The time is here. We’re all eagerly awaiting that special trip to the theater to check out the latest from Pixar. Only this time, things are different. We’re prepping for the long-awaited sequel to one of the most beloved animated pictures of recent memory, and while we’re all ready to just keep swimming, younger audiences could be seeing their very first Pixar picture. So we got to thinking, what’s led one of the greatest animated production companies to churn out so many classics over the years?
While we’re sure many of our readers will make multiple trips to the theater to watch Finding Dory, we’ve collected some of the movies that helped inspire some of the best cartoons over the past two decades. This is by no means a countdown of the best movies that inspired the studio, but rather a compilation of those films discussing exactly how they were used. Some are obscure films you may have never heard of, while others are classics worth checking out on their own merits. We’ve watched them all in hopes that true fans may want to check them out too. They’re all worth your time if for no other reason than to see just how much they share with some of history’s most memorable on-screen moments.
So here they are, your cherished 12 Pixar Stories and the Movies That Inspired Them.
12. The Defiant Ones & The Graduate (Toy Story)
Toy Story wasn’t the first movie to feature talking toys, but when Pixar and Disney approached John Lasseter with the idea to create a feature after the success of his short Tin Toy, he took the idea and ran with it. With the thought of making a buddy comedy, the Pixar crew turned to The Defiant Ones to develop the relationship between Woody and Buzz. Set in 1950s America, the film followed two prisoners who escape from a chain gang — one black and one white — who learn to get along. In much the same way, Woody and Buzz were structured to be polar opposites, one old fashioned and the other new age, each one with their respective qualities that come together to create an unlikely friendship.
Despite being a buddy flick, Disney originally envisioned Toy Story as a musical, which eventually led to a negotiation with Pixar. Using The Graduate as a reference point, the studio decided to not have its characters break out into song, rather the music would be played over the actions taking place to show how the toys were feeling. The decision would eventually lead to Randy Newman’s songs being played during pivotal scenes, such as when Buzz learns he can’t fly. Had the reverse decision been made, Pixar’s first film and all that followed could have been very different from what we know today.
11. Seven Samurai (A Bug’s Life)
Compiling a list of all the movies that have been inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s work is a daunting task in and of itself. An animated kid’s movie about talking bugs may not be in the same of vein as, say, a Quentin Tarantino movie — just one of many noted directors who copied Kurosawa on a regular basis — but it’s still as good an homage as all the others.
The plot for Seven Samurai goes as follows: A Japanese village falls under the attack of some nearby marauding thieves. Without anywhere to turn, the villagers put together a ragtag group of seven good guys to protect the people from the mischiefs. Similarly, in A Bug’s Life, an ant named Flik looks to save his colony from a group of criminal grasshoppers led by the sinister Hopper. He recruits a band of warrior bugs, which turn out to be a circus troupe, in order to take down the grasshoppers and save the ants from extinction.
While many would note another animated movie Antz for its similarities with A Bug’s Life, both films were released within two months of one another, in effect eliminating any possibility that either film was a derivative of the other. And while A Bug’s Life isn’t often mentioned in the upper echelon of Pixar’s filmography, it still holds a very special place for true fans, whether its story is entirely original or not.
10. Little Monsters (Monsters, Inc.)
Monsters, Inc. may have been Pixar’s first foray into the world of things that give children nightmares, but the exploration of another realm that connects monsters to the real world wasn’t exactly an original idea. In 1989, we were given Little Monsters, a similarly constructed plot which followed 11 year old Brian Stevenson who befriends a horned, blue beast that lives under his bed. He discovers there’s more to his fiendish pal than meets the eye, and soon begins his own mischievous adventures inside the new world of creatures.
There’s no debating which of the two versions of the story is better executed, but the similarities are too much to be waved off. Maurice, the monster that becomes Brian’s new playmate, is essentially a live-action version of Sully, minus his best friend Mike. Brian takes the place of Boo, who enjoys the realm of possibilities he’s found with Maurice. Both versions even have a bad guy, another monster who steals a human child as a means to fulfill his own sinister goal. Swap out the portal under the bed for a portal in the closet and a pre-Deal or No Deal Howie Mandel for the voice of John Goodman and we’ve got the same general idea.
Without the voice work of Billy Crystal and the addition of Boo, Little Monsters is left feeling comparably flat. Still, it’s a good watch for anyone looking to see how this Pixar gem would have turned out had the studio gone the live-action route.
9. Kramer vs. Kramer, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, & Jaws (Finding Nemo)
With Finding Dory now in theaters, we can now know what happens to everybody’s favorite blue tang fish, but none of it would be possible if it weren’t for the kinds of movies that brought 2003’s Finding Nemo to life.
To establish the father-son connection between Marlin and Nemo in the first picture, Andrew Stanton sought motivation from the 1979 picture Kramer vs. Kramer about a heated custody battle which strengthens the bond between a boy and his dad. Marlin’s overbearing nature was partly patterned after Dustin Hoffman’s performance. The scene in which Nemo acts out against Marlin by touching a boat with his fin shortly before being abducted is comparable to the scene in which Billy lashes out against his father and is scolded for eating ice cream for dinner.
