Last Christmas, for the first time in history, a Pixar movie flopped. With the critical and box-office dud The Good Dinosaur, the animation studio that enjoyed a two-decade-long run of imaginative and high-grossing films, such as the Toy Story trilogy and Up, found itself in a strange place. It was no longer the top-performing cartoon shop inside the Walt Disney Corporation.
The Good Dinosaur’s failure fueled the perception that Pixar is listing, relying mostly on sequels of its early hits. Last fall, a month before The Good Dinosaur’s release, Pixar announced its upcoming films through 2019 and four of its next five projects—Finding Dory, Cars 3, Toy Story 4, and The Incredibles 2—revisit old ideas. (Unsurprisingly, Coco, the one original, has sparked the most curiosity.) By contrast, Disney Animation has been surging forward with a streak of kid-oriented hit films such as a record-breaking little princess movie called Frozen, the Oscar-winning Big Hero 6, and this year’s almost universally beloved Zootopia. Disney’s reemergence, after years of sputtering, has instilled a new bravado at the studio, which "was feeling like an inferior backwater to Pixar," says Tom Sito, a former Disney animator who’s now the chair of the Division of Animation and Digital Arts at the University of Southern California.
Disney’s rebound has led to increased one-upmanship within the Mouse House. According to one source, "Pixar’s attitude is, ‘We’re Pixar.’ And Disney is like, ‘Well, then, why don’t you have the highest-grossing animated film of all time?’ "
Intracompany rivalries are always complicated, and in this case they’re exacerbated by the role Pixar founding fathers John Lasseter and Ed Catmull played in Disney Animation’s renaissance. The duo was put in charge of the studio—Lasseter as chief creative officer, Catmull as president—after Pixar was acquired by Disney in 2006. They overhauled how Disney Animation operates, opening lines of communication, empowering directors, and installing a Story Trust, akin to Pixar’s famous Braintrust of top directors, writers, and storyboard artists who collaboratively drive a film’s story forward. "The creative environment [at Disney] before the Pixar takeover had a lot of executives interfering in the creative process," says Sito. "Lasseter swept that all away."
Both men also still oversee Pixar, so for the past decade they have been splitting their time. This wasn’t an issue at first, but with the shift in each studio’s relative fortunes—starting with 2013’s Frozen and especially this past year—the competition for Lasseter’s time and attention, in particular, has led to some hard feelings. Employees at the two companies largely remain friendly, and animators are a tight-knit community of artists, but sources say that Pixar employees are highly aware of how much time Lasseter spends in Burbank, feeling that Disney is "the new girlfriend," whereas Pixar is "the wife." This sentiment went into overdrive on the making of The Good Dinosaur, which suffered problems early on, had an overly complicated story (originally, the dinosaurs in the movie were supposed to be Amish), and cycled through two first-time lead directors. One source says that Lasseter, who was coming off the personal disappointment of Cars 2 (which he directed and which critics slammed, although it was a financial success), was more invested in Disney’s turnaround. At the same time, Catmull was less available (he wrote a best-selling management book, Creativity, Inc.) and key members of the Braintrust were busy on their own projects at various stages of The Good Dinosaur’s six-year production. One source notes that the Oscar-winning Inside Out was made during this same time, though in the hands of Braintrust director Pete Docter, it arguably needed less supervision. (Disney and Pixar declined to comment.)
Disney Animation’s culture is now less insular than Pixar’s. Disney takes chances on outsiders like former TV director Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph, Zootopia) and screenwriter Jennifer Lee (Frozen). Pixar still draws from its own ranks and has yet to mint new all-stars as accomplished as Docter and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E). But Disney Animation’s comeback is inspiring Pixar to challenge itself again. "It’s like a sibling rivalry," says one former Pixar employee. "If a brother or sister goes out and does something awesome, you then want to go out and do something awesome."
Pixar’s latest attempt at awesomeness is Stanton’s Finding Dory, the buzzed-about sequel to Finding Nemo. Finding Dory hit theaters June 17 and set a new U.S. box office record by bringing in $136.2 million its first weekend—the most successful opening ever for an animated film. A few months later, Disney Animation will release Moana, a film about a Polynesian princess that was written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. A talking fish versus a seafaring island girl? Let the box-office bets begin.
A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine.