If Disney is Mickey Mouse… is Pixar Silly Symphonies?

Within the last two weeks I saw Disney’s Bolt and rewatched Pixar’s Wall•E (as well as moderating a Q&A with writer/director Andrew Stanton). Talking to Stanton about his innovative new film, I was reminded that Pixar’s next release is Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s offbeat Up and Stanton’s next project is an adaptation of Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars. Two completely different films, pushing Pixar (and animation by extension) in new directions, following several prior envelope-pushing efforts from Brad Bird (Ratatouille, The Incredibles, etc.).

Meanwhile Bolt, the first effort from Walt Disney Animation Studios (the new name of the Feature Animation group), is a good solid commercial production. It plays it safe and gives audiences what it expects from a film labeled with the Disney brand.

I had wondered how John Lasseter, running parallel studios, might differentiate the material Pixar would tackle versus the projects to be released under the WDAS banner. Originally I had hoped that John would return Disney to being a hand drawn animation studio, empowered (as Pixar is) to challenge the preconceptions of what hand-drawn character animation can be. However, the choice of The Princess and The Frog seems (to this outsider) a throw-back to what Disney once was, designed to placate the demand for further Disney Princesses’â„¢, and not the progressive direction I was hoping for.

And then it occurred to me. It all became clear.

I don’t know if this is by design, or is Lasseter’s master plan, or if it’s just my wild fantasy… But I think the two studios could (should?) co-exist as a modern day, feature length equivilent of Disney’s two concurrent shorts series of the 1930s: Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies. At least it seems to be where they are heading.

Back when, the Mickey Mouse cartoons were the soul of studio. Disney’s bread-and-butter pictures; they were what the public expected and demanded from his studio. Big, broad and designed to please. The Silly Symphonies were the heart (or at least where Walt’s heart was, en route to Snow White). Each Silly was completely different, pushing the latest technologies, developing new ideas and pursuing new talent. And won all the Oscars.

Presently, WDAS is in full “Mickey Mouse” mode: reinforcing the brand, producing crowd-pleasing films of highest artistic quality and delivering what audiences of all ages, all over the world have come to expect.

Pixar’s films are already reminiscent of the pioneering ways of Walt’s Silly Symphonies. In fact, the basic situations in Toy Story, A Bugs Life and Cars might’ve been inspired by classic Disney shorts like Broken Toys, Grasshopper and the Ants and Susie, The Blue Coupe. They don’t play it safe, consistently break new ground – and win all the Oscars.

There’s no way to bring back Walt Disney. He was one of a kind. In addition to his triumphs in film, theme parks and family entertainment, Walt laid the foundation to create great works of animation – and the blueprint is right there in the studio’s history. Perhaps John Lasseter has figured that out.

If not, may I make a suggestion…?


  • EHH

    Interesting theory. I kind of notice that too.

  • RODAN

    I have no clue how JL really views his task or if he’s up to the challenge…he has done a lot…. A LOT. And has worked hard to be where he is today. But no man will ever have the passion or the life experiences WED had to plant the seeds of what became the mammoth JL now has on his hands. To me Disney Animation doesn’t exist any longer. What JL has to work with is a label to slap on his projects. He’s a talented artist and has a very creative mind. But I don’t think I’ll ever recover the two hours I lost watching Tinkerbell He has a lot to prove to me and his taking charge of Disney was akin to Napoleon placing a wreath on his head and saying Now I’m emperor of … Well, it’s a lot to swallow I am sure. I wonder how long it will last.

    I prefer Walt’s MICKY MOUSE AND SS to JL’S VERSION. So far the future looks to contrived… and Packaged for Commercial Drive thru Happy Meal Toys….etc…

    GRRRRRR You sure struck a nerve ..Great Theory though.

  • William Massie

    I agree

  • Julian Carter

    But I want WDAS to take the risks, to produce edgy material and thought-provoking films. If this is indeed the way Lasseter is heading then we can forget any new ‘experimental’ Fantasia films, or highly-stylised adult ‘Atlantis’-like fare, or basically, anything like 1996′s ‘Hunchback’.

    Jerry, this is not fair. :|

  • Nathan Strum

    “Presently, WDAS is in full “Mickey Mouse” mode: reinforcing the brand, producing crowd-pleasing films of highest artistic quality and delivering what audiences of all ages, all over the world have come to expect.”

    I’d take that one step further: what Lasseter is doing now is repairing the brand. Trying to return to the kind of films the world used to expect from Disney, but hasn’t been getting for years. Pixar started out as an experimental studio, so they’ve always been in a position to be able to push boundaries more, and audiences expect that from them. It’d be great to see Disney push the art form of animation to new heights, but they have to fix what’s broken first, and just halt the backward slide. Once they’ve had some successes, they’ll be able to start moving forward again.

