Welcome to Jim Hill Media - Entertainment News : Theme Parks Movies Television

Monday Mouse Watch: "It's like sending a boy scout into the court of the Borgias"

Jim Hill

Jim's musings on the history of and rumors about movies, TV shows, books and theme parks including Disneyland, Walt Disney World. Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood.

Monday Mouse Watch: "It's like sending a boy scout into the court of the Borgias"

Rate This
  • Comments 27

John Lasseter clearly must be a theater fan.

After all, week before last, Lasseter was down at Disney World checking out DAK's "Finding Nemo --The Musical." Then this past Thursday, John was out in NYC attending the opening night of Disney Theatrical's newest production, "Mary Poppins."

Which is kind of ironic. Given that -- when it comes to the on-going drama at Walt Disney Imagineering -- Lasseter has been kind of a no-show lately.

Alright, to be fair, since he came on board at the Mouse House of this year, John & Ed Catmull have been concentrating on turning Disney Feature Animation around. Which only makes sense. Given that WDFA literally is the creative engine that drives the Walt Disney Company.

After all, unless Feature Animation can get back to producing popular motion pictures that feature memorable characters ... Well, that makes life extremely difficult for Disney's Consumer Products division (Which constantly needs new characters to feed to its network of licensees) as well as Parks & Resorts (Which regularly needs new films with memorable characters, stories and settings to serve as inspiration for rides, shows & attractions for the parks).

This explains why John has spent most of the past 10 months focusing on reviving WDFA. But those guys over Glendale -- particularly the ones who grown tired of dealing with Walt Disney Imagineering's poisonous corporate culture & constant in-fighting ... Well, they're wondering when WDI's new principal creative advisor is actually going to start advising them.

As an e-mail that I recently received from an Imagineering insider so succintly put it:

Lack of movement by Lasseter to eliminate the existing politically driven management at WDI is bringing morale back down to the pre-Pixar announcement levels.

Existing management has actually become more emboldened in their former attitudes. (Imagine what the Bush administration would be like if the Democrats hadn't taken over Congress).

The current focus on 'placemaking' (paint, plants & change of theme) just reinforces the fact that no true visionary is involved in recent projects. Visionary creativity being replaced with pabulum.

Again, to fair, in the months immediately following the Pixar acquisition, Lasseter was heavily involved in Disney's promotional efforts to support the international release of "Cars." Then there was that long family vacation that John had promised to take with Nancy and the boys.

But all that was over months ago.

Meanwhile, many veteran Imagineers are wondering when Lasseter is finally going to call WDI management on its increasingly manipulative behavior. Take -- for example -- that "Cars" themed E-Ticket that's been proposed for DCA's San Francisco district. John was supposedly thrilled when the guys at WDI initially pitched this thrill ride to him. Which will reportedly make use of the very same ride system that Epcot's "GM Test Track" uses.

But no sooner had John left on his family vacation when these WDI managers not only cut the budget for this proposed California Adventure addition, but they then pushed back the start of construction of this attraction by several years.

"Why would these Imagineering managers do that?," you ask. Well, quickly stepping around the whole "Cars"-didn't-do-nearly-as-well-as-Disney-execs-had-hoped-it-would issue (The mere mention of which tends to make certain JHM readers froth at the mouth) ... To be honestly, this is pretty much business as usual at WDI.

What do I mean by that? Well, if you look cold-bloodedly at the history of this division of the Walt Disney Company, you'll see that there have literally been dozens of ambitious projects (EX: The "Dick Tracy Crimestoppers" thrill ride, The "Island at the Top of the World" E-Ticket, the "Babes in Toyland" dark ride) that were tabled when senior management suddenly lost enthusiasm for the productions that these projects were supposed to be based on.

And then there's that "Journey into Imagination with Figment" redo that Lasseter had supposedly been personally championing. Preliminary plans for this renovation had reportedly been drawn up. A budget was dummied out. There was even talk of fast-tracking this particular project. Just so that the renovation of this Future World favorite would then send the appropriate message to the Disney fan community that WDI was now under new management.

But then -- almost as soon as talk had started about this "Imagination" redo -- this project fell off of Imagineering's fast track. Allegedly because WDI management had talked John out of pushing for this particular redo.

"And why they'd do that?," you query. To be honest, redoing "Journey into Imagination with Figment" just didn't make fiscal sense. This Future World pavilion had already gone under the knife twice in the past seven years, with the Walt Disney Company spending tens of millions of dollars in an effort to freshen up & improve "Imagination." Meanwhile, there are other parts of Epcot that hadn't received any TLC in more than a decade.

So spending more money now on yet another attempt to improve this particular Future World attraction (at least in the eyes of WDI's current management team) just seemed wasteful. Or so these managers supposedly told Lasseter.

