Pixar’s unlikely heroes
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Disney without Pixar

The quality of Pixar’s 10 films has never really been a matter of debate. Now at a film-per-year pace, Pixar has prioritized class over quantity, and a new film bearing the studio’s brand is treated as an event.

Though Disney has only owned Pixar outright since 2006, the two had earlier struck a distribution agreement, and first released “Toy Story” in 1995. Since the delivery of that groundbreaking box office smash, the computer animation powerhouse has released nine additional films, while Disney has produced more than 15 animated films on its own.

With successes such as " Wall-E,” “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” which introduced filmgoers to unlikely heroes and immersive, unpredictable worlds, Pixar has so influenced the state of animated films that Pixar principals Ed Catmull and John Lassetter now oversee Disney’s animation empire.

Since the purchase of Pixar, Disney continues to release animated films under its own banner, although a Pixar influence, it can be argued, is increasingly visible. It was nearly impossible to find a review of 2008’s “ Bolt” without critics comparing it to the work of Pixar, with many noting that it was good, but not quite on a Pixar level. Is that a bit unfair? It’s hard to meet expectations when a film is being compared to a once-a-year occurrence.

Granted, Disney has released some flicks we’re all better off forgetting (“Dinosaur”), but also some that we’d be wise to revisit (“Treasure Planet”) and some that are already considered classics (“Lilo and Stitch”). So let’s take a closer look at what Disney has accomplished when working outside the Pixar umbrella and see how it ranks in the Pixar oeuvre.

Compiled by Todd Martens, Jevon Phillips, Hanh Nguyen, Emily Christianson and Patrick Day ()
The concept: It was the first Disney film based on a real, historical character, but it fictionalized and highly romanticized the relationship between Native American lady Pocahontas and English settler John Smith.

The reception: Although the film did well enough at the box office, it by no means lived up to its predecessor, “The Lion King,” and critics panned it for its historical innacuracies and overall dullness.

As good as: Sadly, this ranks fairly low for Disney’s “renaissance” and doesn’t come close to the quality of Pixar‘s least engaging films. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: Disney turns the clock back on Victor Hugo‘s classic story to focus on Quasimodo’s awkward younger years. True-to-the Walt way, the movie touts a beautiful princess type, talking animals (or in this case gargoyles) and a kickin’ kid’s soundtrack.

The reception: A welcome improvement over " Pocahontas,” “Hunchback” was touted as a children’s movie with darker themes than any of its predecessors. Fans got a second dose of the Renaissance-era story with a direct-to-DVD sequel in 2002.

As good as: “A Bug’s Life” – both have a one-of-a-kind protagonist who fights the villains and saves the girl. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: A goofier, hipper and pop-culture laden take on the classic Greek tale about a son of Zeus who must claim his birthright.

The reception: As a lighthearted tale full of humor and adventure, “Hercules” pleased audiences enough to make sure it wasn’t a flop, but its flimsy characterizations and lack of heart kept it from becoming a classic. It did, however, spawn a similarly fluffy direct-to-DVD prequel and an animated series.

As good as: “Cars” -- both have action aplenty for the young bucks

--Hanh Nguyen, Zap2it.com (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: A Chinese girl masquerades as a warrior to save her father from being forced into the army. She then becomes one of the army’s greatest warriors.

The reception: A girl-power movie with Eddie Murphy as a sidekick dragon and a popular Christina Aguilera theme song (along with an Oscar-nominated score), it made over $304 million worldwide.

As good as: A quirky supporting cast brings shades of “Cars,” but better. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: The prehistoric world of the dinosaurs is brought to dramatic life through a then-cutting-edge technique of blending live action and photo-realistic computer animated visual effects.

The reception: Mixed. Critics praised the visuals, but bemoaned the fact that the dinosaurs spoke, including one dinosaur that referred to another as a “Jerkasaurus.” The film was nonetheless a box office hit, with $349 million in ticket sales world wide.

As good as: If only they’d had the guts to go wordless, a la the opening of “Wall-E.” Unfortunately, someone at Disney was a jerkasaurus. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: Classical music provides a soundtrack for animated interludes inspired by the music. This was a modern follow-up to Walt Disney‘s original “Fantasia,” which was artistically ambitious, if a commercial failure, in its initial release in 1940.

The reception: Critics generally applauded the artistic ambitions of the film, but usually compared it unfavorably to the original. (Critics gave the original mixed reviews upon its initial release as well).

As good as: Captures the artistically ambitious visuals of more recent Pixar releases like “Wall-E” and “Ratatouille.” (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: A self-centered young emperor named Kuzco learns the error of his ways when he ends up living in the very village he planned to displace with a water park. The Disney twist? Kuzco takes the form of a llama after an evil advisor tries to oust him using black magic.

The reception: The film easily found an audience among children and adults thanks to the comedy relief provided by the evil Kronk and silly Kuzco. Originally conceived as an epic tale on par with “The Lion King,” the animated flick lightened up when director Mark Dindal took the reins.