  • Chuck R.

    Jerry, I think you’ve put an interesting historical twist on a marketing paradigm studios have used for a long time. Sequels, big-name actors and well-known properties tend to make lucrative crowd-pleasers. These films are never the darlings of critics, but they provide the steady revenue to push the envelope and take chances on riskier projects that may become tomorrow’s bankable franchise, hot director or movie star. Spielberg and Tim Burton exemplify this model in their own work.

    Lasseter may be going the extra step in associating a brand name with the risk-quotient. (Wall-E suggests that, Cars does not) I think that Pixar films already have a reputation for sophistication and usually skew to an older audience. I hope both studios take risks and remain open to any technique that best serves the story they’re trying to tell.

  • http://www.fourhman.com Joe

    About New Disney being “Packaged for Commercial Drive thru Happy Meal Toys”…

    Isn’t that what Mickey Mouse became in short order? All those Depression-era toys, books, and merchandise weren’t made for artistic reasons, but to give the public something to buy and prop up the film company. Buying licensed nickel comics in 1939 was about morally equivalent to buying a licensed Happy Meal today. I’m sure parents back then moaned about some guy trying to entice their kids into buying “junk.”

    And today, we still love Mickey…

  • http://www.elliotelliotelliot.com Elliot Cowan

    Julian Carter said – “But I want WDAS to take the risks, to produce edgy material and thought-provoking films. If this is indeed the way Lasseter is heading then we can forget any new ‘experimental’ Fantasia films, or highly-stylised adult ‘Atlantis’-like fare, or basically, anything like 1996’s ‘Hunchback’.

    Julian, I want WDAS to take risks too.
    Fortunately, if you feel Hunchback is edgy and thought provoking then WDAS will have an easy task.

  • Jay Sabicer

    I think one must consider that JL has only been in charge of things just a little more than 2 years. Anybody who has been in the movie business knows full well that projects can sometimes take 3 years or longer to develop and finally make it to the screen. We are currently witnessing the peristalsis of the final years of the Eisner regime. Give it time guys, the work that John can claim full responsibility ad WDAS is yet to come.

  • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto

    Very nice theory, Jerry.

    The difference for me is I often enjoyed Mickey Mouse more than Silly Simphonies and I have the feeling this is going to be the opposite way. Today mainstream means bland. I don’t see how you can’t be both innovative and make money at the same time. Old Hollywood movies usually managed to do both things.

    Anyway we’ll see. I want to see 2d, even if it’s bland 2d. What I’d prefer is to see stories like the ones in Up or Ratatouille done in 2d, but I guess I’d have to wait for that.

  • John A

    I agree with Jay, change isn’t going to come overnight. most of the recent films started during the Eisner’s rein. As for Tinkerbell, that train wreck had way too much momentum built up already to be successfully halted.

  • http://voyagesextraordinaires.blogspot.com Cory Gross

    I’m not too sure about this theory myself. My biggest criticism of Pixar (as though it matters) is that they’ve seemed to me to be extremely forumlaic. When you get beyond the particular contrivance of each film, they’ve so far been remarkably similar. The Pixar formula seems to be a very contemporary pop-culture influenced secret life of things that are funny because they’re just like us, and that style of humour is the same in every film… right down to the little pause before the delivery of the punchline. Even worse, every other big animation studio seems to be trying to make films according to the same formula.

    My own little experiment with every new Pixar film has been to compare them to the equivalent Disney and Ghibli films… At this point, the first 10 Pixar feature films vs. the first 10 Disney feature films and the first 10 Ghibli feature films. Ghibli, of course, has the benefit of being Japanese, which helps immensely for variety and experimentation. But even compared to Disney’s first 10 films… or even their last 10 traditionally animated films… it’s Pixar that has stuck to formula and been the money-making comfort food. It’s been Disney taking risks with things like “Fantasia,” “Treasure Planet,” etc., and being summarily punished for it.

    For some reason I’m actually looking forward to Pixar emerging into a phase of experimentation… “Up” might actually not be more of the same (though the exact same style of humour still seems firmly in place), and just being a Burroughs fan makes me interested in “Carter of Mars.” I just hope they don’t get punished for it and retreat back to the formula. I’m desperate to see a CGI film that’s not done by the numbers, and my copies of “Sky Captain” and “Jasper Morello” are getting worn out.

