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San Francisco artist sues Disney for copying her ‘tremendously cool’ painted van in Pixar film

Sweet Cecily Daniher rented her unicorn decorated vehicle to the studio for a party, only to find out its doppelganger will appear in the animated movie Onward

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The artist Sweet Cecily Daniher with her Vanicorn in a 2014 Instagram post (left), and a promotional image from the Pixar film Onward (right)

The Bay Area tattoo artist Sweet Cecily Daniher is suing Pixar, Disney and Kori Rae, the producer of the forthcoming animated film Onward, for reproducing her unicorn-painted van without permission.

In a colourfully worded legal complaint, Daniher’s lawyers lay out exactly how the “superlative work of automotive art” was allegedly copied by the studio. Since 2014, according to the court documents, Daniher has owned a “tremendously cool, dark blue and/or purple 1972 Chevrolet G10 van, with red shag carpeting, red velour walls and seating, and a white shag carpet roof”. Soon after buying the van, she painted a fantastical mural of a unicorn on the side of it, “because of her lifelong artistic interest in unicorns, but also because her ex-husband had theretofore refused to allow her to do so”.

The artist’s designs for the van were done “with tremendous specificity regarding the colors utilized and the shading thereof, the flowing locks of hair from the unicorn, the flashes of lightning, and a general outer space and mythological visual milieu”, the complaint notes. “At the risk of belaboring the point, the Plaintiff has had a real thing for unicorns for a very long time, and they have been a central theme and subject matter of her artistic work, throughout the entirety of her career.”

And thus, the complaint says, Daniher “brought forth unto the world (or, at the very least, the streets of San Francisco) a mobile mural and/or a superlative work of automotive art, with her very particular mural applied thereon, born of her own creation and design, and which she thereafter christened as the ‘Vanicorn’”.

Then in September 2018, according to the complaint, Jane Clausen, a representative of Pixar, reached out to Daniher via email asking to rent “Your Amazing Vanicorn!!” for use in a “one day music festival/activity day for Pixar employees and family”. A copy of the email exhcgande included as an exhibit in the case notes that the van would serve as “a show piece and not [be] used in any way other than a visual prop”.

After assurances that the vintage vehicle would be well cared for, Daniher agreed to lease the van to Pixar for an unspecified fee, and “a good time was had by all” at the event, the complaint continues. The positive vibes came to a screeching halt in May 2019, however, when Daniher discovered the forthcoming Pixar film Onward featured a character named Guinevere, which was a “tremendously cool, dark blue and/or purple 1972 Chevrolet G10 van with a red interior, and a big mural of a unicorn on its side”. In a departure from Daniher’s Vanicorn, the design on the animated van seen on promotional materials for the film appears to depict a pegasus—a mythical winged horse—rather than a unicorn, and a moon-shaped side window.

On 3 June 2019, the court documents claim, Daniher received a call from the film’s producer Kori Rae. According to the complaint, Rae “apologized to the Plaintiff for the theft of the Vanicorn for its use as the Guinevere character” and allegedly “admitted to the Plaintiff that the Defendants intentionally did not inform her” of their intentions when renting the van because, at the time, the animated film did not have a title and the studio believed they could not have Daniher sign a non-disclosure agreement without one. Pixar then went on to create merchandise and toys featuring the van, including a full-scale replica that appeared at Disney’s D23 Expo in August 2019.

Daniher’s lawyer Conor Corcoran, who helped register her Vanicorn with the US Copyright Office in December 2019, says at no time was the artist offered the option to sign over her rights to the Vanicorn’s designs, and that Pixar’s animated vehicular doppelganger is “the most egregious example of copyright infringement” he has ever seen. The artist is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, but Corcoran says that when the film comes out, “I’ll be in the theatre counting how much time the van is on screen” to figure out the percentage of box office profits Daniher is entitled to.

As of this publication, Pixar has not responded to The Art Newspaper’s request for comment. Onward, which features the voices of actors Tom Holland and Chris Pratt as two elf-brothers on a quest to resurrect their dead father, is due to open in theatres on 6 March.