A few months ago, we took a pretty controversial stance and claimed that Disney may very well have surpassed Pixar in terms of churning out quality animated films. Well, there are two sides to everything – Dungeons & Dragons dice notwithstanding – and today we figured we would turn things around and look at what makes Pixar superior to everyone’s favorite cartoon mouse and his legions of animated friends. Yes, obviously Pixar and Disney tend to operate under the same umbrella, but there’s a very clear distinction between what constitutes a Disney animated film, and what makes a Pixar film. Here are 10 of the reasons Pixar is, in fact, superior to Disney.
10. Clever Twists on Old Tropes
One of the primary reasons people love Pixar movies is the fact that, no matter the subject matter, it always feels fresh, vivid, and fun. Obviously the studio produces plenty of sequels, so it’s not fair to say they’re always original, but as we’ll get to later even the sequels tend to put interesting new twists into the idea of the “film franchise.” One film in particular that’s worth mentioning when you’re talking about putting twists on old tropes is the classic The Incredibles.
Brad Bird has long been a Hollywood MVP, and his fresh take on the superhero genre not only transcends animated films, but superhero films in general. Following a family of “supers” who have been forced to go into a form of witness protection after an unfortunate accident brought the wrath of the US Government down on the men and women in spandex out there saving the world, The Incredibles both sends up and celebrates the superhero genre. It turns the tropes within that world on their sides, such as when the film’s antagonist catches himself monologuing and points it out as a standard trick used in similar situations in the world of super powered heroes and villains. It’s this kind of clever writing and original takes that makes every Pixar film feel likely an entirely new invention.
9. They Make Real Films
We’re going to get into part of this a little later when it comes to the human dynamic behind Pixar’s films, but there’s obviously more going on when it comes to movies than just the characters, and how real they feel. And make no mistake, Pixar’s characters feel very real, even when they’re a talking Mr. Potato Head or a fish looking for his lost son. But beyond that, these are films that can stand alongside any other movie in terms of being the total package: well directed, well written, and well performed, with a complete story and real characters.
It’d be easy for an animation studio to simply churn out a roughly assembled story that’s more like a series of vignettes, because the target demographic typically doesn’t have the attention span to get invested in a full, 90-minute plot. Pixar doesn’t take shortcuts, though, and certainly doesn’t pander to children. The films – and they are very much films, and not just cartoons – do a great job teaching children about the world, and themselves, and their emotions, while disguised as pretty looking comedies with plenty of big laughs.
8. They Earn the Laughs
What’s easy and what’s expected often go hand in hand, and the level of humor associated with particular kinds of films are no exception. Animated films are, at the end of the day, simply feature length cartoons and therefore tend to be geared toward children. Thus, the expectation is that the level of humor you’re going to get from in animation will be directed at little kids who think that farts, burps, and over the top animated violence are the height of comedy.
Except that’s not the case with Pixar. Sure, there are a few bodily function gags here and there, but for the most part the Pixar films refuse to play to the lowest common denominator. The laughs are genuinely earned through clever writing and terrific visual sight gags, and because of this the movies are vastly more enjoyable for not only the kids, but the parents who sit with them in the movie theater. In truth, there are so many witty references that only the parents will get that they make Pixar movies legitimately aimed toward people of all ages.
7. The Critics Have Spoken
The simplest way to compare Pixar with Disney Animation Studios is by looking at what the critics have to say, and what the critics have to say is that this isn’t even a competition anymore. Most would agree that the best films Disney Animation has produced came out years, and even decades ago, and the Metacritic scores tend to back that up. Of the eight films measured by Metacritic, the average score is 70, with no film reaching higher than an average score of 74.
Pixar, on the other hand, has an almost unheard of average Metacritic score of 81. Obviously, some of those films can be counted as having been released under the Disney umbrella, like Toy Story, for instance. But there’s been a pretty clear division between Pixar and Disney Animation Studios at this point, and Pixar is more or less its own entity that just sometimes operates under the Disney name. In any event, an astonishing seven Pixar films have scored an average of more than 90 on Metacritic, and nine have a score of 88 or better. This one’s not even a contest, folks. Basically every critic on Earth agrees: Pixar is superior to Disney.
6. They Changed the Animation Landscape
Before Pixar launched, animated films were getting more and more stale. People weren’t as excited about the standard 2D, classic style of animation, and those films were becoming less bankable as time wore on. Disney’s animated films started increasingly going the direct-to-DVD/VHS route, and when other companies tried to get in on the action, they caused financial ruin.
And then in 1995, Toy Story was released, and Pixar absolutely exploded onto the scene to the tune of a staggering 100% positive score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is virtually unheard of for any movie, let alone a first time feature length effort from an upstart animation studio. As Disney’s success began to taper off and people began to wonder if animated film was doomed, Pixar came along and completely changed the animation landscape, using its innovative style to immediately let the world know it was a force to be reckoned with.
5. They Do Sequels Right
Let’s stick with the Toy Story series here. By general rule, sequels don’t live up to the original. Obviously there are exceptions, like Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the King, and of course, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Another series to add to that list, and which could be argued is one of the rare series’ that just keeps getting better the longer it continues? Toy Story, of course. What, did you think we were going to change it up between that first sentence of this entry and now?
