John Lasseter was toppled five years ago by allegations about his workplace behavior. He’s back with an animated film and a studio that could be Pixar 2.0.
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LOS ANGELES — The most Pixar movie of the summer is not from Pixar. It’s from Apple TV+ and the lightning-rod filmmaker-executive who turned Pixar into a superpower: John Lasseter.
Five years ago, Mr. Lasseter was toppled by allegations about his behavior in the workplace. Almost overnight, his many accomplishments — building Pixar from scratch, forging the megawatt “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises, reviving a moribund Walt Disney Animation, delivering “Frozen,” winning Oscars — became a footnote.
After employees complained about unwanted hugging by Mr. Lasseter, Disney investigated and found that some subordinates occasionally felt him to be a tyrant. He was forced to resign as Disney-Pixar’s animation chief, apologizing for “missteps” that made staff members feel “disrespected or uncomfortable.”
Mr. Lasseter, 65, is now on the verge of professional redemption. His first animated feature since he left Disney-Pixar will arrive on Apple’s subscription streaming service on Friday. Called “Luck,” the $140 million movie follows an unlucky young woman who discovers a secret world where magical creatures make good luck (the Department of Right Place, Right Time) and bad luck (a pet waste research and design lab dedicated to “tracked it in the house”). Things go terribly wrong, resulting in a comedic adventure involving an unusual dragon, bunnies in hazmat suits, leprechaun millennials and an overweight German unicorn in a too-tight tracksuit.
Apple, perhaps the only company that safeguards its brand more zealously than Disney, has been using Mr. Lasseter as a prominent part of its marketing campaign for “Luck.” Ads for the film, which Peggy Holmes directed and Mr. Lasseter produced, describe it as coming “from the creative visionary behind TOY STORY and CARS.”
Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, shared a look at the film in March at the company’s latest product showcase event. “Luck” is just the beginning of Apple’s bet on Mr. Lasseter and Skydance Media, an independent studio that — contentiously — hired him in 2019 as animation chief. (Skydance hired lawyers to scrutinize the allegations against Mr. Lasseter and privately concluded there was nothing egregious.) Skydance has a deal to supply Apple TV+ with multiple animated films and at least one animated series by 2024.
Pariah? Not at Apple.
“It feels like part of me has come home,” Mr. Lasseter said in a phone interview, noting that Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder, helped build Pixar before selling it to Disney in 2006. “I really like what Apple TV+ is doing. It’s about quality, not quantity. And their marketing is just spectacular. It’s the best I’ve ever seen in all the movies I’ve made.”
Mr. Lasseter’s return to full-length filmmaking comes at an awkward time for Disney-Pixar, which appears to be a little lost without him, having misfired 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 movie, which cost an estimated $300 million to make and market worldwide, has taken in about $220 million, which is even worse than it sounds for Disney’s bottom line because theaters keep at least 40 percent of ticket sales. “Lightyear” is the second-worst-performing title in Pixar’s history, ranking only above “Onward,” which came out 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.
More than 50 people have followed Mr. Lasseter to Skydance from Disney and Pixar, including Ms. Holmes (“Secret of the Wings”), whom he hired to direct “Luck.” The screenplay 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 hired at least five more Disney-Pixar veterans for senior “Luck” crew jobs, including the animation director Yuriko Senoo (“Tangled”) and the production designer Fred Warter (“A Bug’s Life”).
John Ratzenberger, known as Pixar’s “good luck charm” because he has voiced so many characters over the decades, pops up in “Luck” as Rootie, the Land of Bad Luck’s unofficial mayor.
The upshot: With its glistening animation, attention to detail, story twists and emotional ending, “Luck” has all the hallmarks of a Pixar release. (Reviews will arrive on Wednesday.) Some people who have seen the film have commented on 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 the audience to a world that is so interesting and beautiful and clever that people love being in it,” Mr. Lasseter said. “You want the audience to want to book a week’s vacation to the place where the movie just took place.”
It remains true, however, that Mr. Lasseter continues to be a polarizing figure in Hollywood. Ashlyn Anstee, a director at Cartoon Network, told The Hollywood Reporter last week that she was unhappy that Skydance was “letting a so-called creative genius continue to take up positions and space in an industry that could begin to be filled with different people.”
Emma Thompson has not changed her public position on Mr. Lasseter since backing out of a role in “Luck” in 2019. She had been cast by the film’s first director and quit when Mr. Lasseter joined Skydance.
“It feels very odd to me that you and your company would consider hiring someone with Mr. Lasseter’s pattern of misconduct,” Ms. Thompson wrote in a letter to David Ellison, Skydance’s chief executive. (Her character, a human, no longer exists in the radically reworked film.)
Ms. Holmes, the “Luck” director, said she had no qualms about joining Mr. Lasseter at Skydance.
“It has been a very, very positive experience, and John has been a great mentor,” she said.
Holly Edwards, the president of Skydance Animation, a division of Skydance Media, echoed Ms. Holmes. “John has been incredible,” she said. “I’m proud that we’re creating an environment where people know they have a voice and know they are being heard.” Ms. Edwards previously spent nearly two decades at DreamWorks Animation.
Some of Mr. Lasseter’s creative tactics have not changed. One is a willingness to radically overhaul projects while they are on the assembly line — including removing a director, something that can cause hurt feelings and fan blowback. He believes that such decisions, while difficult, are sometimes crucial to a quality outcome.
“Luck,” for instance, 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 luck and bad luck.
“As soon as I heard the concept, I actually was kind of jealous,” Mr. Lasseter said. “It’s a subject that every single person in the world has a relationship with, and that is very rare in a basic concept of a movie.”
But he ultimately threw out almost everything and started over. The primary cast now includes Jane Fonda, who voices a pink dragon who can sniff out bad luck, and Whoopi Goldberg, who plays a droll leprechaun taskmaster. Flula Borg (“Pitch Perfect 2”) voices the overweight, bipedal unicorn, who is a major scene stealer.
“Sometimes you have to take a building down to its foundation and, frankly, in this case, down to its lot,” Mr. Lasseter said.
Mr. Lasseter did not invent the concept of doing real-world research to inform animated stories and artwork, but he is known for pushing far beyond what is typically done. For “Luck,” he had researchers dig into what constitutes good luck and bad luck in myriad cultures; the filmmaking team also researched the foster care system, which informed part of the story. (The lead character grows up in foster care and is repeatedly passed over for adoption.)
As at Pixar and at Disney, Mr. Lasseter set up a “story trust” council at Skydance in which a group of elite directors and writers candidly and repeatedly critique one another’s work. 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 one.
“John will give you notes on sequences,” she said. “He will suggest dialogue. He will comment on color or timing or effects. He’ll pitch story ideas. 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 came back to John and said the note didn’t work — and this is why — or we decided we didn’t need to address it.”
Ms. Holmes added: “When the answer is no, he’s really OK with it. He’s really OK with it.”