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Scott Mendelson

Scott Mendelson
Woodland Hills, California, United States
April 02
A ten-year Salon reader, Mendelson also has a film and politics blog/column at Mendelon's Memos: located at: He is also a free lance voice over artist and occasionally contributes film reviews for

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MARCH 10, 2009 11:49PM

Stop Thief!? Examining the originality of Pixar's movies.

Rate: 15 Flag

This is something that has bugged me for awhile, and it came to a head during a discussion in the comment section of my Watchmen review over at Huffington Post.  Basically, the debate was whether or not The Incredibles had stolen much of its storyline from Watchmen.  The answer is most likely 'probably', but you could make that argument for most Pixar cartoons over the last fourteen years.  Whether this lessens the esteem of Pixar is a question in and of itself, but it's worth noting just how unoriginal many of their most popular animated films really are.

Toy Story (1995) - The 'one that started it all' was a wonderfully entertaining and splendidly acted fable about the secret world of toys, toys that came to life when the children were not around.  However, there is trouble in Andy's room.  Every birthday, all the toys lie in fear of being replaced by a newer, shinier toy, and thus being regulated to storage or worse.  Tragedy strikes when Woody, the favorite wind-up cowboy doll, fears replacement by the new and fancy space hero Buzz Lightyear.  In a crazed panic, Woody causes Buzz to fall out of the window, thus placing him in mortal peril.  Can Woody overcome his jealousy and save Buzz?

Sound familiar?  Well, if you've seen Jim Henson's The Christmas Toy, it just might.  The 1986 puppet story debuted on television as a forty-five minute Christmas special.  In the world of The Christmas Toy, all of the toys come to life when people are not around.  And Christmas is a time of fear and trepidation as every toy awaits Christmas morning when they discover if they will be replaced by a newer, shinier variation of themselves.  This year, Rugby, the favorite tiger, is deathly afraid of being replaced by Meteora, a She-Ra type action doll.  Panic ensues when Rugby lets Meteora out of her box prematurely, and the gang must team up to get Meteora back in her proper place before Christmas morning.

Do the similarities matter?  Yes and no... while this is one of the most obvious examples of 'accidental plagiarism', Toy Story is still a better film in every way.  The animation is still impressive, the acting is peerless (I'd argue any day of the week that the role of Woody represents Tom Hanks' finest work), and the film sets the Pixar template for gently humorous comedy and open-hearted emotionalism.  That it is so similar to The Christmas Toy is disconcerting, but if anything the similarities will cause more people to search out the little-remembered Jim Henson original.

A Bug's Life (1998) - The second of two animated insect movies to debut in the latter months of 1998, this film isn't so much an apparent rip-off of a previous work so much as a reworking of a well-worn thematic template.  This story of an outcast bug who unknowingly recruits a group of circus performers to defeat a monstrous grasshopper who menaces their village, is simply a variation on The Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, and Three Amigos (to say nothing of the masterpiece variation on this template, Galaxy Quest, which followed a full year later).

Do the similarities matter?  Not in the least.  While A Bug's Life may be the most conventional of all Pixar pictures, and one of their middle-of-the road efforts, it does boast gorgeous animation and fine vocal acting by Dave Foley and Kevin Spacey.  It also climaxes with a stunningly intense action chase scene that came along when examples of action set pieces in American animated features were all too rare.  And again, this is an example of using a timeworn myth, rather than seemingly copying a specific prior film.

Toy Story 2 (1999) - Still the crown jewel in the Pixar cannon, this is the rare complete original in their filmography.  I seriously cannot find any films that this takes any major chunks of its narrative from.  It may be a coincidence, but the very best Pixar cartoon is also their most overtly original.

