Credit Where Credit is Due - Part 1
Hill begins his first three part series of stories specifically
for Digital Media FX, he starts off with an odd question: "Is
Monsters, Inc. really the best Muppet movie the Jim Henson Company
It's a fantasy film that's loaded with heart, whimsy and belly
laughs. It stars a big blue hairy monster as well as his diminutive
sidekick, a bright green guy who likes to sing. Oh - and did I
mention that veteran Muppeteer Frank Oz also does voice work for
year, if I listed the above elements as being a key part of a
successful new family film, I'm betting that industry insiders
would say something along the lines of "Oh, I didn't know
that the Jim Henson Company had a new Muppet movie out in theaters."
This might explain why the folks over at Henson are slightly ticked
off about Pixar Animation Studio's latest release, Monsters,
"slightly ticked off" is just too strong a term. Given
that the kind, forgiving nature of the company's founder still
pervades all aspects of the Jim Henson operation, no one over
there would ever stoop to openly admitting that they were somewhat
upset by what they viewed as Pixar poaching on the Muppets' exclusive
turf. So it's up to slobs like me to step into the breach &
drag these whispered accusations out into the daylight.
Do the folks over at Henson really have a case? Does Monsters,
Inc. borrow far too many concepts and characters from earlier
Henson projects? Admittedly, Sully's character design does
looked vaguely Muppet-esque. But is this alone really a good enough
reason to start pointing fingers at Pixar?
If we're basing
this argument solely on Sully, the answer is "no." There
really isn't enough evidence to support Henson staffers' claims
that Pixar has poached one too many concepts from Kermit &
-- when you start taking Roz (Monsters, Inc.'s deadpan
dispatcher) into account - the comparisons between this particular
Pixar film and earlier Henson projects starts to get... well...
uncomfortable. How so? Use Google to go grab a picture of Roz.
Now chase down an image of Ethyl Phillips (Grandma Ethyl), the
grandmother character that Henson cooked up for the company's
early 1990s sit-com, "Dinosaurs." Disregarding Roz's
signature hair style, take a good close look at both of these
two characters. The glasses & down-turned mouth look the same,
If you can
find video of Grandmother Phillips in action, the resemblance
between the two characters becomes even more obvious. Both have
the same sort of gruff manner, not to mention almost identical
sounding gravelly voices. Listening to Roz's dialogue from Monsters,
Inc., it almost seems like Bob Peterson -- the Pixar storyboard
artist who did the vocals for the deadpan dispatcher -- was deliberately
doing a Florence Stanley impression. (For those of you who don't
know, Florence Stanley is a stage & screen veteran. Sitcom
fans may remember Florence from her many appearances as the long
suffering wife on the short-lived "Barney Miller" spin-off,
"Fish." Today's animation fans probably know Ms. Stanley
best from her recent work as the voice of the chain smoking Mrs.
Packard in Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire.)
In their defense,
people at Pixar insist that Roz is a wholey original character.
Someone that the Monsters, Inc. story team invented all
of their own. I guess it is possible. I mean, Henson can't seriously
lay claim to having invented the Roz / Ethyl Phillips character
archetype. After all, the gruff, gravel-voiced older female character
has been a comedy staple since... well, at least going back as
far as Aristophanes.
most folks in Hollywood aren't putting all that much credence
in the whole Monsters, Inc. / Muppets comparison question.
So what if both Henson & Pixar have produced projects that
featured big blue hairy monsters? So what if both companies did
shows that featured gruff, gravelly voiced older females? Big
deal. Let's just chalk this whole thing up to creative co-incidence.
You know, "great minds think alike"? I'd probably be
inclined to do this, except that I'm now remembering that this
isn't the first time that Pixar has been accused of "borrowing"
story ideas from Jim Henson Productions.
What do I
mean by that? Well, did you ever hear about Henson's holiday special,
"The Christmas Toy"? This hour long program aired on
ABC back in December 1986 and detailed the Christmas Eve adventures
of Rugby, a stuffed tiger, and all his toy friends from the playroom.
world, all toys can come to life - dance, sing & move about
-- once they're out of sight of humans. The only downside to this
cool bit of magic is that these playthings must be in the exact
same position they were originally left in when the children return
to the nursery. Otherwise, the out-of-place toys can become frozen
Rugby - as
it turns out - is Jaime Jones' (a sweet six-year-old girl) favorite
Christmas toy from last year. And - since the holidays have rolled
around once more - the tiger is certain that he'll soon be put
back in a box and placed under the Christmas tree again. When
the other toys try to explain why this isn't going to happen,
Rugby becomes horrified at the idea that he's about to be replaced.
That a new Christmas toy will soon come along and usurp his position
as Jaime's favorite plaything. That's why the stuffed tiger hatches
a bold plan. On Christmas Eve (after the humans in the house are
asleep), Rugby makes the perilous journey
downstairs. His mission: To find the big box under the tree that's
addressed to Jaime. The tiger will then dispose of the toy inside,
place himself in the box and - Presto Changeo! - Rugby can become
Ms. Jones' favorite Christmas toy once again.
the stuffed tiger hadn't counted on opening the box and discovering
an action figure (a female space warrior called Meteora) inside.
At this point,
I would imagine that anyone who's a big fan of Pixar's Toy
Story is feeling somewhat squeamish. After all, that film's
storyline also deals with a favorite plaything's anxiety over
being replaced by an action figure.
about this uncomfortable co-incidence, the folks at Pixar insist
that the similarities in plotline and characters between Henson's
1986 TV special, "The Christmas Toy" and Pixar's 1995
feature, Toy Story are just that: co-incidence. Most insist
that they never ever saw this ABC holiday program and/or its spin-off
series ("Jim Henson's Secret Life of Toys," 13 episodes
of which aired on the Disney Channel in 1994).
Is this really
a plausible explanation? Well . If you're one of those people
who believes that absolutely none of the animators who worked
on Disney's 1994 blockbuster, The Lion King, ever saw or
were influenced by a single episode of "Kimba the White Lion,"
then I guess it's possible to think that no one at Pixar ever
saw or was influenced by Henson's "Christmas Toy" or
its spin-off TV series.
to hear the people at Pixar tell the tale, they're the
entertainment company that's really been bedeviled by the theft
of their story ideas. And - to be honest - if you look back over
the whole ANTZ / A Bug's Life debacle, it appears
that they may actually have a point.
2: How much of the storyline of the finished version
of ANTZ was supposedly "borrowed" from Pixar's initial
treatment for A Bug's Life? Plus, how the inter-studio scuffling
over the release dates of these two films ended up changing the
computer animation industry forever.
here to discuss this column in the dFX Forums.
Jim Hill is
an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the
entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital
Media FX around the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those
to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive 24
hour advanced access to the columns before the general public.
of a log cabin hidden away in the woods of New Hampshire, Jim
is currently at work on an unauthorized history of the Walt Disney
World Resort. In addition, he writes for several online Websites.
He has a beautiful 7 year old daughter and three obnoxious cats.
You can email
Jim Hill at email@example.com.
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