When John Lasseter was a boy growing up in Whittier, Calif., in the 1960s, he'd wake up at the crack of dawn to watch cartoons. Lying on his belly on the rust-colored shag carpet of the family's den, he'd gorge himself on Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner and the Jetsons. Back then, cartoons were considered a weekend indulgence, and about as good for you as the Frosted Flakes Lasseter slurped up while he watched. Today, many kids perform similar early-morning rituals at the altar of the television. The difference is their parents are sneaking downstairs to watch with them—as well as in movie theaters and online. Cartoons are taken so seriously by audiences and critics alike that they're now mostly known by a more lofty term: animation. And Lasseter himself has played perhaps the biggest role in the elevation of the lowly cartoon.
The animated features "Wall-E" and "Bolt," (produced by Pixar and Disney, respectively), just received Golden Globe nominations for best picture. (Lasseter is chief creative officer at both studios). "Wall-E," the tender story of a robot's search for love in a post-apocalyptic universe, was named best picture of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the only animated film to be so honored. There has even been talk that it might be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. The film has been a huge commercial success as well, grossing close to $500 million worldwide for Disney, which acquired Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion. Not bad for a boy who got his start lying on his belly in his pj's.
Pixar was formed 22 years ago when Steve Jobs bought the computer-graphics division of Lucas Films for $10 million. "Toy Story," Pixar's first full-length feature, was the highest-grossing film of 1995, and the company has since become a dominating force in global moviemaking. Pixar films have grossed a collective $4.5 billion worldwide, with the average film earning about $200 million. When it comes to soft power, no single studio has more clout.
Lasseter believes the current economic situation will make animation only more popular. "In dire economic times, movies are relatively inexpensive entertainment for the whole family," he says. "Animation is the one type of movie that really does play for the entire audience. Our challenge is to make stories that connect for kids and adults."
Historically, movies of all kinds do well when the economy is bad: movie-theater attendance went up during five of the seven recessions since 1965. During the Great Depression, screwball comedies such as "My Man Godfrey" offered audiences a way to escape their dreary lives with visions of glamour and romance. Heavy films can do well during bad times—the economically and politically unstable 1970s produced "Chinatown" and "Nashville"—but you have to chose your shade of darkness carefully. Movies that comment on our current political situation have perhaps hit too close to home. "W," about the Bush presidency, and "Stop-Loss," about the Iraq War, both flopped. "At the moment it's the fantasy escapes that are going to do well," predicts film historian David Thomson.
There may be something more than pure escapism at play in the appeal of animated films. They are familiar, both in the way they look (memories of happy Saturday mornings with Judy Jetson) and in their classic storytelling techniques. "Look at Pixar," says film historian Robert Sklar. "They're really capable of making fantasy and myth-oriented stories, creating these characters who have the traditional heroic qualities that one sees in the great actors of the past."
Pixar is also adept at blending nostalgia with forward-looking technology. "Toy Story" was the first feature– length film created entirely with CGI animation, but its characters were based on the low-tech toys Lasseter grew up with, such as Mr. Potato Head. "Bolt," Pixar's latest film, was released in 3-D, using digital projection to mimic the '50s-era technique. "Up," due in May, will also be 3-D animation. After "Up," Pixar will release "The Princess and the Frog," using traditional hand-drawn animation from Disney. Even "Wall-E," which is set in the distant future, features nostalgic clips from the musical "Hello, Dolly!"
Though Lasseter has revolutionized the way audiences think about animation, he is as much a preservationist as a pioneer. Which may explain why his films are doing so well. Who wouldn't prefer to watch a movie that makes you feel like a kid again, when your biggest anxiety was not money or war, but a wascally wabbit and a wily coyote?