Interview: The Mouse that roared

WHEN John Lasseter gets going on Disney, there's no stopping him. The man is obsessed, spewing forth stories with all the speed and agility of Road Runner, and I'm just the coyote along for the chase.

The nimble bird even pops up at one point. "Zoom And Bored, 1957. That's b-o-r-e-d," Lasseter spells it out, jabbing his finger at my notebook. "A masterpiece of comic timing and cleverness, and of course no dialogue. Cartoons have been a part of my life since I can remember. I watched them so much as a kid, especially the Warner Brothers ones. You know, Chuck Jones? Actually, I got to know him and he became a mentor of mine."

Now Lasseter's on to how he started out manning the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland and ended up at the helm of the oldest animation studio in the world, then why Dumbo is his favourite film of all time, what it was like being taught animation by the 'Nine Old Men' at Disney, the experience of directing the world's first computer animated film, Toy Story, and life back at the studio that once fired him.

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Meanwhile, his people are hopping from foot to foot, barging in whenever he pauses for breath, which isn't often. We're in a central London hotel, it's rush hour, and Lasseter has to catch the Eurostar to Paris to promote Disney's latest film, Bolt. He should have left half an hour ago. Still, he keeps talking. Finally, even I'm trying to get a word in to tell him we should wrap it up. But of course Road Runner's legs never slow down, even when he races over the cliff edge.

Lasseter became chief creative officer of Disney when the studio acquired Pixar – which he co-founded – for $7.4bn in 2006. It was an audacious buyout that proved the young upstart, Pixar, had become too much of a threat to the old, weakening giant. Disney needed Pixar's rate of success and it needed its architect. Commentators spoke of it as Nemo swallowing the whale.

Lasseter now heads the two most powerful animation studios in the world and is spoken of in the same breath as Walt Disney himself. He will be presented with a lifetime achievement award at Venice Film Festival this year, and both Disney's Bolt and Pixar's Wall.E are nominated for Oscars. "I don't create budgets, schedules or management or any of those things," says Lasseter. "I'm terrible at that stuff. Just let me do what I do. I'm like a papa bear when it comes to protecting my cubs: the creativity and quality of what I do. I will not let anything come in the way of making a film good. It takes four years to make these films. You have every chance to make it right. There are no excuses."

He is a bit like a papa bear, the cuddly type who might hug you or squash you to death. Lasseter tells me a story about when he arrived at Disney in 2006. The studio was flailing. Most of its output was dull sequels and straight-to-DVD films. Executives were making all the creative decisions and the older, more experienced animators had been laid off. Lasseter got to work by firing people, bringing the old guard back, and shelving most of the films that were being made. "There was one person who complained to us, saying we were 'ruthlessly creative'." He smiles. "I took it as a compliment, though I'm not sure he meant it like that, because he lost his job."

He sounds like a shark, but is also a 52-year-old wearing a Mickey Mouse watch. This takes a lot of head-craning on my part to spot because Lasseter, hyperactive big kid that he is, never sits still. He wears a Hawaiian shirt every day, made specially for him in Honolulu, and today's one is covered with furry characters from Bolt. Then there are the heavy rimmed specs, the jeans, the trainers. Lasseter is a walking caricature of a geek, the living version of The Simpsons' Comic Book Guy, the perennial Peter Pan.

He gives me cards with archive drawings of Jiminy Cricket and Dumbo on one side, and the original Mickey Mouse logo on the other. This is Lasseter's talent: his knack for pursuing – and yes, ruthlessly so – technological advances, but also looking to the past, which is why one of the first things he did at Disney was bring back traditional hand-drawn animation. "The films of Walt Disney are why I do what I do," he says. "That's why we started by bringing back the old letterhead. It reminds us that we need to be making stuff this good."

Either Lasseter is shameless when it comes to promotion, down to what he wears and the business cards he presses into my hands, or he really does eat, sleep and drink Disney and Pixar. I think it might be the latter.

Bolt is a road movie featuring a dog who thinks he has superpowers, a streetwise alley cat and a ninja hamster in a ball. It's very good, and the first film made by Disney under Lasseter's watch. Already his influence is felt in every frame and Bolt is smarter and sassier than recent Disney films, with some Pixar hallmarks, the humour and period detail of films such as Wall.E and Ratatouille. "These are two different studios and two different groups of artists," Lasseter says. "But one thing we did bring from Pixar, which we knew worked, was making it filmmaker-led. I put the filmmakers back in charge. I said: 'You choose, you figure it out'."

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Bolt was one of the films that had been languishing at Disney. Lasseter, who executive produced it, got rid of the director, bulldozed the story and brought back two first-timers who had been let go to co-direct. "That's why I'm sitting here, and they're not," he says. "I wanted everybody to pay attention to this film. I know the media and I'll get more attention."

He also ensured the film was made in 18 months instead of the customary four years.

"The creativity was crushed," he says of what Disney looked like when he arrived. "The filmmakers had lost their compass. So the movies came out and it was the same amount of people, the same amount of hard work, the same cost, and they were mediocre."

Lasseter decided Bolt would be made in 3D, ushering in a new age in film animation (Pixar's first 3D film, Up, is released later this year). Married with five children, Lasseter even had his wedding photos taken in 3D 20 years ago.

He grew up in LA and realised in high school what he wanted to do. "It was The Sword In The Stone," he says. "I was a freshman when that came out and it was the moment when I realised people make cartoons for a living. I went and saw it all by myself. My mum dropped me off and when I came out of that theatre and she picked me up, I sat in the car and said: 'I want to work for Walt Disney'."

His mother, an art teacher, encouraged him to write to the Disney studio, and when they set up an animation course in 1975, Lasseter was the second student admitted. "That's why I never wanted Pixar to be this club with limited membership, so when all the members die the club dies," he says. "I believe in learning from young talent."

After he graduated, Lasseter got his dream job as a Disney animator. But he was frustrated by the lack of creativity at the studio. One day he saw computer generated images for the first time, was blown away, and started talking about using them to animate. But his ideas were ignored and he began to be seen as a loose cannon. Not long after, he was fired.

With Bolt, Lasseter says, Disney once again has a film of which it can be proud. "The whole studio is feeling the satisfaction that comes from making a movie you can be proud of for the rest of your life," he says.

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"This great thing happened to me in my home town. I met this family and they told me their grandmother worked on Snow White, and they were so proud. She was just a cell painter, the simplest level, but their pride was about how good Snow White is. I kept thinking, that's what I want the families of the people working at Disney and Pixar to say: 'My dad worked on Bolt'."

Bolt is released in 3D at selected cinemas on Friday, and hits regular screens on February 13