By Milan Nguyen
When Pixar Animation Studios released “Toy Story” in 1995, it marked the beginning of a consistent comparison with fellow animator, Walt Disney Studios.
Pixar’s movies mostly consist of character-driven stories, focusing primarily on characters who go through arcs in which they deal with change, let go of something, or learn to bond with someone who is different. The main characters are not the typical young, fit heroes seen in traditional animated features. They range from cars to bugs, from an old man to a monster.
They also tend to have more character flaws, which creates more depth. Pixar heroes do not always have a clear separation between themselves and the villains. For example, in “Up,” Mr. Fredricksen fantasizes about seeing Russell fall off his house while they are in the air. In “Inside Out,” there’s no antagonist at all, merely an internal emotional struggle.
Pixar films also contain “what-if” scenarios, which take place in a reality like our own. For instance, they explore hypothetical questions such as: What if monsters really were under our beds? What if toys were alive? What if cars could talk? Pixar films exist in a world of magical realism, unlike the traditional fantasy of Disney.
Young children can identify with the themes of Pixar movies very easily. This is because their themes are often universal and apply to all ages. “Inside Out” is a story about growing up and learning that sadness is not always bad. “Up” is about coping with the death of a loved one. Each of these represents a theme that people of all ages must deal with at some point in their lives.
On the other hand, Disney films are often more simplistic. While they do have story arcs, most of the main characters are the idealistic young, beautiful heroes we’ve seen since the start of the film industry. The heroes typically don’t have any major flaws and they have a clear difference from the villains of their stories.
In the movie “Hercules,” for instance, the titular hero is a demigod looking for somewhere to belong. Hades, the villain, wants to kill Hercules because of a prophecy. Despite Hades continued murder attempts, Hercules’ only flaw is that he is not very book smart. Another example is in “Mulan,” where Mulan’s only flaw is not conforming to the repressive standard of what a woman should be. And that flaw is really in the society around her.
Most of Disney’s films are more fantastical than Pixar’s. Magic often plays a key role in the plot and/or the solution. For example, in “The Princess and the Frog” voodoo magic is real and has the power to change the main characters’ shapes. In “Tangled,” Rapunzel’s hair has magical properties that stop aging and cure mortal wounds.
Still, although many Disney films may seem simple on the exterior, they have very complex themes. In “Beauty and the Beast,” for instance, Disney presents a cautionary tale about the dangers of toxic masculinity. “Cinderella,” offers a tale of coping with emotional abuse and being trapped in one’s own home.
Both Pixar and Disney work to push the realm of animation, though in different ways. While Pixar has more developed characters and more imaginative worlds, Disney tends to have realistic animation and more complex themes. However, both are great animation studios and are beloved by all. Children are lucky to grow up with so many choices.