Pixar guru John Lasseter makes his presence felt on Disney toy aisles

Dec. 17, 2009 | 8:18 p.m.

Dawn C. Chmielewski covers Disney for the Los Angeles Times and is a frequent contributor to the Hero Complex. Here is her insightful piece on the role that John Lasseter has been playing in the toy design for Disney and “The Princess and the Frog” in particular. This is a longer version of the one that appeared in the Business section of The Times.

John Lasseter toy king

 

Disney Pixar Animation guru John Lasseter found himself tangled in a miniature fashion kerfuffle.

Toy maker Mattel Inc. had made a prototype doll of “The Princess and the Frog’s” newly minted princess, Tiana, wearing her bayou wedding dress. But one animator worried that the gown failed to reflect the one in the film, whose multiple layers resemble the petals of an unfolding waterlily.

Lasseter suggested a way to create the illusion of volume without driving up the doll’s $10 price tag — namely, printing a swirling pattern of glitter atop the diaphanous outer layer of fabric.

No detail seems to be too mundane for Lasseter, who after years focusing on Pixar is extending his reach to Walt Disney Co.’s merchandise juggernaut. Immersing himself in the toy-making process, he has visited a plant in Hong Kong to observe how workers applied paint to “Toy Story” Buzz Lightyear figures. The father of five boys has also spent hours in Mattel’s showrooms, studying the Disney Princess line, to better understand what little girls want.

The filmmaker is bringing his taskmaster persistence to Disney consumer products, pressing for better-quality toys in a business associated with sometimes shoddy and opportunistic merchandise.

One of the first things Lasseter did was call for an end to “label slapping,” in which a toy maker uses a popular movie title to sell generic toys that are otherwise unrelated to the film.

“If we’re going to make a movie, it’s going to be the best movie that we can make,” Lasseter said. “I take that exact philosophy when it comes to every other product that’s going to be referencing a [Disney or Pixar] character or movie — especially when it comes to toys.”

Disney’s consumer products group hopes to benefit from Lasseter’s creative spark.

The group, which operates Disney Stores in North America and licenses toys, clothes, bedding and even food, accounted for 9% of the entertainment giant’s operating income in fiscal 2009.

Disney shopper

 

But the division’s operating profit fell 22% from a year earlier, in part because of the recession but also because it lacked hot new properties. Lasseter’s efforts appear to be paying off.

Dolls, bedding and other items inspired by “The Princess and the Frog” have been selling briskly.

The week of Thanksgiving, Princess Tiana items outsold the perennial favorite, “The Little Mermaid’sAriel, by $700,000.

Retailers are reporting that “Princess and the Frog” articles account for as much as 19% of sales of all Disney Princesses merchandise, which generates about $4 billion in annual retail sales.

Interest in Tiana has been so keen, Toys R Us stores pulled merchandise off shelves to ensure an adequate supply for the movie’s wide release Friday, according to Lutz Muller, president of Klosters Trading Corp., a toy industry consultant.

“We’re bringing in orders as fast as we can get it in,” said Toys R Us Inc.’s chief merchandising officer, Karen Dodge.

Princess and the Frog

Because Tiana is the only new Disney princess in a decade — and the first African American one — it would be surprising if she hadn’t been met with a royal reception, said Ira Mayer, publisher of the Licensing Letter newsletter, which tracks retail sales data.

“This is the new kid on the block,” Mayer said. “It should be outselling the others by a wide margin.”

The only damper on “Princess and the Frog” retail was gloomy holiday sales forecasts.

“The release date was so close to Christmas, the retailers were very conservative in the quantities of product that they bought,” said Disney Consumer Products Chairman Andy Mooney. “They really underestimated the demand.”

Lasseter’s obsession for playthings is reflected in the subject matter for his first full-length Pixar film, “Toy Story.” That 1995 movie introduced him to the challenge of interesting toy makers and retailers in merchandise based on original film stories.  The only manufacturer to create Buzz and Woody figures was a boutique Canadian firm, Thinkway Toys. Retailers were similarly hesitant, placing orders for just 100,000 dolls — which went on to sell millions.