And let's not forget about the hidden agenda that's now being serviced by that proposed redo of Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island. How many of you recall that somewhat infamous trip that John Lasseter and his son made to that Frontierland attraction back in January 2002? These two were accompanied to TSI by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Who was reportedly incredibly embarassed by the decrepit condition that many of the attractions on this island had been allowed to fall into.

Given that Lasseter supposedly has very fond memories of what Tom Sawyer Island was like back in its heyday ... Well, John's own affection for this attraction is allegedly one of the main justifications that WDI execs are now using for fast-tracking this particular project. These guys have reportedly been telling Mouse House managers that " ... John will be very pleased if we can turn the island back into one of Disneyland's showpieces."

Oh, by the way ... For those of you who are concerned about how a Pirate-themed island will actually fit into the Frontierland setting ... The revised plans for this project now allegedly calls for an overlay that actually straddles both of these worlds. So that Tom Sawyer Island would now become the home of river pirates similar to the ones that Davy Crockett & Mike Fink did battle with in the studio's 1956 film, "Davy Crockett & the River Pirates."

To further ease your concerns about this particular redo ... Word has begun leaking out Jerry Bruckheimer's production office that among the story ideas that Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio are considering for "Pirates of the Caribbean IV" is that Capt. Jack Sparrow and friends will make a trip upriver to New Orleans. Supposedly at voodoo queen Tia Dalma's request. So -- if production of that "Pirates" sequel does go forward in 2009 or 2010 -- having a river pirates-themed version of Tom Sawyer Island might then actually make some sense.

Anyway ... Getting to the main thrust of today's story ... Which is that many Imagineering veterans are wondering when John Lasseter is going to start taking a more hands-on approach toward his dealings with WDI. Or -- at the very least -- stop listening to those senior Imagineering executives who keep persuading Lasseter to abandon particular projects for the theme parks or (worse than that) convincing him that certain projects that service their own agendas are actually based on John's own suggestions.

What's particularly worrisome to some Imagineering veterans is that all that talk that used to be out there about how significant management changes were allegedly in the works for WDI ... That's all stopped now.

In fact, these days, it's looking far more likely that the Disney Parks & Resorts side of the business will see big changes long before any senior execs who are currently in power at Walt Disney Imagineering will ever be shown the door. Which -- as that e-mail that I excerpted toward the top of today's article clearly demonstrates -- just depresses the hell out of certain folks at WDI.

Perhaps it's the words of one veteran Imagineer that I spoke with late last week that best sums up the current situation. As we talked on the phone, he said:

"You wanna know what the real problem here is? John's a genuinely nice guy. So his first instinct is to trust people and take them at their word. Which just doesn't work in a snakepit like WDI. It's like sending a boy scout into the court of the Borgias.

These executives have been lying to Lasseter & manipulating him from Day One. He just hasn't realized it yet."

Well, after today's article, perhaps that will change.

Your thoughts?

Blog - Post Feedback Form
Your comment has been posted.   Close
Thank you, your comment requires moderation so it may take a while to appear.   Close
Leave a Comment
  • * Please enter your name
  • * Please enter a comment
  • Post
  • I find Jim to be correct most of the time AT THE TIME HE IS REPORTING.  Lots of times things change a few days or weeks or months later.  He just keeps us up to date.

    As for the political depate, the Democrates won, the people spoke, now lets see what they do.  Give them and Lasseter both a chance to get things in better shape.
  • Pitch of the century! to WDFA.......... Failed Eagle scout (voiced by David Spade) tries to redeem himself and earn his engineering badge by creating a time machine...and travels back in time to the Court of the Borgias.  A Machiavelian fish-out-of-water story.

    Que Sera...Sera.....Let's give Mr. Lassiter more credit and allow him time to assess the
    situation as he sees fit.  Talent wins out over intrigue in the end....doesn't it?  huh?
  • mawnck and gigglesock agreed on:
    "I also feel forced to point out that, in an article that keeps reminding us what a nest of vipers WDI is, that all the main sources are the vipers themselves.  Can't have it both ways, y'know."
    "I have no worries regarding Lasseter's involvement in WDI. Your contact probably is ticked because he didn't get a raise or something."
    That's still a real point:
    If the news story of the day was that WDI was backing off of POTC Island and going back to semi-Tom, that's news, and hooray for it  :)  ...But everything else comes from volunteered e-mail, and that's what a newspaper would double-check more faithfully--

