The John Lasseter era is really over at Pixar and Disney with Tuesday’s promotions of Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee as chief creative officers of the respective animation studios. They’ve been the frontrunners all along to succeed Lasseter (set to leave Disney and Pixar at year’s end after allegations of workplace sexual harassment), and they are great choices. We can expect smooth transitions and likely success at Pixar and Disney along with better morale, improved workplace conditions, and, hopefully, greater advancement opportunities for women.
Docter was one of Pixar’s first employees, joining the studio in 1990 during the production of “Toy Story,” and the director of “Monsters, Inc.,” and the Oscar-winning “Up” and “Inside Out.” He’s a consummate animator and storyteller: warm, sensitive, funny, and a risk taker. He’s beloved at Pixar (a valued member of the Brain Trust), and has learned well from both Lasseter and his Disney idol Joe Grant (“Fantasia,” “Dumbo”), who was forward thinking but also mindful of tradition.
Pixar Animation Studios
Meanwhile, Lee, a funny, sharp-eyed, and compassionate writer and director, has been a godsend to Disney. As co-writer of “Wreck-It Ralph,” she provided a fresh, hip, women’s voice. And her reward was being elevated to co-director of the Oscar-winning “Frozen,” which expanded her rich talents for storytelling, helping create a phenomenon with the tender sibling story that resonated worldwide. Lee subsequently played a crucial role as a member of the Story Trust on the Oscar-winning “Zootopia,” and is currently in production on “Frozen 2,” due out in November 2019.
According to the announcement, Docter and Lee will have responsibility for the creative oversight of all movies and associated projects of their respective studios, reporting directly to Alan Horn, chairman, The Walt Disney Studios. Meanwhile, on the business side, Jim Morris, president, Pixar Animation Studios, and Andrew Millstein, president, Walt Disney Animation Studios, will continue to report to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, president, Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, who reports to Horn.
Yet there remain some important questions moving forward: Will Docter and Lee have to give up directing with their new management promotions? If so, that would be a great loss for them, their studios, and animation. But perhaps they will find a way to continue directing the occasional passion project with the help of their Brain and Story Trusts.
Also, how will projects be pitched, greenlit, and developed? Under Lasseter, even though Pixar and Disney have different cultures, he embraced a collegial, director-centric approach, in which directors pitch a portfolio of ideas and he’d select the one he liked best. Will this continue under Docter and Lee, or will they open up the process more?
Will Pixar finally start hiring more female directors? (Brenda Chapman is the only one so far, and she was fired from the Oscar-winning “Brave” as a result of creative clashes with Lasseter.) Domee Shi, the Chinese-Canadian director of Pixar’s terrific short, “Bao,” is one of several animators that shows great promise.
And what about Docter and Lee’s respective visions for the future of animation at Pixar and Disney? Not only is it difficult to nurture great original stories, but so is finding the right balance between originals and sequels/prequels. Pixar has been dealing with this for several years, and now Disney is starting to generate sequels, beginning with “Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2” (opening November 21st).
The big complaint about Hollywood feature animation is that there remain many genre barriers to cross. “Animation can do all sorts of genres, but the marketplace doesn’t know it yet,” said Phil Lord, who, with partner Chris Miller, has attempted to turn animation on its head with Warner Bros.’ “The LEGO Movie” and Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (December 14).
Docter and Lee have been doing their best to mix it up from the inside. Now they have an opportunity to do it from the very top. Let’s hope Docter was prophetic in the announcement: “I am fortunate to work alongside some of the most talented people on the planet, and together we will keep pushing animation in new directions, using the latest technology to tell stories we hope will surprise and delight audiences around the world.”