Lasseter’s experience with “Toy Story” and subsequent Pixar films, including “Cars,” helped inform how he works with toy makers, retailers and Disney’s consumer products group. Those practices at Pixar have extended to Disney Studios, whose animators for the first time participated in brainstorming sessions with the toy makers, providing feedback on design proposals and packaging.

Tim Kilpin, general manager of Mattel’s Girls, Boys and Games division, said Lasseter argued that the die-cast replicas of “Cars” vehicles be manufactured in 1/55 scale — instead of the smaller 1/64 scale of Mattel’s Hot Wheels — because the toys needed to be larger to capture the characters’ personality and expressions.

“He’s a student of what makes toys great toys,” Kilpin said. “He’s more willing to talk about the details about what makes a product, rather than saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice. I like how it lights up.’ “

Indeed, Lasseter’s demand to keep the toys faithful to the film characters led him to reject prototypes with even slight deviations, as was the case with a Wall-E toy that rolled on wheels.

“John rejected the hidden wheels design and preferred that Wall-E’s treads be real working treads just like the character in the movie,” Thinkway Toys Chief Executive Albert Chan said in an e-mail from Hong Kong. “It was important to him to keep the character’s integrity in the toys.”

Chan praised Lasseter for thinking outside the toy box.

Funny Frog

 

“Over the years working with John, I have learned to follow his instincts in making toys for his movies. Chan said. “For instance, John pointed out that there was a niche for a Jessie and Edna [from “The Incredbiles”] doll. Most Pixar films are family oriented and appeal to both genders. Normally, producing girls toys for what is perceived to be a boys movie is risky in the toy industry but I respected John’s advice and took the Jessie and Edna dolls to market. The results? Let’s just say that John’s instincts were right on the mark again. Edna was a complete sell out and Jessie’s sales are now close to Woody’s.”

Lasseter said his visit to El Segundo, where all the Disney Princess regalia was on display, helped shape his thinking about Princess Tiana. He said he came to understand that each princess has items that are hers alone — and a distinctive color, so Tiana’s accouterments could be easily distinguished from Snow White’s.

Tiana’s look would reflect her transformation. “From the bayou wedding dress, Princess Tiana became identified with the color light green — reflecting the lily pads and the frogs,” Lasseter said. “That was unique to her.”

Once Mattel had refined its ideas for the toy line, Lasseter and the filmmakers weighed in. Mattel’s design team focused on capturing key story elements that children would want to re-create, such as Tiana changing into a frog. Lasseter believed the toy company had overlooked the possibilities for minor characters Louis the jazz-playing alligator and Ray the Cajun firefly.

“My job sometimes is to point out to people which characters are going to be great — and kind of encourage them to pay attention since the audience will love them,” Lasseter said. “I pushed to get the Ray and Louis toys made.”

On the bayou

The bug-eyed Ray seemed an unlikely object for the toy box, said Mary Beech, general manager of studio franchise development for Disney products. “When you see it in black and white at first, it’s hard to say kids are going to want to play with a bucktooth firefly,” she said.

But with Lasseter’s cajoling, Mattel added the character to an 11-piece set. Ask Lasseter to explain the appeal of the “Princess and the Frog” merchandise, and he points to the enduring appeal of the Disney fairy tale.

“One of the first decisions we made, when [Pixar and Disney Animation Studios President] Ed Catmull and I came to Disney was to return to the sincere fairy tale,” Lasseter said. “I never quite understood why Disney hadn’t made a sincere fairy tale since ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ My two nieces would dress up in princess outfits all of the time. I realized there was this huge audience out there for this.”

– Dawn C. Chmielewski

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PHOTOS: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times. All images from “The Princess and the Frog”: Walt Disney Co.

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