Unkrich to direct upcoming feature

“Toy Story 3″ is coming in 2009, but John Lasseter won’t be the director.

In an unusually candid presentation from the typically tight-lipped execs, Lasseter and Disney Animation prexy Ed Catmull provided extensive details on their upcoming slate at the Mouse House’s investor conference Thursday.

In addition to confirming for the first time that a third “Toy Story” is in the works, Lasseter said Lee Unkrich will helm it.

Unkrich co-directed “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.” and “Finding Nemo” but has never before been sole helmer on a Pixar pic.

Lasseter directed the first two “Toy Story” pics but is presumably too busy in his new post as chief creative officer of Disney Animation to work on individual films.

Michael Arndt, Oscar-nominated scribe of “Little Miss Sunshine,” is penning the script.

Disney hasn’t yet announced a release date for the pic, though a 2009 release looks likely.

Lasseter said, “The greatest thing about the merger of the two companies is that the creators of ‘Toy Story’ 1 and 2 can make 3 with the story that we wanted.”

Comment was a not-too-subtle swipe at Disney’s former plan to develop a third “Toy Story,” without Pixar input, before Disney decided to buy the toon studio in late 2005.

Lasseter also revealed a behind-the-scenes shift at Walt Disney Feature Animation — which is separate from Pixar but also under the control of Lasseter and Catmull — by announcing that Chris Williams, a vet story artist at the Mouse, is now directing 2008 release “American Dog.” Pic was developed and previously under the control of “Lilo & Stitch” helmer Chris Sanders, who recently left Disney.

Catmull denied speculation that Walt Disney Feature Animation may become a 2-D-only studio, with Pixar handling CGI, though he did confirm the Mouse will bring back hand-drawn pics.

“We’re really excited about that and have brought back some great directors to work on that,” he said, presumably referring to “The Frog Princess,” a 2-D pic being developed by “Aladdin” and “Treasure Planet” helmers Ron Clements and John Musker, whom Lasseter brought back to Disney last year. That pic is believed to be on the fast track and may be the division’s next release after “American Dog.”

Catmull admitted there were problems at Disney Feature Animation when he and Lasseter took over.

“At Disney we have these remarkable artists who were there, but in all candor (they) were not kneaded together in the right way,” he stated. “The whole wasn’t greater than the sum of its parts, but there were some great parts there.”

He said that he and Lasseter are trying to make Disney Feature Animation’s pics more director-driven, as at Pixar, and that members of the two units are giving each other notes and sharing technology.

He didn’t mention December’s layoff of 160 animators, about 20% of the WDFA staff.

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