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