Two more classics, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Jaws also aided in the creations of characters for the animated picture. The characteristics of the tank gang inside the dentist’s office were similarly likened after the neuroses of the patients inside the metal institution in One Flew Over. Likewise, Bruce was given his name after the mechanical shark in Jaws which Steven Spielberg named while on set. Music similar to the Jaws theme can be heard when Bruce tries to eat Marlin and Dory shortly after meeting them.
8. The 007 Series & Superman (The Incredibles)
As far as on-screen characters go, are there anymore more worthy of being imitated than James Bond and Clark Kent? Sure, these references aren’t as obscure as others, but you simply cannot go wrong with these two iconic heroes.
When Brad Bird first conceived of the idea for a family of superheroes, he wanted John Barry for the musical score. Barry had previously composed the music for twelve 007 entries, including On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the theme of which was included in Pixar’s trailers for the film. The job eventually went to Michael Giacchino, who tried to duplicate the Bond music. The final product would go on to feature many references to the spy series, including Edna Mode, who was partially based on Q, James Bond’s personal gadget maker.
Apart from all the espionage references, Bird relied heavily on comic books and their adaptations in order to achieve the look and feel of the Parr family. It’s no secret Mr. Incredible, Elastigirl, Dash and Violet were inspired by the Fantastic Four with Elastigirl taking after Mr. Fantastic and Violet appearing as the Invisible Woman, but Bird turned to the Son of Krypton to create Mr. Incredible. With his super strength and identity working a menial job, he appears as a cartoon version of Clark Kent. There were also references to the original films injected into the movie, including one scene in which Syndrome catches a fuel truck with his energy beams, a direct nod at an incident from Superman II.
7. Doc Hollywood (Cars)
There’s really no way of predicting where a stroke of genius can come from. Other entries on this list took their motivation from old-time favorites or another animated feature with Pixar-esque morals, but this one may be among the oddest restructurings we’ve encountered from the Disney studio. Firstly, Doc Hollywood isn’t really a movie many people remember. It wasn’t a big box office draw and it had nothing to do with talking cars, but upon closer examination, Cars is almost a shot-for-shot remake of this 1991 Michael J. Fox comedy.
The story follows a hotshot young doctor by the name of Benjamin Stone, who gets an offer to become a surgeon in Beverley Hills. On his way to the big city, he takes a detour through the small town of Grady to avoid a traffic jam. Instead, he finds himself stranded until he completes 32 hours of community service after crashing into a fence. His attitude is a match for Lightning McQueen’s, and Radiator Springs easily fits as the animated version of Grady. Along the way, Stone falls for a girl he believes to be too good for such a small town — similar to Sally in Pixar’s version — and eventually Grady manages to charm his pants off.
6. Mousehunt (Ratatouille)
A movie about a mouse helping a garbage boy become a culinary master at a renowned Parisian restaurant sounds like the kind of story only a animated movie can pull off. The only problem was a similar Disney story had been done before in live-action ten years prior.
Mousehunt is an oddly frightening movie for a child, especially if that child is scared of rodents. A story about a mouse with enough wherewithal to cause utter mayhem for two house owners sounds like a fun time, but something about a live-action rodent with a mind of its own sounds more like a horror than a kid’s flick. Still, Pixar took notice of the feature and thought, with a little imagination, it could be turned into something truly special.
The story revolves around two brothers who inherit an ancestral mansion, where they look to get rid of a mouse that refuses to leave its home. Soon afterwards, they discover their newfound roommate has a knack for making cheese, which they use to turn their old rundown factory into a string cheese manufacturer. In much the same way as Remy and Linguini, the two brothers become an overnight success despite the public’s knowledge of what’s really going on. With Ratatouille and Mousehunt, it seems Disney has cornered the market on films about culinary rats, and with the latter now ten years removed, we may be in line for another cooking animal movie very soon.
5. Short Circuit & 2001: A Space Odyssey (WALL-E)
Andrew Stanton has probably heard this comparison enough that he’s mentally blocked it out by now. There’s little denying that the structural design of WALL-E was partially inspired by his predecessor Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. They’re both track robots that sit upright and show signs of anthropomorphic life despite their mechanical makeups. Sure, Johhny 5’s body is much more elevated than WALL-E’s. Stanton’s design is also more cube-shaped, rather than long and slender. Still, the binocular eyes and clawed hands suggest Stanton must have known of Johnny 5, even if it was just on a subconscious level.
Admittedly, most sci-fi films can be referred to as an inspiration for WALL-E. There are also many nods to movies of the silent era, most notably those by Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but with the exception of Short Circuit, it appears Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may have been one of the biggest influences. Stanton samples music from 2001 in his movie, most notably “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” can be heard when the captain of the Axiom stands upright for the first time. AUTO, the film’s main antagonist, was also patterned after Hal-9000, a robot incapable of emotion with a single blinking red dot for an eye.
Although many films have been referred to as inspirations for WALL-E, Stanton managed to take crucial elements from his personal favorites to create an emotionally compelling feature that made audiences connect with a robot. That sounds like a success if we’ve ever heard one.