  • Justin

    John Lasseter isn’t trying to mold each studio in any way. His philosophy has always been a “director led studio,” which means that it is the directors that define the direction of each film, and ultimately of each studio. The directors at Pixar have primarily been the experimental, challenge what you know type. The next 2D film released by Disney is being directed by Ron and John, so it is not surprising to see them make a film that looks and feels exactly like the other ones they’ve made. If you want to see Disney Animation start to push the boundaries of animation and story and experiment, then they need directors that are willing to do that. Here are the directors of Disney’s upcoming movies: Nathan Greno (head of story on Bolt) and Byron Howard (co-direcor Bolt), Ron Clements and John Musker (directors of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet), and Aaron Blaise and Robert Walker (directors of Brother Bear),

  • http://www.frankpanucci.com FP

    Sounds good to me. It’s like a Chevy/Olds/Cadillac kind of thing. “Walt Disney” is the Olds, and “Pixar” is the same basic frame, but with more deluxer stuff stuck all over it with a more renowned pedigree.

    Chevy Chevette: VALIANT
    Olds Cutlass: BOLT
    Cadillac Allante: THE INCREDIBLES

    Actually, that’s dumb. Forget I said it. The Allante was a piece of crap. But, you get my drift.

  • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto

    I think the humor in Monsters Inc. is quite different to the humor in Brad Bird’s movies, for example. Pixar is a little formulaic but Disney used to be A LOT MORE formulaic between “Little Mermaid” and “Tarzan”.

    Also, I didn’t really love Wall-E myself, but it was pretty different and not what I’d call “safe”.

  • Hameed

    I like the way you think, Jerry, and I think you’re absolutely right, but it does beg the question: why doesn’t Pixar then do some innovative and groundbreaking 2D/hand-drawn animation?

  • Phhhh…

    15 years later, I still haven’t warmed up to CGI.

    I’m desperate for hand-drawn animation. I’m desperate for drawing and painting. Doesn’t Sleeping Beauty inspire anyone?!

  • Mac

    That’s an interesting theory, but I agree with those who say Disney Animation is still trying to repair its image after all the mediocre movies of the old regime. It seems the next few movies (Bolt, Princess and the Frog and Rupunzal) have been in development for years and have had troubled productions, so I think we’ll have to wait a few years for ‘The King of the Elves’ and beyond to see where Disney animation is headed. On the other hand, while Pixar films have been becoming more varied and unusual with Incredibles, Ratatouille and Wall•e, after Up they’ll be playing it safe for a while with two sequels in a row.

  • http://Mr.FunsBlog Floyd Norman

    Now, you’re talking!

    I’d work on a Pixar hand drawn movie for free!

    (forget I said that, John.)

  • http://deleted OtherDan

    That seems like a good construct to me. When Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little came out, it didn’t make much sense to have those separate entities. Saturating the market with indistinguishable films is arguably what led to the demise feature animated films. I just hope 2D comes back to Burbank in a big way. And, with Pixar seemingly turning a corner and becoming more avante-garde, I am even more excited about what is to come from them.

  • Hogarth Hughes

    I think trying to shoehorn the output of Disney, Pixar – or any other studio – into some neat explanatory theory is pointless.

    Some arguably less-than films – shorts as well as features – were made by Disney animation while Walt Disney was alive, and some amazing work has been produced since his passing. There have been good and not-so-good films produced by both Pixar and Disney – so what does any of this prove? Certainly not the Mickey-vs-Sily Symphony theory of the original post.

    Just relax. Turn down the temperature a bit on the fever dreams, and just enjoy what comes next.

  • http://daryl-rhystaylor.blogspot.com Daryl T

    Personally, I would prefer if the first one was true, but we just have to wait a see. Nobody can replace Walt Disney though.

  • http://www.yaytime.com dave roman

    I doubt that either studio wants to be so shoehorned into a specific brand. I’d rather just see them each try their hardest to make the best movies possible. Friendly competition and all that.

  • Thad

    Good theory, but it’s inaccurate. The Disney studio went to great lengths on all of its projects in the 1930s. As uneven as the results were, the Mickeys were in no ways things they just hacked out, as “Bolt” clearly is.

    Drama was particularly first rate there (“Brave Little Tailor”, “Three Little Wolves”), but Disney’s theory of comedy 90% of the time seems to be completely copied from the Hal Roach studio, particularly Laurel & Hardy, rather than what the other cartoon studios were doing. Occasionally, they got that type of comedy (“Toby Tortoise Returns”, “Lonesome Ghosts”, “Polar Trappers”, “Mickey’s Trailer”), but most of the time their timing was purely molasses.

    Fans and critics eventually sneered their noses at the studio’s stock-in-trade of combining slick surfaces and above-average filmmaking, turning to the other studio’s superior cartoons. That day will come for Pixar, but there’s nowhere else to really turn to in 2008 like there was in 1948.