John Lasseter And Beyond: How Does Pixar Get Out Of This Mess?

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: in the wake of the allegations against John Lasseter, where does Pixar go from here?)

Over the past week, I've been thinking a lot about Brenda Chapman.

Maybe you don't know Brenda Chapman's name, but you're probably familiar with her work. She's a career animator and filmmaker, having started out at Walt Disney Animation Studios in the late 1980s on The Little Mermaid, before moving up the ranks to become the head of story on The Lion King, and then jumping over to the fledgling DreamWorks Animation to co-direct The Prince of Egypt. Chapman's biggest success should have been when she moved to Pixar Animation Studios to direct a film inspired by her relationship with her daughter, an emotional adventure set in the Scottish Highlands about a rebellious redheaded teenager and her prim and proper mother.

That movie, of course, is Brave, the 2012 Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature. While Chapman got a moment of triumph there, giving an acceptance speech next to director Mark Andrews, she'd been replaced in 2010 on the project. We can chalk that up to those fabled "creative differences." Not everyone who's replaced as a director on a film at Pixar leaves the company (see Bob Peterson and The Good Dinosaur), but only a few months after she won the Oscar, when asked if she could ever imagine returning to Pixar, Chapman said the following: "That door is closed. I made the right decision to leave and firmly closed that door. I have no desire to go back there. The atmosphere and the leadership doesn't fit well with me."

So, among the many feelings and thoughts that ran through my mind after I read story after story of allegations of sexual abuse and harassment against John Lasseter, the current head of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, I kept thinking about Brenda Chapman.

My own perspective is fueled by a sense of impotent, seemingly helpless anger. I am angry that someone, anyone, would treat people the way that John Lasseter is alleged to have done, as I am angry that Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and so many others are accused of having done. (I use words here like "alleged" and "accused" for preciseness, but I want to be clear: I believe the people coming forward to speak out about the abuse and harassment that they have experienced.) I am angry that John Lasseter is alleged to have done these things under the guise of working for a company that prides itself on its all-ages entertainment. I am angry at what havoc he has wreaked on the reputation of a company that was once the standard-bearer for high-quality animation, and now resides under a dark cloud he chose to create.

I've seen people muse (without any background knowledge, mind you) about how Lasseter's well-documented propensity for hugging might well have been reflected in one of Pixar's major villains. Think, if you can, about an example in a Pixar movie where a down-home and friendly character who just loves to hug everyone is revealed to be a heartless fiend. Sure, it would be a stretch to imagine Pixar's own filmmakers sneaking in a commentary on their leader in the guise of Lots'o Huggin' Bear in Toy Story 3. But a connection that did not previously exist does pop up.

And think, too, about Pixar's newest film Coco. (Spoilers for the new film throughout this next paragraph.) The film's protagonist, 13-year old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) loves music and idolizes the late actor/singer Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), whose motto was "Seize your moment." Miguel travels to the Land of the Dead during the Dia de los Muertos celebration in his small town, in part to find Ernesto and receive his blessing to follow in his musical footsteps even though Miguel's family hates music in all forms. Once Miguel meets Ernesto, the film becomes a living, breathing embodiment of the notion that you should never meet your heroes. Ernesto, we soon learn, stole the songs written by his composer and, when the songwriter wanted to go back to his family, killed the man so that he could become a star. It is thus painfully evident that Ernesto was a cruel, selfish person whose own artistry was meager, built on the back of someone far more talented if less willing to wrest away the spotlight.

I have no inside information about further allegations, or the ones that have already been referenced in these articles. But as a critic, I am sometimes unable to avoid making connections, subtextual or extratextual. So I wonder about Coco, a film that — it should be noted — is quite enjoyable and will likely forever exist within and around these allegations. I wonder about what films like that say, about what to make of a character like Lotso and the man who directed the original Toy Story, who is "known as a hugger," per Variety. (Arguably, the 2009 Pixar film Up treads slightly similar ground as Coco, in which the lead character meets their longtime idol only to find their old hero is more nefarious than we would have thought.)

In the last few days, as I have sifted as much as I can through my anger, I come back to what the future for Pixar should hold, and what could have been. After I think about the apparent decades of women within Pixar who tried their best to avoid John Lasseter whenever they could (as documented in the previously linked articles), as well as the possibility that people such as Ed Catmull and Bob Iger may have known about these allegations, I wonder about the great art we have already lost. I don't worry much about what great art we may lose should John Lasseter's six-month leave of absence become permanent. Instead, I think about the intangible nature of what we have already lost. I think of actress and writer Rashida Jones, who was originally going to write the upcoming Toy Story 4 with her writing partner and fellow actor Will McCormack. The initial Hollywood Reporter story suggested that Jones left the project because Lasseter had made an "unwanted advance" towards hers, which she has since denied in a statement. But the comments that she and McCormack make therein must not be missed. They may not allege sexual abuse, but the message Jones and McCormack are sending is equally valuable.

