LOS ANGELES — The hottest Pixar movie of the summer isn’t from Pixar. It’s from Apple TV+ and the lightning rod director who turned Pixar into a superpower: John Lasseter.
Five years ago, Mr Lasseter was overthrown by allegations of his workplace behavior. Almost overnight, his many accomplishments—building Pixar from scratch, forging the megawatt “Toy Story” and “Cars” franchises, reviving a dying Walt Disney Animation, delivering ” Frozen”, Oscar winning – a footnote.
After employees complained about unwanted hugs by Mr. Lasseter, Disney investigated and found that some subordinates occasionally viewed him as a tyrant. He was forced to resign as Disney-Pixar’s animation chief and apologized for “missteps” that made staff members feel “disrespected or uncomfortable”.
Mr Lasseter, 65, is now on the verge of professional redemption. His first animated film since he left Disney-Pixar will appear on Apple’s subscription streaming service on Friday. Dubbed ‘Luck’, the film follows an unlucky young woman who discovers a secret world where magical creatures bring good luck (the Department of Right Place, Right Time) and bad luck (a pet waste research and design lab dedicated to It goes horribly wrong, resulting in a comedic adventure featuring an unusual dragon, bunnies in hazmat suits, leprechaun millennials, and a fat German unicorn in a tracksuit that’s too tight.
Apple, arguably the only company to protect its brand more diligently than Disney, uses Mr. Lasseter as a prominent part of its “Luck” marketing campaign. Advertisements 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 CEO Tim Cook shared a peek 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 – controversially – hired him as an animation chief in 2019. (Skydance hired lawyers to investigate the allegations against Mr. Lasseter and privately concluded that there was nothing egregious.) Skydance has a deal to provide Apple TV+ with multiple animated films and at least one animated series by 2024.
pariah? Not at Apple.
“It feels like a part of me has come home,” Mr. Lasseter said in a telephone interview, noting that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs helped build Pixar before he handed it over to Disney in 2006. sold. “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.”
The return of mr. Lasseter’s move to full-length movies comes at an awkward time for Disney-Pixar, which seems a bit lost without him after it failed miserably 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 an estimated $300 million to make and market worldwide, has brought in about $220 million, which is even worse than it sounds for Disney’s profits, as theaters keep at least 40 percent of ticket sales. “Lightyear” is the second worst performing title in Pixar history, only above “Onward”, which came out in March 2020 at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lasseter declined to comment on “Lightyear,” which will be released on Disney+ on Wednesday. He also declined to discuss his departure from Disney.
The race to rule streaming TV
More than 50 people followed Mr. Lasseter to Disney and Pixar’s Skydance, including Mrs. Holmes (“Secret of the Wings”), whom he hired to direct “Luck”. The screenplay for “Luck” is credited to Kiel Murray, whose writing credits for Pixar and Disney 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 roles, including animation director Yuriko Senoo (“Tangled”) and production designer Fred Warter (“A Bug’s Life”).
Known as Pixar’s “lucky charm” for having voiced so many characters over the decades, John Ratzenberger shows up in “Luck” as Rootie, the unofficial mayor of the Land of Bad Luck.
The result: With its glittering animation, attention to detail, story twists and emotional ending, “Luck” has all the hallmarks of a Pixar release. (Reviews come on Wednesday.) Some people who have seen the film have commented on similarities between “Luck” and the 2001 Pixar classic, “Monsters, Inc.” Both films feature elaborate secret worlds accidentally disrupted by humans.
“I want to take the audience into a world that is so interesting, beautiful and smart that people love to be in it,” said Mr Lasseter. “You want the audience to want to book a week’s vacation to the place where the film just took place.”
However, it remains true that Mr. Lasseter remains a polarizing figure in Hollywood. Ashlyn Anstee, a director at Cartoon Network, told The Hollywood Reporter last week that she was unhappy that Skydance allowed “a supposed creative genius to continue taking positions and space in an industry that could be filled with different people.”
Emma Thompson has her public position on Mr. Lasseter hasn’t changed since she retired from a role in “Luck” in 2019. She had been cast by the film’s first director and then quit Mr. Lasseter joined Skydance.
“It feels very strange 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 CEO. (Her 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 to join Skydance.
“It was 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 create an environment where people know they have a voice and know they’re being listened to.” Ms. Edwards previously worked at DreamWorks Animation for nearly two decades.
Some of Mr. Lasseter’s creative tactics have not changed. One is a willingness to radically revise projects while on the assembly line — including removing a director, something that can cause hurt feelings and fan backlash. He believes that such decisions, while difficult, are sometimes crucial to a quality outcome.
For example, “Luck” was already in the works when Mr. Lasseter arrived at Skydance. Alessandro Carloni (“Kung Fu Panda 3”) was hired to direct the film, which then involved a battle between human agents of luck and bad luck.
“As soon as I heard the concept I was actually a little jealous,” said Mr Lasseter. “It’s a subject that every person in the world has a relationship with, and that’s very rare in a basic concept of a movie.”
But in the end, he threw almost everything away and started again. 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 tutor. Flula Borg (“Pitch Perfect 2”) voices the overweight, bipedal unicorn, who is a big scene-stealer.
“Sometimes you have to tear a building down to the ground and, quite frankly, in this case, down to the lot,” said Mr Lasseter.
Mr. Lasseter didn’t invent the concept of doing real world research to inform animated stories and artwork, but he is known for going way beyond what is normally done. For ‘Luck’ he had researchers dig into what luck and bad luck are in countless cultures; the film team also researched the foster care system, which was part of the story. (The main character grows up in foster care and is repeatedly left for adoption.)
As with Pixar and Disney, Mr. Lasseter established a “story trust” council at Skydance in which a group of elite directors and writers candidly and repeatedly criticize each other’s work. The Skydance Animation version will soon feature Brad Bird, an old Pixar troupe (“The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille”) who recently joined Mr. Lasseter 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 propose a dialogue. He will comment on color or timing or effects. He will 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 run against those notes. Or not. Sometimes we’d come back to John and say the note didn’t work—and here’s why—or we decided we didn’t have to deal with it.’
Ms Holmes added: “If the answer is no, he’s really okay with it. He is really okay with it.”