Innovators or Rip-Off Artists?
In a recent online post by noted film analyst / all-around ultra-geek Roger Ebert, the celebrated critic called PIXAR the only true Superstar Studio left in Hollywood. What Ebert means by that statement is that PIXAR is the last development house in mainstream media that exists (and succeeds) based simply on brand name appeal. Odds are, you don t give half a damn who is doing the voices in their films, or even what the subject matter of said film is - over the last fifteen years, we have come to equate PIXAR with high-quality, high-concept entertainment, and that is THAT.
You don t need me to tell you the influence PIXAR has had on both the world of movies and animation in general. Ever since Toy Story in 1995, the industry has shifted towards an almost all-CGI movement, and there is no denying that PIXAR is the head of the charge when it comes to delivering such entertainment. Not only has PIXAR greatly influenced animated filmmaking - it has pretty much dictated it s very future.
Before you get into a discussion of PIXAR movies, you really have to talk about PIXAR as a company first.
PIXAR originally began life as an offshoot of Industrial Light and Magic (a special effects group best known for working on a number of George Lucas productions), and was bought out by Steve Jobs in 1986 (which means that, for all intents and purposes, Apple is the number one shareholder of Disney at the current.) From there, PIXAR was INTENDED to be a hardware producer, but their line of computers that specialized in Renderman animation were about as successful as the gross profits of From Justin to Kelly. To cut losses, the company began doing a number of CGI commercials for everybody from Tropicana to Listerine. Unimpressed with the lack of revenue, Jobs sold off PIXAR s hardware division and splintered the animation studio, which was quickly approached by Disney. After a three movie deal was signed at the relatively low price of $26 million (in 1994 dollars, no less), the skeleton crew of animators began work on a project that would soon become known as Toy Story. Eleven movies and $6.3 billion dollars in revenue later, I think it is safe to assume that $26 million investment paid off and then some.
While you really cannot give any one person credit (or blame) for whatever PIXAR has achieved, the closest guy you will find to a head honcho for the company is a fellow named John Lasseter. Lasseter is a long time animator that originally made waves with his early computer animated shorts, like Luxor Jr. and Tin Toy (which won the Oscar for best animated short in 1989). He also produced a number of Disney B-projects, including The Brave Little Toaster. Although Lasseter has not had his thumb DIRECTLY over all of PIXAR s productions, he has certainly had a major say in what projects the company elects to move forward with. And on more than one occasion, he s stated that his work has been HEAVILY influenced by pre-existing works.
At this juncture, I think there is no denying that PIXAR's movies have been, by and large, pretty freaking great. However, as great as their movies are, the one thing you cannot call them are wholly original works. Not only are PIXAR's eleven wide-release films highly derivative, some of them even border on flat out plagiarism - in fact, PIXAR has been sued NUMEROUS times by several artists, all claiming that their ideas were swiped for the company s features.
Now, the point of this article ISN'T to belittle or condemn PIXAR. Rather, the point is to demonstrate that in today s entertainment world, ideas are perpetually recycled and reshuffled, and that a lot of established concepts and stories are often re-posited for the masses, even if the makers of that very entertainment are unaware of it at the time. Now, just how unaware those producers are is a matter of debate - and I do not think that any modern company has found a way to blur inspiration and derivation as much as America s sole Superstar Studio.
To demonstrate this, we'll examine all eleven mainstream, feature-length PIXAR releases to date, and compare them with pre-existing works which may or may not have inspired the company s films. A lot of this is just mere conjecture, but in a lot of other cases, the evidence is not just overwhelming, but pretty damning, to boot.
And so, the court is in session: Is PIXAR a company that has succeeded on its own ideas, or has the mega-media empire shamelessly been built upon the swiped work of others? Well, let's take a look at the accusations, film by film. . .
The Toy Story Series