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Disney picks Pixar brains for Muppets movie

Film's stars, execs fly to Emeryville for table read

SAN DIEGO -- The Muppets are getting Pixar-lated. 

Principals involved with Disney's upcoming live-action pic toplining Jason Segel flew to Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., on Wednesday for a table read of the project with the animation powerhouse.

The involvement comes just months after Pixar helped shape reshoots for Disney's upcoming sci-fi tentpole "Tron Legacy."

In other words, this is the second recent example of the animation house assisting parent Disney with a live-action feature.

Some of the members of the so-called "Pixar Brain Trust" -- filmmakers John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Michael Arndt, Bob Peterson and president Ed Catmull -- were there for the consultations. Docter is a particularly avid Muppets fan, so he almost certainly was one of the attendees. On the Disney side, Muppets director James Bobin and producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman were likely in the room along with Segel. Neither Pixar nor Disney would comment.

Beyond whatever advice might have come down for the project at hand, the fact that Pixar has its fingers in the Muppets pie suggests that Disney, under the new regime of Rich Ross and Sean Bailey, is intent on taking advantage of its subsidiary's storytelling abilities.

Pixar still is batting 1.000 with critics and commercially, with "Toy Story 3" being its 11th hit in a row. The film has grossed $366.9 million since its June 18 release, becoming the top domestic grosser of the year, surpassing the $334.2 million collected by Disney's "Alice in Wonderland." (Worldwide, "Alice" still is far ahead with $1.02 billion in grosses; the global tally for "Toy" stands at $634.4 million as its international rollout continues.)

At the same time, the new Disney regime has been hampered by a string of underperformers -- "When in Rome," "The Last Song," "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and the just-opened misfire "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" -- that it inherited from the studio's previous administration.

Despite his success at the Disney Channels, Ross has no feature filmmaking experience, and Bailey, though seasoned as a producer, is new to top studio management.

As they develop their own slate, the new Disney team is eager to avail itself of Pixar's expertise -- and the filmmakers involved don't appear to harbor any reluctance about taking advice from Pixar, either.

"If you want to get good ideas, why not talk to the Brain Trust?" Bailey said several weeks ago in remarks about the "Tron" meet-up, which took place in March.


Using "Tron" and the Muppets as examples, Disney insiders argue that Ross and Bailey are building bridges between divisions, a shift in strategy from previous regimes, where departments were less communicative and more focused on their own projects.

Certainly, Disney has relied heavily for success on Pixar, as "Toy Story 3" rolls at the boxoffice while the studio's recent live-action films ("Prince of Persia," "Sorcerer's Apprentice") have disappointed. Generally, the studio seems to have dialed back drastically on home-grown live-action films.

On the Pixar side, there doesn't seem to be resistance to helping out the live-action unit at Disney. The sessions, at least so far, lasted only a day each, though after the "Tron" event, Arndt wrote some pages for the already-scheduled reshoots.

In Wednesday's session, Disney execs clearly were hoping to identify and avoid potential problems before shooting begins. The Muppets movie is not officially greenlighted, and a possible outcome from the daylong get-together might be some rewrites.

The exchanges during the sessions have been described as "very honest" by some, "nerve-racking" by others. "You're in the presence of people who have never had a misfire," one "Tron" attendee said.

At Pixar, Catmull and Lasseter intentionally foster a collaborative but rigorous atmosphere in which their filmmakers' work is reviewed regularly by their peers.

Speaking this year at a conference on innovation that the Economist held in Berkeley, Calif., Catmull said: "We have a structure so they get their feedback from their peers. Every two or three months, they present 'the film' to the other filmmakers, and they will tear the film apart. And it's very important for that dynamic to work because it could be a brutal process; there needs to be the feeling they are all helping each other who wants that help."

When Catmull and Lasseter took over Disney's animation unit, they used the same process to fine-tune Disney toons like last year's "The Princess and the Frog" -- which offered the Pixar Brain Trust a thank-you in its end credits -- and the upcoming "Tangled."

What remains unclear is how often and on which other live-action movies Disney plans to ask for the Pixar touch.

With its whimsical mix of puppets and humans, the Muppets pic seems to fall within the Pixar wheelhouse; in the case of "Tron," the filmmakers turned to Pixar -- Lasseter is a big fan of the original "Tron" -- for help in enriching the emotional tone and fleshing out the characters for the sci-fi tale set inside the world of computers.

"There are a lot of Muppet fans up there at Pixar. Both sides were excited and curious," one Disney insider said. "I wouldn't read too much into it. Pixar is acting more as a friend of the court."