John Lasseter arrives for his interview in a big red bug with metal eyelashes. "Come see my bug!" he yells, grinning and waving from down the street. Wine connoisseurs in town to tour Sonoma's vineyards turn to stare. Kids point and giggle. The "bug" turns out to be a Volkswagen painted as a lady bug to promote the Oscar-winning director's other "bug"--Pixar's computer-animated film A Bug's Life. Lasseter's tale of greedy grasshoppers and anxious ants broke the Thanksgiving holiday box-office records with $45.7 million in ticket sales and slaughtered its main competitor, Babe: Pig in the City. Hollywood, skeptical before the release, took note. BUGS LEAVE BACON ACHIN', Daily Variety snorted merrily.
Boasts Steve Jobs, Pixar's CEO and Lasseter's understandably proud boss: "John Lasseter is the closest thing we have to Walt Disney today." Could be. Toy Story, Lasseter's first computer-animated feature, released in 1995, has reaped an estimated $1 billion for Pixar and its production-partner Disney in box-office, video and licensing revenues. But more important, Disney is betting that its heroes Buzz and Woody will endure for generations of kids to come. Says Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney Feature Animation: "Look at Walt Disney's legacy: he told great stories, with great characters, and he pushed the boundaries of animation. With Toy Story and A Bug's Life, Lasseter has astounded us twice."
So who is this guy John Lasseter? At 41, with a chubby face and round wire-rimmed glasses, he looks like the overgrown kid he is at heart. He's just silly enough to ride a motorized hot dog to a Hollywood premiere. His offices at Pixar's animation studios in Point Richmond, outside San Francisco, are host to a veritable convention of Buzz and Woody toys: Mech Warrior Buzz, Space Sheriff Woody, Space Claw Buzz, Snake Whippin' Woody. They're not just props: Lasseter checks each toy tied in to Pixar's films. "He plays as hard as he works," laughs Lasseter's co-director, Andrew Stanton.
As collaborative as animated movies are (some 60 animators worked on A Bug's Life, for instance), Stanton says it is Lasseter's sensibility that pervades both Toy Story and A Bug's Life. "He truly gets it. He has both the kid's perspective and the filmmaker's perspective. The childlike charm and the maturity, that's John." The payoff is that animation, long considered a kiddie medium, is attracting adults. Some 35% of the Bug's Life audience on the Friday after Thanksgiving were teens or adults--without kids in tow.
Born in Hollywood (but reared in Whittier, Ca., Richard Nixon's hometown), Lasseter decided to pursue animation after his mother, an art teacher, gave him a book about animation. "I realized people made cartoons for a living!" he says. One of the first eight students in Disney's animation program at California Institute of the Arts (Tim Burton was a classmate), Lasseter went on to work for Disney after graduation in 1979.