Happily ever after?

After decade of fizzle, Mouse House puts sizzle back in toon slate with Pixar buy

The reasons why Bob Iger had to buy Pixar to save Disney animation became very clear in the past year.

There was the research that found that among mothers with children under 12, the core audience who buy tickets for animated family pics, Pixar is a stronger brand than Disney.

The Mouse House CEO also noticed that when he watched a parade at Hong Kong Disneyland, the only characters to come out of animation in the past decade were from Pixar movies.

And then there are the numbers. Average worldwide gross of a Pixar-produced film: $539 million. Worldwide gross of “Chicken Little,” Disney’s recent, relatively successful entry into the CG animation space: $304 million.

That’s not even mentioning the near universal critical acclaim Pixar has received for all its films. Disney’s recent toons, meanwhile, have gotten mixed notices.

Add it all up and Iger was seriously concerned. “In terms of all the creative pursuits of Disney, animation is probably the most valuable,” he said at a recent investor conference. “We have had 10 years of real failure in many respects in a business I believe is most vital to us.”

While “Chicken Little” was certainly a step in the right direction commercially, if not critically, Iger says he couldn’t afford to wait for Disney to rebuild its status atop the animation food chain. That feeling could only be strengthened by the growing number of studios jumping into or increasing their presence in CG animation over the next couple of years, including Sony, Warner, Paramount, the Weinstein Co. and other indies.

So rather than renew a deal to get a distribution fee from the company most consider the best in the business, Iger shocked many in the animation and financial realm by agreeing in January to buy Pixar for $7.4 billion.

It wasn’t a typical acquisition deal, though. While Pixar is now owned by Disney, execs from the Bay Area toon house are taking top positions at their new corporate parent.

Walt Disney feature animation prexy David Stainton was shown the door, while Pixar prexy Ed Catmull took his job and Pixar creative topper — and universally respected animator — John Lasseter was named chief creative officer.

Companies are still working out the transition that will join the two studios and install top execs, as the acquisition isn’t expected to close until early summer. But the animation community is thrilled at the possibilities.

“Everyone I know is wonderfully overjoyed,” says vet animator Jorgen Klubien, who has worked at Pixar and Disney and is now at toon house Laika. “John is the kind of person animators trust to take us in the right direction and there are very few in the business who carry that weight.”

Indeed, the most common theme among animators when it comes to the Disney-Pixar deal is a return to roots.

Lasseter famously left Disney in 1984 when execs didn’t buy into his vision for CG animation, and ex-Mouse Housers comprise the majority of Pixar. Many see its work in the past decade as the natural successor to Disney Animation’s past work.

“Artists like Lasseter and (“Incredibles” director) Brad Bird have their roots at Disney,” notes Max Howard, a former Disney and WB Animation exec who’s now producing CG toon “Igor” for indie Exodus Film Group. “I see this as them coming full circle.”

Pixar execs are taking over a studio that, according to many, has lost even more momentum internally than it did in theaters. Disney animators are widely said to be unhappy with recent corporate leadership and frustrated that they creatively fell behind Pixar and even DreamWorks.

“From what I’ve heard, there has been tremendous discontent at Disney over the past five-plus years,” notes “Lion King” helmer Rob Minkoff.

Most industryites agree that discontent simmered as Disney Animation became overloaded with executives trying to replicate the success they experienced in the early 1990s with pics like “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

“Pixar is a creator-driven studio, which Disney was at its inception,” observes Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, head of management company Gotham Group, which specializes in animation. “It evolved into a more traditional studio run by executives who may be really talented, but it’s different than being run by someone like John Lasseter.”

Adds Minkoff: “Back in the ’80s, people didn’t believe animation had an audience and we had the opportunity to create new work. But once that new work revitalized the audience, people were running around trying to keep the money flowing and pointing at the direction of past success, instead of taking new risks.”

It’s that attitude, insiders say, that led Disney to fall behind the CG revolution. But now between its own efforts (such as “Meet the Robinsons” and “Rapunzel Unbraided”) and Pixar’s slate (which follows “Cars” with “Ratatouille” in 2007), Disney is diving into CG full throttle.

Studio is now on track to release two toons per year, with more possible as Lasseter and Catmull figure out how and when they want to release sequels to Pixar’s past work that Iger has told investors should come out every other year. (Disney was producing “Toy Story 3” inhouse, but canceled that effort after agreeing to buy Pixar, and recently pushed the “Robinsons” release date from December to next March, possibly giving Lasseter more time to add his touch).

The only worry animation insiders seem to have about the deal is how Lasseter and Catmull, who have been very successful releasing Pixar toons every 18 months, will handle this busier schedule, not to mention running two separate animation studios, one up in Northern California’s Emeryville and the other in Southern California’s Glendale.

If all goes well, they’ll infuse the Pixar luster into the Disney brand. If things go poorly, they may end up with the opposite.