Pixar vs. Disney: Discuss

The opening of Chicken Little this past weekend — Disney’s first fully computer-generated full length  animated film — had a little something for each of these companies.

On the one hand, Chicken Little sold an estimated $40.1 million of tickets in theaters across North America in its opening weekend, beating Gulf War movie Jarhead, and low budget horror flick Saw II.

While that’s an "encouraging debut," its not nearly as well as Pixar’s openings do — "The Incredibles" grossed over $70 million opening weekend. Chicken Little compares with such also ran (but money-making) animated films like 20th Century Fox’s "Robots" ($36 million) and DreamWorks’ "Shark Tale" ($47.6 million).

More than anything, in the weekend’s box office, Disney was fortunate not to be competing against other kid friendly flix.

But that’s just the opening weekend gross comparos. Where the difference becomes more acute is in the reviews and word of mouth, which will significantly impact subsequent weekend traffic.

It appears that Chicken Little may not have much in the way of have legs:

"For those of us who were rooting for Disney’s "Chicken Little" to give Pixar and DreamWorks a run for their money, the studio’s first fully computer-animated feature is a deep disappointment. For those of us who grew up on the magical splendors of Disney animation, this magic-free film is heartbreaking. If I could find some facet to praise, I’d be glad to do so, but the production’s mediocrity is all-pervasive — story, character, graphic design, even music — and it all points to a failure of corporate imagination, or maybe just nerve. Instead of staking out its own territory, "Chicken Little" recycles jokes and tired themes from the attic of popular culture. Instead of falling, the film’s pretty blue sky rains pieces of other movies . . .

Why did Disney settle for such banality? Why does a movie made for little kids include a Barbra Streisand joke? Or earnest talk about the need for closure in Chicken Little’s troubled relationship with his widowed father (who is voiced, with show-bizzy Bronx inflections, by Garry Marshall)? Closure? That’s not comprehensible to children. Still, the use of the word, like those pseudo-hip homages to Steven Spielberg, hints at the anxiety that must have driven the production process. There’s a sense of filmmakers desperate to entertain, yet unsure how to go about it in a swiftly changing culture. Disney resisted embracing the computer revolution for a dangerously long time, but the crucial issue here isn’t animation technology. It’s storytelling, an art — and an endlessly exacting discipline — at which the Mouse House, as Variety likes to call the studio, once excelled.

In the best animated features from DreamWorks, and in every production thus far from the peerless entertainers at Pixar (whose films have been distributed by Disney), the stories revel in their inventiveness, sing with joyous humor, play to a wide range of ages and shine with hard-won clarity. Faced with such formidable competition, "Chicken Little" doesn’t fly, even though little kids may be glad to sit still for its bright, peppy pictures and frenetic pace. The frenzy, which is almost palpable, recalls the chronic hyperactivity of Disney’s live-action monstrosity "Inspector Gadget." From a studio that needs an animated hit comes a cartoon that needs a hit of Ritalin."

Disney didn’t hurt themselves with this flick — but they didn’t force Pixar back to the table in a weakened postion, either. Should be interesting once the serious negotiations between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios ramp up.


UPDATE: November 8, 2005 6:49am

Pixar reports bang up earnings: 

Pixar Stock soars, Disney talks intensify


With Frenzied ‘Chicken Little,’ Disney Hits Us Over the Head
WSJ, November 4, 2005; Page W1

Disney’s latest offering proves pundits wrong
Christopher Parkes in Los Angeles
FT.com, 3:40 a.m. ET Nov. 7, 2005

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  1. p kelly commented on Nov 7

    unfortunately, if both parties prove rational – pixar will end up back with disney. it is a well known fact that pixar will secure an industry leading distribution only agreement and will retain 100% of its profits, regardless of who it signs with. despite the fact that disney stands to loose its revenue stream entirely from pixar, they are the only ones who can offer pixar incremental value in the form of sequel participations (which they hold the rights to – not pixar). thus, if pixar seeks to maximize shareholder value disney is its only alternative. the negotiations then move to what is the cut on the sequels – and any dollar participation in sequels is better than pixars next best alternative.

  2. Orrin Bloquy commented on Nov 7

    Pixar doesn’t always crap gold bricks. Joe Ranft seemed to believe that the formula of “The Secret Life of Magical Things Turns Out To Be As Mundane As Your Parents'” was as refreshing with “The Incredibles” in 2005 as it was back when “Toy Story” debuted.

