Disney Vs. DreamWorks – Which Movie Ideas Were Stolen?

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For decades, Disney was practically synonymous with animated features. Sure, there were a few rival movies from other companies, like Fleischer Studios’ 1939 version of Gulliver’s Travels or Nepenthe Productions’ 1978 rabbit epic Watership Down. For about 60 years, though, Disney was the big fish in the big pond.

Then DreamWorks came to town, and the multimillion-dollar brainchild of Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen seemed poised to challenge the might of Disney with its own new, innovative animated features. One of DreamWorks’ first animated efforts – a story about ants – came out in 1998, just in time to take on Disney’s latest movie, a story about, um, bugs.

This practice, known by some as “dueling,” wasn’t a one-off, either. Disney and DreamWorks continued to duke it out at the box office with similar films such as Monsters, Inc. and Shrek, The Emperor’s New Groove and The Road to El Dorado, and Finding Nemo and Shark Tale. We explore some of the great Disney-DreamWorks face-offs, noting the films that emerged victorious.

The Road to El Dorado (DreamWorks, 2000) vs. The Emperor’s New Groove (Disney, 2000)

The year 2000 brought us two comedies set in ancient Latin America in the shape of DreamWorks’ The Road to El Dorado and Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove. The former sees conmen Tulio (voiced by Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) team up to find the titular lost city of gold, while the latter features emperor-turned llama Kuzco (David Spade) joining forces with a llama herder named Pacha (John Goodman) in order to reclaim his rightful place on the throne.

WINNER: The Emperor’s New Groove. It may not have been able to boast the same quality of animation as its rival, and El Dorado’s Tulio and Miguel make a much more likable team than pretty much anyone and David Spade. But that said, The Road to El Dorado was considered a flop at the box office, taking only $76 million in total with a budget of $95 million, while The Emperor’s New Groove more than recouped its $100 million outlay with a gross of just under $170 million worldwide. Oh, and Eartha Kitt’s mere presence in The Emperor’s New Groove also automatically triples the movie’s awesome factor.

Shrek (DreamWorks, 2001) vs. Monsters, Inc. (Disney, 2001)

If 2000 was the year of the Latin American buddy flick, 2001 was the year of the frightening mythical protagonist. DreamWorks’ Shrek and Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. seemingly each turn a fairy tale cliché on its head: Shrek may be a terrifying ogre, but he’s a terrifying ogre with a heart, while the eponymous scarers of Monsters, Inc. are themselves petrified of children. Each movie also boasts a panoply of stars: Shrek features Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow, while John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Steve Buscemi and James Coburn are among the cast of Monsters, Inc.

THE WINNER: It’s a draw. Both Shrek, which cost $60 million to make, and Monsters, Inc. – costing $115 million – were commercial and critical successes for each studio. And while Monsters, Inc. did beat its rival at the box office, taking nearly $563 million worldwide as opposed to Shrek’s $484 million, the DreamWorks flick was honored with the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

Madagascar (DreamWorks, 2005) vs. The Wild (Disney, 2006)

The plots of 2005 DreamWorks animated feature Madagascar and Disney’s 2006 movie The Wild are strikingly similar. Each tells the story of animals who – after a lifetime in a cushy New York City zoo – are suddenly displaced and must find a way to exist in the actual wilderness. Each group winds up in Africa, and each features a lion dealing with a crisis: Samson (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) in The Wild has a troubled relationship with his son; meanwhile, Alex (Ben Stiller) in Madagascar ends up attacking his friend Marty the zebra (Chris Rock) after being unable to feed himself when out of captivity.

THE WINNER: Madagascar. In general, the critics preferred it over The Wild, and Madagascar did much better at the box office, with a worldwide total of over $532 million on a budget of $75 million. This comfortably beat its rival, which had production costs of $80 million but only grossed $102 million altogether. The DreamWorks flick has also since spawned a series of sequels, along with a spinoff short that stars the original film’s penguins.

Flushed Away (DreamWorks, 2006) vs. Ratatouille (Disney, 2007)

Believe it or not, the movie that would become DreamWorks’ 2006 picture Flushed Away was originally supposed to be a pirate adventure. But this was 2000, and studio bigwigs decided that pirate movies wouldn’t be popular with the public (even though three years later Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl would prove them wrong). The plot was therefore retooled to show the adventures of a pair of rats, voiced by Hugh Jackman and Kate Winslet, fighting the evil plans of The Toad (Ian McKellen), who wants to slay all rats and replace them with his many progeny. Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, released in 2007, presents a different rodent-based plot: a young rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) attempts to fight against tradition to realize his dream of growing to be a renowned chef.

THE WINNER: Ratatouille. It was handed an Academy Award for Best Animated Film and earned more than $623 million worldwide, comfortably covering its $150 million production costs. Flushed Away brought in less than a third of that amount at the box office, with a total gross of $176 million on an outlay of $149 million, and led to the end of the partnership between Nick Park’s Aardman Films and DreamWorks.

Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks, 2008) vs. WALL-E (Disney, 2008)

It’s a trope that is well worn but still quite compelling: an underdog overcomes all odds and saves the day once he realizes his own inner strength. Both 2008 films, WALL-E and Kung Fu Panda tell this story in different ways. DreamWorks’ movie sets an overweight panda – voiced by Jack Black – against an evil snow leopard, his own self doubt and his not inconsiderable girth, while Disney/Pixar pits a small robot – brought to life by Ben Burtt – against a giant, evil corporation that is controlling the planet. Of course, both protagonists emerge triumphant in the end.

