"[Disney always manages to] come up with stories that serve two purposes: capture the adoration of youth and then get them to convince their parents to buy them things to fuel those fires of love. And for years, fairy tales and princess stories have been their bread and butter. Conversely, the folks at Pixar have always marched to a slightly different beat. They’ve always simply made stories they thought were fun, not that they necessarily thought we’d buy. Movies about talking toys, runaway fish, and main characters who can’t even talk. For Pixar (even though they became an official part of Disney in 2006 and had a working relationship with the Mouse House well before that), they’ve never made anything that felt like a Disney movie. That is, until their latest film, 'Brave.' For better or worse, a product of princess story perception or real influence, 'Brave' is a Disney movie at heart."
Drawing a distinction between "Disney movies" and "Pixar movies" is an interesting one on a few levels. Disney has distributed every single Pixar production, meaning every Pixar movie is, technically speaking, also a Disney movie. The current chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios is John Lasseter, who, as the chief creative officer of Pixar and director of five of its movies, did more than just about anyone to define what a "Pixar movie" is. If he's now also in charge of Disney, one might assume that a "Disney movie" and a "Pixar movie" might essentially become one and the same.
Yet I understand some of what Miller's talking about. In my own "Brave" review, I said the film's set-up was pure "old school Disney: generational conflict, the quest for a princess’ heart, and later, sinister looking witches and even a talking animal or two." To me, saying "Brave" recalled old school Disney was a compliment — nobody makes fairy tales like Disney.
Miller's use of the term "Disney movie" sounds a bit more pejorative — that it's not enough for Disney to make a good film, it's got to be a sellable one too. Certainly few companies are as brilliant marketers (or Mouseketers) as Disney, and Miller would not be the first to suggest that Disney's acquisition of Pixar in 2006 had a negative influence on the company, encouraging them to turn their minds towards products and away from stories (if that's true, then perhaps "Cars 2," rather than "Brave," would be Pixar's first "Disney movie").
Though I completely agree that "Brave" shares stronger thematic connections with the Disney princess movies of old than, say "WALL-E" or "Up," I don't know that I necessarily buy the narrative that the purity of Pixar has been corrupted by Disney's influence. True, Pixar's earlier films had some of their strongest stories and characters. True, their last couple movies have suggested, rightfully or wrongfully, a bottom-line motivation for all their creative decisions.
But let's not pretend that early Pixar was some sort of outpost of the avant-garde. Their first feature was about a bunch of toys — as cross-promotional concepts go, they don't get more ready-made than that. Their third movie was also their first sequel, with new toys to sell, plus new versions of the old ones. Over the years they've made films about bugs, super-heroes, monsters, and robots — all highly sellable concepts that they then turned into all sorts of products (and I should know — I've bought quite a few of them). And let's not forget the guy who helped found Pixar, and led it during those days — Apple's Steve Jobs — knew as much about salesmanship as anyone who ever lived.
When you see John Lasseter interviewed on television or in documentaries, he's usually sitting in his office, which is filled from floor to ceiling with Pixar stuff; seemingly every Woody and Buzz Lightyear toy, plush, and lunchbox ever produced. Some of that might be proud papa syndrome — if you created something that became a childhood icon, you'd probably get a kick out collecting it, too — but part of that, I think, speaks to Lasseter's mentality as a fan. A self-proclaimed "Disney geek," Lasseter cherished everything Disney made, both on the screen and off. Even if he wasn't the guy who'd helped lead Pixar, he'd probably buy their merchandise anyway.
So when we argue that Pixar has now become a place that puts the cart before the horse, maybe we should remember that the guy driving that cart is known as a hardcore cart collector. And maybe he values the cart almost as highly as the horse. And maybe the things that we think represent "Disney movies" have also represented "Pixar movies" all along.
Read more "'Brave' is Pixar's First True Disney Movie."