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Digital Media FX - The Power of Imagination

Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
by Jim Hill

As Jim 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 never made?"


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 this movie?

Any other 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, Inc.

Okay, perhaps "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.

So, okay. 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 & Co.

But -- 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, don't they?

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.

That's why 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.

In Rugby's 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 forever.

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.

Of course, 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.

When questioned 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.

Of course, 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.

In Part 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.


Jim Hill is an award winning journalist who specializes in writing about the entertainment industry. Hill's columns appear on Digital Media FX on the 2nd and 16th of each month. Those subscribed to the free Digital Media FX newsletter receive an advanced look (including full access) at each of Hill's columns.

Based out 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 stadlerhill@mindspring.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

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