A new era of Pixar is beginning. Pete Docter is taking over as head of the animation house from John Lasseter, and while the situation that's brought forth the change may be a hurdle the company still needs to work past, it's fair to say the Emeryville Titans are in the right hands.
Lasseter stepped away from Pixar late last year after allegations of sexual misconduct, taking a six-month sabbatical. Docter has been overseeing the company since last November, and so has since been the obvious successor. Now it's confirmed: Lasseter is leaving the company officially at the end of the year, until when he'll be in a "consulting role", with Docter named chief creative officer for Pixar Luxo factory as Jennifer Lee becomes COO of Disney's main animation studios. This alone is a positive step, seeing the two wing delineating after both coming under Lasseter's purvue in 2006, but there's more than just restructuring going on here.
Docter joined Pixar in 1990, shortly after the company under Lasseter had begun to make waves for their tech-demo short films. His animation skills got him the job, but it was his emotional approach to storytelling that made him such an asset: he worked on the plot of Toy Story (also Lead Animator) and Toy Story 2 before stepping up to direct features proper. To date, his three movies are Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out, with a fourth currently in early development and set for a 2021 release.
Those three so far should immediately tell you everything you need to know about why Docter is perfect for the role on a creative level. They are among the best of the Pixar pantheon and should mark their director out as one of the finest filmmakers of the 21st Century. Crucially here, though,, they are a step apart from the Pixar norm. While unbridled creativity exudes from nearly every movie the studio puts out, there are the usual hallmarks: hero waylaid by egotism; misunderstood antagonist; caring protector revealed to be the true villain. It'd be easy to draw some parallels to the current situation at Pixar in the world view this formula propagates (Lasseter can easily be read as one his villains), but looking forward it's clear to see how Docter's movies marked themselves out besides.
His relationships and plot are intertwined in a more intricate manner, and Monster's Inc. and Inside Out are notable for being the rare Pixar films to involve a female character in the plot where they're not an accessory to the male protagonist. By the latter, set in the mind of an eleven-year-old girl, that formula is almost gone - or emotionally redone - with the potential shock baddie Bing Bong instead becoming a tragic figure. There's something different powering these movies that has become more apparent as Docter's matured as a filmmaker. None of this is to decry anything that's come before, but that effortless sense of progression, inclusivity, and above all an emotional intelligence is something that Pixar needs right now and future films can greatly benefit from.
However, this isn't just about finished product. The workplace atmosphere and the culture that enabled Lasseter is just as core a concern when it comes to Pixar's future; and it's a trickier one to assess. By its nature, this goes beyond Docter in terms of addressing, but will nevertheless be a key measure of success for the company as it attempts to move forward in the 2020s and beyond. As it stands, with permanent change a clear message is being sent, so hopefully a new mood can emerge from the wider creative shift.
Docter's ascending at a time where this ethos can work. As chief creative officer, Disney has said he will have "will have creative oversight of all films and associated projects of their respective studios". While Pixar's never fully lost its way, in recent year's it's felt considerably more fallible than in the 2000s golden age, and the behind-the-scenes problems have shown more ingrained, personal issues. Now, there's a fresh slate, and Pete Docter can craft something truly brilliant.