Monsters Inc (2001) - This 'middle of the road' effort concerns the concept of just what happens to those monsters under the bed after they are done scaring the crap out of you or your kids.  It's a neat idea, but it's also already been done in a similar fashion.  The 1989 Fred Savage kiddie comedy Little Monsters had a remarkably similar concept, as well as several major scenes that it ended up sharing with Monsters Inc.  Both constructed a vast bureaucratic world where monsters scared children as a job.  Both had two major villains who used the scaring of children for their own greed (the henchman who did most of the evildoing and the big boss who remained in the shadows for most of the picture).  Both had arcs with the main monster (Howie Mandel in Little Monsters and John Goodman in Monsters Inc) coming to terms with the fact that they are indeed monsters and that they create misery and fear for a living.  Both films have second-act climaxes where the human friend of the monster reacts in terror after witnessing the truth about what their new friends do (in Little Monsters, Fred Savage reacts in horror when Maurice terrifies a baby).

Do the similarities matter?  Once again, while the stories are a bit too close for comfort, Monsters Inc represents Pixar improving on the source and making a better film with similar ideas.  While no masterpiece, Monsters Inc contains another thrilling climactic chase scene (this time involving a giant room of endless doors to other worlds) and one of the last performances by James Coburn.  But the fact still stands... Monsters Inc may be a better film but Little Monsters got there first.

Finding Nemo (2003) - This lost fish story became Pixar's highest grossing film.  It's a primal concept, a lost child and the desperate parent who searches for him against all odds.  In fact, it may remind you of another classic cartoon about an overprotective parent who loses his son and hopes and prays that his beloved son is still alive... somewhere out there.  This one qualifies as the 'vaguely familiar' category.  While the basic thrust of An American Tail is the same as Finding Nemo (lost child, the perilous journey of said lost child, the frantic family members, and the family that must be reunited), there is one big difference.  An American Tail is mainly told from the point of view of the lost boy, as Russian mouse Fievel struggles to survive in America while dodging all manner of peril.  Finding Nemo certainly gives Nemo any number of new friends and dangerous adventures, but the point of view is squarely on his father, the understandably terrified Marlin.

Do the similarities matter? - Not in the least, because the narrative point of view and the specific incidents that unfold are different enough that both can stand beside each other as two good movies about lost children and the parents who must find them (one by land, the other by sea).  Finding Nemo is a good, if overrated adventure story, and An American Tail is too (and the Oscar-winning song 'Somewhere Out There' still kicks unholy amounts of ass).  In this case, they really are 'the same, but different'.

The Incredibles (2005) - Arguably the second best Pixar film of them all, and one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, this ripping adventure was first presumed to be a variation on The Fantastic Four (a dysfunctional family of superheroes, a hero who can stretch his/her limbs, another hero who can turn invisible, etc).  In retrospect, this emotionally compelling family-in-tights drama seemingly takes quite a bit of its human interest storyline from Watchmen.  Both stories concern in their prime superheroes, forced to retire and hide after the public turns against them.  Both involve male leads who are only happy and sexually potent when they are fighting crime (a theme that was also covered in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, which also has similarities to Watchmen).  And both involve a mystery concerning the murder of retired superheros.

Do the similarities matter?  Well, the similarities do lessen the alleged originality of the Pixar adventure, but one cannot argue against success and quality.  Not only is The Incredibles a better movie than Watchmen, it may even be a better distillation of the smaller, human-scale drama than the original Alan Moore/David Gibbons comic book (like Unbreakable, The Incredibles was about one very specific portion of the super hero mythology, allowing it to concentrate on those themes).  Watchmen is ultimately a deconstruction of superhero comic books.  The Incredibles celebrates heroism and the notion of living to your greatest potential (I'll leave the Ayn Rand theories to someone else).  Some of the story elements are similar, but The Incredibles succeeds by having a vastly different story to tell.

Cars (2006) - Oh boy... here's where I'm amazed that Pixar didn't get sued.  First of all, Cars is far and away the worst film they have ever made.  It's literally filled with every bad cliche that other studios' cartoons rightfully get attacked for - including unconvincing star-stunt casting and jokes that think simply substituting 'car' for something human-related is automatically funny.  That is to say nothing of the highly pandering 'small town folks are more real and/or real Americans than those fast-moving big-city folk' cliches that the movie was inexplicably littered with.  Having said that, I like the climax, and the surprising choice that star race-car driver Lightning McQueen makes during the final race.

