After Pixar Ousting, John Lasseter Returns With Apple and “Luck”
LOS ANGELES — The most Pixar movie of the summer isn’t from Pixar. It comes from Apple TV+ and the lightning rod executive filmmaker who turned Pixar into a superpower: John Lasseter.
Five years ago, Mr. Lasseter was bowled over by allegations about his behavior at work. Almost overnight, his many accomplishments — building Pixar from the ground up, forging the megawatt “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises, reviving moribund Walt Disney animation, delivering “Frozen,” winning Oscars — have become a footnote.
After employees complained about Mr. Lasseter’s unwanted hugs, Disney investigated and found that some subordinates sometimes viewed him as a bully. He was forced to resign as Disney-Pixar’s chief animation officer, apologizing for “missteps” that made staff members “disrespectful or uncomfortable”.
Mr. Lasseter, 65, is now on the verge of professional redemption. His first animated feature since leaving Disney-Pixar will arrive Friday on Apple’s subscription streaming service. Titled “Luck,” the $140 million film follows an unlucky young woman who discovers a secret world where magical creatures make luck (the Department of Right Place, Right Time) and bad luck (a research lab and design on animal waste dedicated to “follow-up. in the house”). Things go terribly wrong, resulting in a comical adventure involving an unusual dragon, bunnies in hazmat suits, millennial pixies, and an overweight German unicorn in a too-tight tracksuit.
Apple, perhaps the only company that protects its brand more zealously than Disney, used Mr. Lasseter as an important part of its marketing campaign for “Luck.” Advertisements for the film, directed by Peggy Holmes and produced by Mr Lasseter, describe it as coming from “the creative visionary behind TOY STORY and CARS”.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook shared a look at the film in March at the company’s latest product preview event. “Luck” is just the start of Apple’s bet on Mr. Lasseter and Skydance Media, an independent studio that – controversially – hired him in 2019 as its chief animation officer. (Skydance hired attorneys to look into the allegations against Mr. Lasseter and privately concluded there was nothing egregious.) Skydance has an agreement to supply Apple TV+ with several animated films and at least one anime series by 2024.
Pariah? Not at Apple.
“I feel like a part of me has come home,” Lasseter said in a phone interview, noting that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs helped build Pixar before. to sell it to Disney in 2006. “I really love what Apple TV+ is. Making. It’s about quality, not quantity. And their marketing is just spectacular. It’s the best I’ve ever had. ever seen in all the movies I’ve done.
Mr. Lasseter’s return to feature filmmaking comes at a tricky time for Disney-Pixar, which seems a bit lost without him, after missing out badly in June with a “Toy Story” prequel. “Lightyear,” about Buzz Lightyear before he became a toy, seemed to forget what made the character so beloved. The film, which cost around $300 million to make and market worldwide, grossed around $220 million, which is even worse than it looks for Disney’s bottom line, as theaters retain at least 40% of ticket sales. “Lightyear” is the second worst-performing title in Pixar’s history, ranking only above “Onward,” released in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr. Lasseter declined to comment on “Lightyear,” which arrives on Disney+ on Wednesday. He also declined to discuss his departure from Disney.
The race to rule TV streaming
More than 50 people followed Mr. Lasseter to Disney and Pixar’s Skydance, including Ms. Holmes (“Secret of the Wings”), whom he hired to direct “Luck.” The script for “Luck” is credited to Kiel Murray, whose Pixar and Disney writing credits include “Cars” and “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Mr. Lasseter and Ms. Holmes have hired at least five other Disney-Pixar veterans for senior “Luck” team positions, including animation director Yuriko Senoo (“Tangled”) and production designer Fred Warter ( “A Bug’s Life”).
John Ratzenberger, known as Pixar’s “lucky charm” because he’s voiced so many characters over the decades, appears in “Luck” as Rootie, the unofficial mayor of Land of Bad Luck.