Pixar doesn’t have a perfect batting average when it comes to sequels – see Cars 2 – but for the most part, no one does follow up films quite like the animation juggernaut, and nowhere is that better exemplified by Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. The original had a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes, and had a Metacritic score of 92, while the first sequel dipped down to a Metacritic score of 88. However, the series bounced back big-time with not only a 92 score on Metacritic but also a Best Picture nomination for Toy Story 3. Rather than just creating a cash cow and churning out sequels simply to make money – we’re looking at you, straight to home video sequels to basically every Disney animated film ever – Pixar makes sure it’s got a great story that can actually expand on the original. That’s a big part of the reason we’re so excited about Finding Dory and The Incredibles 2, rather than fearing they’ll just disappoint us.
4. They Make Relationships Feel Real
It’s often hard for even “real” films build relationships that feel realistic, particularly when it comes to romance. That’s an aspect animated films have certainly struggled with over the years, because there’s only so much you can do when the “romance” in a feature length cartoon tends to boil down to “heroic prince rescues damsel in distress.” There’s not a lot of wiggle room to insert much depth into that equation, you know?
That’s where Pixar’s different approach to old material comes in so handy. It enables the studio to operate around the edges of relationships, and give the characters more depth than you find in most animated films, which in turn makes them, and their relationships, feel more real and authentic. Take the opening sequence in the classic Pixar film Up, for example. After a brief prologue introducing the protagonist, Carl, as a child, there’s an extended, wordless montage that builds one of the best, and most beautiful movie romances in recent memory. The fact that Pixar is able to create such a complete story about the life shared by a man and a woman as they face the day to day trials and tribulations so many of us will likewise be confronted with in so short a sequence is nothing short of astonishing. It’s a sequence that, quite frankly, probably almost single-handedly got Up its Best Picture nomination. And by the way, it’s perfectly okay to admit that it makes you cry every single time.
3. They Absolutely Own the Box Office
Being popular with movie critics doesn’t always mean that a film is going to actually be any good, or popular with the general audience. After all, there are an awful lot of weird independent films that critics rave over, but which wind up making pennies at the box office because they just aren’t what the average person wants to actually watch. That’s what sets Pixar apart: not only do they dominate with the critics, but they also dominate at the box office. And we mean they just destroy most of the competition, including Disney Animation Studios.
Looking purely at box office numbers, the website Box Office Mojo lists eight movies released under the Disney Animation Studios moniker since 2007, and all 16 Pixar films. It should come as no surprise that, by far, the most successful Disney film was Frozen, which racked up more than $400 million domestically. However, the second highest grossing Disney film in that span would only be the 12th highest grossing Pixar film – and remember, that’s out of 16 Pixar films, total. Three Pixar films have racked up at least $339 million, with Toy Story 3 topping the list at $415 million. Quite simply, Pixar is an absolute behemoth at the box office, and right now doesn’t have any challengers to the crown.
2. They’ve Legitimized Animated Films
This goes back to the fact that Pixar films are genuine films, and not just feature length cartoons. Here’s one way to look at the impact Pixar has had on Hollywood: prior to 2001, the Oscars didn’t even have a category for Best Animated Feature. It was rare that an animated film would ever even find itself getting a legitimate nomination at the Oscars, with Beauty and the Beast‘s 1991 nomination for Best Picture an anomaly at the award’s ceremony. Before that, animated features were typically relegated to receiving “special” or “honorary” awards.
Much of this was due to the fact that before the late 1990s, Disney simply owned a monopoly on animated films. There was no real competition, so it seemed a little absurd to simply hand Disney an automatic Oscar for whatever animated film they happened to churn out in a given year. But the rise of Pixar brought with it the rise of animation in general, and it’s no coincidence that Pixar has won a staggering seven times in the 15 years the award has existed, with Inside Out almost certain to bring home Oscar number eight for Pixar. It might not stop there, either, as there’s been some growing support for Inside Out to get a nomination for the overall Best Picture of the year, which wouldn’t be unprecedented for Pixar: Up and Toy Story 3 have also recently received Best Picture nominations.
1. The Human Element
Most animated films tend to play to the whole concept of fantasy and imagination, and while there’s obviously an awful lot of that in Pixar’s films, it’s a far less important part of the story. Sure, you’re watching talking toys, or talking cars, or talking fish, but surprisingly in every one of those cases there’s still such a dynamic human element at play that it helps make Pixar animated films genuine cinema. Instead of princesses and dragons and elves and magic that’s so prevalent in most animation, Pixar imbues its characters – whether they’re human or not – with so much depth that it makes everything going on feel so much more real, and grounded.
Take one of the studio’s most recent offerings, Inside Out. The film is obviously fanciful, dealing with the anthropomorphic embodiments of emotions, but there’s a surprising amount of real depth throughout both the script and the performances. And obviously, when you get around the comically played versions of human emotions, you get to the meat of the story: a lonely little girl dealing with moving across the country, away from all of her friends, and being forced to start fresh. It’s a story anyone who has ever moved as a kid can empathize with, and it creates a real connection between the audience and the characters.