Disney sued by child expert who claims 'Inside Out' was her idea

Walt Disney Co. is being sued by a child development expert who alleges that the 2015 Pixar movie “Inside Out” used her original idea for an animated program that would have explored children’s emotions through a host of characters representing different moods.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Los Angeles, Denise Daniels claims that she pitched her idea for “The Moodsters” to Disney-owned Pixar a number of times between 2005 and 2009, with the understanding that she and her team would be compensated if Disney used her idea.

The complaint states she had an “implied-in-fact” contract, a nonverbal agreement, that obligated Disney to compensate and credit her if the studio used her idea.

The suit follows a similar case brought in March against Burbank-based Disney over 2016’s “Zootopia.” In that lawsuit, a screenwriter claimed that the studio stole his original idea and copied his designs for the movie’s animal characters.

Disney is denying Daniels’ allegations.

“ ‘Inside Out’ was an original Pixar creation, and we look forward to vigorously defending against this lawsuit in court,” a Disney spokesman said in a statement.

Daniels, a Minnesota resident, argues that “The Moodsters” would have featured five color-coded, anthropomorphic characters, each representing a single emotion: happiness, sadness, anger, love and fear. The characters would reside in an abstract world within a child.

The suit states that Daniels hired a creative team that included a producer and illustrator to further develop the idea.

“Inside Out” features five characters based on the emotions joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. The characters reside in the mind of a young girl named Riley who must learn to adjust to a new life when her family moves to San Francisco.

The movie, directed by Pete Docter, received near-universal acclaim when it was released in 2015 and was a box-office hit, grossing more than $356 million domestically. It won the Oscar for animated feature and was nominated for its original screenplay.

In the complaint, Daniels claims that she called Docter to discuss “The Moodsters” and that they spoke for an extended period of time. She also said she shared material about the project with several Disney executives.

Daniels has worked in the field of children’s social and emotional development for more than four decades, according to the complaint.

When asked why Daniels waited two years after the movie’s release to file the suit, her attorney said the time gap was not unusual in such cases.

“You don’t file these cases lightly,” said Ronald Schutz of the firm Robins Kaplan.

The firm previously battled with Disney in a 2004 case over profits for ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” That case resulted in a $320-million verdict against Disney in favor of the British company Celador International, which licensed the rights to the show to Disney.

Daniels’ suit is seeking unspecified damages to be determined at trial.

david.ng@latimes.com

@DavidNgLAT

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