"There is so much talent at Pixar...However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice, as is evidenced by their director demographics." Jones and McCormack's comments come, of course, just as Coco arrives in theaters. Coco is a first for Pixar: depicting a non-White culture for the first time. But Jones and McCormack are not wrong; the fact that it took Pixar more than 20 years to depict a non-White culture is proof of that. Chapman remains the only woman to co-direct a Pixar film. No woman has ever solely directed a Pixar film. I would love to tell you that this is a Pixar problem only. But no Disney Animation film has ever been solely directed by a woman, and only Jennifer Lee, co-director of Frozen and the upcoming sequel, has ever been a co-director on one of their films. Jennifer Yuh Nelson is the sole woman to have ever directed a film from DreamWorks Animation, Kung Fu Panda 2. (She was one of two directors of Kung Fu Panda 3.) DreamWorks Animation, to its credit, has had more female co-directors, such as Vicky Jenson of Shrek and Shrek 2, as well as Chapman, Yuh Nelson, and Lorna Cook of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.

But these examples — as well as the three men of color who have co-directed three of Pixar's last five films, including Coco — are still far too infrequent. Pixar may well be making strides, but these are recent strides. The aforementioned three films co-directed by men of color (Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, and Coco) were released within the last three calendar years. Pixar has, like a large swath of the animation industry, taken too long to break this kind of ground. If anything good can come from these monstrous allegations, let it be this: a change needs to occur in the animation industry so that the diversity reflected in the country and the world is reflected in the men and women who tell stories at Pixar, Disney, and beyond, and specifically in the men and women who lead these stories. Many women, such as Darla K. Anderson, Lindsey Collins, and Denise Ream, have been producers on Pixar films, going back to their earliest efforts. But you could count on one hand how many women are credited with writing or co-writing these films.

I have thought and written about the issue of the imbalance of gender and racial representation in Pixar films before, behind and in front of the camera. I mention this not to give you my super-progressive bona fides; I say it because this has been a problem with Pixar for a while. It's been a problem with more than just the one studio for a while. If there is any long-term value to the seemingly infinite number of sexual harassment allegations coming out over the last couple of months, it is the hope that enough non-horrible men within the industry will realize that they need to lift up the more marginalized voices and people with whom they work. It is the hope that these men will no longer let slide the monstrous behaviors exhibited by the Weinsteins, Ratners, and others of the world.

But it's hard not to feel wounded by this specific story, if only because I can just imagine the number of great stories and characters we have missed out on because women were allegedly treated as inferior, and as a plaything of some kind, by the man who was running the show. I think of what we lost when Brenda Chapman left Brave, of what we lose when Rashida Jones (justifiably) backed away from working at Pixar because of the disparity in voices at a supposedly groundbreaking studio. And I think of what we lose when many other women, whose names we may not recognize as easily, feel marginalized or felt that way in the past.

I think now of that story linked above, of the various indiscretions and unforgivable actions detailed therein. I think of the former Pixar employee who mentions that "her manager kept her out of meetings where Lasseter would be present, telling her it would be best for her not to attend the intimate weekly reviews because 'John has a hard time controlling himself around young pretty girls.'" I think of how she then notes that "managers chose to thwart her career rather than 'have difficult conversations with the most important, high-ranking and powerful man in the company.'"

How many of those women still work at Pixar? How many at Disney? How many women were shut out of a system, or are being shut out of a system, because their managers or their manager's managers thought it best to keep them away from a pair of prying hands? I can look at this anecdote and attempt to equivocate, thinking that it may be better for any woman to not be harassed by someone in a leadership position. But the core problem is that the entertainment industry at large apparently thrives on allowing harassers to run rampant for so long, so that avoidance is seen as preferable to confrontation. The problem of sexual harassment and abuse is not unique to Pixar, nor is the general marginalization and mistreatment of women, people of color, and other minority groups. However, the studio's leadership, just as many of us do, should take a long look in the mirror and ask if they prioritize the possibility of great art over the physical and emotional well-being of the people who work at Pixar, the animation industry, and Hollywood at large. There's no reason why the latter cannot lead to the former.