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Toons and the value of the brand wagon

Disney's twin toon shops bear a resemblance to each other

For the first time since bunking together, Disney’s twin toon shops have begun to bear a resemblance to each other.

The similarity emerged this summer, when Pixar cribbed from the classic Disney storybook for “Brave,” a tonally darker turn for the folks up in Emeryville that featured a princess whose rebellious streak stirs up fairy-tale magic and imperils loved ones. Four months later, Disney Animation offered “Wreck-It Ralph,” whose candy-colored non-human characters romp through a computer-generated otherworld.

Could this be the outline of an identity crisis for Disney? In truth, having two of the world’s strongest entertainment brands emulate one another is probably a good problem to have. Disney insists no one at the Mouse House is sweating this, but the fact is the studios veered into one another’s creative lanes this summer and, well … people noticed.

In these two films, key aesthetic elements once distinct to the respective brands are now fair game. I’m not suggesting this was a mistake, or that Pixar and Disney Animation should merge, or that “Brave” and “Wreck-It Ralph” should have swapped badges. (Would “Ralph” have fared even better at the box office under a Pixar banner? Who knows, but studio people take offense even at the question.)

Don’t get me wrong — “Ralph” was a genuine breakout hit for Disney Animation, not only setting a record for the studio ($49.1 million domestic bow), but holding extraordinarily well in its second frame, dropping just 33% this past weekend. Only three Pixar titles — “Toy Story,” “Monsters Inc.” and “The Incredibles,” which fell just 31%, 27% and 29% respectively — boast better holds.

But big Disney does need to be mindful of preserving what distinctions remain to keep both shops on an upward track. One thing the Pixar brand does better than any animation house is to attract single adults, fanboys and older auds (“Brave” played better than “Ralph” with non-families, skewing 34%). The more Disney Animation chases crossover appeal, the more alike the two will become.

Some cultural blending was inevitable when Disney not only bought Pixar in 2006, but installed John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull as both studios’ chief creative officer and president, respectively. Though the campuses are 400 miles apart and share no additional personnel, Lasseter brings distinctive cultural and creative sensibilities that were bound to start showing through.

Lasseter’s management style is a mashup of hands-off and hands-on — he’s known for empowering filmmakers to generate and execute their own ideas, a dynamic that didn’t exist under the old, executive-led model for Disney’s toon division. The flip side is that Lasseter’s influence is imprinted everywhere, and not just in the films — he led the redesign of Tinkerbell’s dress (a modernized version of which succeeded at selling more dolls) and dictated the precise size of the “Cars” toy vehicles (just slightly larger than Matchbox cars, making them more appealing to boys).

In last week’s earnings call, Bob Iger credited that structure when he went out of his way to applaud the success of “Ralph.”

“The Pixar deal brought us more than just great Pixar movies,” Iger said. “It also reinvigorated our entire animation pipeline, led by the great team of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull.”

Lasseter’s influence has been felt since Disney Animation’s 2008 release “Bolt,” which he retitled (original: “American Dog”) and creatively overhauled. He also was instrumental in revamping “Tangled” (originally called “Rapunzel”) to make it more appealing to boys.

“Bolt” earned $310 million globally while “Tangled” went on to collect $591 worldwide, which along with “Ralph” portend a new era of consistency at Disney Animation that wasn’t there in the days of “Home on the Range” and “Treasure Planet.”

And in all likelihood, the back-to-back releases of “Ralph” and “Brave” will be the closest Disney and Pixar come to crossing creative streams for some time. Pixar’s upcoming projects lean toward its penchant for fantasy worlds and anthropomorphistic characters, including a dinosaur (“The Good Dinosaur”), a collection of ghosts and ghouls (“The Graveyard Book” and an untitled Day of the Dead project), and the inner workings of a young girl’s mind (untitled Pete Docter “brain” pic), as well as sequels to “Finding Nemo” and “Monsters Inc.”

Disney Animation’s next moves are less clear. It returns to a time-tested story line with “Frozen,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Snow Queen.” After that it’s dated an untitled pic for November 2014, with an as-yet unannounced logline.

If that project turns out to be as Pixar-esque as “Wreck-It Ralph,” well … then big Disney may need to decide whether to force the twins to stop sharing their wardrobes.

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