    In the worst-case scenario, what we -could- imaginably see in the future is in-house Disney employees who overestimate the "Cars-bashing Jim" complaints from last summer, blow it up into legend, and use it as their OWN safe-clearinghouse for in-house smears--Since they would be overconfident that Jim would take any bad news about Lasseter's performance in the boardroom too much at face value and not investigate the counterstory too deeply...
    Basically, a sort of Life Cereal situation:  "Are you going to publish this retaliatory smear rumor on the Net and jeopardize your job if you're found out?"  "IIII'm not going to publish it...Let's get Mikey!  He'll believe anything!  :) "
    Not necessarily saying that's what's happening here with the "insider e-mails that just came in this morning", but it -COULD- happen any given day to any site that doesn't watch its public reputation carefully.  And admittedly, we don't know how WDI insiders see Jim's site, and there -is- a lot of over-mythologized public reputation to live down.
    [Required Disclaimer:  The above post was meant to explore third-party perceptions of how outsiders view and might potentially exploit the site, and is not meant in any way to be interpreted as personally directed toward the webmaster or a reflection on current site content versus past articles.]   :)
  • For some reason, I don't buy this.  
    I don't think of John Lassiter like others do as some sort of Disney messiah, but I have the utmost respect for him and don't take him for a fool either.

    I just have this gut feeling that John is taking it all in, letting everyone do what they want and keeping the status quo.  Probably taking note of folks that are responsible for the all the crap, and also making note of the good folks.  Then, when people least expect it and think nothing truly is going to change, he will make his move. yes, sounds overly dramatic. yet, I wouldn't doubt it for one second.

    though I will say it, that Jim Hill has never really come off as a big John Lassiter supporter (of course that is just coming from his writings and I am NOT trying to offend Mr. Hill).  So, for this article- I have my doubts.  

    Real change... and big change takes time.  Maybe we all need to stop expecting it to happen overnight.  The bigger the problem, the longer it takes to fix.  
  • Manwyck, shut up your own ignorant self. Same with you, Scoobie-drool.

    The Dems got in because they kept whining and puling and undermining and second-guessing the war (while offering no ideas of their own) and I guess enough voters identified with that attitude to put them in power. As for the Repubs, let's see, unemployment at 4.7 percent, inflation low, interest rates low, millions of jobs created - right, them Repubs sure weren't doing their jobs while in power. Give me a break. As for the war, Bush listens to his generals and moves accordingly. Go ahead, let's see you guys start dissing the military. Wouldn't surprise me.
  • (Better yet, let's -not-, and assume that the original insider's own attempt to use politics to explain Disney mostly came out of cheap-sensation fodder, and not meant to have meaningful bearing on actual discussion outside of being applied to WDI context.
    It'll save a lot of page space from equally lured-in posters who do...A LOT of space.)
  • Not sure what to make of all this, just some random thoughts.  

    I think that John wants to bring back the glory days of Disney on every level-who wouldn't if they truly care about the product they are associated with?  John's not about the money-he doesn't have to be.  I think he truly loves, and respects all that Disney has done, and is excited about what it can do.  But it's a much bigger job than even he considered, I'm sure.

    Things might be moving along faster if "Cars" had done ten fold business, then again, maybe WDFA suits would hold him to his original agreement that he "fix" the film division before doing anything else.

    Things are changing daily in the world from too many animated pictures to the ongoing war, and no one-not even John knows what's going to happen in the long run.

    When Walt ran things the Company was a a twentieth of it's present size, and a lot less complicated in general, and folks wondered how he stayed on top of it all back then (many times he didn't or couldn't).  Cut he guy some slack already!

    I believe that John really is a truly nice guy, an dmaybe overly trusting.  I'd like to know how Steve Jobs figures into all of this.  My gut feeling (hope) is that things will change for the better across the board for Disney with John and Steve flexing more muscle.

    I have a friend who will be interviewing John for an upcoming book very soon, so we'll see what (if anything) that brings.
  • John is failing - everything he does is just a disappointment.

    But wait - off in the distance - what's that?

    A blogger will save the entire company !

    "Well, after today's article, perhaps that will change."

    I'm sure John can't wait till next Monday to find out how to save the entire Imagineering division.  Stay tuned!

  • No big fan of Lasseter either, just as Jim, but I'm a little confused.. Wasn't he supposed to be a 'creative director' instead of a 'babysitter' for the management of WDI? Isn't it Iger's job to solve the problems with WDI's management?!
  • Very interesting article, Jim.

    You should probably be more specific about one important detail, however.  As you know, there are two types of management executives at WDI: Creative executives and Project Management executives.  They are very different from each other, with very different agendas concerning the running of WDI.  

    Whichever executives you are referring to when you claim that they are manipulating and lying to John is a pretty crucial point.  We expect that Project Management execs might be trying such a thing, but it would hopefully be a different story concerning Creative execs.
  • Shut up, Gigglesock.  You too, Scoobiedrool and Onceuponadream.  Election's over.
  • mawnck: back off there, bud. Take the loss in stride and let people comment without bullying people who do. My election comments were made in the context of this article.
Page 2 of 2 (27 items) 12