With Meet the Robinsons, Disney finally began its upswing, regaining its footing once again. And it was all because of one move: John Lasseter had joined the company.
There have been three people in the history of the Walt Disney Company whose passion for animation has done not only great things for the company, but for the medium as a whole. Walt Disney himself was, of course, the pioneer; Howard Ashman brought his artistic vision to the renaissance; and, now, John Lasseter is making his mark.
Way back in 1986, Lasseter was one of the executives at a small computer company that spun off from LucasFilm. They decided to call it Pixar. When Steve Jobs bought the spinoff from George Lucas for $10-million, he was warned that this renegade group of eggheads were more interested in animation than building a computer company. That, as it turns out, was just fine.
In Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, he writes:
“The digital animation business at Pixar — the group that made little animated films — was originally just a sideline, it’s main purpose being to show off the hardware and software of the company. It was run by John Lasseter, a man whose childlike face and demeanor masked an artistic perfectionism that rivaled that of Jobs.”
Lasseter decided when he was in Grade Nine that he wanted to work at Disney. He studied at CalArts under three of the famed Nine Old Men and alongside future greats like Tim Burton, John Musker and Brad Bird. His first job at Disney was a Jungle Cruise skipper at the park in Anaheim before moving on to the animation department. He was fired in the early 1980s after butting heads with senior staff over the use of computers to animate an early version of The Brave Little Toaster. But he would be back.
The series of events that would bring him back to Disney began in 1993 when a man named Bob Iger was named president of the network channel ABC. When Disney bought ABC under Eisner’s direction in 1996, Iger retained his role. In 1999, he became president of international operations at Disney, and quickly graduated to chief operating officer for the whole company in 2000. He was Eisner’s second-in-command.
In March, 2005, Iger got a phone call from several Disney board members, informing him that Eisner was going to be leaving the company and he would need to step up and become CEO. In Isaacson’s book: “When Iger got up the next morning, he called his daughters and then Steve Jobs and John Lasseter. He said, very simply and clearly, that he valued Pixar and wanted to make a deal.”
In 2006, Disney formally acquired Pixar and with it, Lasseter.
It’s not possible to understate Lasseter’s resume. Acquiring Pixar would have been worth it just to get Lasseter’s brain back in the Disney building. Lasseter directed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, Cars 2, proving he knew how to make sequels work. He was executive producer on Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles, along with all of their associated shorts. He knew how to bring together a team and inspire them to greatness. He also wrote all the Toy Story films, the Cars films and A Bug’s Life. Everything Lasseter had touched since 1995 had turned to solid gold.
As part of the Pixar acquisition, Lasseter was given a lot of creative responsibility. He was named chief creative officer for both Disney Animation and Pixar, as well as principle creative adviser at Walt Disney Imagineering. In both roles, he bypasses studio and theme park executives and reports directly to CEO Iger. His first two projects were about a Parisian rat named Remy who wanted to be a chef (Ratatouille was released in 2007) and the story of a boy genius struggling to fit in: Meet the Robinsons. Meet the Robinsons had already been in production for three years and, according to some reports, Lasseter had more than 60 per cent of the film redone to meet his standards.
Ratatouille was the indisputable hit between the two, but Meet the Robinsons was a sharp improvement over anything Disney had produced in the previous five years. The characters had depth, the story had nuance, the morals were more subtle and the ending actually had something resembling a twist. The tired animators at Disney had begun to move in the right direction. It was met with decent critical reviews, coming in with a 66 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On opening weekend, it pulled in $25-million, coming in second place behind Blades of Glory. It eventually pulled in about $170-million in box office receipts. That’s paltry compared to Ratatouille‘s $623-million, but far better than it could have been.
While Meet the Robinsons doesn’t hold up to past Disney work, it does promise more to come. After the final scene, a short quote from Walt Disney is splashed on the screen: “Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things … and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
It’s prophetic, in many ways. A new era was beginning at Disney, with a new CEO and a new creative team. This was their first effort, and a crossover from the old era at that. But it was a sign of things to come. Disney was moving forward.