    It isn’t. Their next feature film’s trailer is unappealing (The Secret Life of Race Cars). “Incredibles” merchandise was so overhyped it started appearing at Big-Lots before the film’s opening night, and it was uncomfortable to watch in parts when it couldn’t decide whether it was a kid’s film or Brad Bird’s catharsis of his midlife crisis (read his production notes, this isn’t a catty comment).

    Understand that in the beginning Pixar’s raison d’etre was Steve Jobs eating his own dog food re: selling Renderman workstations… but the field gravitates towards 3DS Max on Windows PCs at the low end and Maya running on Linux renderfarms at the high end. 3D animation rags talk a fair bit about software being used in professional productions, and they don’t show a lot of Renderman penetration.

    As trendy as it is to laugh off Disney’s attempts to enter the CGI market (Dinosaurs, anyone?), don’t make the mistake of assuming they learn nothing from their goofs. In-house, my bet is that Disney’s satisfaction with “CL” has less to do with classic storytelling and more to do with achieving the same level of production values seen in “Monsters, Inc.” Disney can *buy* writers, but it takes years to develop in-house production methods that work, and the company Walt built is all about distilling production methods down to a formula. Along the way DISN can easily afford money on mistakes; if Pixar makes even a pair of bombs because their writers are lazy, their goodwill is spent with critics and distributors.

    With Ranft dead, it’ll take John Lasseter focusing the writing teams heavily to recoup their original mission. Jobs is too busy with his other balancing act right now to save Pixar if it falters.

  3. Mr Juggles commented on Nov 7

    Disney has the magic formula right under its nose but refuses to use it. Rather than develop classic fairy tales with family appeal, they are trying to match some amalgam of Pixar’s earnest storytelling and Dreamwork’s slightly wiseass, older demo humor. It won’t work. Have you heard the plot for Rapunzel Unbraided? They are taking a classic tale and butchering it in the name of hipness and cultural relevance. Why not instead go back to the tried and true family films for little children?
    Someone needs to buy Bob Iger and Dick Cook a copy of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales for Christmas.

  4. lord moranosa commented on Nov 8

    when compared with the incredible anime juggernaunt overseas – disney remains a turd on the creative lawn.

    i am amazed that people want disney to remain revelant but at the same time – want disney to uphold the ‘virtues’ of the dearly departed walt. could we first of all, stop attempting to relive the fifties..?

    second of all – i recently took my two and half year old daughter (chiyoni) to see ‘wallace and gromit’ – and not to my surprise, she was able to follow the storyline albeit with prompting from myself and my lover, genevieve (french med student from montreal…). now, i gave chiyoni a choice – either ‘chicken little’ which she had seen the advertisement for on television a hundred times, or ‘wallace and gromit’. without hesitation, she choose ‘wallace and gromit’ and wasn’t disappointed…..

    but then again, i am a father that despises ‘family values’ as being nothing more than a turd on the lawn of creativity and reality…. why are we still attempting to keep children dumb, stupid, and stagnate by exposing them to banal films coming from the disney studios…? i never understood this bland rationality that children can’t ‘get it..’ when these same children became teen-agers who ‘get it..’ while adults are left scratching their heads about the latest ‘in trend’.

    yes, chiyoni and myself and her mother and my lover all found ‘the incredibles’ very moving and very well done – and the key would be that the three adults sat down with the two and half year old and talked to her about ‘the incredibles’. as a rule, neither myself nor her mother allows our daughter to be beaten over the head with ‘children value’ films that are mentally abusive for showing what i consider bland and useless ‘entertainment’…..

    if disney wants to be a ‘contender’ in the 21st century – i would suggest that disney as well as pixar start studying anime. and then, i would advise both disney and pixar to get off their lazy asses to stop kissing asses (parents, critics, and ‘family values’ hypocrisy..) and start creating challenging stories and challenging characters that aren’t ‘hip, cool, and trendy too…’ because in the far end of all that exists, i am going to expose my daughter to film that challenges her mind, and keeps my own mind alive in terms of talking to her about what she sees, and listening to her in what she feels and thinks…..

    folks – isn’t that what ‘family values’ are truly all about…?

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