Suddenly, John Lasseter is Walt Disney Co.'s $7.4-billion man.
Returning to the company where he worked more than 20 years ago as a low-level artist, computer animation’s master storyteller faces a daunting task: how to merge his community of hit-making mavericks at Pixar Animation Studios with a more staid Disney animation group that has struggled for much of the last decade to regain its stride.
“I don’t think anyone expects it to be easy, but John brings something that no one else can bring,” said Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook of Lasseter, currently Pixar’s creative head. “He’s the Michael Jordan of animation. He makes everyone else around him great.”
When Disney formally acquires Pixar this summer, Lasseter will become the chief creative officer of both studios. He also will help design rides for Disney’s theme park division, where he once operated a Jungle Cruise boat at Disneyland and, more recently, helped design a Bug’s Land at Disney’s California Adventure.
Lasseter’s fans say he is Disney’s best hope to rekindle an animation group that dominated film animation from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” through “The Lion King.” He is exceptionally popular with animators, who see him as one of their own and are drawn to his wide-eyed enthusiasm.
“John is an artist; he understands their passions, their psyches, their insecurities -- the whole package,” said Chris Buck, the director of “Tarzan,” who worked with Lasseter at Disney in the early 1980s.
The 49-year-old executive wears Hawaiian shirts on the job, stuffs his office full of windup toys and shuns limousines for an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile at the Academy Awards. Pixar’s Emeryville, Calif., headquarters reflect that carefree management style. Animators and computer geeks tool around on scooters through hallways decorated with discarded Chuck E. Cheese mouse statues.
In graduation ceremonies for the company’s Pixar University training program, new hires dress in large hats or as cheerleaders before parading backward as Lasseter delivers the commencement address.
Despite overseeing some of the entertainment industry’s most successful films, Lasseter shuns Hollywood. He and his wife live in Sonoma, Calif., with their five sons.
Lasseter once served as grand marshal of the town’s Independence Day parade and has been active in Boy Scouts and Indian Guides.
For Lasseter, Tuesday’s deal marks a second homecoming.
As a youth, he told his mother he wanted to work as a Disney animator after watching “The Sword in the Stone” at his hometown theater in Whittier. As a youth, Lasseter carried around a book about the making of “Sleeping Beauty.”
After studying at California Institute of the Arts, Lasseter got his wish, animating such Disney films as “The Fox and the Hound” and “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”
Lasseter was unavailable for an interview Tuesday. But in a statement, he paid tribute to the company’s namesake and co-founder.
“For many of us at Pixar, it was the magic of Disney that influenced us to pursue our dreams of becoming animators, artists, storytellers and filmmakers,” Lasseter said. “For 20 years, we have created our films in the manner inspired by Walt Disney and the great Disney animators.”
But Lasseter was frustrated with Disney’s bureaucracy during his first tour of duty and left in 1984. Eventually, he joined fledgling Pixar in Northern California. There, he found a financial godfather in computer entrepreneur and majority Pixar shareholder Steve Jobs, who gave him free rein to run his shop as he saw fit.
Lasseter’s team churned out an unprecedented string of six hit movies in as many tries, starting with 1995’s “Toy Story” through “Finding Nemo” in 2003 and “The Incredibles” in 2004, while garnering critical acclaim and Oscars.
At Disney, the company enjoyed the fruits of Lasseter’s creativity by marketing and releasing Pixar’s films. But its homegrown animation unit failed to anticipate as Pixar did the shift by moviegoers to edgy computer animation. While Lasseter and such rivals as DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. turned out computer animated hits, Disney was mired in such duds as “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis: The Lost Empire.”
For Disney, stumbling in animation was especially costly because it came during the explosion of the DVD market, in which hit animated movies reap a fortune.
It’s that recent history that prompted Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger on Tuesday to state the goal of the Pixar acquisition as nothing less than a “return to greatness” for Disney’s animation unit.
Pixar President Ed Catmull will oversee the operations of the animation unit in an effort to free Lasseter to focus on creative issues. Nonetheless, Lasseter faces the logistical challenge of simultaneously overseeing more than 1,000 animation staffers at Disney headquarters in Burbank from his base in Emeryville.
“It would be a real challenge to do that, physically as well as psychologically,” said John Canemaker, director of animation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “They are in two separate cities. How would he work with the corporate structure of Disney, which is so dominant now? At Pixar, it is an artistic culture that dominates there, rather than an MBA mentality.”
Those who have known and worked with Lasseter say his sensitivity to artists will go a long way toward smoothing over differences and improving morale at Disney, where artists have complained for years about too much executive interference in their work.
“He’s so passionate about what he does, his enthusiasm is contagious and rubs off on other artists he’s working with,” said Pam Coats, a former executive vice president of Walt Disney Feature Animation.
Still, some Pixar employees said Tuesday that they were nervous about their own future and expressed a dim overall view of Disney, especially its more conservative corporate culture.
“We’re hoping we fix Disney, rather than have Disney break us,” said one worker who asked not to be identified.
At Pixar, Lasseter set up a brain trust of animators such as “Monsters, Inc.” director Peter Docter and “Finding Nemo” director Andrew Stanton -- a group that he consciously modeled on the “Nine Old Men,” a cadre of key artists Walt Disney relied on during the 1950s. Lasseter has nurtured a culture that values ideas more than hierarchy -- a place where anyone can state an opinion and top-down decision making is verboten.
Ronnie del Carmen, story supervisor at Pixar, still remembers the time two years ago when Lasseter hugged him after he pitched a sequence for a movie.
“He spread out his arms and gave me a very loving bear hug and said, ‘That’s so wonderful,’ ” Del Carmen recalled. “It was one of the most important moments of my life.... I felt like I won the lottery.”
“Toy Story” producer Bonnie Arnold said that being a lifelong student of Disney would help Lasseter figure out how to fix its animation problems. “John gets what needs to be done,” she said.
Indeed, one of Lasseter’s favorite pastimes is visiting Disneyland.
In March, Lasseter and Disney’s Cook rode around on a steam train at the theme park with veteran Disney animator Ollie Johnston. To pay tribute to the last surviving member of the Nine Old Men, Lasseter had refurbished Johnston’s beloved train.
“The roots that John has with Disney,” Cook said, “run extraordinarily deep.”
Times staff writer Joseph Menn contributed to this report.