Walt Disney Pictures
Last week, Disney opened its doors and allowed itself to be overrun by journalists, drawn in by the scent of new films and also free lunch. The main event was Disney’s latest feature, Big Hero 6, but like anything with the word Disney in front of it, the day started with a short.
That short was Feast, directed by Patrick Osborne, which will eventually run in front of Big Hero 6 when it opens in theaters this November. For convenience’s sake, consider Feast as a Disneyfied version of Noah Takes a Picture of Himself Everyday for 6 Years — that long-ago Youtube sensation that first pioneered the idea of watching a guy’s under-eye bags expand in depressing superspeed. Except Disney smartly swapped out the depressed twenty-something for a spunky Boston terrier with a love of table scraps.
Feast is a continual sequence of Winston (the terrier in question) being fed whatever his owner doesn’t feel like finishing. Up until the end (where Osborne throws a few kinks into the formula), it’s largely the same shot, every single time: a static, dog’s eye-level view of a dog dish, stacked to the brim with cold, uninviting kibble. From above descends a burly hand, which holds an extra-large plate, which is slowly tipped until its half-eaten contents slide free, landing with a splat on top of that stale pile of Alpo.
Cue Winston, who rockets in, and in two or three bites has obliterated that pork chop/eggplant parm/bacon and eggs/half a birthday cake/whatever else his owner decided would be better off inside the dog rather than the fridge.
We see a gazillion cuts through a gazillion meals, and through them we grasp the dynamic between Winston and his owner, and as that dynamic changes (the parsley displayed in all the promotional art becomes a big factor here), Winston’s table scrap-heavy diet starts to change as well. There will be conflict and there will be heartache, and all of it will be communicated through a tiny dog eating meals roughly the size of his torso. But this is Disney, so the end result will warm the very depths of your heart (and also cause you to uncontrollably hug the next Boston terrier you pass on the street).
Disney producing a quality short film in recent years is not, in itself, worth particular mention. Paperman was charming. Get a Horse! is also quite good. I don’t think anyone was doubting Disney’s ability to make an animated film that connects with an audience. What’s worth mention, however, is Feast‘s distance from the typical Disney brand. Watching the short, it doesn’t look at all like something the House of Mouse would produce. It looks like Pixar.
And after listening to Osborne talk about his baby, it’s clear that “looks like Pixar” is a very intentional strategy.
When Disney took over Pixar in 2006, they also bolted a pair of Mickey ears on Pixar’s greatest weapon: John Lasseter. Lasseter, who co-founded Pixar, was at the top of the company’s “Brain Trust,” Pixar’s top brains who oversaw all animation done under the Pixar name. If it was Pixar, it was a product of the Brain Trust — the same group that, per Pixar lore, doodled out ideas for Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, Finding Nemo and A Bug’s Life on a couple of lunch napkins. Because a Pixar doodle is the Van Gogh of the animation world.
And when Lasseter was Disneyfied, he set up Disney’s very own “Story Trust,” which was more or less the same thing. It’s a group of animation masterminds that cultivate new ideas for the House of Mouse, along with talent to write and direct those ideas (it’s no coincidence that Osborne was an animation supervisor on Paperman and head of animation on Big Hero 6, or that Big Hero 6‘s director duo previously split up to direct Bolt and the 2011 Winnie the Pooh).
According to Osborne, Feast was the Story Trust’s first venture into the world of shorts.
“This is the first actual short done at Disney through our new shorts program. Over the last couple years we’ve had a couple shorts go in front of the movies, and it became clear that was something that the studio wanted to keep doing, and they decided to formalize it in some way. So about a year and a half ago they announced that they were going to open up pitches to the whole studio.”
From that point on, everything was about collaboration (from what we know of Pixar, collaboration is essential for whimsical stories about fish who go missing or crotchety old men who kidnap Boy Scouts). “When you get ready for a pitch, you start calling in favors a little bit,” Osborne shared, at which point he showed off a slew of dog-based artwork (character drawings, early images of Winston and several dog-surrounded-by-scrumptious-human-food situations), all done by friends and colleagues in preparation for his big meeting with Lasseter.
Then comes the meeting — during which no one can pitch a single idea. As per Lasseter, you pitch three, “to not put all your eggs in one basket and kind of show the breadth of who you are as an artist,” explains Osborne.
“You end up with these three ideas on boards, like this, and you get into a room — a very intimidating room full of six directors, and John Lasseter — and you pitch through your shorts, and then you wait. And I waited, and continued working on Big Hero 6 for around a couple months, and then one day they said it was mine and they were gonna make this one, and instantly everything changes. And I’m no longer working on Big Hero, and I have a deadline of story, which I’ve never done.”
This is not the same Disney that, a few years back, set Glago’s Guest (a short where a lonely Russian soldier meets an E.T.) in front of Bolt, only to swapped it out at the last minute with Tokyo Mater, because Larry the Cable Guy describing his bodily functions to the Japanese played better with audiences. This is a Disney that’s doing things the Pixar way, with hive-mind levels of collaboration between every single creative player. Osborne had Jim Reardon, writer of Wall-E, assigned to him as a mentor and to guide him through the directing process. And on top of that, Lasseter was hovering over everyone’s shoulders at all times. But not in a creepy way, probably (“he’s always right there,” says Osborne).
Having seen Feast, it’s clear: Disney has been wildly successful in its self-Pixarization. You wouldn’t see Feast and instinctively think, “Disney.” There are no plucky youths dealing with the vaguely supernatural (Tangled, Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, Big Hero 6), and neither are there the usual franchises whose bodies line the foundations of the House of Mouse (Cars, Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse). A story about a dog and his owner, told through repeated table-scrap selfies is just whimsical enough to have come from some lunch napkin dotted with Lasseter’s sandwich crumbs.
And it doesn’t hurt that Feast has a unique look. It’s CGI, but a grainy kind of CGI where every character has been carved out of digital Styrofoam (Osborne calls it a “rough textured edge”). In motion, and with the short’s astounding lighting effects (Osborne spent a good half of his talk going into extreme lighting detail), it looks as visually unique as Paperman.
The verdict? Feast is good. Extremely good. Heartwarmingly good. Any kind of adjective good, really. But its goodness will likely pave the way for new Feasts and Geri’s Games and For the Birdses in front of each successive Disney feature. And that’s way better.