Friday, December 6, 2013

Disney Animation, Frozen and the Influence of Pixar


A few days ago, I received a tweet from a follower. We had both recently seen Disney's latest animated film, Frozen, and had been singing its praises. It has a strong story with great characters, stunning effects and really good music, for me rivaling the music from The Lion King. One of the tweets in our conversation was:
Do you see how Pixar’s mentality/mindset is creeping into Disney? :)
I was a bit guarded in my response. Yes, since Disney bought Pixar in 2006 and put John Lasseter and Ed Catmull in charge of both Pixar and Disney Animation, we have seen a steady improvement in the films coming from Disney Animation. Besides the first film released after the merger, Meet the Robinsons (which was released in 2007 and was too far into production for the new management to have much impact), all the other films have Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 83% or higher:

Meet the Robinsons200766%
The Princess and the Frog200983%
Winnie the Pooh201190%
Wreck-It Ralph201286%

For comparison, the last film released by Disney Animation prior to the merger, Chicken Little, has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of only 36%.

So yes, I think it's safe to say that Pixar has had a positive affect on the quality of Disney films, especially in a couple of areas, such as coming up with fully developed stories and focusing on the characters and their relationships, researching the topics and environments of their films, and advancing the technical quality of the films (Along these lines, I think Big Hero 6 is going to be stunning). I also think Lasseter and Catmull have introduced the collaborative, director-led culture that has played such a critical part in Pixar's success.

Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
and Peter Del Vecho
But I don't want to sound like the recent success at Disney Animation is all Pixar's doing. I think the talent and ability was already there at Disney. Folks like Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, Lino DiSalvo and Lisa Keene, plus all the other animators, effects artists, engineers and production crew had the passion and energy to deliver quality products, they just needed the spark to release them. So while Lasseter and Catmull have provided the appropriate environment, the artists and animators have stepped into that environment and delivered in a big way. I think we have entered a new Disney Animation renaissance that will last a long time. Combined with the strength of Pixar, The Walt Disney Company has become an animation powerhouse that I don't see any other animation studio being able to compete with.

As an aside, I recently listened to episode 452 of Inside the Magic podcast, where a large portion of the podcast covered Frozen with a number of clips from interviews with the filmmakers. I had a blast listening to the clips; it reminded me a lot of listening to the interviews during a Pixar film press day. It was so enjoyable listening to the directors, producer and artists share their excitement for the film and discuss the research they did by going to Norway, building in themes like the power of happiness over fear, and the technical and artistic challenges of designing and lighting Elsa's castle. If you're into behind-the-scenes details I recommend listening to this episode, and keep abreast of future episodes as it sounds like Ricky has a lot more of these interviews that he plans on releasing.