Pixar genius, Lasseter, is a fresh infusion for Disney

Published June 11, 2006 12:00 am
Bright future: The Magic Kingdom hopes to bring successes like 'Finding Nemo' to a company of lackluster animated movies
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CONCORD, N.C. - They have turned ones and zeros into magic. They have made fish and bugs talk. They have brought out the emotional inner life of toys, monsters and now cars.

With those successes, the brains behind Pixar Animation Studios - filmmaker John Lasseter and company president, and Utah native, Ed Catmull - now face a tougher challenge: Bringing the Disney Animation Studios, home of Mickey Mouse and the Little Mermaid, back to life.

The Walt Disney Company's $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar last January brings together the venerated Disney studio, which has been in a creative slump, with the high-tech Pixar, which is riding a winning streak since "Toy Story" debuted in 1995.

"At Pixar, the movies are director-driven," Lasseter said, during a recent news media event at the Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, to promote Pixar's "Cars," which opened this weekend. "They come from their own heart. We're the only studio that's like that. All the other studios are executive-driven studios, where the movies are picked by executives in development, and the directors are assigned to them."

Until last September, the executive overseeing Disney was Michael Eisner - and it was Eisner's tight grip on Disney's animation division, say industry observers, that led to the studio's decline.

James B. Stewart, editor-at-large of SmartMoney magazine and author of the 2005 book DisneyWar, said "a culture of failure had set in. There was a certain lack of imagination, a sense of using these formulas that seemed to have worked in the past, but nobody could figure out why the formula can't keep working."

Disney was becoming known for lackluster original films such as "Treasure Planet" and "The Emperor's New Groove" and direct-to-video sequels such as "Bambi II" - while its big in-house computer-animated film, "Chicken Little," was a disappointment. Pixar, on the other hand, has been making critical and commercial successes, such as "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles."

Eisner's relationship with Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs had soured. As Pixar's five-picture deal with Disney was nearing an end with "Cars," negotiations for a new contract stalled and Jobs contemplated deals with rival studios.

Eisner left Disney in September, replaced by Robert Iger, who is more likely to give his subordinates autonomy, Stewart said.

The acquisition gives Lasseter, who is sometimes called the spiritual heir to Walt Disney, the reins to Disney Animation, Stewart said. "I look at that deal as the most expensive employment contract in history. They are essentially buying human talent."

"I don't think Disney had any choice about doing this deal with Pixar," said NPR correspondent Kim Masters, author of Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everyone Else. "They had tried for a long time to rejuvenate their own animation operations, and they just couldn't get it nailed. The options were: Bring Pixar in, or let Pixar go somewhere else."

Lasseter will have, Masters predicted, "unbelievable power at Disney - he can do whatever he damn well pleases." That's in part because the acquisition deal made Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computers, Disney's biggest stockholder.

Hired at Disney in 1979 and fired in 1983, Lasseter said his new Disney job will mirror his job as Pixar's chief creative officer. "I already, after 'Cars,' was going to take time to work with all the other directors," Lasseter said. "It's a natural thing for my new job working at Disney, because I'll be working with all the directors down there, as well.

"The merger is not going to change Pixar at all, because that's part of the deal. It's really protected. It's going to stay exactly the same."

Lasseter said he and Catmull are splitting their time, two days a week at Disney's Burbank, Calif., studio and three days a week at Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., east of San Francisco. (Catmull, an alumnus of Granite High School and the University of Utah, declined requests for an interview.)

"The Disney animators were more worried about becoming second-class citizens at their own company," NPR's Masters said, adding that Lasseter must "make the Disney people feel loved."

Pixar's people seem to be saying all the right things. "Disney was at a point where - ironically, in my opinion - Pixar might have been more receptive to hand-drawn [animation] than Disney was," Masters said. "They would be a lot less risk averse than Disney, because they've had all that success."

But will Pixar's success last? " 'Cars' will be an important test," said SmartMoney's Stewart. "Eisner was always telling me that in that business, you cannot go indefinitely without a failure."

Still, nobody knows when that might happen. "That's one of the things about show business," Masters said. "If people really knew how to do it right, there would be no 'Poseidon Adventure' remakes."




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