Now, having said that, even if you liked Cars (no harm in that, I wish I had liked it too), the issue at hand is that Cars is basically a scene-for-scene animated remake of the Michael J. Fox comedy Doc Hollywood.  Released in 1991, this folksy comedy concerned a hot-shot Beverly Hills surgeon who crashes his car in a one-horse town is sentenced to a few days of community service at the local hospital while his car is repaired.  While initially desperate to get out and get to his new job as a plastic surgeon, he eventually warms to the small town ways and the small town people.  Sound familiar?

Do the similarities matter? - You bet they do.  This is easily the biggest and most shocking case of Pixar apparently ripping off prior material.  Scenes, characters, character arcs, and morals seemed to be swiped from this little-remembered box office disappointment.  Neither are particularly good movies, but in this case Doc Hollywood gets the edge purely for being first.

Ratatouille (2007) - Once again, one of their very best films is one of their rare utter originals.  I cannot find anything specific that Brad Bird may have borrowed or been influenced by.  It's comforting to know that a film partially about the glory of originality is in fact an American original.

Wall-E (2008) - Both Wall-E and Idiocracy tell stories of terrifying futures where humanity has doomed itself through complacency and naivety.  But, like Finding Nemo and An American Tail, they are vastly different stories that happen to deal with similar themes (also, since Wall-E and Idiocracy are only two years apart, one must assume that the former was well into production when the latter was released).  Wall-E is a better, richer, more compelling film, a near masterpiece.  Idiocracy is a heavily compromised would-be comedy that is too plausible to be funny.  Mike Judge's Idiocracy isn't very good, but the ideas at its center (that the less intelligent among us breed at a far greater rate, eventually dooming the world) are so striking that it remains one of the scariest films of the decade.  And while Wall-E sends us out on a message of hope and optimism, Mike Judge has no such faith in the human race.

Well, that brings us up to right now.  By coincidence or design, it cannot be denied that several of Pixar's most popular films are shockingly similar to other movies or books that came before.  At a glance, Up seems to have a passing resemblance to Danny Deckchair. But since I have not seen that film, and I certainly have not seen Up, I will leave it to others to determine just how original Pixar's newest animated feature really is.

Scott Mendelson

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I think that most of the similarities you list are a bit broad to be real "Ah ha! Gotcha!" moments. The one exception is Cars, which was a blatant ripoff of Doc Hollywood. It's also perhaps no coincidence that Cars is probably the weakest film in the group and the only Pixar film that I didn't really enjoy.

Watchmen is a movie that addresses three major themes: the deconstruction of the superhero myth, a commentary on the nuclear paranoia of the time, and a philosophical debate about the nature of humanity and whether or not we really deserve to live. The fact that there's a bit in there about an aging superhero recovering his mojo is but a small aspect of the story. The Incredibles, as you say, celebrates the superhero. Watchmen wants to destroy the superhero in many ways.

Frankly, when you make comparisons THAT broad almost ANY film can be made into a "ripoff" of another movie. By your logic, "A Few Good Men" is a ripoff of "The Caine Mutiny". Both feature a narrative with a courtroom trial in the present, with the past story filled in via testimony and flashback. Both feature characters who were in the Navy. Gasp! Someone call a lawyer.
Agreed. The piece was more of a film by film examination. The big 'huh?' examples are, of course, Cars and Toy Story, with the similarities between Little Monsters and Monsters Inc being too close for comfort.

As for Watchmen, the story arc involving the sadness and despair of ex-superheroes was always the most compelling component for me, which is why its similarities to The Incredibles stands out. Again, I'd argue that Incredibles did it better than Watchmen the movie, maybe even better than Watchmen the book.
I'm a big fan of animation, with Finding Nemo my favorite. You have a good point about Doc Hollywood and Cars. I didn't see the connection between the two but now it seems obvious with your comparisons. I remember liking Doc Hollywood but not Cars.

My husband pointed out the similarities between A Bug's Life and the Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai when we first watched the animation movie.

I remember seeing one of those DVD extras about the Pixar writers who basically thought up their big movies--Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E all in the first few weeks of their company's creation. They probably didn't knowingly copy plots but were influenced in general by their culture.