4. Above then Beyond & The Red Balloon (Up)
For this tale of a house traveling through the sky with an assist from some colorful orbs of air, Pixar turned to our friends overseas for inspiration. Though they’ve never explicitly acknowledged any connections, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson — the directors and writers for Up –– watched two shorts from French filmmakers to draw ideas for the widowed Carl Fredricksen’s floating home.
The first movie, Above then Beyond, is an animated student film which began production in 2005 at the École Supérieure de Réalisation Audiovisuelle in Paris and wrapped in 2006 before being posted online. The short depicts an elderly woman who receives an eviction notice. Distraught by the news, she sews together the fabrics of her home to make a large parachute, which she then attaches to her house as a means to escape the urban sprawl in which she lives. As a means of study, the students had no control over their film and any ideas from the short were fair use for the Disney studio.
The second film by acclaimed French director Albert Lamorisse was a more identifiable comparison, having taken the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at the 1957 Academy Awards. In The Red Balloon, a young boy is led around the streets of post-World War II Paris by a mysterious balloon which takes on a life of its own. The balloon, much like the balloons in Up, lead the character on a grand adventure, serving as a catalyst for everything that transpires throughout the film.
3. The Great Escape & The Brave Little Toaster (Toy Story 3)
When you think of Toy Story 3, one of the last movies you may be thinking about is Steve McQueen’s prison escape classic The Great Escape. But that’s exactly the movie Lee Unkrich drew on to create the day-care scenes with Woody, Buzz and the bad news bear Lotso. In the “Great Escape” featurette available on the DVD, Unkrich and company refer to the John Sturges flick as the starting point for the elaborate scheme which Woody eventually concocts to free the toys from Sunnyside. While other prison break film references are included, most notably ones from The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke, The Great Escape got the wheels turning, leading to the movie’s eventual conception.
The Brave Little Toaster is a much more interesting comparison, since the 1987 animated film shares almost exactly the same story. John Lasseter, who would go on to direct Toy Story and Toy Story 2, was fired from Disney after first pitching the idea for the talking kitchen appliance. In both cases, inanimate objects come close to being destroyed, one by a trash fire pit and the other by a trash compactor. The toys and the appliances both eventually find their self worth despite believing they are no longer needed by their owners. Sometimes, recycling stories comes down to something as simple as getting an idea stuck in your head. For Lasseter, this was one idea which paid off handsomely for Pixar and turned out to be one of their finest productions yet.
2. One From the Heart, Reason and Emotion, & Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Inside Out)
In the short year that Inside Out has been a part of the Pixar collection, it has already collected the kind of acclaim and fan base that its predecessors have established over the years. It takes a special kind of source material to spark that type of imagination. For Pete Docter’s third feature, those sources of inspiration came from a Francis Ford Coppola failure, a forgotten Disney short and a timeless animated classic.
The bright color palette for the inside of Riley’s mind — a twelve year old coping with moving to a new town — was contrasted with the flat colors of reality, a look which production designer Ralph Eggleston said came from Coppola’s One From the Heart. The 1982 musical about a crumbling relationship was filmed entirely on sound stages using a candy-colored scheme to exhibit character emotions. Reviving the premise of the 1943 propaganda short Reason and Emotion, which showed little characters dictating a person’s actions through logic and passion, the colors mixed well with how young Riley was feeling. Each emotion, whether it be Joy or Sadness, was then patterned after the seven dwarfs from the 1937 Disney classic Snow White, each given their own distinct characteristics to differentiate them through narrative structuring.
While the similarities of these films to Inside Out are uncanny, neither of them dominate the story. Rather, elements from each were selected and placed into the film to coalesce, creating a wholly new product which earns its spot among Pixar’s heavy hitters.
1. Brother Bear (Brave & The Good Dinosaur)
When you look back through the archives of Disney movie classics, Brother Bear isn’t usually the title that comes to mind that you want to borrow from. Still, everyone at Disney is about taking their strongest qualities and spinning them into something even better. So while Brother Bear isn’t Disney’s strongest outing, it was good enough for Pixar to think of it twice when making Brave and The Good Dinosaur.
While Brave’s directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman credit their families for inspiring the story behind Pixar’s first fairytale, there are clear indications that the mother-turned-bear idea was borrowed from its 2003 Disney brethren. In the film, Inuit hunter Kenai is turned into a bear as a way of teaching him how to respect the animals after needlessly killing one. The plot twist serves as the backbone for Brave, which also shares a scene with the 2003 picture in which the bears go hunting for salmon.
Although Brave borrows its twist from Brother Bear, at least it can’t be accused of stealing its entire story, which is exactly what The Good Dinosaur does. In both films, the protagonist witnesses the death of a family member, which leads to them befriending a savage character only to later find humanity inside them. Together, the characters in both films journey to a faraway mountain to reach their goals. Though there are no bear transformations, we see the same story unfold with Arlo in The Good Dinosaur without much alteration to the final outcome.
Did we miss any movies/stories that served as direct influences for Pixar films? Let us know in the comments.
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