Dreamworks movie."

Meanwhile, Sarah Silverman—the bold, brash female comic who voiced a smarmy racecar driver in Ralph—called her character "the first feminist Disney princess."

Disney had won even that race.

That Disney feels sort of like Pixar now, and that Pixar feels sort of like Disney, could just be the effect of a healthy merger: While Disney picked up Pixar's creative energy, due perhaps to the influx of talents such as Lasseter's, once-roguish Pixar has suffered from the natural entropy of fusing with a more traditional studio: Its decisions are safer, its voice less unique.

But maybe that's a smart business move. For Pixar to hold back now, to maintain a strong cash-flow so that Disney can experiment with ways of emboldening its brand, makes sense in the long term vision for two companies, whose films may end up feeling more and more similar because of their alliance.

In Pixar, Disney has found a way to be young again. Its 2006 purchase was not the act of a boorish Ralph, scooping up an underdog only to Wreck-It. Rather, if Disney is a villain it is the evil stepmother who, gazing into the magical mirror, sees that time has treated her unkindly, that the only way to regain her success is to poison her step-daughter. And right now, with the Oscar face-off between Brave and Ralph, we may be watching the Stepmother win.

  1. One gag involves a treadmill programmed to run so fast that Mike spins right off, another comes at the expense of a snail monster who runs—wait for ittoo slowly.

  2. Looking around Pixar's cramped first office, the animator had told Lasseter that it was just as Disney's Hyperion studios had felt. "I wish I were young again," he said.

Correction: Ed Catmull joined Industrial Light and Magic after Star Wars—not, as the article originally stated, after the first Star Wars trilogy.