Pixar should look to some new writers to get more original stories. I think your post will help Pixar to see that this would be a wise strategy.
Well, let's not get too carried away with accusations of being unoriginal. I mean, you could argue that there's no such thing as a truly original work anymore. If you stretch it far enough, EVERY story is a derivative of some work that came before it.

Also, take care to distinguish between "theft" as the title of this post implies, and "homage".
A little skullduggery perhaps? Watson, this is more common than not in entertainment, and Pixar is the 800 pound Gorilla that can get away with it. Watch for the 800 Pound Gorilla, a sad story about a misunderstood Gorilla named Picard who kept stepping on all the small creatures in the jungle until one day.......
Big-city values meet heart-warming small town values are a trope in a ton of movies, and the public turning on superpowered vigilantes predates Watchmen.

Monsters Inc and Toy Story both take a world of characters and tropes people will understand (toys are fun for kids but are inanimate, get replaced etc, and monsters are there to scare/eat kids) and expand on those simple ideas.

These are really broad thematic concepts and there's no indication Pixar ripped them off any more than any other flick that includes them.

Are you going to rip into every romance film for recycling boy gets/loses/re-gets girl plots? Come on.
Interesting comparisons, but suggesting the The Incredibles is a particularly good movie is questionable, I'd suggest, let alone that it's good enough that it doesn't matter that it borrowed liberally from various sources (not just Watchmen). Indeed the whole "Yeah but it was better!" argument that you're repeating seems very weak, particularly due to it's repetition. It's an argument that works perfectly once, but repeated, it seems rather damning. Perhaps that's intention.

It should be noted that The Incredibles is also the only Pixar movie I've seen (I've not seen Cars) which seemed to have a forced rather than natural moral, and it seemed very forced indeed, with them rather glossing over it with flashy emotion and "He's a creep and does bad things so he's automatically wrong"-type characterization. I think that rather than being a better movie than The Watchmen, it's very comparably flawed. Aside from the Mr Incredible and Frozone, it also had some of the least inherently likeable characters in any Pixar movie I've seen. Compared to utterly sublime movies like Toy Story 2, it seems extremely clumsy and reliant on people not thinking about things too much (rather than encouraging them to think about things - even Zach Synder's Watchmen movie does a better job on that, and most Pixar movies are all for it).
Disney itself is one of the most litigious companies around, even though they stole the Lion King from a Japanese television show.
Scott -- I've don't mind if their films mimic others. Heck, The Maltese Falcon was a remake.

I just am not in the demographic for seeing these, even though I saw Toy Story.

I find Hollywood is all about blockbusters or special effects, with little emphasis on characterization, dialog or acting. Rated.
so we've all compaired cars to doc hollywood, as for all the other "stolen" ideas, I kinda just wanna say, Get over it.

after all, George Lucas stole from the bible for crying out loud with Star Wars. There hasnt been a totally orginal idea to come out of hollywood in years! Everyone barrows from everyone else.. its called insperation, we build off of everyone else to make ideas better, stronger and more orginal!
Barbra anne,

Lucas stole from EVERYTHING for Star Wars... Republic Serials, Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers, The Dam Busters, Dune (the novel), Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress specifically and samurai movies in general, etc. and so on...
Funny, when you mention Pixar and theft, I think of Dreamworks, and how the two animation powerhouses make the same movies at the same time. Antz/A Bugs Life and Sharks Tale/Finding Nemo are two of the back to back films that I recall with several identical plot devices in each. Shrek could arguably counter Monsters and Monsters vs Aliens has an Incredibles feeling to it. My take is that Dreamworks had a spy in the Pixar ranks. Pixar has always had the superior animation and writing, other than Shrek, which can stand on it's own.
Agreed, Rance. I was trying to have evaluate the similarities between Pixar films and other works without specifically accusing them of plagiarism. I certainly don't think Brad Bird decided one day 'hey, let's rip off Watchmen, but make it a family-friendly story!'. Nor do I truly think that John Lassiter watched Doc Hollywood and thought 'gee, that movie would be so much better if all the people were talking cars instead'. But the similarities are striking (especially in regards to Monsters Inc, Toy Story, and Cars), and it was worth evaluating on a case by case basis.
It seems a little unfair to call satire "unoriginal." Of course it's unoriginal; that's the point of satire.

