Pixar to make 'Toy Story 4': Why Lasseter is returning to direct

Pixar has set June 2017 for the release of 'Toy Story 4,' the fourth installment in a $1.3-billion franchise

Pixar Animation is returning to its most successful franchise, "Toy Story," for a fourth movie, to be directed by the studio's chief creative officer, John Lasseter.

Walt Disney Co., which owns Pixar, said Thursday during an earnings call that the latest incarnation of "Toy Story" will be released June 16, 2017.

Lasseter told The Times that "Toy Story 4" will be a love story and will pick up where "Toy Story 3" left off, when Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the series' toy chest of characters were handed down to a little girl named Bonnie.

"A lot of people in the industry view us doing sequels as being for the business of it, but for us it's pure passion," said Lasseter, who directed the first two "Toy Story" films. "We only make sequels when we have a story that's as good as or better than the original.

"We don't just, because of the success of a film, automatically say we're going to do a sequel and then figure out what we're going to do."

That philosophy sets an awfully high bar for a "Toy Story" sequel — the first three have grossed more than $1.3 billion worldwide and collected uniformly positive reviews for their storytelling and technique. The third, directed by Lee Unkrich in 2010, won Oscars for animated feature and original song, and became only the third animated movie in history to be nominated for best picture.

While "Toy Story" and its myriad extensions into merchandising and theme parks are important to Disney financially, the series' characters are a crucial part of Pixar's and Lasseter's identity creatively.

He directed the original 1995 film, the first feature at the then-nascent studio. Its release revolutionized the animation industry, which is today nearly exclusively computer-driven.

In addition to the three features, the "Toy Story" characters have also appeared in 3 short films and two TV specials, including "Toy Story That Time Forgot," which will air on ABC on Dec. 2.

The idea for a fourth film germinated at a lunch Lasseter held in his office in Emeryville, Calif., with Pixar directors and key creative executives Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich, he said.

Over the last two years Lasseter and Stanton wrote a treatment and pulled in other writers, including Rashida Jones and Will McCormack after seeing their 2012 comedy "Celeste and Jesse Forever," about a divorcing couple who try to remain friends.

"They have such a great sense of character and originality," Lasseter said of Jones and McCormack. "And I wanted to get a strong female voice in the writing of this."

The last film Lasseter directed, 2011's "Cars 2" performed well at the box office, particularly internationally, but was a rare critical misfire for the studio.

Lasseter said he will work on "Toy Story 4" while continuing in his significant other roles at Disney, which include heading up two other animation studios — Walt Disney Animation and Disneytoons — and serving as the principal creative advisor for the media company's theme park designers. Galyn Susman, who produced the "Toy Story" short "Hawaiian Vacation" and the two TV movies, will produce "Toy Story 4."

"One of the things that was very important for me as an artist is to continue directing," Lasseter said. "When I direct, I get to work with the individual artists, with the animators. It's very important to keep young talent coming into the studios ... to get back in and help tell stories."

Lasseter was speaking by phone after returning from a two-week tour of Asia to promote "Big Hero 6," Disney Animation's film opening this weekend, and the rest of the Disney Animation and Pixar slates, which include Disney's "Zootopia," a comedy about a fast-talking fox directed by Byron Howard; "Moana," a Polynesian musical directed by Ron Clements and John Musker; and Pixar's "Inside Out," Docter's movie set in the mind of a young girl; and "Finding Dory," Stanton's sequel to "Finding Nemo."

The executive said he would continue to commute weekly to the Disney lot in Burbank while directing "Toy Story 4" and would lean on what he calls his "story trusts" at his studios, groups of directors and writers who help guide films creatively.

Asked whether it might be difficult for his staffers to tell the boss if his movie isn't working, Lasseter said he and Disney and Pixar President Ed Catmull had attempted to create an environment of candor at their studios.

"It's always hard, but it's one of my jobs to make it easier for people," Lasseter said. "We work really hard to create an atmosphere where people feel like they can be honest without retribution."

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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