Walt Disney Animation pioneered the cinematic art form and held sway for decades, turning out such crowd pleasers as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "The Lion King" before losing its way with miscues such as "Home on the Range" and "Treasure Planet."
Two and a half years ago, conceding it needed intervention, Disney acquired rival Pixar Animation Studios, the Northern California company behind such revolutionary hits as "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo," to guide the wayward animation group back to its roots.
A measure of how well Disney succeeds at reclaiming its heritage and how the two animation cultures coexist will be tested when "Bolt" opens in theaters Nov. 21. Disney’s new computer-animated film is the first entirely overseen by Pixar’s creative guru, John Lasseter, and tech whiz Ed Catmull, who took charge of Disney Animation after the acquisition. "Disney needs to be back on that same plane creating great pictures," said Dan Hanson, a former Disney animator who teaches at CalArts. " ‘Bolt’ is one of the projects that they’re hoping is going to get them back on top."
Catmull rejects the notion that he and Lasseter are pushing the company to recapture its storied past or channel the ghost of Walt Disney. "The past is over with — it’s done," Catmull said. "All we can do is contribute to the future. Everything is riding on it." Indeed, for nearly a decade, it’s been a bumpy ride in Burbank. Disney has been eclipsed not only by Pixar, but also DreamWorks Animation, the producer of the "Shrek" franchise headed by former Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Once Lasseter and Catmull were installed, the new bosses quickly ordered a complete makeover of "Bolt."
They fired the film’s director, Chris Sanders, who had resisted story changes Lasseter wanted. Booted too were a cat with an eye patch and a giant radioactive rabbit. Even the title and dog changed. Originally called "American Dog" and starring a cuddly brown hound named Henry, it morphed into a story featuring a super-charged canine named Bolt, who sports a black lightning bolt emblazoned on his white fur. "Bolt," boasting the voices of John Travolta and Miley Cyrus, tells the tale of a superdog TV action star who accidentally gets shipped from his Hollywood soundstage to New York City and tries to use his "super powers" to find his way home. On his cross-country jaunt, the dog learns that his powers are fake, but with the aid of two sidekicks — a star-struck hamster in a plastic exercise ball and an abandoned house cat — he discovers he is a hero nonetheless.
The film, perhaps not surprisingly, evinces a Pixar pedigree. The title character evokes "Toy Story’s" Buzz Lightyear, a space ranger who believes he has super powers only to discover that he is merely a toy. Catmull insists "Bolt" is no Pixar clone.
"There isn’t any cavalry coming over the hill," he said. "They have the talent there, they just needed a philosophy that let the talent rise to the surface." Lasseter, who is as influential in the contemporary animation field as Walt Disney was in his day, often says filmmakers, not executives, should be in charge. But even though his trademark Hawaiian shirts project a laid-back image, they belie a studio executive with a take-charge style.
Lasseter and Catmull’s influence has been so deep and broad that many in the animation community now dub the studio founded 85 years ago by Walt and Roy O. Disney as "Pixar South."
"Pixar was the reincarnation of Disney," said Floyd Norman, a retired Disney animator who also worked on Pixar’s hits "Toy Story 2" and "Monsters, Inc." "Now Disney is becoming the southern version of Pixar." The description may be a little cheeky, considering the heritage of the Burbank lot, where the sidewalks are named Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive and the animators work in a building capped with a giant replica of Mickey’s sorcerer’s hat from "Fantasia."
Many believe, however, that Disney’s animation studio was in need of creative leadership and cheered Lasseter and Catmull’s arrival as a boost for an organization stuck in a rut.
Still, the Pixar managers have at times encountered resistance among Disney Animation’s more than 700 employees, who were unaccustomed to Pixar’s rigorous creative vetting and relentless drive for perfection. Lasseter has a coterie of directors — referred to as his brain trust — who serve as a sounding board for works in progress. They can be brutally honest in their assessments. You need an outside perspective," Catmull said. "You always want creative notes to come from the outside." Although Pixar’s input has by many accounts had a positive effect in Burbank, it hasn’t been painless. In the close-knit animation community, Lasseter’s domineering style has caused grumbling that Disney veterans were being pushed out in favor of those who are more in sync.
"When the Pixar group came down, there was general elation," said Steve Hulett, a former Disney animator and longtime business agent for the Animation Guild. "Then I think realism crept in, and now people understand that it is not all pixie dust." However, Hulett and others credit Lasseter — who worked as a Disney animator in the early 1980s before getting fired — with a creative resurgence.
For years, while Pixar and DreamWorks redrew the animation landscape with dazzling digital imagery, Disney clung to the traditional hand-drawn art form and stories that failed to connect with audiences. Disney’s belated efforts with computer-rendered movies, "Chicken Little" and "Meet the Robinsons," fell short.
At a recent showcase of Disney’s upcoming movies at the Kodak Theatre, Lasseter touted the studio’s next animated releases, "The Princess and the Frog," a hand-drawn musical that debuts Christmas 2009, and "Rapunzel," a computer-generated retelling of the Grimms’ fairy tale, due out in December 2010.
But right now, all eyes are on "Bolt." With its Pixar pedigree, the odds are good that the film could give Disney a shot at reclaiming its animation mantle. "Pixar is win. DreamWorks is place. And Disney is show," said Hulett of the Animation Guild. "Whether that will change or not and Disney or some other company will surge to the front is yet to be seen."