Why great minds think alike in animated films
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In "Flushed Away," DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc.'s new movie out this weekend, an uptown rat living in comfortable captivity gets washed down a toilet and finds there is more to life, in a sewer. Next summer, the company's archrival Pixar Animation Studios will release its own animated rodent movie, "Ratatouille," which is about a rat with a taste for the finer things in life who discovers his destiny in a sewer.
It is just the latest example of cartoon collision. Over the past decade, DreamWorks and Pixar have been engaged in a fierce battle for the best ideas. The competition has frequently landed both companies at the same spot.
In the late 1990s, they released movies about computer-animated insects -- DreamWorks'"Antz" and Pixar's "A Bug's Life" -- within weeks of each other. Both starred individualistic ants who take life-changing journeys and fall in love with a princess in the colony. Later, they plumbed the ocean, with Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and DreamWorks'"Shark Tale." Last year, Walt Disney Co. -- Pixar's longtime distributor and now owner -- got in on the act by launching "The Wild," meant to do battle with DreamWorks'"Madagascar," featuring an almost identical storyline about New York zoo animals who find themselves out of sorts in Africa.
It is hard to keep good ideas bottled up in Hollywood, and periodically movie studios find themselves simultaneously making movies on subjects as random as killer asteroids ("Armageddon" and "Deep Impact"), Truman Capote ("Capote" and "Infamous") and penguins ("March of the Penguins," "Happy Feet" and "Surf's Up").
DreamWorks and Pixar/Disney have tripped over each other especially often, thanks to the close-knit world of animation and the hot competition between these companies and their executives.
"Animation is an incestuous industry," says Jim Hill, who runs jimhillmedia.com, a fan Web site that tracks the animation world. "And the bad blood between these two companies runs deep."
With animated features often four or more years in production, animators and artists move around and ideas travel with them. Pixar writer-director Andrew Stanton toyed with "Nemo" for a decade before the movie was actually released. A stroll down the corridors of DreamWorks or Pixar reveals detailed storyboards mapping out possible scenes. The boards often remain there for many years for all to see.
Well-informed blogs share goings-on in the industry. Animation Guild President Kevin Koch, for instance, has a closely watched blog (animationguildblog.blogspot.com) that tracks the status of projects and changes at the studios. A recent headline: Disney greenlighting a new movie called "Frog Princess," which hasn't been announced publicly.
Look-alike stories weren't a problem when Disney was the only game in town. Many of the big-name animators, including Pixar's John Lasseter, started their careers at Disney, coexisting in a cozy environment where artists shared ideas.
But in the mid-1990s, the animation world was turned upside down. Led by Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs, Pixar emerged with a new style of computer-generated animation, and teamed with Disney. At about the same time, former Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg -- who oversaw hand-drawn blockbusters like "The Lion King" -- set up DreamWorks with partners Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Already embroiled in a mudslinging legal battle with Disney and its then-CEO, Michael Eisner, Mr. Katzenberg brought an aggressive and competitive approach to the genre, immediately creating his own animation studio and luring talent from Disney.
Suddenly, the creative forces in the animation world were competing to find the most captivating ideas. Cartoons are among Hollywood's most lucrative genres because they attract big audiences and spin off toys and other products.
Their first battleground was bugs. In the summer of 1994, Pixar's Mr. Lasseter pitched Disney a new version of the Aesop fable about the ant and the grasshopper. The idea was refined to focus on a misfit ant sent on a mission to save his community. Fresh from his big hit "Toy Story," Mr. Lasseter prepared to direct "A Bug's Life."
Not long into production, Mr. Lasseter got wind of an eerily similar project at DreamWorks. Moving quickly, Pixar planned to release "Bug's Life" in November 1998. Believing that it was important to get to the marketplace first, Mr. Katzenberg rushed the completion of "Antz" and shifted it to a date seven weeks before "A Bug's Life."
That didn't work: "A Bug's Life" won the battle at the box office. Still, Pixar vowed from then on to keep details of its projects out of the public eye for as long as possible.
In 2003, Pixar scored its biggest hit yet with the underwater adventure "Finding Nemo." But while it was in production, word reached the company that DreamWorks had its own undersea comedy in the works. Aghast senior Pixar executives privately referred to their nemesis as "Copy Katzenberg," according to people close to the matter.
Initially called "Sharkslayer," "Shark Tale" was eventually released 18 months after "Finding Nemo." People familiar with "Shark Tale" say that, while it started life as a dark mob movie, it later became more kid-friendly to target a closer audience to "Finding Nemo."
Pixar again won the box-office battle. But Disney's Mr. Eisner wasn't consoled. Upon hearing that DreamWorks was planning a movie about zoo animals, according to people familiar with the matter, Mr. Eisner ordered his own company to follow suit with a film called "The Wild." Mr. Eisner couldn't be reached for comment.
The plan backfired. The DreamWorks movie "Madagascar" came out in May last year and was the studio's biggest hit after "Shrek 2." But Disney's movie got bogged down in delays and costs quickly escalated. Posters and other marketing for "The Wild" looked uncannily like "Madagascar." Audiences weren't fooled. "The Wild" made a disappointing show at the box office.
Finally, the companies took their battle to the sewer. In partnership with the clay animation company Aardman Animations, DreamWorks announced in summer 2002 that it was working on a movie about a pampered British rat internally referred to as "Ratropolis." In February 2003, word spread that Pixar had started work on a mysterious project called Project 2006, which turned out to be "Ratatouille."
Who was first with the idea remains a mystery: Both movies have been in development for years. "Ratatouille" was originally pitched by Pixar director Jan Pinkava in early 2000 but was taken on several years later by "The Incredibles" director Brad Bird. "Flushed Away" started life as a stop-motion movie at Aardman's studio in Bristol, England but was given the computer-generated treatment by Mr. Katzenberg.
By now, the rivalry between the companies is so out in the open that it is showing up on screen. In the DreamWorks movie, now called "Flushed Away" and released to theaters this weekend, the main character, a rat named Roddy, briefly crosses paths with a tropical fish that looks remarkably like one of the clownfish in Pixar's "Finding Nemo." The fish asks "Have you seen my dad?" A few scenes later, the orange fish is lying on a barbecue grill.
But there have been some signs of detente lately. DreamWorks is set to work with Disney, as the companies are expected to soon announce that a "Shrek" TV special will be made for Disney's ABC broadcast network.
First Published November 7, 2006 12:00 am