And complaining about "Cars" strikes me as a little bit like complaining that West Side Story borrows from Shakespeare.
Au contraire! Mosters, Inc. was not a middle of the road film. It is the bestest Pixar film of all. It's funny, warm, and entertaining.
It is not really a surprise. Even with all the wealth of human imagination, there is not a very big number of basic story lines which humans are likely to be interested in. It is not the basic plot that counts, it is how you tell it. "Lion King", for example is an interesting, if not extremely original version of "Hamlet". It is exceptionally good for Disney. What they did to the "Little Mermaid"... I mean I like the songs "Under the sea" and "Kiss the girl" like any person, but I can not get over the happy ending. They totally gutted Andersen's idea. And the little happy Hunchback of Notre Dame? I am sure Victor Hugo keeps turning in his grave ever since Disney started the project.
So even though Pixar is less original than I originally thought, they still deserve the credit for fresh and entertaining approach.
Not to be mean or anything but there really hasn't been an original story in years. Lets look at your examples, for example.

Ozymandias of Watchmen is in fact a direct copy of Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, complete with a "monster" to end wars.

Doc Hollywood original? Nope, it's a ripoff of the TV show Northern Exposure.

And Ratatouille wasn't original, it's the Jazz Singer with a cooking mouse rather than a singing Jewish guy.

Even The Christmas Toy is a copy of The Tin Solder and The Nutcracker.

It's OK if you want to call Pixar unoriginal but lets be honest, neither is anyone else.
Crud... I forgot about The Jazz Singer. Thanks.
Scott: Thanks for a thoughtful and surprising analysis. You're obviously well-versed in the particularities of Hollywood; it's pleasant to feel to feel you're in the presence of an informed and fair writer. I didn't see you accuse anyone of plagiarism, only point out the very interesting and (especially when it comes to pop culture) the ear impossibility (maybe even undesirability) of originality in big-budget films. Pixar is of course a high-tech outfit; that it's managed, drawing on whatever influences it does, to still make some of Holywood's best films (to my mind, Toy Story, Monsters, Nemo, Incredibles & Wall-E) is amazing . Don't try to parse that sentence. It's late. What oher studio can lay claim to so many terrific movies? Technique, amazing as it is, is always secondary to story in these movies -- they've got heart, which is something sorely lacking in any big-budget number. What big-budget movie is going to be remembered 20 years from now -- Wall-E or Benjamin Button?

Anyway, about The Incredibles / Watchmen debate: I'm surprised no one mentioned "Mystery Men" from a few years back -- a terrific, very sly super-hero satire about a self-appointed band of Watchmen-like super-heros who can't get arrested. Great cast (Willima H Macy, Ben Stiller, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush). It's got the three most important qualities Hollywood needs: it's got smarts, heart, and plenty of farts.
I have a few problems with your analysis, Scott, but I think the chief problem is that this professed inquiry into the originality of the movies is more accurately a look at the originality of the movies' premises or plot, to the exclusion of other (equally, if not more important) filmic elements.

Namely: the quality of the screenplay, framing, editing, and most of all, the gorgeous visuals! This, I believe, is where the originality of Pixar's vision comes through, totally overwhelming whatever echoes of past plots/premises one might detect in this or that film.
VERY thoughtful article and I've also enjoyed reading people's comments as well. I think it's becoming more and more difficult to come up with original plots without getting so bizarre as to not be understood. As of my comment, Up has been out over a year now and Toy Story 3 was released a month ago. It would be interesting to know your commentary on these two movies, Scott. I thought Up was really quite original, taking inspiration from Hayao Miyazaki and his imagination of Studio Ghibli.
I have another, and I believe nearly as compelling piece of plagiarism involving, another of Jim Hensons's works 'The secret Life of Toys' (1994). This came out a full YEAR before 'toy story' but was completely ripped off, the premise of toys 'playing' when no owner is present is NOT a Pixar creation it was a Jim Henson idea, though Pixar certainly made more money off of this idea than he did.
I registered just to make this comment:

The Incredibles better than Watchmen? What in the sweet holy fuck have you been smoking?