The result: With its scintillating animation, attention to detail, twists, and emotional ending, “Luck” has all the hallmarks of a Pixar release. (Reviews will arrive Wednesday.) Some people who have seen the film have commented on the similarities between “Luck” and the 2001 Pixar classic, “Monsters, Inc.” Both films involve elaborate secret worlds that are accidentally disrupted by humans.
“I want to take audiences to a world that is so interesting, beautiful, and intelligent that people love being there,” Mr. Lasseter said. “You want the audience to want to book a week’s vacation to where the movie just took place.”
It remains true, however, that Mr. Lasseter continues to be a polarizing figure in Hollywood. Ashlyn Anstee, director of Cartoon Network, told The Hollywood Reporter last week that she was unhappy that Skydance “is letting a so-called creative genius continue to occupy positions and space in an industry that could begin to be filled. of different people”. ”
Emma Thompson hasn’t changed her public stance on Mr. Lasseter since stepping down from a role in ‘Luck’ in 2019. She had been cast by the film’s first director and quit when Mr. Lasseter joined Skydance.
“It strikes me as very odd that you and your company would consider hiring someone with Mr. Lasseter’s pattern of misconduct,” Ms. Thompson wrote in a letter to Skydance chief executive David Ellison. (His character, a human, no longer exists in the radically reworked film.)
Ms Holmes, the director of ‘Luck’, said she had no qualms about joining Mr Lasseter at Skydance.
“It was a very, very positive experience, and John was a great mentor,” she said.
Holly Edwards, president of Skydance Animation, a division of Skydance Media, echoed Ms Holmes. “John was amazing,” she said. “I’m proud that we’re creating an environment where people know they have a voice and know they’re being heard.” Ms. Edwards previously spent nearly two decades at DreamWorks Animation.
Some of Mr. Lasseter’s creative tactics haven’t changed. One is the willingness to drastically revise projects while they’re on the assembly line – including the removal of a director, which can cause hurt feelings and fan blowback. He believes such decisions, while difficult, are sometimes crucial to a quality outcome.
“Luck,” for example, was already in the works when Mr. Lasseter arrived at Skydance. Alessandro Carloni (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) had been hired to direct the film, which then involved a battle between human agents of good and bad luck.
“As soon as I heard the concept, I was actually a little jealous,” Mr. Lasseter said. “It’s a subject that every person in the world has a relationship with, and it’s very rare in a basic concept of a movie.”
But he finally threw it all away and started over. The main cast now includes Jane Fonda, who voices a pink dragon who can smell bad luck, and Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a funny pixie taskmaster. Flula Borg (“Pitch Perfect 2”) voices the overweight bipedal unicorn, who is a major scene stealer.
“Sometimes you have to take a building to its foundation and, frankly, in this case, to its land,” Lasseter said.
Mr. Lasseter didn’t invent the concept of real-world research to inform animated stories and artwork, but he’s been known to go far beyond what’s typically done. For “Luck,” he asked researchers to dig into what constitutes good and bad luck in a myriad of cultures; the film crew also researched the foster care system, which informed part of the story. (The main character grows up in foster care and is often passed over for adoption.)
As at Pixar and Disney, Mr. Lasseter has set up a “story trust” board at Skydance in which an elite group of directors and writers openly and repeatedly criticize the work of others. The Skydance Animation version will soon include Brad Bird, a longtime Pixar force (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) who recently joined Mr. Lasseter’s operation to develop an original animated film called “Ray Gunn.”
Ms Holmes said Mr Lasseter was a nurturing creative force, not a tyrannical force.
“John will give you notes on the footage,” she said. “He will propose dialogue. He will comment on the color or the timing or the effects. He will suggest ideas for articles. He’ll draw something – “Oh, maybe it could look like this.”
“And then it’s up to you and your team to execute against those notes. Or not. Sometimes we’d come back to John and tell him the note wasn’t working – and that’s why – or we’d decide we we didn’t need to fix it.
Ms Holmes added: “When the answer is no, he really agrees. It is really agree with that.”