THE WINNER: It’s close, but WALL-E pips this one. Both films did very well at the box office, with Kung Fu Panda bringing in over $630 million worldwide on a $130 million budget to WALL-E’s $521 million on $180 million. Both also received critical accolades, but writers from The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and CNN all named WALL-E one of their favorite films of 2008. WALL-E also won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and a Golden Globe for best Animated Feature Film.

Shark Tale (DreamWorks, 2004) vs. Finding Nemo (Disney, 2003)

Kudos is due to both DreamWorks and Disney for this pair of films, which both took a unique approach to a very similar topic: the adventures of ocean-dwelling fish. DreamWorks’ 2004 movie Shark Tale was arguably the grittier movie, following the adventures of the Will Smith-voiced Oscar, a bluestreak cleaner wrasse who inadvertently makes a name for himself as a shark killer. Meanwhile, Finding Nemo, released by Disney/Pixar in 2003, features a father (voiced by Albert Brooks) and son (Alexander Gould) pair of clownfish, who are separated when the latter is abducted.

THE WINNER: Finding Nemo, fins down. To date, it’s the third-highest grossing animated movie of all time, with a global box office of $921 million on a $94 million budget. It also scooped the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and has even become the best-selling DVD ever released. Shark Tale was a box office hit, too, grossing $367 million worldwide after a $75 million outlay despite mixed reviews – but it was no match for its Disney counterpart.

The Prince of Egypt (DreamWorks, 1998) vs. Mulan (Disney, 1998)

At first glance, it may not look like DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt and Disney’s Mulan – both released in 1998 – have much in common. Look closely, though, and you’ll see several similarities. Each film was based on a legendary figure from history: “The Ballad of Mulan” is a Chinese tale that was first written down in the 6th century, while The Prince of Egypt is based on the life of Moses, as told in the Biblical Book of Exodus. Also, Mulan’s titular heroine, voiced by Ming-Na Wen, and Moses (Val Kilmer) are both young characters who must leave their home and loved ones, potentially risking their lives in order to save their people.

THE WINNER: Mulan, although The Prince of Egypt gave it a run for its money. The DreamWorks picture received acclaim for its stunning animation and was honored with two Academy Awards nominations, emerging victorious in the Best Original Song category for “When You Believe.” However, Mulan did better at the box office, earning $304 million worldwide on a budget of $90 million, by contrast with The Prince of Egypt’s $218.6 million on $70 million. Mulan also received more positive reviews across the board.

Chicken Run (DreamWorks, 2000) vs. Dinosaur (Disney, 2000)

DreamWorks had an edge with 2000’s Chicken Run: British animator and director Nick Park was already known for his charming stop-motion animated films, particularly the Wallace and Gromit series. Chicken Run also had the star power of Mel Gibson, who voiced rooster Rocky, still many years away from his much-publicized 2006 DUI meltdown. The movie’s plot sees a group of chickens look to Rocky to save their feathers when their owners hope to start selling a range of chicken pot pies.

Dinosaur, again released in 2000, also featured some famous names, such as Hayden Panettiere and Juliana Margulies, and its plot similarly focuses on a grand trek to safety. Disney produced a visually stunning film that combined computer-generated animation with live-action backgrounds.

THE WINNER: Chicken Run. Although Dinosaur earned nearly $350 million at the global box office, its budget was $127.5 million, making it the most expensive picture to be released in 2000. Chicken Run only cost $45 million to make and brought in almost $225 million worldwide – five times the initial production costs. It also received a greater number of positive reviews. In the end, dinosaurs are magnificently awesome beasts, but it seems that chickens make better movie stars.

Shrek Forever After (DreamWorks, 2010) vs. Toy Story 3 (Disney, 2010)

Writing the first sequel to a hit film is tough, but coming out with a third or fourth installment can be a poisoned chalice; just ask the makers of The Godfather: Part III or Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. However, Disney and DreamWorks each took on that challenge in 2010. In Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the team of play figures, led by the Tom Hanks-voiced Woody and Tim Allen’s Buzz, is accidentally sent to a daycare center, where all is not what it seems. DreamWorks’ Shrek Forever After, on the other hand, seemingly pays homage to It’s a Wonderful Life, with a look at how Far Far Away would have been different if Shrek (Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) had never met.

THE WINNER: Toy Story 3. While Shrek Forever After received mixed reviews, it did very well at the box office, bringing in over $752 million globally after accruing production costs of $165 million. However, it was blown away by the massive success of Toy Story 3. Woody, Buzz and the gang’s latest adventure – which cost $200 million – earned more than a billion dollars worldwide, becoming arguably the highest-grossing animated movie ever.

Antz (DreamWorks, 1998) vs. A Bug’s Life (Disney, 1998)

Did DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg take the concept behind 1998’s Antz from Disney? It’s been suggested that there is more than coincidence involved in the close timing of the DreamWorks picture and its Disney/Pixar rival A Bug’s Life, released the same year. A Bug’s Life director John Lasseter was even said to have pitched the idea for the film to Disney on the very same day Katzenberg left Disney to form the rival studio. The official DreamWorks party line, though, was that Katzenberg actually got the idea for Antz from a DreamWorks colleague.

In the end, the moviegoing public was briefly in the unusual position of having not one but two movies to choose from, both about young drones trying to save their colonies and win over a princess in the process. A Bug’s Life features the vocal talents of Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, among others, while Antz’s cast includes Gene Hackman, Woody Allen and Sharon Stone.

THE WINNER: A Bug’s Life – if the ultimate factor deciding this war is money. It cleaned up at the box office, earning $363 million worldwide after production costs of $120 million, while Antz grossed just under $172 million in total after an outlay of $105 million. Its soundtrack composer Randy Newman also picked up a Grammy Award in the Best Instrumental Composition category.

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