It is interesting to consider how kids today are growing up on Pixar films, when as a child I grew up on the Disney films. I wonder if the change will have a very large effect on the future generations to come.
Disney films are often criticized for being too mushy, or too cliché. The heroines often have barby doll figures where the heroes have six packs; idealism is pervasive through the imagery depicting the main characters.
Though Pixar also pushes the importance of family ties, friendship, loyalty, bravery, and morality, it approaches film in an entirely different way, which not only results in their films being less cliché, but also leads to more complex characters, more humorous plot lines (or a least a strong vein of humor running parallel to a more serious plot). It also leaves greater room for caricature, both of current society as well as its characters.
Disney tends to pick a well known historical (in the case of Pocahontas) or a fairytale (The Little Mermaid) and dramatizes this story. The story is plot driven; the characters are generally flat and straightforward. The good characters may have some flaws that they have to work though but at heart the good characters will always redeem themselves and the bad will be destructive and deceitful. Though Pixar films also have a definite plot they create an alternative world for their characters, parallel in some ways to the human world but not exactly the same. Human characters and situations carried out through the lens of a fish, a car, a toy, a rat or a super hero. There is this curious play between the modern human world and the factious personified world created by the animators, which allows for a commentary or satire on the modern world at the same time as maintaining a distance from it. For instance, the Incredibles is a film about a disillusioned father who is chasing past glories, so that he neglects taking care of his family and spending time with his kids. However, by making him a super hero not only adds another complex layering to the plot, creates lighthearted tone, while still getting a serious touching message across to its audience. We are sucked into the world of aging super heroes’ and amused by characters like the costume designer Edna Mole, and accordingly it is much more tolerable, enjoyable film as an entertainment than a moral tale. It feels less like we as an audience are being preached at, and more like we are being treated to a good laugh.
Pixar’s approach also gives them the liberty to be satirical; like in the Incredibles they criticize the stupidity of lawsuits by having a man sue Mr. Incredible for interfering with his suicide and win. Or in Wally by having the whole human race turn into a bunch of fat emaciated blobs to absorbed in their digital media to notice one another. Because of the ridiculousness of the criticism everyone recognizes the jab but no one takes offense to it, thus the quality of lighthearted fun is sustained.
Everything in a Pixar film is interpreted though a different medium, though the terms of the world they set up. Attraction in the terms of a car, political suppression and propaganda in the form of an energy corporation run by monsters, even the humans are not really humans with their large eyes and rubbery animated skin. This approach allows a well-known story plot line to sustain a high interest in its audience that leads to a lot of play for the animator and entertainment as an audience member.