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…?