Despite being owned by the same company, the feature animation studios of Disney and Pixar continue to operate on a nominally independent basis. The former finally embraced CGI and subsequently went on to produce some of its best films since the Renaissance of the early 1990s. For all the change (and accolades) though, has the studio strayed too far into familiar Pixar territory?
As corporate siblings, there is a lot of ‘synergy’ between Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. Both share the same upper-level management and a lot of back-end resources (such as software) within the wider Disney organization. This is natural in a company of that size, and for a studio who’s budgets are easily measured in the hundreds of millions.
While the fact that employing the same technology can lead to a similarity in terms of style it doesn’t necessarily dictate what form the animation, story, or characters should take, and whether one studio needs to imitate the other.
Which makes it all the more interesting that while Disney initially stayed close to home ground with some of its recent films like Tangled and Frozen, it’s also branched out into relatively unfamiliar territory with video games (Wreck-It-Ralph), superheroes (Big Hero 6), and now, Zootopia. Which begs the question, if Zootopia had been announced as a Pixar film, would anyone have noticed, or even batted an eye?
Pixar has had a defined ‘house style’ that was tested in Toy Story, cemented in A Bug’s Life, and evident in every one of their films since. They have honed it for years, and far from being the mere ‘look’ of their films, it also covers the breadth of storytelling and the magnitude of their film’s focus. They conscientiously avoided the relatively straightforward fairytale stories of Disney that featured the well-known close-quarters, intimate style of storytelling. Instead Pixar thrust their characters into (quite literally) the bigger, wider world, and ran with it as far as the plot would allow.
Zootopia is exactly the kind of film that has Pixar written all over it. A plucky duo for protagonists (Toy Story), a large explorable world (The Incredibles, Up, et al), a sophisticated sense of humor (take your pick), and all the wonders of 3-D CGI animation to boot. They’ve even created different news anchors depending on which country the film is being shown in; a Pixar trademark since Monsters Inc.
One wonders whether the classic Disney film traits have been banished into history. The universal appeal, suitability for all ages, and timelessness; all seem to be absent in Zootopia, which instead follows the Pixar formula of being technologically complex with contemporary themes, wrapped up in a package that’s progressive but falling short of stepping over the line.
The result is that Zootopia could very easily have been branded a Pixar film without causing too much confusion, and as desirable as it is that Disney also has some success with its features, should it come at a cost? ‘Walt Disney’ as it pertains to animated features has long carried a degree of gravitas and respectability that pre-dated and transcended the notion of ‘branding’. That seems to have changed, and the beliefs that the studio stands for have become much more aligned with Pixar’s. This is natural enough given the shared leadership, but the legacy seems to have been left behind, and with it, the aspects that made films distinctly ‘Disney’.