As good as: “Toy Story” -- a puffed-up emperor type gets taken down a notch or two before he understands true friendship and happiness. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: Three dairy cows embark on a mission to apprehend a cattle rustler to use the bounty money to save their farm.

The reception: Roughly half of U.S. critics panned the film and it had a worldwide gross of just over $100 million, making it a disappointment by Disney’s high standards. Until John Lassetter put “The Princess and the Frog” into production, it was to be the last 2D animated film from Disney Animation.

As good as: Nothing in the Pixar library. There’s a reason Disney suspended hand-drawn animated features after this cow pie. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: In 1914, Milo Thatch embarks on an adventure to find Atlantis with a quirky crew, furthering his grandfather’s quest.

The reception: $186 million worldwide isn’t horrible, but a 46 rating on Rotten Tomatoes was not going to entice crowds to surge.

As good as: “A Bug’s Life” -- an adventure in an unseen land with an unlikely hero. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: Wish upon a falling star, and perhaps you’ll have a friend for life. Or an obnoxious space monster .

The reception: Terrific. “Lilo” received positive reviews, with critics taking to its two unconventional heroes – a bratty girl named Lilo and a genetically-engineered monster named Stich. The film grossed well over $100 million at the box office, and if you have kids you probably have seen it or own it.

As good as: “Lilo” is a charmer, pairing traditional, water-color animation with unconventional, Pixar-inspired heroes. It honored Disney history and recognized contemporary culture as well and put real, sometimes unlikeable characters on a journey to become better people – or aliens. It’s also quite funny, and a modern, “Toy Story"-like classic. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: A young orphan is brought to the future to help save it, with the family he grows up to have on his own

The reception: Metacritic users gave it a 6.7 out of 10, which isn’t bad, but is not award-worthy. The New York Times’ A.O. Scott called it one of the worst Disney movies while USA Today’s Claudia Puig called it “inventive and fun.” People were split and it made $169 million worldwide.

As good as: “The Incredibles.” Two weird families, though the superhuman one is the more regular. The family in “Meet the Robinsons” is great even without powers, and more heartfelt. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: “Treasure Island” in space.

The reception: Widely viewed as a dud. Reviews ranged from loving it (Time magazine) to hating it (the New York Times), and it fizzled at the box office, with domestic grosses failing to top $50 million.

As good as: “Treasure Planet” was dead on arrival, and that’s a shame. Looking back, this stands as one of Disney’s most underappreciated modern animated films. The film is gorgeous, melding hand-drawn animation with digital effects, and those who got past the admittedly gimmicky set-up were rewarded with a grand sci-fi adventure. Martin Short as the robot B.E.N. is a delight, and “Treasure Planet” creates a unique world that’s on par with the ambitions of Pixar. Plus, pirates in space. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: An Inuit boy named Kenai is transformed into a bear when he angers the Spirits. He must go on a great journey among the animals to find his way back to human form.

The reception: The film received mixed reviews. Some critics panned it simply for its lack of originality, while many Christians were offended by the concept of divine spirits and equality between man and beast.

As good as: “Finding Nemo” -- well not quite, but the two follow bewildered yet determined characters on epic journeys in hopes of being reunited with their families. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: You guessed it, the sky is falling. But this time it’s actually an alien invasion.

The reception: Disney’s first CGI movie without Pixar wasn’t the critical hit they hoped for (37% on Rotten Tomatoes), but it did gross $314 million worldwide.

As good as: It was not as good as any Pixar film so far produced. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: A Hollywood show dog discovers that all the glitz, glamour and superpowers in the world can’t compensate for real-life friends.

The reception: More positive than negative, as “ Bolt” received relatively strong reviews and grossed more than $100 million, domestically. As an added bonus, the songs from Miley Cyrus and Jenny Lewis were decent pop numbers in their own right. The Times’ Kenneth Turan noted that “Bolt” was a “sweet Disney family film,” adding that it’s “not in Pixar‘s league, but it’s laced with idiosyncratic characters with pleasantly wacky attitudes.”

As good as: Let’s be careful. Films like “ Wall-E” and “The Incredibles” have spoiled us, but “Bolt” has flash and charm, and is going to sit comfortably next to “Monsters, Inc.” in your collection. While it may not instantly pack a “wow” factor, “Bolt” isn’t easily forgotten, either. (Walt Disney Co.)
The concept: A coming-of-age tale for Disney’s star fairy, whose misadventures teach her how to conquer her insecurities and control her temper.

The reception: The long-in-the-works film reportedly provoked the ire of Pixar chief John Lasseter, with reports that the production was nearly completely shut down in 2007. But the troubled film – Variety reported that the project had seen more than a dozen directors and a budget topping $50 million – turned out to be a pleasant surprise, winning above-average reviews and becoming a hot seller this past holiday season. Three sequels are in the works.

As good as: There’s a scene in “A Bug’s Life” where a group of young thespian ants stage a mini-play depicting a war against the grasshoppers. “Tinker Bell” isn’t as adorable or as clever as those few minutes, but it captures the sweet tone. (Walt Disney Co.)