For several years, Pixar’s animated films made Pixar’s parent company, Disney, look good. And meanwhile, Disney’s own in-house animation studio was going through a rough patch—the company wasn’t making the kind of films people expected from Walt Disney’s namesake.
Of course, most families probably didn’t realize at first that Pixar was a separate company, making films that Disney only distributed. Disney had very little to do with the creation of these films, but the arrangement worked great for everyone. Pixar made great movies, Disney put them out, and both the Disney and Pixar got the credit.
However, just as Disney was releasing all those Pixar hits, Disney Animation—a branch of the company with one of the most amazing resumes in film history—was still releasing its own films. Films that usually, and unfortunately, were much less memorable. So Pixar started to become the new face of Disney Animation. Until recently.
It took lots of time, effort, blood, sweat and tears—but with films like Frozen, Big Hero 6 and next month’s new film Zootopia, Walt Disney Animation Studios has finally done the impossible: It’s regained its former glory and can easily share the animation throne with Pixar.
Walt Disney Feature Animation first got on the map in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. At the time, this film was a landmark: the first ever feature-length animated film. Then, basically for the next 30 years, Disney Animation thrived. Snow White was followed by Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. Later, the company would release Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book and more. It was an absurd winning streak.
In 1966 Walt Disney himself, who had played a massive part in most of those movies, died. With that and more facing the company, the 1970s saw a considerable dip. But Disney made a notable comeback in the late 80s and early 90s, with films like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and others.
Then, in 1995, Pixar released Toy Story, and it changed everything. Pixar had a new way of making films—not just using computer animation, but almost creating a story by committee. It used a brain trust of talented filmmakers to break down every aspect of a film, and do intense quality control. Using the collective talent of not just one or two filmmakers, but dozens at a time, plus a whole new visual medium that felt modern and exciting, Pixar’s movies leapfrogged over Disney’s, and captured the imaginations of the world.
Over 20 years have passed since Pixar’s first movie and the company’s track record remains almost on par with that early string from Disney Animation. Film after film, hit after hit, there have basically only been two or three critical missteps and maybe one financial hiccup. And meanwhile, Disney’s way of doing animation basically went extinct.
Disney films like Tarzan, The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch and Brother Bear did okay critically and financially, but paled in comparison to Pixar’s films released at the same time. (Films like Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up.) The Academy Awards created an award for Best Animated Feature film in 2001, and for the several years, Pixar won the award seven times. Disney won zero.
Enter John Lassetter and Ed Catmull. In 2006, Disney officially bought Pixar outright and these two men—the executives who had installed the “brain trust” mentality at Pixar—were hired to do the same at Disney Animation. It took a few years, but slowly things started to change. First came Bolt, then The Princess and the Frog, then Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6 and of course Frozen, which remains the highest grossing animated film of all time. Frozen also scored Disney Animation its first Academy Award for Best Animated Film, a feat that was repeated the next year with Big Hero 6.
And I’m here to tell you things are just getting better. Last week, I was lucky enough to catch an early screening of Disney Animation’s latest film, Zootopia. You’ve probably seen the trailers. Maybe you laughed, maybe you didn’t, but nothing can prepare you for the truth. It’s the best film Disney Animation has made in 20 years. Yes that means I think it’s better than Pocahontas, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph, and even Frozen. (No, it won’t have the cultural impact of Frozen, but it’s a better movie.)
Not only is Zootopia fast-paced, smart and funny, with wonderful characters and some of the most gorgeous, realistic computer animation ever put on screen, it’s almost unfathomably timely. At its heart, Zootopia is about stereotypes and exploiting a society where one side of the population is a massive majority. Though all the animals in the film, predator and prey alike, live together, many judge others solely on their heritage. Others want the minorities simply taken out. These are just a few of the barriers that have to be broken by both of the film’s leads, a “sly” fox and a “cute” bunny. This pair hate and label each other at the beginning of the film, and learn to look deeper by the end. Most Disney movies have messages—but in the current social climate, these feels a bit more immediate, and it’s handled with a lot more complexity than we’re used to.
Having that timely message at the center of Zootopia gives it a great poignancy. A poignancy that’s only aided by the sheer entertainment value of the movie. Not only is it a film worthy of Pixar, it’s light years ahead of Pixar’s most recent movie, The Good Dinosaur. Now, is it as good as Pixar at its best? Inside Out or Toy Story good? No, probably not. But it definitely deserves at least to be in the conversation, along with films like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6.
And yet even with all that, there are other factors in play here too. Disney Animation and Pixar now create films in the same way, and share creative resources, so the two balancing out makes sense. Plus Pixar’s films were so successful in the past, Pixar’s begun to make more and more sequels (Monsters University recently, plus Finding Dory, Cars 3, Toy Story 4 and Incredibles 2 coming soon) while Disney’s lack of success in the past has led to more franchise-starters and standalones of late. It’s generally accepted that sequels aren’t as good as originals, though Pixar’s “sequels” are often way better than the Hollywood standard and Disney’s “originals” are almost all based on other properties. Plus Disney will soon be making its own animated sequels (Frozen 2, for example) and Pixar released two original films last year, one of which was nominated for Best Animated Film.
But none of that changes this basic fact: From a time when Pixar was ruling everything and Disney Animation Studios was making Treasure Planet and Home on the Range, things have once again aligned. Disney has not only gotten back to the high bar of quality set by Pixar, but that of its namesake, too.